Adoration and Abramovic

Due to a convoluted sequence of events,  I spent about half an hour in an Adoration chapel last night.  For the non-Catholics, Eucharistic Adoration is the act of spending time in a chapel with a consecrated communion wafer, believed to be the real presence of Jesus Christ.  A friend had felt a calling that I should go, and since I could spare the time and didn’t want to be accused of being a bad sport, I went along.  (Not to keep you in suspense: I was not converted).

The time in the chapel reminded me of Marina Abramović’s recent show at MoMA.  Abramović is a performance artist who, among other stunts, sat in a MoMA atrium with a chair open for anyone who wanted to sit opposite her as part of her installation “The Artist is Present.”

I should mention that I have a really low tolerance for Abramović’s brand of performance art, which I find trite (oh, look, she put two naked people in a narrow doorway so you have to squeeze through them to enter the exhibit. How subversive!) or dangerous (she once stood in a room with an array of objects visitors were allowed to use on her.  Although some were innocuous like lipstick, one was a loaded gun).  When I visited the MoMA during her installation, I was there for the Tim Burton exhibit.

The premise of Adoration is better than Abramović’s piece.  In Adoration, at least there was an infinitesimal possibility of interaction (if I’m wrong about Catholicism), but at the MoMA the exhibit promised nothing but distance and alienation.  And it turns out, that was the experience I had in church, too.

A lot of the experiences that Catholics suggest to me (Adoration, prayer, etc) seem to be behind a firewall of faith.  It’s supposed to have discernible effects, but only if you’ve already bought a little way in.  I’m willing to keep trying some of these proposals, to make sure I’m covering my bases, but it seems like a lot of these are an effort in futility even if I’m wrong about atheism.

I’m willing to make an effort (not knowing the all the rosary prayers off hand, I said 50 Hail Mary’s and used my new ASL skills to keep count on my fingers), but the next time someone has an experiential idea for me to try, I’d like to hear a pitch as to why I might find it convincing or an admission that it’s the equivalent of standing outside on a hill to try to get lightening to strike.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://stmonicasbridge.wordpress.com Kristen @ St Monica’s Bridge

    At least you were a good sport and tried. I know many a Protestant who would say that made you a convert alone…

  • Quid est veritas

    I agree. You were a very good sport. Even those who believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament are not always very good at praying or meditating, so it can’t be expected that things behind a “firewall of faith” (nice phrasing, by the way) are discernable to you. Maybe if you brought a book to read, next time somebody suggests this…

  • Joe Fischer

    Distance and alienation can sometimes be an indication that you do desire some interaction with Christ during adoration and the fact that you are willing to concede that you might be wrong about Catholicism is a good sign. You are a good sport for sure. It might be a good idea to keep in mind that in an indirect way you are interacting and getting feed back from Christ in your everyday life. For instance your boyfriend and friends are acting as His voice to and for you. The rosary is an excellent prayer but the next time you go to adoration you might try some prayers form the heart. Prayers of thanksgiving for all the friends Christ has brought into your life through school, work and this blog. Adoration is about giving ourselves to Him not expecting some sort of extra-ordinary flash of grace for ourselves.
    Christ exposes himself in the Eucharist making Himself vulnerable to all sorts of sacrilege. At adoration we should be willing to make ourselves vulnerable in the sense that we are willing to admit that we are not products of our own efforts and our friends are not ours just by chance.

  • Ryan Ellis

    If you try it again, I would suggest not bringing prayers “to do” with you. While these are valuable, I have found that trying to be still and listen in the silence is better sometimes.

    This is not to be confused with Eastern mediation, which is something different. This is just finding some fucking peace and quiet with Our Lord.

  • http://penguinmusing.blogspot.com Sarah

    You are a very good sport; thanks for (yet again) being gracious and notably open-minded. (Don’t feel bad for not being forever altered by Adoration; it’s not always a life-changing experience for me, even though I really do buy into all this stuff. Why not? I don’t know; chalk up one more mystery, I guess.)

    tl;dr – You rock! Carry on. :)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thecrescat Katrina, The Crescat

    Yes, I concur. You were a good sport for giving it a go. Even for the most pious and seasoned Catholic adoration can seem at times like an exercise in futility. Adoration is not like Paul falling from the horse, neither is prayer. You rarely get an immediate response, it requires faith acquired over a period of time- a lifetime even. Prayer and adoration can be endlessly frustrating and if it hasn’t gotten an easier over the centuries for even the greatest of saints it certainly isn’t going to happen in a single hour. I suspect if you experienced distance and alienation is was because you lack faith. It’s just that simple; adoration requires faith. If you don’t believe in the Real Presence sitting in a broom closet would have the same effect.

