Monday, March 20, 2017

The Morality of Nurse Jackie

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Sometimes as I jump rope – an exercise I’ve done most days for at least 35 years - I watch episodes of the series, “Nurse Jackie,” on Netflix. The show stars Edie Falco in the title character, Jackie Peyton, an emergency-room nurse at the fictitious All Saints' Hospital in New York City. It suites my purposes because the episodes last about the same amount of time as my exercises.

I have mixed feelings about the show, however. I like the fact that it’s a medical show whose main character is a nurse, not a doctor. And there isn’t a nurse alive who's more compassionate toward her patients, and sometimes fellow employees, than Jackie Peyton.

But she’s a drug addict, and watching her get through her days at the hospital or at home, and with her husband and daughters, boyfriends, drug suppliers and drug counselors, is like watching a plane tumbling out of the sky on its way to a horrific crash.

Only Redeeming Quality?

She engages in continual lying and minor theft, and is unfaithful to her husband, and her boyfriend after her divorce. And she neglects her children, with dire results. Indeed, her compassion appears to be her only redeeming quality.

If she were a real person, not just a character in a TV series, I wouldn’t judge her. And I would always hesitate to judge somebody who suffers from such an affliction, which at the least reduces her culpability. As Pope Francis has said, “Who am I to judge?” But her character is a useful model for discussing the moral compass of contemporary America because such shows, in my opinion, both reflect the mores of society and help form them. 

In showing such compassion for others, Jackie – as Jesus might say – may not be far from the kingdom of God because in the moral economy of Christianity, love trumps all. But it doesn’t replace all.

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The hospital itself, All Saints, is emblematic of our secular age. It’s a former Catholic hospital, once served by dozens of nuns who were doctors, nurses and administrators, that has been sold to a corporation. The chapel is now a place for employees, and presumably patients and visitors, to have quiet chats or quiet time. It’s not a place of worship, and there’s no evidence of anything religious happening there or anywhere else in the hospital.

And Jackie’s brand of morality is fairly common in contemporary society, which, in my opinion, has moral blind spots. One blind spot is lying, and in this category, the view of the show’s characters and common public opinion is that the end justifies the means. If it’s for a “good” cause – such as saving embarrassment, hassle, conflict – it’s OK.

A second blind spot is sexuality. Virtually all the characters on the show engage in casual sexual activity, reflecting what I believe to be current societal values. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, and in my opinion, casual sex is incompatible with the search for God.

Some readers will brand me, and anyone who suggests re-thinking our current views of sexuality, a prude. Others will smell hypocrisy, but just to be clear, this isn’t a judgment of people who engage in casual sex. That’s between them and God. I’m suggesting that as a society we’re going down the wrong path in our sexual practices and that rethinking that path appears to be off-limits to people who otherwise have pretty well-tuned moral antennae.

Another blind spot in our moral vision – though happily not as widespread as the first two – is the need for moral formation of our children. Jackie obviously fails in this department and with serious consequences. But teaching children to do the right thing, not just by word but by how we live, is among the most important functions of parenting.

What does all this “moralizing” have to do with the search for God?

Doing and Not Doing 

The search for God is not just about believing, about faith struggles, but about “doing” and “not-doing.” It involves the attempt to establish a relationship with God, meaning that we who are searching should continually strive to be more Godlike, leaving behind past practices if necessary.

This is evident in both the Christian and Jewish traditions, and Jesus covers both in Mathew’s gospel when he urges his followers to take God’s law seriously. In the Message translation:

“Trivialize even the smallest item in God’s law and you will only have trivialized yourself,” he says. “But take it seriously, show the way for others, and you will find honor in the kingdom. Unless you do far better in the matters of right living, you won’t know the first thing about entering the kingdom.”

In another sign of our age, Nurse Jackie wears a medal of Mary on her neck and for a time sends her children to a parochial school, indicating that she was probably at one time a Catholic. One of the few times she refers to religion on the show is in a prayer that so many who can’t bring themselves to commit to God have uttered: “God, make me good, but not yet.”  


