One of the great mysteries of life is understanding the motivations our own hearts. I can look at the sky, see the moon, and if it catches my fancy, look up all sorts of facts about it. I can know how big the moon is, what it’s made of, how far away, how fast it moves. But I don’t understand the motions of my own heart.
For many springs now, my children and I have been closely watching the pair of doves that live in our yard. We’ve named them Caspian and Susan. We know where they like to build their nests, how they feed worms to their young, and their favorite branches to rest upon while guarding their little ones who are learning to fly. We know the lifespan of the doves, how many young they produce, and how they mate for life. But I struggle with my own interior restlessness and am powerless to describe it, let alone fix it.
As St. Paul cried out in frustration, “I do the things I don’t want to do and don’t do the things I want to do.” For those who have a hunger to seek God, the problem can be acute. How do we know if we are sincerely searching for him or, rather, if we’re simply playing a religious game to feel righteous and admired? How do we know our hearts are properly disposed or if it’s all just posturing? So often our spiritual lives devolve into constant second-guessing. It can feel impossibly difficult to discern if our efforts are truly humble and pure, or even if we’re generally heading in the right direction.
In this morass of mixed-up motivations, how can we know that, even if we have far to go on the pilgrimage, we are truly seeking God?
This is one of the questions I explore in my book The Forgotten Language – How Recovering the Poetics of the Mass Will Change Our Lives.
The book is my attempt to explain how the beauty of the Mass, as I began to understand its mysterious poetic depth, not only converted me to Catholicism but also reordered my entire life for the better. Before I was drawn into the Church and participation in the Mass, I was spiritually and personally lost. I wanted to seek God but didn’t know how. I tried to discover him through a rigorously intellectual, philosophized process. Basically, I tried to argue myself into faith. At other times, I also sought out emotional experiences. These turned out to be fleeting and, soon enough, when I didn’t feel God with the kind of intensity I did before, emotional exhaustion caused me abandon church-going for well over a year.
The beauty of the Mass saved me. It woke me up to a much deeper encounter with the divine. Through it, I glimpsed my true home and for the first time understood how to seek God. The Sacrifice of the Mass is the suffering of beauty, bringing us into God’s beautiful presence so powerfully that it’s overwhelming. To me as a convert, it was a coming home into the communion of saints, putting one foot over the threshold of the transcendent.
The reality at the heart of the Mass, this is what I now desire to seek for the rest of my days. I say that this journey of beauty is a type of suffering because, in God, there is always more abundance waiting just around the corner and it causes pain that, even though we participate in the fullness of his promise and experience God’s presence, we aren’t to our true home yet. We are still on the journey. There’s always another corner to peak around.
The key to making sure the journey stays on course is to always remain close to the Mass. It is the Mass that propels us forward through a superabundance of grace. During the course of our lives, we so often forget that the Mass, which we quarantine and limit to its single hour on Sunday. We forget that the sacraments are the language of love by which God provides us with his life, essentially sharing his power with us to assist us on our way. This divine life spills over into every aspect of our lives and changes everything. The Mass is a poetic language dense with symbolism in which every detail points to this supernatural, universal reality.
This all sounds very abstract, so I’m going to use some of the thoughts from my book to show, practically, that it’s really quite simple, and that even though our faith isn’t primarily intended as self-help (our faith is to worship and love God simply because he deserves it, with no expectation of reward), that if we understand some of the principles of the spiritual life and the way in which the Mass forms us, we will greatly benefit. Most of all, we can proceed in the confidence that we are seeking God with our whole heart.
Essentially, it’s about the reformation of our desires. The reason we struggle to accurately know ourselves is because our desires are all over the place and they cause us to seek the wrong things. We sin, and those sins cloud our judgment and self-knowledge. We desire the wrong things, or in too great a proportion, or too ardently. We become confused about how to seek God and if we are seeking God. This is why St. Paul does the things he doesn’t want to do. In spite of his best intentions, his desires lead him astray. This, for all of us, is the root of sin and the reason we lose our direction in the spiritual life.
God’s intention for us is that we desire what he desires and that it will become a joy to follow his commands. This is the pattern we see with the saints, those men and women who desire God above all else – that they are happiest of all. They seek God naturally and easily.
This is what the Mass does. It re-orders our desires. It empowers us to seek God naturally and easily.
