It’s OK to Fall Asleep in Church

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

Maybe in the beginning it’s important, all the rules of religion. The rules establish a baseline and I needed a baseline for my morals. I thank my grade school as well as my high school education for providing me with such standards. In the same way that I graduated from both of those schools, I also graduated to a new way of thinking that would soon be supported by the Society of Jesus. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, and the professors of Saint Louis University educated with the idea that “the purpose of coursework is not to make a student think one way or another but to provide the framework from which they can make their own decisions.” That’s why classes on feminist theology, Christian metaphysics, and sex and gender are taught at Jesuit universities. With this attitude, Jesuit schools have changed the way young adults see religion.

Jesuit educators are more concerned with critical thinking skills and the ability to ask meaningful questions.  Without fear of fitting into a religious box, Jesuits want young adults to ask deeper questions. And if called, feel that they are invited to Catholicism as opposed to being commanded to fit inside that box. “While traditional religious affiliation is declining, an interest in spirituality among Millennials is not. Millennials are more likely to combine ideas from multiple religious traditions, adopting ideas from Christianity, Buddhism, Shamanism, and other schools of thought, for example.” Jesuit universities seem to have affected this trend because they encourage students “to ask questions of meaning and purpose, without the fear of appearing too religious.” These questions are often asked within the boundaries of not only classrooms, but also retreat programs.

Per the Jesuit education system, retreats were offered at least once a semester and I made it a priority to attend at least one a year. While the retreats are meant to provide a safe place to ask and reflect on questions of meaning and purpose, sometimes I felt like they were merely a chance to turn off my phone for a weekend and escape from the urban university. This being my third year of college and thus my third retreat, I felt like I was answering the same questions that I had spent the better part of my college career reflecting on. I had no mind-blowing revelation on that retreat. Overly exhausted from the lack of sleep prior, I found myself falling asleep a lot during small group discussions, which actually wasn’t a problem because like I said, I had already spent a significant amount of time reflecting on similar questions and I was able to contribute to the group while simultaneously still catching up on sleep. Before the last day I felt like the only thing I had gotten out of the retreat was a solid nap.

Exhaustion is a theme in my life and much like the times I fell asleep on that retreat, I occasionally fall asleep in church on Sundays. While the priest may have taken some offense with me falling asleep during his homily, I was perfectly ok with it. If I spend 40 minutes sleeping and only 20 minutes actually paying attention I could have a moment in those 20 minutes that means more to me than 60 minutes spent forcing myself awake. Sometimes mass is the only hour where life stops or even just slows down for a bit. You know when you’re trying to fall asleep and all of life’s deep questions suddenly seem like they have to be answered right now? Sometimes we need that hour of silence to explore the deeper questions that we’re encouraged to answer. Similar to a retreat, mass is not quite a weekend, but an hour away from the rest of the world.

On my junior year retreat I opened up about my difficulty in finding God in mass, but also about my ease in finding God in nature and opportunities. I had spent 4 months of the previous year studying abroad and maybe 4 Sundays in a church building. I saw more of God in nature and in the opportunities I had than I ever saw in a church building. So instead of finding God behind the stain glass windows of a church, I chose to find Him in my everyday life, which ranged from hiking in the Alps to sleeping in airports.

A character in my favorite book, The Sparrow, who also happens to be a Jesuit, was able to do the most mundane tasks, such as attending mass, with ease. The author writes, “Emilio could be so casual and funny that you forgot sometimes that he was a priest and it came as a surprise when you saw his face during the Mass, or watched him doing something ordinary extraordinarily well, in that Jesuit way of making everyday labor a form of prayer.” That’s the beauty in falling asleep during mass. To do something so mundane as sleeping, yet remain prayerful about it.

People were jealous of what I thought were my struggles. My friends also were amazed at how I could sleep through small group discussions yet still share something profound. To one of them, there was something special about the quiet person of the group, like my presence alone changed the attitude of the discussion, like my sleeping had been a form of prayer. So why isn’t my presence at mass enough? I made an effort to be there in that moment. So why can’t that moment be what I need it to be whether that’s sleep, prayer, or just time spent alone? I want church to be a refresher, not strictly a fulfillment of a religious obligation. I want mass to be what I need it to be in that moment.

My baseline morals from my Catholic grade school and high school education lie in my weekly attendance at mass. However, as a result of my collegiate Jesuit education, it has become more of a spiritual journey, sometimes stopping for a nap along the way.

It’s too easy to see God in His obvious form, sitting on the altar in a church building. But I like the search, the journey, the struggle. In the words of the same character from The Sparrow, “It’s that we hope to reach a point, spiritually, that makes the struggle meaningful.”


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