Those who grew up without access to the internet, cell phones, or a host of screens on demand are familiar with the experience of boredom in a way that many young people today are not. Long ago we would whine to our parents about how bored we were. Even if our parents wanted to ease our all of our burdens and concerns, however insignificant, they would have found it difficult to do so. There’s likely not much that could have been done that hadn’t already been tried. Today, boredom is rarer, so that the complaint of boredom seems worthy of special concern. It’s very easy to ward off the lack of fun when a screen is close at hand.
It’s becoming necessary today to defend boredom: to create the conditions where it might exist, to not seek to assuage it at the earliest opportunity, and to extol its virtues. The science shows that despite our feelings about boredom, being bored is good and healthy! Perhaps it’s even a luxury and privilege.
The notion of discomfort is following a similar path as boredom, especially when talking about the discomfort of living and growing in a Church community. As natural as it is to humans to join together for whatever purpose, the prospect of worshipping together irks us. First, the idea that a private faith should be shared with others is bothersome. Other Christians can be too charismatic or too intellectual. There’s very rarely anyone who gets where we’re coming from. Then, there are the demands on our time and our money. We may have significant intellectual disagreements with the pastor or the church as a whole. We may have judged the Church and all its representatives to be worthy of condemnation. We may find the liturgy shallow, farcical, rote, cold, or any number of things that make us feel that the Mass were for someone else, but not us.
Despite this, parishes that make a strong effort to be welcoming and accommodative–complete with cafes in the gathering space, or parishes that exist expressly for the purpose of catering to a specific liturgical preference–may give the false impression that our comfort is more important than it actually is. Perhaps it is excusable, given how the future of the Church in the West looks particularly bleak. But in our haste to improve Church rolls, to make it “easier” or “more comfortable” to be Catholic, have we been too negative on “discomfort”? Is discomfort actually good for us?
As Francis wrote in Lumen Fidei, in faith “the Christian can see with the eyes of Jesus and share in his mind” (21). Essentially, the Christian journey is moving from the self-centeredness and egoism that marks a sinful life to the life of true peace and joy that is found in living by the light of God. But, as one can imagine, this process is painful. It is not painful in the sense that good things cause pain. Certainly not! But is painful in the sense that letting go of our old convictions can be painful. It can be hard to let go of something we believed was absolutely correct, only for our beliefs to be forcefully challenged and disproven. It can be painful, even as Jesus said (Luke 14:26): “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
But this experience of pain or discomfort is not limited to the big moments of our life, such as a sudden conversion experience. In fact, in our daily lives, it is required that the Spirit converts us progressively over a period of time, as we might be challenged to forgive when it feels better to carry a grudge, to give to charity when it feels better to save, to withhold a vote for a favored political candidate when it feels better to ignore what the Church teaches about abortion or immigration. As Pope Benedict wrote for a Wednesday audience, “Faith, in fact, is an encounter with God who speaks and works in history and converts our daily life, transforming within us mentalities, value judgements, decisions and practical actions.” To put this in a more practical frame, the Christian who is comfortable, who is not suffering in his or her daily life, is not practicing his faith to the fullest.
But there are so many ways now to shirk the discomfort that comes with being transformed in Christ. It is a well-documented phenomenon that social media enables connections with others in unprecedented ways. Instead of living with the discomfort of associating with those different from us, many seek the company of other like-minded people via social media and insulate themselves from those with different beliefs and worldviews. Over time, our social groups become more coherent, more extreme, and more militant about their core unifying positions. One of the worst aspects of these present debates about schism or “not-schism” is not the issues themselves, as dire as the situation may be. Rather, the worst part may be that ideologies and preconceptions practically preclude the participation of anyone who is accepting of his own ongoing discomfort about the relevant issues. Discomfort, which is necessary to healthy Christian faith, has become a luxury or even a privilege. On social media, one is more or less coerced by the power of social connection to belong to one side or the other. There is little room for one who may have ongoing questions or who is confused about all the arguments.
All is not completely lost. Those who trust in the Church and the Spirit have a rational basis to want to belong to the Church, even when they feel extreme discomfort with a statement, teaching, or liturgical practice. Those who value their faith, and who are practicing the virtue of faith, do not need to seek comfort through social media and the politics of division.
At the same time, accepting discomfort with the Church does not mean doing or saying nothing. What it means is that the best solution may not be a solution at all, but rather a new process or new way of doing things that can bring people together in seeking the fullness of charity and truth, in spite of their discomfort. There may never be a time when everyone will feel comfortable with the Pope or his teachings. The important thing is that we can be uncomfortable together as one Church, and in this way help each other to learn and grow. This is the essence of what Pope Francis means when he says “time is greater than space.” Francis writes, “This principle enables us to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results. It helps us patiently to endure difficult and adverse situations, or inevitable changes in our plans. It invites us to accept the tension between fullness and limitation, and to give a priority to time” (Evangelii Gaudium 223).
This isn’t “bothsidesism.” I’m not taking some unassailable middle position. Sadly, some dominant figures have taken the position that their comfort is more important than the Church, the unity of the Church, and the Pope himself. Effecting a schism (however its practitioners would frame it to feel comfortable about their participation in it), would be the prime example of putting one’s desire for comfort before truth and charity. Likewise, it is equally important to deepen one’s faith in the spirit of truth. Francis writes in Lumen Fidei, “Faith is necessarily ecclesial; it is professed from within the body of Christ as a concrete communion of believers. It is against this ecclesial backdrop that faith opens the individual Christian towards all others.”
We must also keep in mind that this is not unity just for unity’s sake, but the result of a true conversion to love and truth as revealed by Christ through faith. Benedict wrotes in Caritas in Veritate, “Truth opens and unites our minds in the lógos of love: this is the Christian proclamation and testimony of charity. In the present social and cultural context, where there is a widespread tendency to relativize truth, practising charity in truth helps people to understand that adhering to the values of Christianity is not merely useful but essential for building a good society and for true integral human development.”
What’s necessary today is to defend discomfort: to create the conditions where it might exist, to not seek to assuage it at the earliest opportunity, and to extol its virtues. What we will hopefully come to realize is that it is only in being together as a Church, in which grace is not given to each in an equal or similar way, that we can make each other uncomfortable. In fact, it is only through this discomfort and through suffering that our egoism and self-centeredness can be worn down and the fullness of grace be brought to light by the Holy Spirit.