Doubt, Spiritual Listlessness, and Why Despite it All, I Am Still a Catholic
by Benjamin LaBadie
A while ago I agreed to write a piece for The Catholic Catalogue about why I’m Catholic despite many of my fellow Millennials deciding to live without religious faith. The trouble is that recently I’ve been spiritually listless and the timing has not felt propitious to write about why I’m Catholic. This listlessness is not spiritual desolation; it’s more akin to Christian Smith’s “moral therapeutic deism.” God is there, but I approach God only when I want to be comforted or feel good. In this manner, the Catholic faith is functional–it’s a means to personal satisfaction like going for a run, eating a Cobb salad, or listening to David Bowie. I’ll pray when I feel anxious, otherwise I preoccupy myself with other satisfactions: listening to the album “I Love You, Honeybear” by Father John Misty, starting season 4 of The Walking Dead on Netflix, or reading the Wall Street Journal’s commentary on the US-Iran deal. If I don’t get around to prayer, I don’t fret. It’s like when I forget to call a friend: I tell myself that I’ll get around to it tomorrow (even though that’s what I said the day before). I know the Catholic faith demands much more than a therapeutic spirituality; yet I’ve continued drifting along with my carefree spirituality.
Even in the midst of therapeutic and listless spiritual practice, I am Catholic because of this Bread.
Still, this question is important, and I have not wanted to keep eschewing it. I suppose I have been waiting until I feel upbeat and evangelical about Catholic Orthodoxy like a FOCUS missionary or a First Things blogger. But that evangelical mindset has not been present. It has been much easier to express doubt about God and meander in spiritual listlessness. It came to mind a few weeks ago that I may be in this state as a result of avoiding prayer. So to remedy this listlessness, one day I decided to pray with the Daily Readings through Ignatian imagination (a form of prayer that has helped me encounter God intimately in the past). The Gospel reading was Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” A rustic scene emerged in my imagination from something like the 1977 mini-series, “Jesus of Nazareth.” I was with the disciples atop a knoll and listening attentively as Jesus spoke to a crowd below. I felt comfort and ease at what I heard: “rest,” “meek,” “humble of heart,” “find rest for yourselves,” “my yoke is easy.” Yes, peace and serenity. This was the tender Jesus who smells like the sheep–the Jesus reminiscent of Father Greg Boyle.
And then at that time, a verse entered my mind from Matthew 10:34-36: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s enemies will be those of his household.” I thought, “Why did this verse surface? This was not the Jesus who smelled like the sheep.” This was the Cardinal Raymond Burke’s Jesus: legalistically nuanced who does not deviate on first principles by one inch even if it means one’s gay son cannot bring his partner home for Christmas. Frustrated I thought, “What was all that talk about ‘my yoke is easy?’ Being set against my own family–what the hell is easy about that?” I was getting skeptical about Ignatian imagination while I was engaging in it. I did not know how to reconcile these seemingly different types of Jesus. Old debates began emerging about how easy it is to simply create the Jesus I want while ignoring the Jesus who challenges me. I tried to center myself and imagine myself in the scene again, but I couldn’t stay focused. I was not at peace. I was still frustrated by this contradictory Christ, and I started to become irate about Ignatian imagination as a false promise of encountering God. I thought, “This is ridiculous. This is just imagination. God is not speaking to me right now. This is a projection of my desires, needs, and thoughts.” Not even recalling Father James Martin speaking positively about Ignatian imagination could shake me from my frustration. I simply concluded, “I’m creating the Jesus I want,” and I stopped the imaginative exercise. Instead, I went and ate breakfast and kept bobbing along in my listless spirituality.
Despite the recent skepticism about prayer, I have kept going to mass each Sunday. I have not gone because I felt inspired or satisfied. I just went because it did not seem expendable. I could abstain from daily prayer and feel fine about it, but mass was different. My demeanor has not necessarily changed during or after each mass. I’ve mindlessly gone through the motions and half-heartedly listened to the readings and the homily. I’ve given the sign of peace, kneeled, received the Body and Blood of Christ, and returned to my pew. Although it seemed mundane, I know that the Eucharist has nourished me each time. I don’t feel any different after I receive it, but I know I’m nourished. I just do not have any idea why.
My experience with the Eucharist these past weeks has reminded me of Flannery O’Connor. In A Habit of Being, she recounts a dinner during which someone was discussing the Eucharist, and eventually this person concluded that it was just a symbol. Having kept quiet, O’Connor finally butted in:
“I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”
I’m sure there are some didactic Catholics who can deduce why the Eucharist is nourishing, but I have no such argument. Like O’Connor, I know it’s Living Bread, and I need it. That’s why I’m Catholic, and that’s all I’ve got as far as an explanation. Even in the midst of therapeutic and listless spiritual practice, I am Catholic because of this Bread. It’s food for the journey even when I just am drifting along through life.
In the past I’ve attended Protestant services with my non-Catholic relatives, but each time I am aware that something is missing as I exit. I sense my lack more than usual. I’m more attuned to my own emptiness. It’s difficult to put into words. I just know there is something about that Bread. I need it. But maybe it’s all in my head. Maybe I sense lack because I’m going through a Pavlovian experience in which I’ve been conditioned to expect a wafer when placed in liturgical settings. It may just be a wafer and nothing more. But whatever the truth is, the Eucharist is why I’m Catholic. I believe it’s Jesus’ flesh. And I need it. That’s the raw truth, and that encounter is everything for me.
Benjamin LaBadie is a graduate student in theology at Boston College.