What to do when it feels like I’m just going through the motions

| Father Michael Schmitz | October 11, 2018 | 0 Comments

Q. I try to pray. I try to participate in the Mass. But it always just feels so empty. It’s like I’m just going through the motions, and there is nothing there. Is this all there is, or is there something I can do?

A. Thank you for writing and asking about this. What you are describing is a common experience for many people in their prayer lives. But consider this: The experience you described is not limited to the experience of prayer. There are many elements of our lives that can feel like we are merely “going through the motions.”

karate

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A husband or wife could say that their relationship feels like they are going through the motions. An employee could show up for work day after day and notice that they are merely going through the motions. That fact doesn’t mean that they should abandon their marriage or quit their job, but it might indicate that something critical is missing — and that something needs to change.

Whenever I think of the phrase “going through the motions,” I am reminded of the movie “The Karate Kid.” If you remember the movie (the original or the remake), young Daniel was trained to learn karate by Mr. Miyagi. The beginning of the training was unusual. Mr. Miyagi made Daniel “wax on, wax off,” “paint the fence” and “sand the floor.” These seemingly meaningless tasks were unconsciously training Daniel’s muscle memory to be able to instinctively perform certain moves in martial arts. I remember thinking that this was the coolest idea ever, and my mom wondered why I kept asking if she had any chores for me to do after I had first watched the movie.

Now, while there is some truth in the phrase “practice makes perfect,” there is virtually no way that this training method would work in real life. First of all, it is human nature to allow one’s waxing or painting technique to slip a bit throughout the course of the day. Second, if this kind of training would ever work, the pupil would have to know why. They would have to know the reason they were sanding the deck in this particular way in order for that to make an impression at a deeper level. Simply going through the motions without knowing why, without knowing the goal, would not be enough.

The same is true for prayer. When we were just learning about the Mass, the person teaching us shared the basics. They showed us the motions. Stand here. Genuflect like this. Make the Sign of the Cross in this way. That is important, and learning “the moves” is going to be just as necessary as is learning how to sit at the piano and hold one’s hands over the keys when it comes to learning how to play the piano. But, just like learning the piano, understanding those basic moves and repeatedly practicing them is just the beginning. What comes next is actually doing those moves over and over again so that they become second nature to the point that you can then move on to the next level: playing the piano.

I apologize for shifting the image from martial arts to playing the piano like that, but I believe it is helpful to make the point. Once a movement becomes natural (even if uncomfortable and awkward at first), the person is then able to move forward to the actual point of knowing the movement.

In order for this to happen, the young martial artist (or piano player, or “pray-er”) will have to continually be reminded that the movement is not the end, it is merely the beginning, and that continuing to return to the movement is meant to help them engage in deeper and more meaningful ways. But we have to remember why we are going through the motions: to be able to enter more fully and freely into worship.

Because of this, the experience of going through the motions could be very helpful. It might highlight the fact that something needs to change. Consider this: If a married couple begins to become aware that they are simply going through the motions of being married, that is a good indicator that they should engage with their spouse in a different way. It doesn’t necessarily mean that something is wrong with the relationship, but it might reveal that either spouse or both of them need to be more intentional about how they approach the other.

There is a principle of the spiritual life: “We pray as we live because we live as we pray.” If we do not choose to live according to the Spirit of God, then we will not be able to pray in the Spirit of God. If my prayer at Mass feels empty, that might mean I am not allowing God to enter and direct my life outside of Mass.

Lastly, the experience of going through the motions is not always a bad thing. We will not always feel like doing our duty. But when we do our duty, regardless of how we feel, our love for God is purified, and we can then begin to love him for his own sake, and not for how loving him makes us feel. So we do our duty, even when it feels like going through the motions, out of love for God. As St. Josemaria Escriva said, “Put your heart aside. Duty comes first. But, when fulfilling your duty, put your heart into it. It helps.”

Father Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Reach him at fathermikeschmitz@gmail.com.

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