Thursday, March 16, 2017

Lent: Does Voluntary Suffering Make Sense?

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I wrote in a previous blog about my visit as a young man to London’s famous Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. Anyone can get on a soapbox there and talk about any subject. Sometimes the speakers draw crowds.

The day I visited back in the 1960s, a man was spewing hatred of Christians, specifically Catholics. He particularly detested the crucifix, saying that Christians wallowed in the gore and reveled in its cruelty. He had drawn an enthusiastic crowd of about 30 people who largely seemed to agree with him.

I’m sure many people share his confusion, if not his hostility, about the cross, and about Christians’ attitude toward suffering in general. Personally, I don’t believe in a God who wants us to suffer because it doesn’t square with the idea of God as a loving parent, the traditional view of the God of Christians and Jews. The last thing parents want is for their children to suffer, and God is no exception.

An Instrument of Torturous Death

As for the cross and suffering, people searching for God should understand that there’s nothing holy or uplifting about the cross itself. It was an instrument of torturous death, a cruel device commonly used for executions at the time of Jesus. So the speaker in Hyde Park was on the mark in his horror of the cross.

But he missed the point, of course. Christians honor the cross or crucifix not because it’s worthy of praise as an instrument of death, but because it’s a symbol of Jesus’ sacrificial death, which Christians view as salvific. In other words, his suffering and death had a purpose.

The self-imposed deprivations of Lent, which is now more than halfway over, also have a purpose. 

Like the cross, there’s nothing good in itself about depriving yourself of what you want, as in fasting, or in giving away your stuff, as in almsgiving.

But let’s face it. Many of us who are searching for God have never known real suffering, hardship or deprivation. For us, it’s easy to be smug about our lives, to be apathetic and feckless. Leading a Godlike life isn’t easy. It requires a certain amount of moral strength and courage.

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My daughter, Maureen, has been training for a marathon these last few weeks. She’s a regular runner and has run in half marathons, which cover half of the 26 mile run that comprises a marathon but has never run the full 26 miles. The training, she says, has been exhausting, resulting in exhaustion and aches and pains, but she wouldn’t dream of doing a marathon without such practice.

Lent, and its traditional practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, is spiritual training for the marathon of life.

A recent article in America magazine quotes spiritual writer and Benedictine nun Joan Chittister, writing about the Lenten advice of St. Benedict, the sixth century inventor of western monasticism. It's for those of us who don’t live in monasteries.

“Lent is the time for trimming the soul and scraping the sludge off a life turned slipshod,” Chittister writes. “Lent is about taking stock of time, even religious time. Lent is about exercising the control that enables us to say no to ourselves so that when life turns hard of its own accord we have the stamina to say yes to its twists and turns with faith and with hope.... Lent is the time to make new efforts to be what we say we want to be.”

Better To "Be Better"

In the last few years, there has been more emphasis on Lenten practices that reform our lives rather than self-deprivation. In other words, better to “be better” than to “give up” something for Lent. Pope Francis recently had something to say on this subject, making reference to the Jewish tradition of “rending garments” to show grief, including the grief of “failing” God.

“It is not the time to rend our garments before the evil all around us, but instead to make room for all the good we are able to do,” he said. “It is a time to set aside everything that isolates us, encloses us and paralyzes us.”

People searching for God should embrace Lent, including striving to “be better” as well as the traditional practices of self-deprivation. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Why Doesn’t God Answer Prayers?  

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One Sunday night when I was a priest in Bolivia, a man pounded on my door and asked for help. He was a “marinero,” a member of a crew of one of the small boats that went back and forth between Bolivia and Peru on Lake Titicaca, reportedly carrying contraband.

One of his fellow crew members was deathly sick, he said. The sick man was still in the boat, which was on the shore about a 45 minute Jeep drive away. The man at the door had walked that distance, meaning the sick man had already had a considerable wait. Could I please pick up the man and get him medical care?

They possibly knew that our parish had two nuns who were nurses and that we had a clinic. Or he could have learned that I was one of the few people in the area who had a car. At any rate, how could I refuse?

