Must Religion Be Boring?
Letter to a Bored Catholic
You say you find religion boring? I'm not surprised. You told me you attend Mass every Sunday, you confess twice a year and you pray about three minutes a night before retiring. This is a perfect formula for boredom!
Boredom is, I believe, one of the most common reasons for people to give up the faith, especially among the young. So many have tried the faith (half-heartedly) and found it wanting.
Many bored people are so because they have quick, active minds. Life just moves too slowly for them. So, some of them make their own excitement, and eventually, alas, end up in jail, or addicted to some substance or immoral activity. But, others, with the same sort of mind, have found a way to get through the boredom and discover that goodness is ultimately more stimulating, interiorly, than evil. We call them saints.
St. Augustine lived with his mistress for 14 years before leaving his "cruel slavery to lust" and discovering the beauty of God. St. Teresa, even as a nun, delighted in (too many) visitors to her convent and could not wait until prayer was over, until she forced herself to pray and began to find its delight. St. Margaret of Cortona lived as a nobleman's mistress for nine years before finding peace in prayer and penance. St. John Bosco used his acrobatics to evangelize his peers, and often settled debates with his fists before his conversion was complete. He said he would have become a terrible sinner had he not become a priest.
So how did the saints deal with boredom? In two ways, I suggest: first, they learned how to cope with early boredom in the spiritual life; second, they overcame boredom by discovering the interior excitement of a strong spiritual commitment. Once they got going, there was never a bored saint!
Dealing with Boredom
The first thing you must face is that a certain amount of boredom is absolutely inevitable in any worthwhile endeavor. Athletes are bored (and sored) by weight-lifting at first, until they see how it helps their performance; med students and law students are bored with all the reading they must do early on; saints are bored with prayer, until they begin to taste its results.
One delightful young woman who left a life of drinking and sex, said she forced herself to pray the rosary even though she could hardly stand it. Later, when she was a daily communicant, she spent an hour a day before the Blessed Sacrament in prayer and commented, "I just love that hour of prayer every morning. It makes my day!"
In fact, if you've been involved in premarital sex or pornography or other stimulating activity, you will find the early stage of prayer even more boring by comparison. No matter. You have to sweat it out anyway.
There is drudgery in every worthwhile project. Would you expect the task of gaining eternal life to be an exception? Of course it's boring at first! Jesus never said it would be easy to get to the Kingdom. He said, "Narrow is the gate and hard is the way that leads to life and there are few who find it" (Mt. 7:14). Elsewhere he said "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny his very self, take up his cross and follow in my steps" (Mk. 8:34). The first cross of a Christian is boredom at prayer.
A nice thing happens when you start to really pray: it gets easier. As St. John Vianney said, "The more you pray, the more you want to pray."
But, don't endure unnecessary boredom by taking on too much at once and making things impossible for yourself. True, Jesus said that to be saved you must love God "with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself" (Mt. 22:39-39) But, you can't get there overnight. You can't decide, "Tomorrow I'm going to start praying an hour and a half a day," and expect to be successful. You'll soon give up.
This happened to one young man, who heard a talk about the faith and decided to start going to Mass and pray the rosary daily. He fizzled out after a couple of months. Fell back to almost nothing.
Use psychology on yourself. You wouldn't expect to bench press 250 pounds the first time you try, would you? Or, run a four minute mile? It takes time to get into these things and it takes time to get into prayer.
Begin with something small, something you are certain you can handle, but something significant! You should commit to a minimum amount of prayer daily if you hope to be saved. Alphonsus Ligouri said "Those who pray are saved; those who do not are damned." Strong words, but true.
Think for a minute. How much time could you give to God each day in prayer? Half an hour? Fifteen minutes?
How about five minutes a day. Peanuts, right? Chicken feed. But if you did it every day without fail for six months, you'd have the beginning of a decent prayer life. After six months, you could ask the Lord to give you the grace to do a bit more, but don't think about that now. Just go for the five minutes minimum for six months.
"What if I want to do more one day?" you ask? Sure, go ahead. But keep your minimum at five minutes until you have a good strong habit. Only then should you increase it.
"What if I'm ready to increase it after three months?" you ask? Certainly, why not. But just add a small amount, say three to five minutes more. Better to grow too slowly than grow too fast and risk falling back. And, remember, weekends are hardest to keep up because you have a different schedule.
"What if I'm certain I can go with ten minutes to start?" Sure, go ahead. Some people can do that, or more. But few can commit to more than fifteen minutes a day at first. Know what you can do; be generous, but be smart, and know your limitations.
