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One step closer

First slide

My experience at Mass the other day got me down. The hundred or so masked people who gathered in our cavernous sanctuary included friends for the better part of a decade, but we all seemed locked in our own worlds, unapproachable.

The blue tape and empty pews got me down. 

I realize COVID-19 has forced our worship to look like this for a season, but the lack of hymnals and largely hymn-less Mass (I grew up Evangelical Protestant: believe it or not, I love to sing) got me down.  

Two of our kids who usually serve at the altar remained in the pew, listless. It was once so much a part of our Sunday morning; now I wondered if they would ever serve again. The walk down the aisle to receive my Lord seemed rushed, even mechanistic. 

It was all over before I knew what happened, and as we got in the car to head home with hardly a word exchanged with our friends and our priest, I slipped into a certain gloom.

St. Ignatius of Loyola spoke of desolation as when the soul seems “without hope, without love, when one finds oneself all lazy, tepid, sad, and as if separated from his Creator and Lord.” Consolation, on the other hand, is “when some interior movement in the soul is caused, through which the soul comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord.”

That sunny Sunday after months at home seemed a fitting moment to be inflamed with love. Instead it felt sad, as if the Lord had withdrawn, even as I finally received his body within the corporate worship for which I had been longing over these months of livestreamed Masses in our living room. 

Is something wrong with me, I wondered? Isn’t it enough that we can begin to gather again as a body now? Was I needlessly critical of the low turnout? On Sunday mornings, has my focus shifted from the vertical axis to the horizonal, somehow “needing” to feel like a proud husband and dad, catch up with friends, hear an inspiring homily, chat with Father, and enjoy great hymns?   

Is Jesus enough for me?  

My worries expanded as the days went by. Are the headlines about “The Coming Religious Recession” true? Are our kids losing their tie to Jesus — both in the Eucharist and in our brothers and sisters? Will they drift toward the “spiritual, but not religious” zeitgeist of their peers? Like the proverbial frog, is my family being boiled slowly, gradually lulled into a kind of tepid “new normal” in which our Catholic faith is lazy and virtual — and less a robust, embodied, incarnate presence with real people?  

All of these questions got me down.

But if I’m honest, the same type of questions, like familiar vultures in the tree above, gather on other occasions. How often in my marriage, fatherhood, vocation and friendships do I pivot from daily trust in God to instead obsess about peripheral stuff and “what’s in it for me?” 

Is Jesus enough for me? Or do I subtly prefer the world’s consolations of good feelings, instant gratification and recognition?

“The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross,” I read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes” (2015). 

Silly me. After months of quarantine without the Eucharist and the assembled body of Christ, I guess I was expecting a bumper crop of consolations. Instead, the Lord allowed me to taste the opposite, to encounter my mulish ego and my vice-grip on comfort and control.

But I now recognize in that encounter a mercy.   

“Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification …” Yes, while I will thank the Lord whenever he gives me the gift of a consolation, I will also accept the ebb and flow of desolation any day of the week if it means that my marriage and family are not being slowly boiled alive; if it means that I’m still in the battle; if it comes with the knowledge that my Savior is leading me, one step closer to his peace and joy, yes, by way of his cross.

Johnson is co-founder, with his wife, Ever, of Trinity House Community (trinityhousecommunity.org.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020