Thursday, April 27, 2017

Why Many Young Catholics Stay in the Church

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Sophia was 25 years old when she was interviewed for the book, “Young Adult Catholics, Religion in the Culture of Choice” by Dean Hoge et al, a book to which I’ve referred often in these blogs.

 “…I think I’m at a point where I think religion is more about spirituality and my own prayers and thoughts,” she said, “and I don’t necessarily have to actually go to Mass or be Catholic to be spiritual.”

I must once again ask tolerance of my readers who are not Catholic because this blog is, even more than usual, written from the Catholic perspective. Still, a lot here would apply to people of any, or no, faith.

Not For Lack of Faith?
I’m returning to the subject of the flight from religion among young people because of a recent article in the National Catholic Reporter called “A Church to Believe In.” The subtitle is, “Young adults are leaving Catholic parishes, but not for lack of faith.”

The article refers to various surveys that find that young Catholics, especially, are leaving their church in significant numbers. Most of the article is based on a 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center. I’ve found that most surveys on the subject in the last 10 years show pretty much the same.

When asked their reasons for leaving the church, 56 percent cited unhappiness with the church’s teaching on “abortion/sexuality.” Another 48 percent said they disliked teachings on birth control. Other important reasons were the perception that the church is “too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues” and “the way church officials treat women.”


Nicole Sotelo
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The article’s author, Nicole Sotelo, cites a 2013 book called “American Catholics in Transition.”

“Even among Catholics who continue to participate,” the article says, “a large majority would like to see changes for women. As an example, 65 percent of millennial (generally considered those born in the early 1980s) Catholic women, both Hispanic and non-Hispanic, support women’s ordination.”

People who go to Mass regularly can see for themselves that fewer millennial and Generation X (the generation following Millennials) occupy the pews. And there’s no reason to doubt the reasons cited in Sotelo’s article.

But I doubt these reasons are at the heart of the problem. If these were the principal reasons young people are staying away from church what accounts for a similar flight from traditional Protestant churches? Most of these faiths have views on abortion, sexuality, homosexuality, mixed marriage and the role of women with which many non-practicing young Catholics say they agree.  

No, I believe there’s a deeper, genuinely spiritual problem here, and Sophia may have put her finger on it when she acknowledges in the interview, that “as far as the Mass itself, I don’t think there is anything there that draws me to it.”

The heart of the Catholic faith is the liturgy, and the liturgy – including homilies as part of the Liturgy of the Word – is at the heart of young people’s defection from the faith.

Many Catholics lack an appreciation of the liturgy, aka the Eucharist or Mass. This is nothing new. It’s just that former generations felt more compelled to attend Mass, which kept attendance numbers up. Young people raised Catholics today feel no such compulsion, which isn’t necessarily bad. They shouldn’t attend because they feel compelled.

Rational?
But wouldn’t it be rational to ask why Christians have met for the Eucharist since Christianity’s start? Why this form of worship has persisted among Catholics through the ages? Why millions of persecuted Catholics in centuries past met in secret to celebrate Mass, risking and often suffering death?

Could it be that no vague form of personal “spirituality” captures our proper response to God’s extraordinary generosity? As human beings we have absolutely nothing worthwhile to offer God except to join our offering to that of Jesus’ life and death as we do at Mass. And we have no better way of expressing our solidarity and unity as brothers and sisters in the Lord than to share the Eucharist with one another as Jesus commanded.

Some young people get it, of course. Writing in the “Young Voices” feature in the National Catholic Reporter, Sotelo says that despite the data showing more young Catholics defecting from their faith, many others are staying.

“The reasons we stay are many, including our love for the faith, our gratitude for the tradition, and the knowledge that if we work together, we can create a better church,” she writes. “…Perhaps never in my lifetime have I felt such a desire to stay united in Christ’s legacy, working toward a society and a church we can believe in.”

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Skepticism about Skeptical Faith?

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Somewhere in my formal education, I learned the importance of critical thinking. I believe it was in high school, taught by priests, but I know I already had an idea about it in elementary school, taught by nuns.

I never felt coerced to believe anything, and I recall challenging the nuns and priests throughout my years in school – including the priests who taught me in the seminary. Many of them weren’t happy about it, but there were never any dire consequences.

Am I saying that I wasn’t influenced by my teachers and the faith that I inherited from my parents? Of course I was. But everybody has to try to make objective judgments about what they’ve been taught, heard and seen. Usually, that’s done incrementally during one’s life. 

“Critical thinking” is usually thought of as a quality of science and scientists, not religious people. But I don’t quite see it that way. Scientists are also products of their backgrounds and upbringing and the influences of their teachers. They see reality through their eyes as I see it through mine. No one is excused from critical thinking.

Objective Analysis

I like the simple definition offered by Wikipedia: “Critical thinking is the objective analysis of facts to form a judgment.” It’s related to skepticism, which Wikipedia describes as any questioning attitude or doubt towards one or more items of putative knowledge or belief.” “Putative,” by the way, means what is generally accepted to be the truth.

Many people believe that religion is the “putative knowledge” and skepticism is doubting religious views. And that has some validity, I believe. Religion, too, should be met with skepticism. Isn’t that why God made us intelligent beings? I think God likes the bumper sticker, “Question Everything.”