    • Joe Fischer

      Katrina

      I disagree. If I am quietly sitting in a room by myself I don’t feel distance and alienation. However if I am in a room with another person and that person is just sitting there starring at me like in the performance art Leah sites then yes I would feel distance and alienation. I maybe reading to much in to the post but if Leah felt distance and alienation at adoration she may have gone in to it with at least a subconscious expectation that she would be interacting with another person. Most atheists would just complain of boredom at adoration but then again Leah is not most atheists. The fact that she felt anything other then boredom is a miracle.

  • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

    I find it endlessly frustrating when religious believers take the things they’re obviously subconsciously thinking themselves and package them as divine revelations, in a transparent attempt to lend more authority to their own opinions. Your friend’s “calling” that you should go to an adoration chapel was a good example of that. But you’re definitely a good sport, Leah; personally, I would not have played along. :)

    Of course, the Catholics in this thread are already giving the all-purpose excuse: if it didn’t work for you, it’s because you didn’t have enough faith. By such studious practice of counting the hits and forgetting the misses does religion insulate itself from anything like a definitive test. If you had come back claiming to be converted, I wager they would not have said, “But that’s impossible! You didn’t have any faith before you entered the chapel, and eucharistic adoration isn’t supposed to be some kind of magic trick. This conversion must not be genuine.”

    • Joe

      Adam

      Most atheists don’t feel distance and alienation from a eucharistic Jesus they don’t believe in. Leah reacted to the Eucharist the way any normal person would react to the performance art presented in the post. She, without realizing it, took the personal presence of Christ in the Eucharist for granted. When she didn’t feel what she expected would be a normal personal interaction she reacted with feelings of distance and alienation. How would you react to 30 min in Eucharistic adoration? My guess is that you would just be bored or at best appreciate some quite time. But for some mysterious reason Leah felt jilted. Imagine feeling jilted by a mere wafer of bread!! Perhaps in a small way adoration was beneficial for Leah. Perhaps she has more faith then she realizes?

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thecrescat The Crescat

        “But for some mysterious reason Leah felt jilted. Imagine feeling jilted by a mere wafer of bread!! Perhaps in a small way adoration was beneficial for Leah. Perhaps she has more faith then she realizes?”

        You do make a compelling point.

      • http://www.allourlives.org TooManyJens

        Another plausible explanation is that Leah felt alienated from the church, or from the friend who suggested adoration to her, or even from our (mostly God-believing) society. Just a thought.

      • http://whatloveteaches.blogspot.com/ Slow Learner

        I have felt distanced and alienated when surrounded by religious people during a service, because I am aware that they are having a completely different experience to mine while in the same space.
        Leah may feel differently, but that’s all it takes for me to get those feelings in a church. Much prefer to go around them as a tourist XD

  • http://technologeekery.blogspot.com Hendy

    Yes, good being a good sport. As a former Catholic, sometimes I felt very powerful things, other times not. Catholics are taught that the “value” of prayer is not in feelings, so you not feeling things will be of no great surprise even if you are Catholic.

    Prayer is taught to be about
    - Knowing god’s will that you may do it better
    - Expressing sorrow for sins and commitment to repent
    - Giving thanks
    - Intercession
    - Contemplation/reflection on scripture, an aspect of god, etc.

    Nothing in there really says anything about “feelings.” Typically, I will say that people think their prayer bore good fruit if they come out of it with some seemingly newfound zeal to improve themselves or some situation, what they take to be a revelation about their lives or god (how much he really loves them, how faithful he has been, where they have areas to grow, etc.).

