Bear with me.
I go to a fairly small Catholic liberal arts college. I chose to go to a Catholic school because I wanted to get a foundation of my subject from the perspective of my faith before I went to grad school and had my worldview challenged (more than it already has been; let’s be clear, most of my professors subscribe much more to the liberal arts approach of leaving their own opinions outside of the classroom and helping us come to the truth ourselves—I guess the fundamentally Catholic part of that is thinking there is a final truth to get to). The other reason I chose my particular school is that it seemed to embody the Catholic ideal of being in the world, but not of the world.I thought the students there would grapple with reality and not put themselves in an idealistic Catholic bubble, while still maintaining the principles of our faith and spurring themselves on to always be better people.
For my non-Catholic readers, my brief disclaimer here is that while I was raised Catholic, I have individually grappled with my understanding of Life, the Universe, and Everything with God and without, and come to the conclusion that it all makes a lot more sense if there is a God. I find Catholicism beautiful and logically consistent with itself and with the world around me; Catholicism is fundamentally a religion that derives from the principle that God is love. Everything proceeds from that point, every minor teaching. On my better days, I am enamored of that idea. My understanding of Catholicism as true is what leads me to bother with all of this.
I feel that we’ve all gotten to know each other pretty well, so I’m going to divulge some confessional-level stuff here: I haven’t had an active prayer life (i.e. praying on days that aren’t Sunday with regularity) since probably my senior year of high school. So it’s been a while. My connection with my faith is totally intellectual; there isn’t much emotional there. When I pray, I don’t feel anything, there’s no tangible intrinsic reward to making good choices, Mass is kind of boring unless the homily is good, and even then you’ve got another half hour to sit through. But I keep going and I keep trying because I know I’m supposed to and I know at some point even if I don’t see it right away, I’ll realize the totality of my life is better for having a “relationship with God,” a phrase we like to bandy about in my circles.
I never manage to improve, though, and I’m always struggling to meet the bare minimum. The final straw came this past Sunday when I went to Mass and spent the whole time feeling guilty and emotionally drained. For what felt like the billionth Sunday in a row, I knelt in the pews and said, “Hi, it’s me again, we haven’t talked since last Sunday and I’m not sure why I’m here.” I don’t feel like I belong in the Catholic church because the only day I act spiritually like a Catholic is on Sunday. 6/7 days of the week, I do my best to follow the moral tenets of the Church, but there isn’t anything spiritual involved. After Mass, I found the priest and ended up choking out that “I don’t belong in the Church,” and explained that I’m a bad Catholic. I don’t pray, I sin a lot, I generally have a desire to be holy and a saint but I have no idea at all what that’s supposed to look like on me. I don’t know how to pray and I don’t know how to be holy. The priest responded tentatively, “Okay?” It took me a long time to convince him what the actual problem was, and when I finally realized, I also realized that he didn’t really think it was a problem at all. Sure, I should be praying more, but it’s not some soul-shattering revelation that it’s hard for me.
I went to confession a few weeks ago and I said, “I don’t think God loves me.” This is a big problem if you’re a Catholic, just so you know, despair is Up There in terms of sin. The priest asked me why and I went through all my failures and my lack of relationship with God and how I don’t pray and how I don’t belong or deserve to be in Mass on Sundays and he responded, “Okay, you’re a bad Catholic. Join the club. You don’t like praying? You’re not special.” That sounds really rude, but to me it was breathtaking.
Everyone is a bad Catholic on some level. To be Catholic means, to plagiarize from Peter Kreeft, to strive to be little Christs. I’m going to level with you guys: none of us are little Christs. No sir. Nope. Were you born without sin, perfect and blameless? I don’t care how much you like praise and worship music, you’re not a little Christ. You aren’t. I know you know this, but I’m getting to the point here. The key word in the idea of being Catholic is striving; we are all going to die trying, because if you could reach perfection on Earth there would be no reason for Christ to have died and there would be no point of Heaven. This is all basic, Sunday school stuff but then why (why why why why) can we not just admit that we all suck at being Catholic?