This is why, for instance, when people attend a beautiful Mass, a Mass celebrated according to the mind of the Church (meaning it is celebrated with reverence and pours out beauty at the feet of Christ without counting the cost), if they aren’t used to it, it can be a challenging experience. I remember the first Mass I went to that used Latin, incense, and chant. I very much disliked it. As I grew closer to Jesus, though, in the subsequent years, I loved that sort of Mass more and more. This is because Christ was changing the shape of my heart and re-ordering my desire. My heart was able to receive the gift of the Mass. I loved better what he loved and was able sit and contemplate the beauty of the Mass and his presence within it as the Ancient Beauty from whom the worship of the Church sprang and to whom it returns.
Participating in a reverent, beautiful Mass takes attention, care, and focus. It is a challenging experience. This is exactly as it should be. After all, we are seeking the God who transcends the limits of the universe. It’s only fitting that we would find him best through mystery, fitting to him like moths to a dark flame.
Confronting mystery in the Mass assists us in confronting the mystery within our own hearts. If God’s grace is poured out from altar to heart, that grace is transformative, bringing the love of Christ from the Sacrifice of the Mass and into our very selves. His desires become ours, and we begin to seek him alone. His love is, quite literally, too much for this world. The transition is difficult. It requires that we suffer with Christ.
In the Divine Comedy, Dante explores the re-ordering of desire. His own desires had spun out of control and ruined his life. He writes his poetry in exile, barred from returning to his home city of Florence and dreaming about a girl named Beatrice he’d seen once, many years before.
The cure for his spiritual illness isn’t leaving desire behind, but rather, learning to desire rightly. To get there, Dante must take a journey. He begins on a downward trajectory, sinking into Hell to witness the chaos there, the consequences of unresolved desire. Then he crawls through Purgatory to see how desire is re-ordered. Only then does he emerge into Paradise, desiring God alone.
Desire without a proper object is useless. For want of direction it exhausts itself, eats us up, or moderates into vague platitudes, motivational posters plastered on the walls of a cubicle. It isn’t enough to desire a bland vision of world peace. Simply imagining a generic utopian world isn’t a stand-in for real love. This is why pop culture is so boring. It’s an ersatz, abstract idea that fails to capture the real thing.
Pope Benedict XVI, writing about twisted desires in the ancient world that resulted in the degradation of women, says that Israelite religion “declared war on a warped and destructive form of [eros], because this counterfeit divinization of eros actually strips it of its dignity and dehumanizes it.” He goes on: “Eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns.”
True desire is a sort of renunciation. We cannot long for absolutely everything under the sun. Renunciation isn’t limitation, as Benedict explains; “it is part of love’s growth towards higher levels and inward purification that it now seeks to become definitive, and it does so in a twofold sense: both in the sense of exclusivity (this particular person alone) and in the sense of being ‘for ever.’”
If desire is an arrow, it must eventually strike home. For Dante, and for all of us, this means that a perfectly ordered desire will seek God alone and it will seek to remain with him into eternity. It is a particular desire, and it is a lasting desire.
The nebulous concept of passion isn’t what motivates Dante’s journey. Rather, it’s Beatrice, a specific woman. As Dante’s initial desire for her is purifies, she becomes the muse through whom universal love reveals itself. By healing his passions, he regains all he has lost.
God doesn’t save us from our sins by an abstract fiat. Rather, The Second Person of the Trinity takes on flesh as a specific, divine person with a life all His own. He is Emmanuel, God with us. Our Lord gets dirty in the mud of a Bethlehem stable, hammers together furniture with his father, and becomes tired and thirsty. This isn’t the way salvation had to be delivered to us, but it’s the way God chooses. His desire is so intense that it incarnates. He wants to love us personally.
Real love, real desire, begins at the personal level. Every day, as a father, I become Dante. I hug my sticky-faced kids and laugh when the toddler interrupts my reading by quacking like a duck behind my chair, clean the pots and pans stuck with burnt eggs, read bedtime stories when my throat is hoarse and all I want is to crawl into bed and watch the football game on television. I am learning to love with my crooked heart. It would be far easier to love humanity as a generic idea, but love specific persons we must. Desire only finds the path forward by loving real, actual people who are imperfect.
