Stand, pray, kneel, sit. I’m a master of the motions. I can do everything expected of me without even thinking about it. A couple changes in position, a couple mumbled songs, and Mass is over. In high school, after biking to school every morning for months, I used to arrive with little to no memory of the turns and stops I made to get there.
Too often, my Mass experience is like this. Muscle memory. Stand, pray, kneel, sit.
Filing into a West Virginia Presbyterian church with seven classmates, it didn’t take long to realize the habitual tendencies that I struggle with during Sunday Mass would not be a problem at this place.
Not only did I not know any of the people and rituals of this church, but the full band on stage in the front made losing focus impossible.
Based on everything I had learned about the Appalachian region, I would have guessed the rough environment would weaken the relationship between its inhabitants and God. But rather than seeing God as the storm that knocked them off the boat, they see God as the raft that keeps them afloat.
At the service, they closed their eyes and put their entire soul into every song, and the pastor preached of overcoming struggle with a fire and a passion that I’ve rarely heard.
This strong culture of faith in an area so permeated by poverty, violence and drug abuse was astounding to me, but at the same time it made so much sense. For years I have listened to the Gospels and heard Jesus say over and over that those who are poor and have nothing are blessed among all others, but for the first time I was seeing it.
I felt like the other side of the spectrum, the one to whom these “blessed” are compared. I felt like the bad guy.
My service trip to Appalachia felt less like fixing a problem somewhere else and more like the revelation of a problem of my own.
How spoiled am I to have so few difficulties that I can just coast along, giving my faith a marginal role in my life? How spoiled am I that my biggest stress is my next exam, an exam that is allowing me to learn at one of the best schools in the nation?
Stapling insulation and installing roofing doesn’t even approach the responsibility that my peers and I have to make use of what we’ve been given.
Complacency is a quiet evil, and it’s one that I forget is there unless I remind myself of its presence.
The people of Appalachia helped give me some perspective of how much I take for granted. Like moving from one action to the next in Mass, it is easy to move from one day to the next, never taking action and embracing what’s happening in the present.
One of my biggest fears is that I’ll look back on my life and think that I just let it blur without enjoying it as it happened or doing anything of significance.
I want to stop simply “going through the motions,” during Mass or elsewhere. If I can approach adversity with half the active faith and joy of my West Virginia friends, I’ll consider it a success.
(Jacob, the eldest of the four Scobey-Polacheck children, is a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame.)