A Conversation at a Latin Mass…

Okay, I chickened out and went to Latin mass this week, rather than to the Unitarian-Universalist church I was thinking of trying out (see I’m Flirting with Trying Out a New Church (But One Many of My Readers Won’t Like)).  Why?  Oh, there were a variety of reasons.  Fear of seeing people I know on the way to the UU church.  Comfort with the known, as opposed with discomfort about the unknown. 

Fortunately, at the Latin mass, we didn’t march around the sanctuary carrying palm branches.  We had palm branches, but we didn’t march with them.  That was a relief! 

I got to hear a conversation before the church service started.  An old woman was talking about her grandson.  She said that he’s really smart and has a law degree from a major university.  But he has a hard time communicating with people.  And he’s unwilling to try any religion, for (in her words) he’s had “too much college.”  She then remarked that, in her opinion, those who have problems getting along with people have that difficulty because they neither rely on God nor practice the faith.  Then, they expect life to be hunky-dory, and they’re shocked when it isn’t.  I don’t remember if she threw the word “Asperger’s” into the conversation, for I didn’t hear the entirety of what she said.

Now, if these words had come from the mouth of an attractive, young or middle-aged evangelical, I would have let out a loud sigh of irritation—loud enough for her to hear it.  And, if I had the courage, I would have asked her, “Is being smug a fruit of the Spirit?”  But I have more tolerance for low-key, elderly Catholic grandmothers, than I do for young, chirpy, know-it-all evangelicals, especially when they’re attractive and probably didn’t have one social struggle in their lives (or at least not as many as some of us!).  That’s just a prejudice I have.

As far as her statement goes, as with most things, I agree with it, and I disagree with it.  Initially, I disagreed with it.  I thought, “Well, I relied on God and practiced a faith for years, and I still had a hard time getting along with people, regardless of how hard I tried.”  I have a hard time viewing Christianity as a solution to my problems, for, in the past, it really wasn’t.  It made me feel guilty that I wasn’t cheerful or extroverted enough.  It pressured me to talk with people who made me feel uncomfortable—either to reconcile with them, or to tell them why I had a problem with them, or to fellowship, or to convince them to embrace the evangelical spiel.  Granted, it may have tried to offer me some good advice, since we all have to learn to deal with difficult people.  But, when it tossed a “Thus saith the LORD” into the mix, such that I felt like I was disappointing God with my failures, that created an incredible burden for me.  Moreover, I often didn’t hear actual tips on how to (say) socialize: most of it was telling me that I should, and leaving me alone to figure out how to do it.  In all the Christian platitudes about “love” and “witnessing” and “community,” there wasn’t much of an attempt to understand where I was coming from.  I had problems clicking with people—regardless of how many services I attended, or how many hours I spent praying, or how many chapters of Scripture I studied, or how many songs I sang.

I think one sign of progress is that I now do things for God without expecting a reward—or at least I’m closer to doing that.  I used to think that, if I studied enough Scripture and prayed enough, then I’d become a sage within the evangelical community, as people would eagerly anticipate the drops of wisdom that would flow from my mouth.  I’d fit into the evangelical community, and I’d meet a nice-looking Christian girl, who would be drawn to my spirituality.  But, in ten years, that hasn’t happened.  But I now study the Bible and pray for other reasons.  I need those activities, and they are things that I can do for God.  If someone is edified by my insights, then that’s good, but I hope to still do those activities, even in seasons in which not one person swoons at what I have to say.

But am I secure enough to re-enter the evangelical community?  Not really.  But it’s not just because I wouldn’t fit in, as big of a reason as that may be.  It’s also because there are so many things in that evangelical community that turn me off: smug people, the phony chirpiness, the dogmatism, the pressure to be a happy-happy extrovert, the tendency to look down on others (as if I don’t do plenty of that myself).  Add to that where I am: I struggle with Christian doctrine—Jesus being the only way, homosexuality being wrong, a belief in biblical inerrancy, the desire for Christians to be doctrinally correct on issues that don’t really matter to me (i.e., the Trinity, or Christ’s divine and human natures), etc.  I can tolerate that sort of stuff at Latin mass, for people there aren’t in my face, trying to ramrod their beliefs down my throat, telling me that I’m “lukewarm” because I don’t fulfill what they expect a good Christian to be.  But, as I’ve said before, at this season in my life, I like Alcoholics Anonymous, for the very reason that some conservative Christians dislike it: it promotes a spirituality, without being overly dogmatic about doctrines (though individual members can be as dogmatic as they wish).  And I can go to a meeting, sit, and listen, without people analyzing whether or not I’m “spiritual” enough.

I feel that my prayer life is a little different in this season of my life.  In the days when I was religious, I would have told you that I rely on God, but did I really?  Is whining about my problems for an hour in “prayer” reliance on God?  There may be a place for that, but I think there’s a better approach.  Why not ask God for help, rather than criticizing him for not helping?  “God, help me to get along with this difficult person.”  “God, help me not to take the first drink.”  “God, help me to get through this social situation.”  I know that sounds simple, but, for some reason, that idea has escaped me in my devotional life!  Maybe I was afraid that I’d make a request and God wouldn’t honor it, so that would put me in a faith crisis.

I agree with the old Catholic woman when she said that many of us expect life to be hunky-dory, and we’re shocked when it isn’t.  I think all of us—believers and non-believers—would do well to learn to cope with reality, rather than to expect reality to conform to our fantasy life.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t dream or hope, but, so often, I find myself living in a fantasy land, and I’m upset when reality doesn’t conform to that.  I’d like to learn how to cope with it when it doesn’t, without being bitter or without hope.

The homily somewhat related to this old Catholic woman’s statement.  We had philosopher priest, and he said that the Jews who waved palms in celebration of Jesus’ arrival to Jerusalem may not have been the same Jews who shouted for Jesus’ crucifixion.  We often assume that they were, but that’s not necessarily the case!  Rather, philosopher priest said that the Jews who waved the palms probably didn’t care about Jesus about a week later, when he was about to be crucified.  Jesus was yesterday’s news, and they wondered what Jesus had done for them lately.  And, similarly, philosopher priest said, we should ask ourselves if we’re like that with God: “Lord, what have you done for me lately?”

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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