Writhing in Pain

We brought the sick man to the parish’s examination room. He was writhing in pain, had abdominal swelling and an extremely high temperature. One of the nuns determined that he had a blocked intestine and that he would die without treatment. We decided to take him to the hospital in La Paz, a two-hour drive over rough roads. He died shortly after we reached the hospital.

I recall that this happened on a Sunday night because the Gospel of Mathew from that morning’s liturgy was fresh in my mind. It included the famous passage, “Ask and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”

Standing over the man on the table in our examination room, I was determined to test that pledge. Was Jesus serious, or was this just another nice-sounding promise? If I asked and didn’t receive, was it because I lacked faith? No such condition is mentioned in the gospel passage. And how much faith do you need? And how could a just God determine the fate of this man based on a test of my faith?

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Despite these doubts, I prayed earnestly and sincerely for the man’s life. I was sorely disappointed when he died.

Many people have had similar experiences. They pray, and apparently nothing happens. We are answered with silence. We may wonder why but usually just shrug our shoulders and move on.

I believe the first answer to this question, “why God doesn’t answer our prayers,” has to be, “We don’t know.” The gospels were written at least 50 years after Jesus’ death and are no doubt missing a lot of what he said and did and some parts are more accurate than others. Did Jesus further explain the “asking and receiving” passage? Maybe.

Christians aim to follow the gospels, but from modern biblical studies, we know that we have to be discriminate. Some verses are undoubtedly meant to be taken literally; others not. It depends on the context, the intent and many other factors that Scripture scholars study. One of the traditional functions of the church is to help determine the meanings.

Common answers to the question are that God answers all prayers, but not necessarily in the way we may expect. Or, he/she simply says “no,” which appears to contradict Jesus’ words on the subject. An answer that makes the most sense to me is in the context of a parent analogy.

Wanted Everything

As young parents, I recall taking our children to an amusement park several times. Like most kids, they wanted everything – cotton candy, hot dogs, candy bars, ice cream, soft drinks. We generally bought one thing to eat and another to drink and that was it. When they didn’t get other stuff, they sometimes became angry, cried or pouted – for about two minutes. Then they forgot about it until they saw the next thing they wanted.

We finally figured out that the best approach was to lower their expectations before going to the amusement park. We said something like, “You’ll get one thing to eat and another to drink.” That solved the problem.

It’s evident that children often don’t know what’s good for them, or even what they want. And that doesn’t apply just to children. That’s why I like the analogy with God and prayer.

Looking back on the scene in the examining room in Bolivia, I must admit that I really didn’t know what was best for the sick man. Endowed with the instinct for self-preservation, we always assume that death is the worst thing that can happen. If all that we know about God from religious tradition is accurate, however, that’s not how God sees things.

And he/she is the parent.


Thursday, March 2, 2017

How Could God Possibly Love Us?

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I recently began re-reading the famous novel, “The Exorcist” by William Blatty. The movie of the same name, made in 1973, is considered by many to be a classic, starting a whole genre of “supernatural” horror films. The book, unlike many contemporary novels, is in my opinion actual literature.

I recall that back at Iowa State University, I saw the movie with a group of my fellow graduate students, some of whom had no interest in religion, others who were skeptical, if not cynical, about the existence of the spiritual. Because I had been a priest, I was deluged after the movie with questions and comments.

The movie, though about beings believed to be the personification of evil, seemed to spark interest in the spiritual – a subject that had been ignored, forgotten or a matter of contempt for some of them. It was the awakening of a part of them that had been asleep for some time. 

Some of them, no doubt, had been religious as children but “outgrew” it. As for many people today, religion became irrelevant, having no practical value, seeming to offer nothing but outdated doctrine that is no help in day-to-day living.

A Way of Seeing
In several recent blogs, I’ve quoted Rabbi Harold Kushner, who became famous for his book, “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.” He has written elsewhere that many of us, religious and non-religious people, are confused about what constitutes spirituality and religion. Religion, he writes, is not primarily a set of beliefs but a way of seeing.

“It can’t change the facts about the world we live in, but it can change the way we see those facts,” he says.

