Leaving liturgy with anger

/ 25 September 2005

The Ignatian exercises are an assist in helping people discern God’s action in the world, and in their lives. One element of the process involves seeking to understand what evokes consolation in your life, and what evokes desolation, and in turn, the implications of such.

I left liturgy today completely worked up and quite angry. Is that consolation? desolation? What do I do with these feelings? Our priest was preaching on the Matthew text (21:2-32) in which a father asks his two sons to go and work in the vineyard. One of them agrees, and then doesn't do it. The other refuses, but thinks better of it and finally goes. Jesus is using this parable to say something about the Kingdom of God and to talk about those folk -- tax collectors, etc. -- who actually will get into the Kingdom of God before the religious authorities because they're actually, finally, trying to do what's right.

Our priest used this text, and last Sunday's as well (the first part of his sermon was a little "quiz" for our community on what that text was about) to implore us to ponder what our actions ought to be in the "vineyard" of this parish. He wants us to think not only about what we say we're about, but what we actually do. So far, so good.

I immediately started to think about things like why is it that I support the anti-war protests, but didn't actually go to DC this weekend? Or why is it that I believe the Gospel calls us to love one another, but since the Vatican has decided to "root out gays" from our seminaries, shouldn't I leave the church? Why am I still going to liturgy in that context?

It seems to me that these are important and powerful questions. And I think that the Ignatian exercises actually offer some powerful ways to think through the shame and guilt associated with being part of the "middle class tribe" and moving beyond that to creative action. (Tangentially, I particularly recommend Dean Brackley's book, The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times, on this topic).

But our priest didn't go there. He didn't, in fact, refer to anything that is currently going on in the world that might concern us (the war, the hurricanes, AIDS, poverty, racism, etc. etc.). Instead, he wanted to alert us to the need for each of us to prayerfully consider what we ought to be doing in the parish. He as much as said, although perhaps it was only implied, that as Christians we ought first to worry about our own institutions -- middle class and glorious though they might be -- before we worry about the poor. He urged us to consider our "time, talent, and treasure" and think about how we might engage them in the work of the church. He urged us to be aware that the pastoral council would be coming to us soon asking for our commitments.

I couldn't help but wonder whether he was actually taking the text in precisely the opposite direction of where Jesus was going with it. After all, Jesus is telling this story to the chief priests and elders. He's asking them to ponder who is doing the Father's will -- the religious authorities who say they are, but then do the opposite; or all those who are reviled by the authorities (tax collectors, prostitutes, etc.), but who are finally caring for each other.

I think our priest succeeded in one way with me today: I am very much thinking about whether my actions match my beliefs, and I'm very much wondering whether the thousands of dollars we contribute each year to this church might be better spent elsewhere. I'm wondering whether my words aren't sufficiently backed up by action. I'm wondering whether I ought to be leaving this parish -- maybe even this church? -- and finding a community of faith more committed to living out of the gospel.

Is that too individualistic of me? Am I displaying too much of the "cafeteria Catholic" sensibility? Or is there something real and true working inside of me calling me to redirect my life? I don't think the answers are immediately evident, at least not to me, but the questions are burning. And the energy -- and yes, anger -- with which I left liturgy today needs to be used constructively.

Five years of teaching at Luther has convinced me that deep inside, deep at heart, I am a Catholic. But perhaps those same five years have forced me also to face the hypocrisy of much of the Catholic community, particularly our current leadership. Am I simply supporting such hypocrisy by not speaking out more forcefully against it? And what would that look like in this small community? Is leaving the best way to voice such critique? Or is staying and witnessing to it? Today my prayer is passionate and searching...