When Masses across our diocese shut down this past March and the Sunday obligation was dispensed, I will confess, with a bit of shame, that among the sadness I felt at the church closures, there was a touch of relief. Sunday mornings wouldn’t be associated with their usual chaos. It had always seemed a feat of military strategy and precision to transform my ragtag troop of sleepy sprogs into appropriately attired, sufficiently brushed, adequately fed, respectfully shod plebes in a pew. And maintaining order among my sloppy squadron never lasted for more than a minute. By the time the final blessing was bestowed, this now disheveled general always felt defeated by her own defiant, donut-wielding draftees.
So I admittedly welcomed the pajama-clad Sunday mornings of the pandemic. I’d pull out my laptop for online Mass while my reverence-challenged children would head outside for the swings and sandbox. But in the back of my mind, I wondered about this lack of desire for Mass attendance. I began to realize I couldn’t blame my obstreperous offspring for my increasing indifference—not just to Mass, but to the Blessed Sacrament as well. Surely with our less hectic schedule, I’d finally find more time for prayer, but there, too, I noticed I rarely carved out time with Our Lord. When I would put forth the effort, nothing seemed to come of it—nothing stirred in my soul; no voice of God seemed to console or encourage me. Spiritual readings fell flat. Scripture hardly felt like a living word. I had, I realized, fallen into a period of dryness, of desolation—and though such periods are typical in the spiritual life, they are never pleasant.
God grants us the desires of our hearts, but what if our hearts don’t desire him? My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God, the refrain of the Psalm echoes today. Does it resonate with you? Fantastic! Lean into that desire. But if not, that’s okay, too. There have certainly been times when I have heard those words and inwardly shrugged—ehh, not so much. O God, you are my God whom I seek; for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water. Sometimes, though, despite the dryness, there’s no seeking, no pining, no thirsting. What then?
One thing that has kept me from despair during times of desolation has been to acknowledge that although I lack a desire for God, I have always been able to affirm that I desire the desire for God. And our desires are worth paying attention to. I may not always desire, as St. Paul urges us in the second reading, to offer my body as a living sacrifice (I mean, that sounds painful), but I do desire the desire. It’s not simply a clever wordplay. The readings for today attest to this common inner conflict.
In the first reading, we hear Jeremiah’s lament: All day I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me . . . The word of the Lord has brought me derision and reproach. The context is that he has just been beaten and put in stocks for prophesying. He’s ready to throw in the towel and be done with it all, to refuse God’s call for his life: I say to myself, I will not mention him; I will speak his name no more. But despite Jeremiah’s resistance, the desire wells up: But then it [the name of God] becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it. His resistance does not last; despite his desire for the respect and admiration of men, he will return to prophesying the word of God, whom he ultimately desires with a greater passion.
Similarly, the Gospel for today is Jesus’ famous Get behind me, Satan rebuke of Peter. Poor Peter, quite understandably, doesn’t want his Lord to suffer and be killed. Jesus explains that taking up the cross is part of the package—for himself and all those who follow him. Well, we know the end of the story—Peter will embrace his cross.
But if Jeremiah’s stocks and Peter’s inverted cross are too intimidating, take encouragement from the little-souled St. Thérèse. Rather than become despondent at her aridity, at her lack of fervor and fidelity, she says, I remember that little children are as pleasing to their parents when they are asleep as well as when they are wide awake; I remember, too, that when they perform operations, doctors put their patients to sleep. Finally, I remember that: “The Lord knows our weakness, that he is mindful that we are but dust and ashes.”
When we resist, when we refuse, when we pout, when we sleep, when we feel nothing—or even when we bristle at the thought of rounding the troops for Mass—God is still there, working in us, fully aware of our weaknesses and loving us as his dear children. Bring your laments, your objections, and all your desires to him. He wants to hear them.