It seems so hard for us to “see” these days. We have to do so through a fog of skepticism, consumerism, secularism and anxiety. It’s hard to focus on the spiritual, let alone the religious. This is true, I believe, even though our “true selves” are meant for God and each other.

So what can a person searching for God learn from a 40-year-old novel like The Exorcist?

According to the story, the exorcism – by two Jesuit priests, one a psychiatrist who taught at Georgetown University, the other a celebrated anthropologist – was reluctantly performed as a last resort. Nothing had worked to stop the girl’s rantings and ravings and the apparent presence of a malevolent personality within her.

In a conversation before the ritual, one of the priests speculates that the target of demonic possession is not the person possessed but the people who observe or learn about the possession. “And I think the point is to make us despair; to reject our own humanity …to see ourselves as ultimately bestial, vile and putrescent; without dignity; ugly; unworthy.

William Blatty
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“And there lies the heart of it, perhaps: in unworthiness. For I think belief in God is not a matter of reason at all; I think it finally is a matter of love: of accepting the possibility that God could ever love us.”

Indeed. If skeptics get past all the other objections to belief in God, how can we believe that a being whose presence stretches from here to beyond the ends of the universe, who is ultimately responsible for all that exists, who has no beginning or end, could possibly care for the billions of us who are specks on an obscure planet? It’s hard enough to believe there may be a “higher power” responsible for the existence of the universe let alone to believe that power has any interest in us, who are often fickle, weak, dishonest, distrustful and destructive.

It boggles the mind. Do I dare believe it’s possible? And for us skeptics, perhaps the most important question is, “What evidence is there to support it?”

It depends, of course, on what you mean by “evidence.” If you’re looking for scientific evidence, forget it. But science has no monopoly on the truth, which also comes packaged in music, literature, art, and the history of humanity. And all through history, among almost all people, God appears to have revealed glimpses of him/herself.

The writer of the Book of Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible – who lived over 700 years before Jesus – was already eloquent on the subject of God’s love for us. He lamented that God’s people thought God had abandoned them. He compared God’s love with the most intimate of human love, placing these words in God’s mouth:

"Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
And have no compassion for the child she has borne?
Though she may forget, I will not forget you!”

Ultimately, in the book and movie, the exorcists drive out the demon. But it requires Isaiah-type fortitude, near-heroic effort and lots of trust in God’s love.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

“Alternative Facts” and the Search for God

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My wife, Amparo, answered the phone and a pleasant female voice said, “Hi. Since you’ve stayed in our resort, I want to let you know that….” Amparo hung up.

It was, of course, a telephone solicitor.

I imagine that in training telephone solicitors, instructors teach them how to put the customer at ease with an informal, friendly greeting, trying to establish rapport; then, by saying that you’ve stayed in their resort, establishing familiarity.

And while you’re trying to remember what resort you’ve stayed in, “the voice” is proceeding to a sales pitch. Even if you don’t buy, she’s at least managed to keep you on the line longer than you would if you realized from the outset that it was a solicitation.

A Form of Lying
Why do we find telephone solicitation distasteful? Because the use of deception is a form of lying. But it’s one to which we’ve become all too accustomed in politics, advertising and sales and many other aspects of daily life. “Drive the all-new Honda CR-V…..” Does it still have a steering wheel? Tires? Windows? Then it’s not “all new.”

We’ve become so accustomed to this kind of “exaggeration” we don’t even recognize it as such. And this brings me to the idea of “alternative facts” and the importance of honesty in the search for God.

First, a disclaimer. This blog is not about politics. The term “alternative facts” has become a matter of public debate in a political context, leading to my thoughts about honesty and truthfulness. But those are important qualities for people of any or no political parties.

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In his book, “Who Needs God?” which I’ve recently quoted extensively, Rabbi Harold Kushner quotes Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who said, “In telling a lie, the spirit commits treason against itself.”

An awful lot of self-treason is being committed today, it seems. There may be nothing new about widespread lying, but its extent should be no reason for people searching for God to accept it. We distort and exaggerate, often justifying it by expecting it from others. And we lie to ourselves maybe even more than to each other.