How come nobody can admit Catholicism is hard? I reached the point of despair and an emotional breakdown because I thought I was alone in my imperfection. I will wager a guess that among the hundreds of Catholic students at my school, I am not the only one who thinks Mass is boring. Who doesn’t want to pray. Who counts the decades until the rosary is over (only two more decades, phew). I’m sorry, but I’m not in the minority when I say that spending an hour in adoration is a struggle that I don’t get anything out of. All of these things are supposed to be spiritually enriching and awesome, and I’m sure they are, somewhere beyond my capacity to understand at this point. But could we all please stop pretending that doing all these little Catholic things is the Most Fun Ever?
When I say being Catholic is hard, I don’t mean in the, “the world will hate you, you will be persecuted, whatever whatever whatever” way. I mean in the, “I have to get up and go to Mass and I’d honestly rather sleep” way. I mean that responding to the truth of God’s reality, the demands of acknowledging such a Being, in our own personal lives kind of sucks. And it’s supposed to suck. But to look at the people I go to school with–even me!–you would think it’s the most natural thing in the world. I tell my friends I don’t know how to pray and they say, “Act like Jesus is your best friend. How would you talk to your best friend?” And I’m like, “Okay so the difference here is that I can actually see my best friend and they can talk to me. I’m not just shouting into a void.” The point of faith is that God is some intangible thing that we can’t quite grasp. I say Mass is boring and someone pipes up with the fact that some saint said that when angels see the Eucharist they pass out from sheer joy. Do you know why? Because angels are privy to the full reality of God. Are you an angel? I am certainly not. I am a little, loser nose-picking human who really struggles with the idea that my world centers around a God I cannot see or sense, and that
But we all carry along, praying after Mass for the requisite five to ten minutes because that’s what you do, that’s what everyone does. That’s the social pressure. Do you know what I do when I’m on my knees after Mass? I stare at the wall and wait until my friends start getting up so I know it’s okay to get up. I try to pray but I run out of material, meanwhile the people I’m with are apparently St. Teresa of Avila and going into ecstasies next to me. But because I kneel for a while, people think I’m deep in prayer. Someone forwarded an email to me once in which I was described as “an outstanding Catholic leader on campus.” What? Me? What do you know of my spiritual life? I’m an outstanding buttface sinner on campus, that’s what I am, and I want people to do what I tell them. My external image is the Mass-going devotee, but one of my professors asked how I lived my faith every day and I said, “I’m nice to people?” and he said, “You’re not nice to me.”
I don’t doubt that many of the students at my school have a very deep spiritual life that is much more than just the externals, but I can’t help but wonder how many of us are just external show and really having a hard time of it, but are too afraid to admit it. And the people who do have a deep spiritual life surely didn’t get there easily and surely still struggle with it.
The fact that we all pretend that being Catholic comes as easily as breathing is alienating and exclusionary to people like me and the non-Catholics on campus. Acting like we have Such a Great Spiritual Life because we post pictures of a monstrance on instagram or wax poetic about how “in my morning prayer God said to me…” Did He? Does everyone else have apparitions of Christ and I somehow missed getting on the subscription list so that it happens to me? Am I the only one who struggles, really? Am I the only one who thinks praise and worship music is actually bad and uninspiring, and doesn’t go to Mass for fun? Can we just please own it?
But since nobody will, here I am. You aren’t alone if Catholicism is a struggle for you. Am I just lukewarm? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I love Christ and being Catholic is core to my identity, but I don’t fit into the prescribed models of holiness that have been set up for me by my peers. We all have an individual route to holiness, so why does everyone’s at school look the same? Can we just admit to ourselves that none of us really know what we’re doing?
You’re a bad Catholic. Join the club. I am not the founding member, but I’ll be the most outspoken. Let’s stop putting up the front of devout perfection and total satisfaction and immediate intrinsic joy in response to any spiritual activity. I’m doing my best but my best isn’t very good. Let’s all quit pretending it’s a super fun-filled carnival ride. If your Catholicism is easy, you’re probably doing it wrong. I know I’m doing it wrong, but at least I’ll admit it.