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Catholic Spiritual Direction

How do I make Mass a more positive experience?

December 10, 2009 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Mass, Sacraments

MassQ. Dear Father John, What is the difference between those who find Mass something to be endured and those who find it deeply nourishing, and what does my experience have to do with my own disposition?

A. The short answer to this question is: don’t worry about your experience of Mass, just focus on the Mass. Read on for the long answer.

Underlying this excellent question is a faulty premise: it assumes that “something to be endured” and “deeply spiritually nourishing” are mutually exclusive. But that is not always the case. This is because the level of the spirit is deeper than the level of emotions. In our consumer society, which keeps our emotions titillated and conditions us to think that true spiritual value should always be accompanied by lovely feelings, the distinction between spirit and emotion is almost unrecognizable for many people. But the distinction is real nonetheless.

Think of a good mother whose young child is very sick with a horrible fever. That mother will sacrifice sleep, meals, recreation, exercise – you name it, she’ll sacrifice it, simply in order to stay with, tend, care for, and comfort that child. After three or four days, the mother will be emotionally and physically exhausted; her feelings will not be lovely, but raw. And yet, in the realm of her spirit, she will be profoundly fulfilled and satisfied, because she knows she is doing all she can for her sick child. The spiritual virtue of self-sacrificial love is located at a deeper place than our feelings and emotions. Sometimes spirit and emotion coincide, like on a wedding day, but not always.

The same two levels are at work in our prayer life. Sometimes we feel God’s presence in an emotional way, and it is gratifying. This is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and we should be grateful. But still, the gratifying feelings are not the substance of our prayer. That takes place at a deeper level, where we are exercising our faith, hope, and Christian love by seeking the face of God, adoring and praising him, and renewing our commitment to follow him – regardless of how we feel. Some days when we pray, we spend the whole time fighting distractions or sleepiness, and we don’t feel God’s presence at all. Yet, that prayer, if it was sincere and if we were struggling to seek God’s face and renew our love for him, was just as valid, just as fruitful, and just as pleasing to God as the one during which our emotions were high. In fact, the more difficult prayer may have been even more pleasing to God, because love in a fallen world is always more evident in sacrifice than in enjoyment.

Mass is the same. We know that the holy sacrifice of the Mass is the pinnacle of worship, the perfect prayer. But that doesn’t mean that we will always feel, emotionally, the exaltation. What matters is not our feelings. What matters is the attitude of our mind and will. If we are making an effort to unite ourselves, at the level of our spirit, to the meaning of each part of the Mass, we are giving glory to God and nourishing our souls (and building up the Church), whether we feel exalted or whether we feel bored, distracted, frustrated, angry, or [insert whatever emotion you like].

Therefore, we must dispose ourselves for Mass by stirring up the spiritual desires of a true Christian: to honor God by saying “yes” to him, just as Christ did on the Cross. These desires are expressed beautifully in all the prayers and rubrics of the sacred liturgy. Uniting the attention of our mind and the intention of our will to those prayers and rubrics is our task. We dispose ourselves for that by striving to live each day as Christ would have us, and by arriving to Mass a few minutes ahead of time to recollect ourselves. We should never think that feeling God’s presence in an emotional way is the only evidence that we have disposed ourselves properly for the celebration. We should not pursue a particular emotional experience at Mass. The Mass is not about us; it is about Christ. If God wants us to feel the exaltation, blessed be God. If not, blessed be God. We go there to worship, confident that, because it is the liturgy, it is the highest objective act of worship we can participate in, regardless of how we feel.

This is already too long, but one other point deserves mentioning. The manner in which the liturgy is celebrated can help us focus on Christ, or it can hinder us. Reverential and beautiful demeanor, music, and accoutrements are effective aids to our worship, and they are also signs of our love for God. Yet, they are not the core of the Mass, and we should not treat them as if they were. The soldiers who attended Masses celebrated on the hoods of jeeps near the battlefields of World War II experienced Christ deeply in spite of their grungy surroundings. They experienced him deeply because their daily lives were more in tune with the eternal truths than the latest gossip. The best preparation for Mass is a day-to-day life spent consciously in pursuit of Christ’s Kingdom.

Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published four other titles: "Seeking First the Kingdom", "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions", "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at and questions and answers on the spiritual life at FATHER JOHN'S BOOKS include: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer", "Inside the Passion"--The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation".

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  • Bill

    So good. Favorite lines: “love in a fallen world is always more evident in sacrifice than in enjoyment.”; “We know that the holy sacrifice of the Mass is the pinnacle of worship, the perfect prayer.”; “The best preparation for Mass is a day-to-day life spent consciously in pursuit of Christ’s Kingdom.” Thank you.

  • Jeremy

    I loved this post! Bill your third quote was my favorite line as well!

  • Jo Flemings

    I heartily echo the same comments by Jeremy and Bill above, but the” love in a fallen world is always more evident in sacrifice…” quote is the one that speaks most to me! Well stated!- all of it, Father! Thanks!

  • kathy

    Thank you for this! This was a great post, that I need to revisit often.

  • Mary Macharia

    Father John, in this post I feel you have been speaking to me personally. You have re-assured me in a manner I can’t explain. This is the most valuable Spiritual Direction I have been given. God bless you.

  • Trish

    Very beautiful. This covers something I have been questioning recently. Thank you.

  • ILoveLazarus

    Father, your response shows a formation not usually found in Novus Ordo priests. This observation along with a picture in your response of the traditional Mass being offered prompts a question: are you a traditional priest? May God bless you.

  • MS3

    I am a cradle Catholic and don’t know much of the Catholicism. Where do I start to learn more?

    • Dan Burke

      Dear Friend – before I answer permit me to ask you a few questions. What prompted your return? Do you have any particular areas of interest?

  • Marker56567

     Mass- we gather together sundays.. in our best.. -scripture God asked moses to gather the people for worship in their best…every 7 days .. it is sunday for Jesus rose from the dead..
                 we begin with song.. glorify our God , or we start with a opening prayer… this can be very meaning ful in your day listen to it.       then we repent of our sins.. – scripture.. old testement tells us how our prayers are answered and are like perfumn when we have a contrite heart and repent..
         the candles, and clothes , colors = old testement .. tells about why we do these things..exedus… we glorify God.. -evil must leave when we glorify.. God..  then the scripture readings.. listen to how they lived.. God is telling us how to live, how to pray, how to be blessed,  the Homiliy if the preist is full of the Holy Spirit, it will be like He is talking just to you… Pray for Him , bless Him ask God to fill Him with the Holy Spirit..  our beleif.. in new testement it talks about how Jesus worked miricals through beleif… together we join in eachers beleif.. where 2 or more gathered in my name …
         the offering.. the Holy Spirit coming down upon the bread and wine turning into Jesus.. (i always wonder if the preist feels this… I do pray for them too) then Jesus is offered to God the Father.. where all blessings flow.. the greatest sacrafic… joined with all the saints and heaven with our prayers.. angels all around.. then the our father.. reminding us how Jesus taught . if 1 lives the our
    Father 1 could be a saint.. then repentance a pure heart. and ask for Jesus mercy .. we are unworth.. but through Jesus mercy we can receive and He will live with in us… another pray ,, that is for that day.. listen.. is you day in that prayer?  the blessing.. how important,,, Gods blessing for our lives…
      also , the tabernacle in the church is so important.. the devil likes to mess things up.. with Jesus right there,,, He loses … some times this is the only time people are silent infront of Jesus for any period of time.. healings , evil leaves.. blessings.. silent prayers.. protection…