It’s easier to love the idea of the Mass than actually joining Christ in offering a specific sacrifice. Nothing replaces actually being there. Good intentions are not enough. Appreciating the Mass in the abstract is not enough. What’s required is that God’s very real desire would be met by our very real desire.
If it’s tempting to love in the abstract, at the opposite extreme it’s also tempting to halt with the love of a specific person or object, as if that’s our limit. It can be terrifying to open up to the God who desires us without end, but there are no outer limits on virtues because, by their nature, they participate in God’s infinite virtue. They cannot be limited without being neutered.
In Paradiso, Beatrice describes love as an arrow shot to Heaven. When Dante sees God reflected in her eyes, he is finally ready to follow that arrow. Beatrice isn’t jealous. She wants Dante to desire God more than her:
And all my love was so absorbed in Him,
that in oblivion Beatrice was eclipsed.
Not this displeased her; but she smiled at it
Robert Royal says that Dante “will fulfill his relationship to her and transcend it without abandoning her: Heaven permits many such paradoxes, the basis of all of them being that as we draw closer to the primal unity, the multiplicity of the cosmos becomes truer also, truer in that both we and our relationships with each other become more authentic.”
In the introduction to his translation of the Divine Comedy, Anthony Esolen says, “To love a human being is also to love the body. To love the body is to love the small, the local, the particular. It is to love those things enjoyed by that body—even to love Florence, or to use Burke’s phrase, the small platoon into which one was born. It is to love Bag End and the beer from a particularly good harvest.”
The Mass makes us love it, the particularity of it, the unique shade of how we arrive and hear the missional call to a first light, the day of Creation. If at first it seems an elegy for a deceased Savior, it becomes more and more clear that the sacrifice is, in fact, a signifier – through Christ we are more alive than ever. Each precious soul, laid down as sacrifice, doesn’t dribble out into wan loss of self and desire but, rather, becomes all muscle and bone, all resurrected grace concentrated on raising the living from the dying. Fresh and sweet, the poetic language flies like echo to source, its body a living form, a fountain of memory and imagination.
Through a particular, individual Mass, God speaks all of time into existence. He knits you and I, we injured Adams and Eves, into a communion of saints.
Cradled within this paradox, I learned to love. My unhealthy desires were broken against the rock of God’s desire. No longer am I fixated on grand, abstract ideas, theological arguments, and the vague dehumanized disquietude in my soul. No longer am I confused and despairing of whether I’m authentically seeking God.
I adore the particularities of the Mass, its physicality, its enchanted imagination, the personalities of different parishes, each parishioner, quirky and idiosyncratic, the guy who rushes to say amen before everyone else, the woman who refuses to say the Agnus Dei in Latin with everyone else, the antiphons turning like a golden spiral, each one heralding a new season that discovers me as a pilgrim, a specific aspirant in a specific place on the journey. There, at morning Mass, rubbing sleep from my eyes, I’ve learned to love the good and beautiful things in this world, and the more I love them the more I love God.
From the particular to the universal, desire expands the soul and we become like arrows shot to heaven, seeking our Creator. My first instinct upon encountering the Mass as a non-Catholic was to adapt it to my own wants. I found it threatening and stilted, so I wanted to reject it or empty it of the dangerous desire I felt lurking under the surface, the kind of divine desire that grabs hold of us and won’t let go. But I kept returning because that desire had gotten hold of me and I couldn’t shake loose.
I guess you could say I was seeking God even despite myself. This is how strong the Mass is in directing to God. The little things I did initially love about the Mass, particularly its sensible beauty, eventually converted me to the weightier truths, those truths that are incarnated in Christ himself. This is the proper order, the way desire is re-ordered, each following our Beatrice and practicing love right where we are. In doing so, we proceed to a brightening vision of God.
If I were to gaze into the night sky as Dante’s stellar rose unfolds petals overhead, and with the eye of a lover gaze beyond the stars and into the inky endless night, the vast Heavenly array in which the saints process in a slow dance around the Source of all Being, I would feel the full weight of love, the gravity of desire as it circles and bends into orbit around Christ our Savior.
It is God alone that we seek. If we find that our desires are ever more focused on him alone and we find ever more hope in spending eternity with him, then we’re on the right track.
As Dante famously concludes;
But already my desire and my will
were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,
by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.