In listening to many convert stories on my way back to the Church, and even since, I’ve heard people recount miraculous or near-miraculous incidents, moments of overwhelming joy in which they viscerally felt the presence of God (especially when receiving the Eucharist), events that seemed obviously to them to be the work of answered prayers, and even ecstatic visions.
While these are purely subjective experiences (unless they’ve passed through the crucible to be recognized by the Church), all of them have happened to one saint or another, so they can’t be just passed off, as secularists often do, as being the product of overactive imaginations, hallucinations or delusions.
After hearing these stories, it’s easy to understand why these people joined or returned to the Faith.
While they can be seen as confirmation that the person absolutely belongs in the Catholic Church, is the absence of them an indication of the reverse?
Man, I hope not.
My reversion was the result of a long deliberative process, bolstered by research and reason, but I didn’t even go back into a church until nearly the end. While I can discern moments when I’m sure the Holy Spirit was nudging me here and there, but at no point has anything hugely dramatic or supernatural happened.
And it still hasn’t.
I’m not talking about having a sense of the divine, being profoundly moved by words, music or art, or the slow realization that one has ultimately gone where the Holy Spirit directed. I’m talking about peak experiences, the kind that shake people to their core and lift them for a moment out of everyday reality.
Not everybody gets those. And I’ve observed personally where experiences like that appeared to change a person in the short term, but if they didn’t keep coming, faith and enthusiasm waned.
For me, returning to the Faith was an assent of the will, recognizing Truth and agreeing to live by it, whether or not I got a big emotional charge out of the whole thing.
That’s one reason I’m enjoying Pope Francis so much. The love and joy, along with the solemnity and reverence, of the Gospels in particular and Catholicism in general, are evident in his face, voice, words and actions. But at the same time, he remains steadfastly grounded and deeply human.
As one who is always initially skeptical of displays of religious fervor (knowing how easily they can be faked, and how susceptible people are to suggestion and self-delusion), Francis’ easygoing, personable ways keep Heaven firmly affixed to Earth. When his emotions show – as they often do – they feel completely authentic to me, and I can both sympathize and empathize.
That makes it easier for me to connect on an emotional level to what is otherwise a primarily intellectual exercise. Glorious music, especially Gregorian chant, does that as well, which may be why I’m so picky about Mass music. That, combined with a truly beautiful church, helps get me to a place where I don’t normally reside.
So, what to do when you believe the teachings of the Catholic Church, and you know it holds the Truth of the Gospels, but you’re just not getting the tear-filled, hands-in-the-air, save-me-Jesus reaction of your pewmates or even non-Catholic Christians?
First, don’t worry about it. Not everybody is wired that way, and ecstasy is not a requirement for being a faithful Catholic. There are plenty of people who proclaim Christ loudly, and they may be sincere at the time, but their actions otherwise don’t match up.
Second, it’s not a good idea to fake it, hoping that’ll kick something loose. These moments are only meaningful if they’re real. But if you want to appear in a living Nativity or a Passion Play, go for it. Putting yourself physically into the reality of Christ’s life could be a game-changer.
But it could help to force yourself to participate more at Mass – sing along instead of just listening, pay close attention so you don’t zone out, and truly look at the beauty that surrounds you (I know, I know, some modern churches are about as beautiful as a high-school gym, but there’s usually something).
If your church is truly unfortunate, and/or the music leaves you cold, you can print out some beautiful Catholic art and take it with you to gaze at before Mass (or keep it stored on your tablet or smartphone), or listen to wonderful Catholic music on the way there. Obviously, I prefer chant, but your results may vary. Just pick whatever makes you feel closest to Christ.
Also, if you don’t find beauty at church, or you just want more, pick some appealing Catholic pictures or statues, or some beautiful rosaries, to have at home as a constant source of inspiration. If you don’t get much out of saying a standard rosary, I recommend trying the simpler Franciscan Crown, which I wrote about previously. Sometimes less is more.
You can also learn as much as you can about why things at Mass are the way they are. Sometimes greater knowledge deepens the experience, and then you’re not just going through the motions.
If you do art or crafts – even gardening or cooking – try incorporating Catholic themes. Channeling them through your own creativity can help move them from the head to the heart.
Help others with their issues. Some folks have deep, heartfelt belief, but they may not have a great deal of information, and that leaves them vulnerable to emotional appeals from evangelists outside the Church. Someone with a brain-based Catholicism may be able to fill those gaps.
Remember, the Faith uses all parts of the human to celebrate the Glory of God, and that means the brain as much as the heart. As withmany things in Catholicism, it’s not a binary choice. It’s not heart or head, emotion or intellect, it’s all of the above, in the proportion that suit the gifts God and nature gave you.