He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Benefit of Mandatory Spirituality

I didn't want to go to work this week.  Or last week.  I've been bouncing between ear infections and sinus infections on and off for the past couple of months.  It turns out that even with a healthy diet and regular exercise, sleep deprivation and rapidly changing temperatures in an apartment overnight aren't good for one's health.

Of course, I should want to go to work at all times.  My desire to serve my co-workers in a spirit of love would ideally be so strong that it dissipates all my illness and puts a smile on my face all day.  Maybe one day I will reach that point, but I'm not there yet.  Sometimes my negative emotions and physical ailments are weighty enough that they throw me out of balance, tilting the scales of my heart away from love.

But even when I don't have the right attitude, I go anyway because it is mandatory.  And this is something I'm glad for; even when my heart isn't in it, the requirement to do my job and serve others is still in it.  The fact that going to work is mandatory is a very good thing.  It pushes us to do something good even when we might otherwise have a cold and hard heart which wants to bar itself up and keep away from anyone who might need our help.

The requirement to go and serve others, because I weight it so heavily, helps to tip the scales back to the side of love.  Some might think that this is not actually love or is a very weak love, but our love is not strongest when we have warm and fuzzy feelings for others and act accordingly; our love is strongest when we have cold and hard feelings for them and act lovingly in spite of those feelings.

The choice to act lovingly even when we don't want to is a far stronger form of love than the kind of love which is buoyed up by the balloon of temporary emotional highs.  The air of warm and fuzzy feelings can easily be taken out of the balloon, but the love of obedience to the mandatory requirements which demand service to others remains solid no matter how little air remains heated by our warmest and fuzziest feelings.

Even a small act of love which is performed while struggling against the walls of indifference, hate, or despair in our hearts is greater than the most magnificent display of love which comes so effortlessly while supported by a transient euphoria.

This same principle applies in our spiritual practice as well.  There will be times when we struggle to pray, when we struggle to give generously of our treasures, and when we struggle to abstain from those things which are proscribed for the good of our spiritual health.  We will struggle against the walls of indifference, hate, and despair which weight the scales of our hearts away from love.

Fortunately, the mandatory spiritual disciplines of the Church are there to help me push my ego out of the way and perform acts of love regardless of my feelings in any given moment.  The immense weight of the requirements of the Church are there to tilt the scales of my heart inexorably back in the direction of love, turning me toward the one who loved us unto death even when my heart is cold and hard so that Love can fill it with warmth and light again.

Her mandatory prayers, sacraments, tithes, and fasts fill the scales of my heart so much that even in those moments when my intellect cannot provide a reason to love, when my body has not much strength left for acts of love, and my will is weakened so much that I do not even will the good of another, the scales of my heart are nonetheless tilted toward the side of love.

That is the benefit of mandatory spirituality.

By Turgis - Turgis, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45719762


  1. We all follow a great number of rules in our human relationships, more often than not, without even realizing it. Take the relationship between a parent and child:
    1. Clothe your child with clean clothes daily
    2. Feed your child multiple times daily.
    3. Wash your child daily
    4. Give your child shelter from the elements and extremes in temperature.
    5. Don't beat your child.
    6. Give your child the opportunity for an education.
    7. Don't expose your child to sexual situations.
    8. Supervise your child adequately so that the child does not expose himself/herself to danger.
    9. Correct your child when he/she does wrong.
    10. Give your child adequate freedom of movement and expression

    I could go on and on, but there are a set of rules that dictate how we treat children. In fact, failing to follow some of these rules can land you in jail.

    That being said, few parents frame their relationships with their children in terms of following rules. Parents who have achieved emotional maturity will do these things automatically, because they love their children. The rules exist to help us along in those situations when fatigue, anger, fear, or other emotions get the best of us...they remind us what to do when we don't feel like doing it. But if your relationship with your child is only about following the rules, then the personal element is missing--that's a bad sign, in my opinion.

    Our relationship with God is the same way. Spiritual practices that are "mandatory" give us some good guideposts to follow, a good minimum standard to follow, but "Our God is a consuming fire." He's not as impressed with what we do as with our inner motives...if I give alms to earn myself a place in Heaven, I'm still at a very egotistical place far from the heart of Jesus, as opposed to giving alms out of a motive to glorify Christ. That doesn't give us an excuse to fail to do good "because I don't feel like it," but it does mean that we must constantly analyze our motives. The Sermon on the Mount is all about motives, which is why it was (and is) so hard to accept. Modern secularists scoff, for example, at Jesus' statement that looking at someone with lust is tantamount to committing adultery in one's heart. They think that the commandment will just make people uptight about sex, but they miss the point that our intentions and motives are the root of our sin.

    1. Good points, Jack. I completely agree with you that spirituality should not be solely at the level of mandatory practice. For more on how I think we can move beyond mandatory practice, you can read my post entitled, "The Benefit of Arbitrary Spirituality" and the post I'm currently still writing entitled, "The Benefit of Supererogatory Spirituality" as well.