“Good men don’t need rules. Now’s not the time to find out why I have so many.”
— The Doctor, Doctor Who
For the past little while, I’ve been in something of a spiritual slump. Call it a “dark night of the soul” or a dry season or whatnot. Maybe it’s just fatigue, or I really need a vacation. Whatever the reason, being Catholic seems more difficult and less enjoyable than usual. The spiritual things that normally delight me and make me feel fulfilled, like the Rosary, or Mass itself, seem more like chores. I feel like I’m just going through the motions out of duty or obligation, rather than joyful love. And it occurs to me that this is a normal part of the human experience–and that the genius of Catholicism shines through in just these seasons of drudgery, for the Church knows that as human beings, we are prone to seasons of great devotion on the one hand, and seasons of dryness on the other, and she provides remedies for our weaknesses.
As Catholics, we are often criticised for all our various rules and obligations. On the one hand, non-Christians look at all the rules and, to paraphrase Chesterton, find it too difficult and leave it untried. On the other hand, our Protestant brothers and sisters, believing in sola fide, think the rules complicate the simple Gospel by making us work our way into heaven. The truth lies in the middle, however. We all know that when we are in the fire of love, every difficult and tedious thing seems easy. The famous song by the Proclaimers, “I Would Walk 500 Miles”, illustrates that principle. The same is true when we are in the fervour of our love for God. Daily Mass is a must, an hour in Adoration is too short, and praying all 20 decades of the Rosary in one sitting seems too little a thing, so we’ll do so on our knees to boot! But when the dark night is upon us, we suddenly and perfectly understand why the Church mandates that we go to Mass every Sunday (and mercifully makes the other six days optional), and how fitting the term “Holy Day of Obligation” really is. Just one decade of the Rosary seems like an eternity, and Jesus’ words to the Apostles in Gethsemane pick our hearts: “Could you not watch and pray with Me for one hour?”
And yet, it is precisely the structures and routines and obligations of the Church’s liturgies and devotions–the rhythmic regularity and almost pavlovian cues, such as crossing ourselves when passing a Catholic Church to acknowledge Jesus truly present in the Tabernacle, or praying the Angelus at 6:00, noon, and 6:00–that keep us going through the wilderness of our souls. When we have the grace of spiritual consolation and ardent charity, the rules and obligations seem redundant, but during the dark nights, the rules and obligations are themselves a grace, and when we struggle to follow them in our dryness, we actually grow more in our sanctification than when we do ten times the amount of spiritual devotion when it comes easily to us.
So let us keep pressing on.
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