Much of my adult life I was a typical fallen away Catholic. I respected the Church because I grew up in it, but I found the teachings and the methods of the Church too boring and outdated for me to take seriously. About 3 years ago I seriously took the time to investigate the claims of the Catholic Church. During this discovery process, I began to see that my preconceived notions of the Church were way out of whack. Not only did I misunderstand the Church, but I came to the shocking conclusion that everything the Church teaches matches up to the reality of the external world of psychology and philosophy. Additionally, I also discovered that the information in the Bible is dramatically fulfilled by the totality of the Church’s teachings.
Giving my discovery, I want to address a typical preconceived notion that people have about the Church. Namely, the idea that the Church is too repetitive and dull in its methods. You’ll hear people say things like, “We don’t need to go through the motions of the Church to be with God.” I hear this phrase from non-practicing Catholics, as well as parents of the CCD class I teach. Now, when people say “going through the motions” they are most likely referring to the repetitive methods of the liturgical rubrics in the Mass and the idea to follow a specific system of Sacraments. What these skeptics of the Church are really saying is, “They do all these boring, monotonous routines with the Sacraments that I don’t understand. I don’t feel anything from these methods. Therefore, these methods are not necessary.” In other words, chanting “going through the motions” is nothing more than a clever way for a person to duck out of performing in their minds the unexciting and annoying liturgical routines in the Church. I know this because I thought the exact same thing. However, there are several flaws to this logic of thinking that I will be addressing in this article.
First, the idea that if the method of the Church doesn’t make sense to you, then it’s gotta go implies that everything the Church does needs to be approved by you. The idea that the Church needs your approval just speaks to how into oneself a person must be. This idea is nothing more than old fashion self-worship. By chanting “going through the motions” it implies you know more than the Church. Since the Church came directly from Jesus (see Matthew 16: 18) and since Jesus declared the Church as a trustworthy guide in life (see Matthew 18:17, 1Timothy 3:15), and the instructions in the Church were passed down to the apostles (see Matthew 10: 40, Acts 2:42, Ephesians 2: 19-22, etc.), this means that the person who states “going through the motion” knows more than the apostles. Now, since Jesus told His hand selected apostles “those who hear you, hear me” (Luke 10:16), that means if you know more than the apostles you also must know more than God himself. To suggest you know more than the apostles and God is exalted arrogance of the highest level. This statement totally rearranges the first two assumptions of Christianity. It implies our thinking is not flawed and that human knowledge is at the level of God. Clearly, there is a problem with this line of thinking. However, we would expect this kind of self-absorbed, prideful logic from flawed sinners. So, no big shocker that people think this way.
We can further understand the flawed logic by comparing the relationship of parents to their children. Since the knowledge distance between us and God is greater than the knowledge distance between a parent and a child, this analogy is helpful. Would we expect a toddler to know the complete methods of the parent? Of course not! The fact the toddler doesn’t understand the parent’s ways is proof of why the toddler needs the parent. The toddler is not even close to the level of the parent so of course the toddler is not going to understand the methods of the parent. There is no reason to abolish the methods of the parent simply because the toddler “doesn’t get it.” To chant “going through the motions” is like a toddler saying they know better than the parent.
By saying “going through the motions” what that person is really doing is a clever way to get rid of the motions they don’t understand and don’t like. This logic sounds curiously like a toddler trying to get out of brushing their teeth by saying, “Mommy, I don’t need to go through the motions.” Or, the child saying, “Why do I need to go through the motions of memorizing the alphabet.” Do we expect the toddler to know anything about oral hygiene or the steps to read? No. God’s methods are at first going to be foreign to us like the parents methods of brushing teeth and reading, and writing are, at first, going to be foreign to the toddler. Instead of whining about the parents methods wouldn’t the loving thing be if the child wanted to learn about the parents methods? So it is with the methods of the Church – instead of complaining about them, have we ever taken the time to learn about why Mother Church teaches us these things?
