Going Through the Motions: The Friday after Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-9a; Psalm 51:19; Matthew 9:14-15

After many years of playing the guitar I know that once I’ve learned a song, bad things can happen if I watch my fingers while I play. I make more mistakes, the music sounds too careful, too mechanical; I play without heart. When I forget what my hands are doing, I can focus on the music and everything feels and sounds better to me. I’d guess that many people in the performing arts would agree that at least on some level you just have to “go through the motions.”

But while going through the motions may be fine in some contexts, it’s a real problem in the spiritual life. As we grow in our faith, we take on its rhythms; its prayers and practices become second-nature to the point that it’s almost as if we could do them in our sleep. But that’s just the problem; our tongues know them so well that our mind thinks that it isn’t needed. As a result, the practices that we learned specifically to grow closer to God can become the same practices that distance ourselves from him.

Take for example the centuries-old practice of fasting; a good and pious practice that is supposed to remind us of the providence of God who is our only true and lasting nourishment. Yet, in the gospel reading today, the followers of John who were fasting seemed far less occupied with God and his providence and far more occupied with other people, particularly those who were not fasting. Of course, if their minds and hearts were fully engaged in the fast, the practices of Christ and his disciples would have been of little concern to them.

This isn’t really about those disciples and it isn’t just about fasting. The dangers of routine in the spiritual life affect all of us, all the time. For me, it could be that I’m so used to fasting that I’ve forgotten why I ever began to do it; for you, it may be that your mind wanders during the rosary, the chaplet, the Stations, Adoration, or even Holy Mass. The point isn’t the practice, the point is where the mind and heart are directed while doing it. If we aren’t careful, even the most pious prayers and practices can be emptied of their meaning.

Worse, our Lord reminds us through the prophet Isaiah that these devotions will not remain empty long; they will be filled with evil. Listen again as Isaiah says: Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits, and drive all your laborers. Yes, your fast ends in quarreling and fighting (Isaiah 58:3-4). No one who takes up a fast out of love for God wants to see their devotion end like that, but these are the logical conclusion when spiritual practices become a matter of merely going through the motions.

cross-699617_640This is why our Lord counsels us through Isaiah to break from our routine, to find new ways to express our devotion and recover their original intent. That may mean learning new prayers; becoming active in a ministry that we haven’t done in awhile or ever; coming early to Mass for some quiet time with our Lord or staying after to make thanksgiving; paying greater attention at Mass especially at the Consecration; and taking special care to receive our Lord gratefully in Holy Communion. Whatever we do, God urges us to remember that these actions aren’t mere habits; they are tokens of the love and longing for God borne in our hearts, planted there by him and always drawn to him in whom alone we find rest and true union.

Let us remember today the importance of vigilance in the spiritual life. It’s good to memorize our prayers and say them every day; it’s better to pray earnestly and from the heart. It’s good to attend daily Mass out of love for God and unity with one another; it’s better to use the healing power of the Mass to let go of the animosity, hatred, or enmity that separates us from others and from God. This takes effort; it takes sacrifice, but it is a sacrifice done from a heart like that of King David, who sang in today’s psalm:

My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.

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