    One thing I particularly like about being a deconvert is that I continue to have these experiences even though I don’t pray at all anymore. I still have “revelations,” things that are so exciting about how I can improve myself or how I can be a better husband/father that they get me giddy, and occurrences that just seem to crazy to be real. So… I don’t see much difference. I think reflective people who care about themselves, others, and the world are going to have these types of events and attribute them to different sources.

    • Robert

      “I still have “revelations,” things that are so exciting about how I can improve myself or how I can be a better husband/father that they get me giddy” Have you ever considered that God still might be sending you “actual grace” While you have rejected sanctifying grace? As an atheist have you ever considered that the pursuit of ultimately meaning less virtue was just plain bullshit pandering to the larger God fearing community around you? Maybe you still feel compelled to be a good husband and father because there is still some part of you that knows that God is watching you through the eyes of your wife and children? As a believer I think it’s kinda cool that God sent you someone you could identify with in your new atheistic faith community maybe through your friendship God can bring you back to reality.

      • http://www.allourlives.org TooManyJens

        “Maybe you still feel compelled to be a good husband and father because there is still some part of you that knows that God is watching you through the eyes of your wife and children? ”

        Speaking for myself, I don’t need any supernatural entities to be watching me through the eyes of my husband and child in order to want to be a good wife and mother, and I find it bizarre that anyone would presume so.

  • Rob

    I think you’re perfectly within your right to feel a little annoyed, and consider this exercise somewhat baffling to ask an atheist to do.

    I do want to say however, that you shouldn’t necessarily take your friend’s comment that she felt called to invite you to be wrong. Especially given the broad reach of your audience here, it’s entirely possible, even likely, that the purpose of you going wasn’t for you, but for someone else.

    Of course, this gets into the question of falsifiable hypotheses, or, in this case, the lack thereof. Unfortunately, I don’t really see a way out of this.

  • Gilbert

    I suppose your Christian friends are recommending what works for them when they doubt. It works for me too, but that’s because it’s a different kind of doubt. Even though I think Christianity makes more sense than any alternatives (and that part has never given me any serious trouble) I still sometimes have lots of trouble with the act of assenting. This is hard to describe to someone who doesn’t experience it, but it is basically a relational thing, perhaps a bit like doubting if your significant other loves you any more. This is my main experience of doubt and I think it is similar for many other Christians. It is also the source of many misunderstandings between Christians and formerly Christian converts to atheism: We have a common word (“doubt”) and think we therefore understand each others experience when we actually don’t. In particular giving in to the kind of doubt I’m talking about would be a (somewhat insincere) choice, while being overwhelmed by what the convert atheists experienced often isn’t. Anyway going all in on prayer is a fairly good cure for what I’m talking about but not for problems intellectual at the root. Of course many a non-intellectual problem can dress itself up with some flimsy argument one wouldn’t otherwise take serious, so the distinction is not that clear-cut in practice.

    Now as for your situation:
    Play-acting communication with someone you are convinced doesn’t exist is probably counter-productive. It is pretty much by definition insincere, and that is not what you would want to base your relationship to god on even if you thought he existed. So for your situation I’ll add another suggestion to the frustratingly large pile of ideas: Conditional prayer. By that I mean words or thoughts to the effect of “Well God, if you exist, which I don’t believe, then I want to be with you, so please help me along with my investigation.” That won’t just suddenly convert you. But it has two advantages: If God is real it is, unlike the experimental play-acting, an actual prayer and perhaps the only one an atheist is sincerely capable of. And it does establish you in a position ready to start on the relationship if the intellectual problems are ever resolved. That may be a long time away, so there is a “waiting for lightening” aspect. But on the other hand the investment is far less than waiting on a mountain. If you decided to silently do it, say, at the consecration in the masses you are already attending the additional time-investment would be literally zero.

  • Charles

    Seems to me this discussion has raised two questions:

    1) How does Leah feel by the interpretation of her feelings put forth by the faithful commenters? Was ‘alienation’ the why they are interpreting it how she intended it? (I suspect not).

    2) If you cannot compel faith and you are supposed to follow your conscience how do Catholics rectify this? Are you supposed to go to Mass every week, and go to confession and confess lack of belief? Whats the going penance for “bless me father for I have sinned, I don’t believe in supernatural phenomena.”? If you ‘do’ all the things a Catholic is supposed to do: Mass, Confession, etc… but inside simply don’t “believe” can you still go to communion?