It is the premise of Christianity that our thoughts in our soul are extremely flawed so of course our flawed thinking is not going to understand or like God’s methods and medicine. Going to the Mass does for your thoughts what going to the hospital does for your body. What would you think if a cancer patient said, “I don’t get anything out of going to the hospital.” Or, if they said, “I’m just going through the motions at the hospital.” We’d probably think that this reasoning is precisely why that person needs to go to the hospital – to get help. So it is with the Mass.
The famous Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton also saw the flawed reasoning of “going through the motions.” He said, “I noticed that those who were most ready to blame the Church for relying on rigid formulas seldom took the trouble to find out what the formulas were.” If we don’t understand an ancient practice, the lack of understanding should be a reason not to abolish it until we do understand it. However, I know for a fact that people never take the time to learn about the so-called “motions” they denounce.
To understand how problematic this idea is imagine a person walking in a field. Now, this person comes across a house that has been there for 2,000 years. The rational thing that person should do is try to understand why that house is there and what purpose that house serves. The really dumb thing to do would be to knock down the house without ever learning about why the house is there in the first place. Knock the house down if you must only after you learn the house’s purpose and why it is no longer needed. However, the people who want to get rid of the methods of the Church readily admit they don’t have the slightest clue of anything about these methods. While the ones who study the methods of the Church don’t want to knock them down because they do understand these methods. So, ironically the only people who might have the right to change the methods are precisely the people who don’t want to change it, and the people who don’t have the right to change the methods because the don’t understand it, are precisely the people who do want to change it.
(By the way – if you want to understand the methods of the Church rooted in the Bible and the mass I would suggest reading The Lamb Supper by Scott Hahn or Thomas Nash’s Biblical Roots of the Mass).
Also, when people focus on the motions of the Church, they are suggesting to avoid routine, orderly tasks. But, there is a big problem with this concept as Jesus’ whole life and teaching was built on the order of that of a servant under the guide of his Father. His physical life was centered on doing the routine, tiresome tasks of a carpenter under the guide of his earthly father. He is God. He is the last person we would think that would live a life based on monotonous tasks. I think He’s trying to tell us something. Moreover, we need order given our flawed human nature. I have a 2 and 5 year-old and what helps them grow and mature is order and routine. They as kids we call this “going through the motions” but like the skeptic this is because they have no idea that their so-called “motions” are the key ingredients that help form them in the right image.
The Mass and the Sacraments are ordered because it is delivering us divine medicine. A doctor who heals a patient needs to go through specific instructions and methods to heal his patient. Every hospital and pharmacy that makes and delivers medicine to people is rooted in precise method and order. So it is with the Catholic Church.
In fact, all of nature is fixed in routine and order. Modern science tells us that if nature did not have this order we would live in a chaotic, whimsical universe in which it would be impossible for life to exist. For example, the speed of light is always and everywhere the same speed – 186,000 mps. It is because of this precise order of the speed of light that we are capable of life. If the speed of light was slightly slower or faster, life would not exist. The same holds true with many other precise physical laws – the gravitational force, the expansion rate of the universe, the strong nuclear force, etc. Modern science tells us that if these laws were altered in the smallest way, life would not exist. So, for physical life to exist we need a precise method of order. Well, the same holds true with God’s spiritual laws. The Church is rooted in order as the laws of the universe are rooted in order. In other words, the physical laws have order in them so to do the spiritual laws have order in them. We know that God’s physical universe is structured in the mathematical order of cause and effect. This fact is what Isaac Newton wrote about in Principia Mathematica. Additionally, Galileo famously said, “The laws of the universe are written in mathematical code.” No sane person would say that memorizing the number system or the multiplication table is “going through the motions” to understand physical reality. No one would say, let’s abolish 3+3=6 because it is too outdated and boring and now say that 3+3 = whatever I feel like. No, we need to follow a structured ordered method to give us the laws of the physical world. Therefore, God uses specific liturgical formulas to deliver us His reality in the Church just like He gives us specific mathematical formulas to deliver us the reality of His physical dimension.
