Motion and Emotion

My posts here, after starting so strong and frequent last semester, have slowed to a trickle now, it seems. I regret that. The troubles and stresses and demands of school have dogpiled on. And, more significantly, I am grappling with serious depression.

Growing up, I always heard that “Jesus is the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow” — with the understanding that Jesus is the same, living, victorious Savior, no matter what we’re going through; that we should remain hopeful and thankful and trusting. But in the emotion-centric Christianity I grew up in, this usually amounted to, “Be happy anyway! What, you’re not happy? You don’t have the Joy of the Lord?” If I wasn’t visibly happy, rejoicing, dancing — if I didn’t feel the joy, the excitement, the high emotion — then there was something wrong with me; that I wasn’t getting through to God.

It’s true that St. Paul writes, in one of my favorite chapters of the Bible, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4 ESV). But I don’t think Paul is writing about emotion here. The rest of the passage is key: “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” He’s not talking about joy and peace and anxiety as emotions: he’s talking about an attitude of hope and trust in God toward suffering. Even when desperation is facing, we know that our Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Or, as we Catholics would say, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.”

One of the things I love most about the Catholic Church, especially in these times, is something that as a Protestant I never thought I’d say: I love that I can go through the motions. I love that even in the days and weeks when I’m not feeling it, there are motions laid out through which I can approach God anyway, without the engagement of my emotions — prayers and actions laid out by holy men through the ages that are a time-proven formula for worship. Participating in the liturgy is itself an act of worship — even if I’m feeling like crap, my being there and taking part honor God and bring me into his presence, through doing and not feeling. And the liturgy, through leading and guiding me through those actions, keeps me on a proper track through the wilderness; it gives me a framework for raising myself to God, for pulling myself up off the bottom. It makes it easy to worship God, to do the things I’m supposed to do; the things that ultimately bring me back to peace.

In an evangelical church, my worship felt empty if it wasn’t heartfelt; in the Catholic Church, my worship is efficacious because I’m there doing it. I always used to deride “just going through the motions” as “empty religion” — and certainly, if there’s no true conviction behind them, if they become habitual and routine and insincere, that is a problem — but it’s just as equally empty if there’s all emotion and no conviction. And sometimes “going through the motions” is all I can do; and in those times, at last, I am assured that it is enough; that God meets me where I am.

Catholicism is a faith of motion, not emotion; of doing, not feeling. Certainly often I feel, and feel deeply; but even when I don’t, I know that my worship is moving me toward God.

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