What to Pray?
"So what am I going to pray for five or ten minutes, Our Father's, Hail Mary's and Glory be's?" No, not unless you want to push this boredom thing to the wall.
Try something more interesting. Try meditating on the life of Christ. You could use Scripture...
"You mean I have to lug a Bible around with me when I want to pray?" No, you could meditate on the mysteries of the Rosary. Each one is based on Scripture and each takes about three minutes.
"But all those Hail Marys-don't tell me that's not boring, to repeat these prayers over and over." It would be if you were thinking about the words of the Hail Marys. But, in the Rosary, you don't think about the words of the Hail Marys, but about the mystery.
"And if I don't know the mysteries?" Learn them! There are only fifteen. Ask your priest or one of the parishioners for a leaflet. Or, pick up a booklet. There are scores of different booklets and leaflets available. In the meantime meditate on some you do know, e.g., the crucifixion, the resurrection, etc.
"What about the Apostle's Creed, and knowing which mysteries to say for what days?" you ask. Forget all that to start. Skip the intro and say whatever mysteries you want, to start. Later you can bring in these other elements.
"Where should I pray? Does it have to be in church?... On my knees?" No, not to begin. You can pray anywhere, and virtually any time. In your car, on the subway, in your room, sitting in a chair, lying down, even while you're falling asleep. One woman used to pray a decade riding the ski lift. Be creative. Take time wherever you find it. If you can pray before the Blessed Sacrament, that's best, but start wherever you can. Little by little, make your prayer more devout, by place and posture.
"That's all there is to it? Just meditate on two or three mysteries a day? Will this really make the faith more interesting?" Guaranteed.
But there is more. Prayer is never enough. You have to become a new person if you expect to live with God in his Kingdom, in a kind of marriage. You have to change and become holy. You need to get to know the saints.
"But they're all dead!" Alas, you're right, yet how they lived! If you want to find your way in this world, and into the next, you need some good guides, people who have made it. We have about 5,000 of these in the Catholic Church. When you read their lives you see that they struggled with the same things we do, but they never gave up. They knew the purpose of life and they lived it to the full. And, they were happy.
What I'm saying is that if you read books on the saints (not just anthologies) you will be inspired. You will see the pitfalls of life, the true virtues. You will want to live a strong spiritual life. You'll be motivated. Motivation is the key to living a holy life.
Prayer will open your mind to the lives of the saints; reading their lives will make you want to pray more.
Discouraged by the lives of the saints? Do they set impossible standards? Indeed they do. Impossible for them, too, without grace. Ah, with grace... nothing is impossible.
There are many other motivations to live a holy life, other than the example of the saints. First, when we get lazy, we should remember that we have all received an engraved invitation to hell, and it's easy to get there. Jesus said as much: "Go in through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to ruin, and many go in through it..." (Mt. 7:13). Look around, look at the people on TV. Do many of them look like they're trying to make it to the Kingdom? Do you think you're immune from being drawn into the powerful vortex of evil around you? There but for the grace of God go you or I.
Another motive for holiness is the different levels in heaven. Imagine heaven as being married to the most beautiful, delightful, faithful, etc. spouse you could conceive of, and suppose you would spend as much time each day with this irresistible person as you spent in prayer each day on earth. In fact, it's something like that. Jesus said "The Son of man... will repay each one according to his conduct," (Mt 16-27). Our happiness in heaven will be proportioned to our love and goodness on earth (Council of Florence). Live a holy life and you'll be that much happier for all eternity. People wait hours to get good seats for the super bowl and that lasts only a few hours. This "super bowl" will last forever!
There is yet another strong motivation to work at the spiritual life: purgatory. St. Augustine wrote "The fire of purgatory will be more severe than any pain that can be felt, seen or conceived in this world." St. Thomas Aquinas said virtually the same thing. If you live a holy life here by prayer and penance, you could avoid much if not all of purgatory. St. Teresa of Avila wrote, "Let us strive to do penance in this life. How sweet will be the death of those who have done penance for all their sins and need not go to purgatory!" If you want to be motivated, just read a good book on purgatory (for example, Purgatory by F. X. Schouppe, S. J.).
There is one final motivation to live a holy life: living the faith halfway is a real bore. Living it not at all is too costly-it leads to eternal boredom and misery. Don't be fooled by the tinsel of this world. True holiness is the best antidote for boredom in this life, and the only way to the eternal joy, excitement and ecstasy of the Kingdom.
Hope to be there with you. What a delight!
Sincerely in Christ,