In other words God’s MO (modus operandi) is order as we can see this in His physical creation just like we can understand it in His spiritual creation. As the laws of the universe don’t change, so to does God’s spiritual laws not change. This idea of not changing creative order is suggested plainly in Hebrews: “Jesus is the same today, yesterday, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
The reverse of order is what we see in the pop culture. In the pop culture we see ever-changing trends, noise, and stimuli that makes us lose clarity of thought and makes us bored to the helpful order of life. In this world, chaos endures. Indeed, the person who chants “going through the motions” has disqualified themselves as this shows they have been utterly compromised by the message of the pop culture – a message centered around constant change and flashy exciting trends. This message runs counter to order. Order is what created us. Our whole being comes from the order of the material laws of universe. To dismiss and destroy order would be like cutting off the very branch you are sitting on. To want to destroy order and law would be like wanting to destroy breathing.
Moreover, the main reason someone says the Church is “going through the motions” is because to them they don’t see or feel how these methods work. This concept suggests if we can’t pick up anything with our human senses, it must not be there. Again, this idea is self-absorbed pride of the highest level as it suggests our human senses are all knowing – perhaps at the level of God. Let’s go through some basic examples to show how limited our human senses are. There are over a million microbes of bacteria in your ears, mouth, and nose right now. Do you feel it or see them? Right now the earth is moving around the sun at a velocity of 66,600 mph. Add to that dizzying notion the fact that we are spinning (at the equator) at a 1,000 miles-per-hour clip. Do you feel this? You have thousands of electromagnetic waves traveling through your body right now. Do you feel this or know this with your senses? There answer to all these questions is no.
In fact, only 4% of all matter and energy in the universe is detectable by modern science. Of that 4% less than 1% is detected by your human senses. So, 99.9% of all physical reality cannot be picked up by our limited human senses. We are only talking about physical reality at this stage. With God, we are talking about the harder to detect spiritual reality. Are you telling me that your flawed human senses can pick up more on the spiritual dimension that you can on the physical dimension. Not only that, your ability to read the spiritual dimension overrides what the Church established by Jesus Christ has been doing for 2,000 years. Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t have that kind of exalted arrogance to declare that; do you?
We recite the Creed at Mass that God created the visible and the invisible dimension. If our senses know very little about the visible universe, do you think our flawed human senses can naturally tell us about the invisible dimension?
Things are happening in reality whether we know it or not. A man eats his food without knowing how the food nourishes him. A man can run and do push-ups without knowing how the exercises shape his body. Our human body operates like a machine – and very much of the function of this systematic machine is not picked up by our human senses. So it is with the soul. Just like the methods of the prescription drug work in a way you can’t see or feel so it is with the liturgy in the Mass works to fix your soul in a way you can’t see or feel.
In the Bible, there is the story of the curing of King Naaman (2 Kings 5:9-14). Naaman had leprosy and went to the prophet Elisha for healing. Naaman was expecting God to give him a grand, powerful way to be healed that would illicit great emotions for Naaman. Instead, Elisha simply told Naaman to wash in the Jordan River seven times, and he’ll be healed. The method Elisha gave Naaman from God sounded too bland and boring for the great king to hear. Naaman left Elisha in a rage. Indeed, Naaman would have said, “Why do I need to go through these boring motions.” There is a point to this story. God’s methods may seem routine and boring to us, but that is precisely why we need them. Of course the medicine is not going to be exciting for the patient’s thoughts – this is because the patient’s thoughts are so messed up. The methods of the Church are God’s ways. We are not God. Instead of whining like children about the methods, let’s trust our Father (God) and our Mother (the Church) when they heal our souls.
When a child trusts their parent’s methods even though the child themselves doesn’t understand what the parent is doing, the child is showing how much they love their parent. The child is showing that they love their parents more than they love themselves. So it is with trusting Mother Church over trusting ourselves.