Several years ago, in church, I witnessed this incident: A young boy, perhaps six or seven years old, was growing restless and fidgety. Finally in a voice loud enough to be heard by those around him, he said to his mother: “I’m bored!” His mother, with a chiding little jerk to his arm, said sharply: “Michael, you’re not bored!”
Her response reminded me of what we hear, in essence, from many a liturgist, theologian, spiritual writer, teacher, or well-meaning parent at the dinner table. Reacting to the less-than-full-enthusiasm that he or she wants, the comment, spoken or unspoken, invariably is: “You’re not bored! To be bored in this situation is wrong! You’re supposed to be enthused and have your whole heart in this.”
It’s taken me a long time to not be intimidated or bullied by that false expectation. For a long time, I felt guilty, precisely, about being bored in church, about sneaking an occasional glance at my watch during prayer, about thinking about my stomach and its hungers during a church service, about being distracted or falling asleep when trying to pray, about sometimes enjoying more the festive things around feasts like Christmas and Easter than the liturgical celebrations, about more- naturally gravitating towards this world and its pleasures than towards God and the other world, and about feeling less-than-fully enthusiastic sometimes for what should be the centre of my life, God, liturgy, prayer, service, fellowship in family and community.
Daniel Berrigan once said: “Don’t travel with anyone who expects you to be interesting all the time!” That’s also true here: Don’t listen to any liturgist, theologian, spiritual writer, teacher, community guru, or anyone else who expects you to be excited all the time. We get bored, get down, fidget, feel listless, and long for the distractions and pleasures of this life even when at church and it’s healthy to be given permission not to feel guilty about it.
We are, after all, human beings, not angels. What’s needed to give us guidance for the spiritual journey is precisely anthropology, not angelology or some over-idealized, overly-spiritualized, or overly- romantic notion of humanity. Unlike angels or overly-idealized human beings we, real flesh and blood critters, get tired, get sick, get bored, get wounded, get over-anxious, fill regularly with sexual tension, and have to worry about our figure and our weight (not to mention debts and car payments). Unlike the angels, we have been asked to move towards God and each other in time and history and through a physical body and a soul that naturally and powerfully gravitate towards security, self- absorption, pleasure, personal achievement, and excitement.
I say this not as an excuse for mediocrity or lack of effort, but, as a protest for humanity so that we stop feeling guilty for being the way God made us. Simply put, given our God-given constitution, we will at times be bored in church and pretty restless elsewhere and this doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with us.
John Shea once said: “Nobody does Jesus real well!” He’s right, though we’re asked to try. But, in that effort, perfection can be the enemy of the good and an overly-idealized notion of how we should feel can discourage us because it can give us the idea that our innate humanity is itself delinquent: “I shouldn’t be feeling this way!” We need a liturgy, spirituality, theology, ecclesiology, and psychology of family and community, that take into account precisely the fact that we do get tired and bored, that we are physical, bodily, sexual, wounded, pathologically restless, naturally paranoid, and incurably proud creatures who suffer obsessive heartaches and have mortgages to pay and deadlines to meet, all within a limited framework of time and energy. We need to be given permission to be human, to feel what is in fact going on inside us.
God didn’t make a mistake in making us. God didn’t make us physical, insert us into a physical universe, and then tell us that the physical is a hindrance to the spiritual. Likewise, God didn’t fill us with powerful, creative energies (energies that precisely often leave us bored in church and restless at the dinner table) and then tell us that it’s wrong to feel so fiercely restless, sexual, ambitious, and distracted. God didn’t make us incurably social, tell us it’s not good to be alone, and then express disappointment because we would sooner be with our friends than alone in prayer. God didn’t make us with deep physical hungers and then tell us that the enjoyment of earthily pleasure is somehow wrong. God didn’t make us insatiably curious and then demand that we blunt our enthusiasm for knowledge and entertainment. God didn’t give us humour and lightness of spirit and then announce that heaven is going to be drab, grey, and heavy.
God does not make mistakes, though we do, and one of these is that we too quickly feel guilty if we’re bored in church.