The Asbury Revival has been buzzing about the zeitgeist, getting attention even from the likes of Tucker Carlson as a Gen-Z spiritual phenomenon. And it deserves some Catholic attention as well as we all lean into Lent.
On February 8, after an “unremarkable” morning prayer service at Asbury University, a Christian Liberal Arts University in Wilmore, Kentucky, a group of students spontaneously remained in the chapel instead of going to class and kept singing and praying. They said that they were moved, even compelled, by a spiritual force.
Others joined them, and before long the scene took on an unusual character. Students filled the chapel. People waited in line to get in. Travelers came from afar once the word spread. Other prayer sites on campus were opened. Broadcasts, media coverage, and internet livestreams went viral as fifty thousand people flocked to Asbury to witness and participate in this round-the-clock service of hymns, testimonies, uplifted hands, and peaceful prayer to the Lord—in what many called an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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This revival went strong for thirteen days, and its ecumenical shockwave has been noteworthy, especially among Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists—and Catholics. It’s not hard to find reports from Catholics, laypeople and priests, who went to Asbury or who were struck with hope by it. And that’s fine and good—to an extent.
It is wonderful to see a moment of cultural Christian significance. It is encouraging to see such a demonstration of love for Jesus Christ, especially from TikTokking youths. While Catholics may rightly admire and be inspired by such moments as the Asbury Revival, it is important that they look beyond the moment as well—beyond the hurricane, earthquake, and fire to the breeze and the quiet lover’s dialogue with God.
What sets Catholics somewhat apart from the more emotional and high-flying expressions of Christianity is a faith that thrives in a kind of spiritual darkness, one that anticipates and survives the dark night of the soul. One that strives to win the blessedness—the happiness—of those who do not see and yet believe. This attitude or outlook of the Catholic tradition does not lend itself very well to exuberant, ecstatic, spirit-soaring services. After all, “a faith,” writes G.K. Chesterton, “is that which is able to survive a mood.”
As E.E. Cummings put it in his poem, feelings are first. Moving from modern poetry to pop culture, we can get “hooked on a feeling;” but in these days, the feeling is often the be-all-end-all. Feelings are good, but they aren’t foundational. They can serve as a beginning, however, or a framework. The Catechism states that emotions are neither good nor bad—but they can lead on to things either good or bad in the way they engage the reason and the will.
But man does not live on reason alone. We need poetry, song, mystery, and symbol. We need feelings to fill in the gaps of reason in a faith that addresses the whole person and is fulfilling. Catholicism is not stoicism. Feelings can serve as a pre-rational experience of truth, goodness, and beauty, but they cannot serve alone. They launch us out to a deeper, more meaningful, and more willful experience.
Naturally enough, there is an attraction connected to the zeal and vitality of what may be broadly called charismatic Christianity. And the experiences and fervor of those who participate in such forms of worship and prayer are not to be dismissed out of hand. But again, Catholics should regard the fervor of feelings as a doorway that leads to more tempered ground. As in marriage, for instance, the giddiness of young love makes way for the depth of seasoned love.
But in a society where religion is getting more and more of a back seat, or even becoming persona non grata, it is difficult not to be moved and even inspired by such overt displays of Christianity as we saw in Kentucky. But to be blunt, praise for worship is truly owed once the “praise and worship” wears off. We might experience a spiritual high in being slain by the Spirit, but the real test of feeling in faith is the spiritual low when we feel forsaken. That is the battleground upon which souls are saved.
And so, though feelings can be first, it is also important to be circumspect about them since they cannot define a faith. We all remember the splash Shia LaBeouf made in his interview with Bishop Barron. It was impressive in many ways, to be sure, but what struck me about it was how often he used the word “feel.” (And, yes, Mr. LaBeouf is not the most eloquent speaker, and he doesn’t need to be—in fact, his street-smart speech made much of what he was saying sound genuine.)
Putting aside my skepticism about a young and embattled Hollywood convert who is marketing a film where he plays Padre Pio, and who knows well, as do his agents and producers, that Mel Gibson’s Passion is still the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time—all that aside—I regard Mr. LaBeouf’s story as interesting and good, and let’s pray that over the years he moves beyond the realm of feelings to a faith rooted in understanding.
I don’t mean that in a superior way. The same can be said for me, for all of us, of course. I am simply wary of the stock that is placed in feelings when it comes to the Faith, and I believe all Catholics should be. Ultimately, a person’s faith should be regarded in how they weather the storms of sin and the conversions that make up every life of faith. Your beginning is only as good as your end, as they say. Let feelings be first, by all means, but abide the end, and call a faith “faith” once it has moved beyond the exciting realm of emotion.
The infectious joy of the Asbury Revival is, for all that, a good reminder to Catholics as we begin our long Lenten journey. Lent—for all its severe associations—is rooted in the brightness of springtime. The word “Lent” is etymologically related to the word “lengthen,” referring to the lengthening of days as the world shakes off wintry darkness and turns to the eastern, or Easter, sky. In spring, we enjoy a lengthening of days, increasing light, and an unveiling, or even remaking, of the world. A revival.
But Lent, of course, is a time of penance and self-examination, and it should be viewed as an awakening out of hibernation into the dawn of the world and the Word. Everyone is called to be made anew into the comprehension and participation of the creation and Resurrection—which is something to rejoice and be glad about. But that reality and the feelings it elicits only come with the grime and grit of the road.
As with anything that gives enjoyment—as opposed to mere pleasure—effort is required: a passage, a pilgrimage. Pilgrimages, though difficult, are merry. One of the reasons for this is the Chaucerian joke that pilgrimages point out the wide spectrum of humanity that makes up the Church: saints, sinners, and middle-of-the-roaders, all bumbling and stumbling their way toward the common goal, toward eternity. Like the pilgrims we all are, Lent calls for the asceticism of the Way and bids us, challenges us, to rejoice in it—to find happiness in holiness: on earth as it is in Heaven.
The teachings of Christ indicate that Lent must not be a time to elicit the praise of men for external mortification or exhibition. Lent is a time to earn the silent reward of God—and that reward does give joy. Though we are required to suffer through Lent, so, too, should we laugh through Lent to bear witness to the love of God. There is no such thing as a sad saint. It is in suffering that the human soul finds the deepest spring of contentment. The paradox of this cheerfulness, this happiness that is holiness, is nothing to hide.
God gives the gift of joy to share, and Lent is the time of all times to share, to give, and to make other people happy in both the levity and the gravity of faith. Though the Lenten journey is one that should be kept between the penitent and his God, this does not mean that the gladness that flows from reconciliation cannot shake the world like a revival meeting. Though you keep your left hand from knowing what your right hand is doing, do let your neighbor know that you are happy.
It would be wonderful if Catholics could claim the kind of joyful effect that has flowed from the Asbury Revival, and many are doing what they can and must to claim just that, even if it doesn’t make it on Tucker. But the whole point of the Catholic life and the Catholic Faith is the long game, not the flash in the pan. And this is the sooty essence of Lent: to happily renew faith out of the ashes and recover newness of life—to lengthen our days with light together with the days of our brothers and sisters unto eternal life.
[Image Credit: Asbury University website]