    A lot of the talk from the religious side of this discussion per-supposes belief, or that you are on a path with non-belief at one end and belief at the other, and you are constantly moving. So they give you ways to grow your faith and say ‘worry about X when you get there’ or assume that you’ll fall away eventually. Do they have a place for someone who sincerely seeks but just doesn’t get there. I have no reason to believe that Leah is dishonest, she seems to investigate all the aspects of Catholicism with the open mind of someone willing to believe if for some reason she started to. If this is the case what more can the church ask of someone like that? Is there a place for that?

    • Joe

      Charles

      I would say yes there is a place for people like Leah. God loves all people but I think he really wants to bless the honest seeker. In fact I believe he has blessed Leah with good friends, family and a love of virtue. I find it difficult to understand why it is hard for her and other honest seekers to find faith. To me it just seems a matter of the will. If a person can recognize the reality of immaterial things like virtue and longing and gratitude I don’t understand how the recognition of God can be so far away. To me unbelief seems more difficult to arrive at then belief. When something fantastic happens its seems counter intuitive to just chalk it up to random chance.

  • http://www.allourlives.org TooManyJens

    “I find it difficult to understand why it is hard for her and other honest seekers to find faith. To me it just seems a matter of the will.”

    And to me that is a completely foreign concept. I can’t just decide to believe something.

    “If a person can recognize the reality of immaterial things like virtue and longing and gratitude I don’t understand how the recognition of God can be so far away.”

    You’re talking about two completely different things. Concepts like “virtue” and “gratitude” aren’t things, they’re descriptions. “Virtue” is basically pro-social behavior, and there’s certainly a tangible reality we refer to when we talk about behavior and the effects it has on people and society. “Gratitude” and “longing” are descriptions of mental states — they’re words we’ve come up with so that we can communicate what’s in our head to other people, at least approximately.

    When most religious believers are talking about God, they are talking about an actual personal being, not just a description of a spiritual state of mind (though there are exceptions). If they are talking about an existing being, then it follows that there should be evidence for or against the existence of that being. We find the evidence we have been offered lacking.

    • http://www.allourlives.org TooManyJens

      Darn it. Of course I intended that to be a reply to Joe’s comment.

  • Andy

    Do you go to Islamic services? How many other religious rights have you tried? Maybe you were a good sport to your catholic friends but even if you did feel something, who’s to say you wouldn’t feel something at another religious event?

    Furthermore how many Catholics would honestly participate in an Atheist experiment? Go a month without praying, do some sinning that doesn’t harm others (masturbation comes to mind, or maybe desecrate a host) and completely accept that you’ve done nothing wrong. See if your life is objectively different, or you still look at “god’s guidance” the same way.

    I doubt most devout Catholics could even participate if they wanted to. Say what you will about stereotypes, but Catholicism instill guilt in just the right ways. Would a devout Catholic even be able to see such “sins” the same way as a non believer? It would probably take more then a month and if they believe the consequence is hell, it may be impossible.

    • Tom B

      Desecrating a Host is not harmless, would you suggest that trampling on going into a mosque and urinating on a Koran is harmless? Doesn’t some respect for the sensibilities and feelings of others have a place in a pluralistic society? As for masturbating, frankly most Christians do that already.

      • Andy

        Thank you for proving me right.

        • sszorin

          So when will you upload the video of you urinating on Koran ? We have been waiting long time to see you affirming your atheism. I hope you are not ashamed of it.

  • http://scrutinies.net Dorian Speed

    I’m terrible at Adoration, because I usually haven’t gotten enough sleep beforehand and am therefore trying to avoid nodding off. A deeply authentic experience if not necessarily a pious one.

    At the same time, I like it that – as Hendy mentioned – for Catholics, prayer isn’t about summoning up a hoped-for emotional response to a given stimulus. I think I’d be more suspicious of Mass, Adoration, Confession, etc., if every. single. time. I came out of it weeping, changed, euphoric. Well – maybe it was just the going through the motions that got me to feel those things, then. This is not to say that I don’t ever feel that way, but I don’t go in with a certain expectation as to how I’ll feel as a result.

    (In hindsight, this comment may be the absolute worst attempt at faith-sharing of all time.)

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