If there is more lying nowadays, it may have its foundation in philosophy – which, believe it or not, still influences us through the media, art, literature and politics. Many today, philosophers and others, question the existence of absolute truth, saying that truth is relative, that there is “your truth” and “my truth.”

But unless there is such a thing as absolute truth, we have no standing to criticize anyone for lying, for exaggerating or for deceptive advertising. I believe most people searching for God understand this.

If they are anxious about their perceived lack of faith, for instance, it’s because they care about the truth. In fact, though we may lie often, I think it’s basic to the human psyche to care about the truth,

But we can’t use “absolute truth” as a sledge hammer over people and ideas. Pope Francis made this point in an interview a couple of years ago with Eugenio Scalfari, a self-professed atheist who is co-founder of Italy’s La Rupubblica newspaper.

Can't Be Lived Abstractly
“We cannot speak of ‘absolute truth’ in the sense that truth is untied from everything else and deprived of any relation,” said Francis. For Christians, he said, “truth is relative in that I must accept the Gospel for myself and express it in my own language, history, and culture. It cannot be lived out abstractly but only in the concrete situations of my life.”

Cynicism about the truth, by the way, isn’t new. Those familiar with the story of Jesus’ trial in the Gospel of John may recall that Jesus tells Pontius Pilate, who condemned Jesus to death, that Jesus’ mission is “to bear witness to the truth.”

Pilate answers, “What is truth?” Implicit is that the truth is whatever Pilate says it is, a notion with which many people – including politicians and leaders - would agree.

I acknowledge that in a world full of change - indeed, one that requires change - it’s hard to imagine anything “absolute.” But truth is an abstract idea on whose meaning we, as individuals and a society, must agree for the world to function.

It’s an especially crucial concept for people searching for God because a search for God is basically a search for truth. Honesty, especially to one’s self, is required. In this search, there are no “alternative facts.”   

Thursday, February 16, 2017

What Siri Doesn’t Know

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I recently joined the millions of smart alecks who have asked Siri questions they know are hard or impossible to answer. (Siri is the electronic voice that tries to answer questions for users of IPhones.) “What’s the meaning of life?” I asked.
“I don’t believe there is a consensus on that question,” answered Siri.

Pretty good answer, actually. Not only is there no consensus; many people believe life has no meaning. You’re born, you die and that’s it. We’re all part of a heartless, impersonal universe that developed randomly and meaninglessly.

Although I have long accepted evolution as an explanation of how the universe got where it is, I can’t accept that there’s no “why,” that it is random and lacks purpose. It would make the Big Bang akin to a huge explosion at a paper factory that miraculously results in the library of Congress where there are 155.3 million books and items.
Life Has Meaning
No, I believe life has meaning and in my opinion, nothing is more important than learning what that is and living accordingly.

Recently, I’ve rediscovered Simone Weil, the French philosopher and activist who was born into a wealthy, agnostic family of intellectuals in Paris. Besides becoming an academic, she was active politically, but over time lost faith in political ideologies and was drawn to Christianity. She died in 1943 at the age of 34.
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Simone Weil
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Interestingly, Weil – whose life was immersed in intellectual pursuits - wasn’t drawn to religion by any intellectual arguments. While traveling in Portugal, she came upon an outdoor religious service that moved her and later had a mystical experience in Assisi, the hometown of St. Francis. Those experiences led her to a discovery that overshadows rationality and emotion.

“There is a reality outside the world,” she wrote, “that is to say, outside space and time, outside man's mental universe, outside any sphere whatsoever that is accessible to human faculties.

“Corresponding to this reality, at the center of the human heart, is the longing for an absolute good, a longing which is always there and is never appeased by any object in this world.”

But it is a reality whose access isn't through normal channels. "Another terrestrial manifestation of this reality lies in the absurd and insoluble contradictions which are always the terminus of human thought when it moves exclusively in this world," she wrote.
For many of us, much of the time, what we experience is God’s absence. Even Jesus, who Christians believe is “God among us,” had this experience. Dying on the cross, he recited the beginning of Psalm 22.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

But like many of us searching for God, Jesus didn’t stop at questions. Further gospel texts show his trust in his father as expressed in subsequent versus of the same psalm, with which Jesus was intimately familiar.

“Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted and you delivered them.”

In an on-line article, Daniel Gallagher, a priest and translator for the Vatican, comments on Pope Francis’ thoughts on faith.

God Didn't Dictate Abstract Truths
For Francis, writes Gallagher, “faith is a journey; it is a history. God did not reveal himself by dictating abstract truths but by acting in human history. The response of faith, in turn, is historical, meaning that it must be renewed and refreshed again and again. Francis even suggests that faith is not genuine unless it is tinged with a trace of doubt.

“‘The great leaders of God’s people, like Moses,’ he quotes Pope Francis as saying, ‘always left room for doubt. We must always leave room for the Lord and not for our own certainties. We must be humble. Every true discernment includes an element of uncertainty open to receiving spiritual consolation.’”

Siri may not know the meaning of life. That’s generally left to people of faith, and faith is “acquired” by “doing,” through our relations with others, with prayer and patience and by acceptance of uncertainty.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

What Makes Us Happy?

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What was the happiest day of your life?

The “politically correct” answers would be, “the day I got married,” or “the day my children were born.” Fact is, I didn’t realize at the time how happy my spouse and children would make me. What about, “when I got my first job,” or “when I retired?” Similar answers apply.

In reality, for most of us happiness can’t be captured in such events. Happiness is ongoing, a more permanent thing. Yet, though the definition of happiness may be illusive, we all think we know it when we see it. Teens are certain their first love is “the love of their life.” The new house “couldn’t make us happier.” In my new job, “I’ve never been happier.”

Happiness is one of the most written about topics these days. It’s discussed endlessly on talk shows and in homilies and graduation speeches. The main question is, what makes us happy? There are so many answers. But why so much concern now about happiness? Did our parents and grandparents have discussions about happiness?

Maybe not, but happiness has always been a hot topic, always at the top of any list of human aspirations. Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher who lived almost 400 years before Christ, is quoted as saying that “happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

Robert Waldinger
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So back to the question, “What makes us happy?” Here are some thoughts by psychiatrist Robert Waldinger presented in a TED talk in 2015. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. The nonprofit organization with that name sponsors conferences on those topics around the world.

A recent survey asked millennials what their most important life goals were, Waldinger said,

“and over 80 percent said that a major life goal for them was to get rich. And another 50 percent of those same young adults said that another major life goal was to become famous.”

Waldinger is director of an unusual study called the Harvard Study of Adult Development, claiming to be “the longest study of adult life that's ever been done.”

“For 75 years, we've tracked the lives of 724 men, year after year,” he said, “asking about their work, their home lives, their health, and of course asking all along the way without knowing how their life stories were going to turn out.

“About 60 of our original 724 men are still alive, still participating in the study, most of them in their 90s. And we are now beginning to study the more than 2,000 children of these men.” Waldinger is the fourth director of the study.

“What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pages of information that we've generated on these lives?” he asks. “Well, the lessons aren't about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.

“It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they're physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected. And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic.”

It's the Quality That Matters

The study also shows that it’s the quality of those relationships that matter, and they protect our bodies as well as our minds. And as in marriage, quality relationships usually require a lifetime of work.

So what’s the status of happiness these days? Some see the increased amount of “screen time” in our society as a threat to relationships. Not necessarily. As long as we’re in control, social media can enhance our relationships with family and friends.

But for most of us searching for God, even quality relationships with spouses, family and friends aren’t enough. The famous quote ascribed to St. Augustine seems as applicable now as it did in his day: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Human relationships are an important way of relating to God, but many feel the need to connect with the mysterious, transcendent God of the Hebrew and Christian bibles, and that’s where religion comes in.

One derivation of the word “religion” is the Latin verb, religare, or “bind together.” And that’s what religion does, or should do. It binds together those who are searching for God, helping in the search, inviting all to joyful worship and together to look forward to a joy that, as Jesus says in John’s gospel, “can’t be taken from you.”