From my own studies, it has been obvious to me that the Mass has always been a source of inspiration. In truth, it has always been a veritable fountain of inspiration! As such, countless people in the past were never satisfied to simply attend Mass once a week and then go home. Due to their experience with the Mass, they wrestled instead with the following questions. What does the Mass truly mean? What does the meaning of the Mass, as it has unveiled to me, indeed inspire me to do? This is how our ancestors answered this question for themselves.
They would go on pilgrimages to Sacred Shrines, often on foot. Such pilgrimages inspired the writing of “The Canterbury Tales.” Of course some would have a horse. They would travel throughout Europe and the Middle East. A few would go farther yet. Some would go to the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East, finding caves to live in and meditate. Some of these same people would start Religious Orders, where they could live simply and live each moment in the service of God as dictated by the needs of the monastery.
Some, finding the very beginning of Religious Orders insufficient to satisfy their yearnings, would start hospitals and schools as well. Some, finding the simple starting of hospitals inadequate, would decide to live with people with incurable diseases, like leprosy, and care for these people in a way that others could either not do, or weren’t willing to do. Some would catch the disease themselves. They always knew that this could happen, but they were OK with it, seeing whatever happened to them to be the Will of God.
Many would find inadequate even the idea of living with incurable people with various contagious diseases, and would add on various acts of penance. They would wear hair shirts. They would scourge themselves.
They would fast for long periods of time. They would pray long and deeply.
Some would choose instead of the above the practice of meditation for hours each day, as did the monks of Mt. Athos.
Some would just pray for long hours each day, as did St. Sharbel Makhluf, who would spend hours asking God for the grace to celebrate Mass worthily then celebrate Mass for at least two to three hours. He would then spend the rest of the day thanking God for having had the graces to do so.
Some would develop devotional prayer forms. The creche at Christmas was developed, as well as the Stations of the Cross. Scapulars were developed, the rosary was formulated, benediction was started and devotional songs were written. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote many songs, honoring the Eucharist and the Blessed Mother.
In my own time, fasts would last all night. Short segments of prayer were taught to be mentally said throughout the day. One did not eat meat on Friday. One would kneel, not sit, for an hour before the exposed Blessed Sacrament. Some, regardless of age, would crawl up thirty or more stone stairs of a Church.
Throughout the centuries, all of our ancestors, being just like us, would be inspired to do more. They had searching questions. Nobody ever lived simply for this world with its mixtures of pleasure and pain. They wanted more. It was not an option to just give up the search for deeper meaning in life, or to not care anymore.
They embraced life by the very depth of their search. Yes, some would regret this or that choice as a way of going deeper, reviewing some method as unnecessarily harsh or simply inconsistent with actual Catholic teachings, but nobody ever regretted the search itself to go deeper.
Quite naturally, it is very true that people respond with methods and answers in accord with their culture along with the times they lived in. As twenty first century people, we share our ancestor’s hunger for deeper meaning in life. I imagine that history waits to see how we, ourselves, respond. What answers do we give?
Blessings! Fr. Walt