My car radio is usually tuned to my local Catholic radio station. On a normal work day I know when I get in the car what I can expect to hear. A nationally syndicated show in the morning on my drive to daycare and work and on the way home one of the local talk shows that discusses any number of Catholic and sports topics (yes, you read that right). Occasionally I have to leave work at lunchtime and when I get into my car the sound of the daily Mass at a local parish is what meets my ears.
Normally, I’m not a big fan of listening to Mass on the radio. Most of the time though I leave it on anyway and try to listen and get something out of the readings and the homily. Recently I left work early and when got in my car the mid-day Mass was just beginning. I almost turned the station but stopped instead as my ears listened carefully to the opening hymn being sung. I couldn’t help but notice that as each verse was sung the tempo got slower and slower. By the end of the hymn it was dreadfully slow compared to where it had started.
As a musician I can tell you exactly why this happened. And it is very common. I bet we’ve all experienced it at some point. I’ve experienced this phenomenon at churches, in processions, in parades and on the football field (think marching band), and in large groups of singers with no leader to keep the tempo. Sound actually travels pretty slowly. It’s why you see the lightning before you hear the thunder (unless the storm is right over you). Without a leader or some sort of tempo-keeper singers and musicians start listening to each other. Because sound travels slowly, things start to slow down.
Have you ever taken part in a Eucharistic procession on Corpus Christi Sunday? I remember taking part one time. We started singing in the church, everyone together, but of course as the procession heads out the door and starts its way around the block and down the street, you can start to hear the change. If you step out and listen, the people at the end of the procession will often be almost a whole verse off from those at the front.
Another time I was at a Mass at a church I was visiting while traveling away from home. It didn’t take long into Mass for me to recognize that despite the fact that there was an organ, the organist wasn’t leading the music. Each song and hymn done during Mass slowed in tempo very quickly. The organist was listening to the singers and the singers were listening to the organist. That’s just a recipe for disaster.
I thought of all this that day when I got in my car and listened to the people at Mass singing the entrance hymn over the radio. There was no piano or organ to lead everyone, no conductor or anyone to hold tempo. It’s a daily Mass at a small parish and it’s pretty typical in most places that there isn’t anyone to lead the singing at a daily Mass. So we get used to it.
But as I listened I couldn’t help but think of how this same principle can apply to our individual spiritual lives. I thought about my own sluggish spiritual life and how hard I find it at times. I want to continue to grow but I believe I listen too much to the world around me and have difficulties turning my focus to spiritual matters. I’m sure I’m not the only one. We live in a world that is very secular and at times we can feel that secular mindset creeping into our own lives.
It’s easy to not pray before a meal when you are out with co-workers or non-Christian friends. It draws attention to you, you’re the only one doing it. So sometimes it can just be easy to let it slip. “Just this once,” we tell ourselves. But then it happens again until, before we know it, we’ve created a habit. It’s just easier.
And we can’t talk about listening to our world and how it affects our spiritual lives without taking a look at our own families. Our families raised us and have a huge influence on us. When we make a decision that affects how we interact with our families it can cause stress in those relationships. Especially as it relates to our faith. For me using NFP was a point of concern for some members of my family. It could have been very easy for me to listen to those concerns and have it affect the decision my husband and I had made together. Luckily I did not or it could have seriously damaged my spiritual life. And I know there are other decisions I could make, based on my faith, that can be a struggle for my family to understand.
But what is truly better for us? Do we listen to the world around us and let it slow the progress of our spiritual lives just as a group of people singing together with no leader will progressively slow down in tempo? Or do we ignore the world and focus only on ourselves, our spiritual lives, and those of the souls entrusted to us? I don’t think we can realistically choose one over the other. But we have to balance them. I believe this is what it means to be in the world but not of the world.
We need to be out in the world, encountering people with different sets of beliefs, but we need to be strong in our own faith. We need to attend to our prayer lives and make sure we are always developing a relationship with Jesus. We need to understand our faith and be able to explain it to others whether they are asking us about or chastising us for our beliefs. But in all this we need to remember that while we are here in this world, we are not of the world. We are destined for a much greater place.
God has a home for us. We need to be careful that we don’t listen to the world around us too carefully but instead keep our attention focused on Christ. He is our conductor, our tempo-keeper, the One who will keep us on track if we find ourselves listening to others instead of focusing on Him. We must be vigilant and persevere, for “Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).
How does your spiritual life fall short sometimes from listening too much to the world around you?