Obviously, I don’t accept the common notion that skepticism is a negative thing. That’s why I call this blog “Skeptical Faith.” Some would quarrel with this title because they may see the blog as promoting religion. And I acknowledge that the point of the blog is to get people to look at religion more objectively, trying to minimize the biases and cultural baggage of today’s society.

Tania Lombrozo
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But others would quarrel with it because they believe skepticism, which they view as a negative thing, has no place alongside belief. To me, they reject the notion of faith, which requires trust in God and the renunciation of the false promise of certainty.

In a recent commentary on the National Public Radio web site, Tania Lombrozo, a psychology professor at the University of California, who writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, takes on the subject of skepticism.

Too often, she writes, skepticism “expresses approval when the target of skepticism is a claim we reject, and disapproval when the target is a claim we hold dear.” If we’re Republican, we may be skeptical only of positions held by Democrats. If Democrat, skeptical only of Republican positions.

“Sometimes, though, skepticism is taken to be a healthy attitude towards belief — a characteristic that we might praise regardless of its target,” writes Lombrozo. “Skepticism is supposed to reflect a willingness to question and doubt — a key characteristic of scientific thinking. It encourages us to look at the evidence critically; it allows for the possibility that we are wrong.”

Indeed, science cannot function properly without skepticism, but neither can religion, because without it, it’s hard to internalize what you believe.

“…Taken too far,” however, “skepticism misses its mark,” she continues. “It's important to avoid the error of believing something we ought not to believe, but it's also important to avoid the error of failing to believe that which we should.”

Humility

Lombrozo believes skepticism should be accompanied by humility, and always implies a search for truth.

Regarding humility, one of the hazards of belief is smugness – the attitude that my faith has bestowed the truth on me but not on unbelievers. And smugness poses the danger of being judgmental.

As for the search for truth, I believe the greater danger today is not the blind acceptance of religion but the lack of skepticism about the modern substitutes for religion. Skepticism requires the willingness to accept truth where we see it – including the most obvious places like the Church.

People seriously searching for God can’t leave God out of the equation, of course. We need to pray for faith and be God-like. But religious belief is rational. There are good reasons for it, and it’s our job to find them. While doing so, we can be skeptics and believers. There is such a thing as “skeptical faith.” 






Thursday, April 13, 2017

Saying No to the Sense of Entitlement

Scholarship Students with Assumption Parish Delegation
We huffed and puffed climbing the steep path up a scruffy mountain, over orange to watermelon-sized rocks and the big tree roots protruding between them. It was hot, and the sweat was starting to drip from all the usual places.

After about 20 minutes, we arrived where Salvador, a 20-year old who is only in his second year of high school, lives with an unmarried older brother. Only out of respect can you call it a “house.” It’s square with four corrugated metal walls and a roof of the same material – not the best for a humid climate with temperatures that are nearly always over 90 degrees. It has one room furnished with two neatly-made beds.

The floor is of packed dirt. It has electricity, as evidenced by the single bulb hanging from the ceiling, but no plumbing. There is no apparent outdoor latrine.

A hundred yards or so above Salvador’s house is that of his parents, who live with two daughters. The house is similar to Salvador’s – packed dirt floor, no plumbing, sparse furniture. His parents are in their 40s and 50s but look at least a decade older. Neither have jobs because they are unable to work. The father has heart disease. The mother, a disease of the colon.

$80 per Month
Salvador, who works part-time as a waiter in a restaurant along El Salvador’s coast, is the family’s only source of income. He makes $80 a month.

The visit to Salvador’s home was part of a week-long trip to El Salvador by a delegation from our parish, Assumption of Granger, Ia., which has a sister-parish relationship with a parish in a village called Tamanique. We provide scholarships to help Salvador and 29 other kids from the community - regardless of their religious affiliation – go to high school and college.

I’ve been on these trips to El Salvador many times, but coming home, I can never adequately describe them. I always come back in a mild state of shock. I want to tell people about the experience, but perhaps like veterans coming home from foreign assignments, I have the feeling that people wouldn’t understand. And though no one has said so, I feel they aren’t that interested.

We spend most of our time there simply visiting the kids and their families, listening to them, trying to show solidarity. Most of them live in what most Americans would call miserable poverty. Most parents have only a couple of years of formal education. Many have none, and can’t read or write.


Salvador's House
With each trip, I expect things to be a little better in El Salvador – to see a little less poverty, the evidence of a little more education, a little greater sense of pride among Salvadorans – but my expectations go unfulfilled. No one feels this disappointment more than the Salvadorans themselves.



Roberto Cruz, a Salvadoran friend, put it this way, referring to the country’s brutal, 12-year civil war which ended in 1992.

“After the war, we thought everything would get better,” he says, “that our children would be able to get a good education, that there would be jobs, that we would finally be able to live decent lives. It hasn’t turned out that way.”

The official El Salvador unemployment rate for 2016 is 7 percent, but people like Salvador’s family would find that figure laughable. In rural areas, at least, most people live from hand to mouth in subsistence farming or low-paying, part-time jobs.

Theoretically, education is free, but many rural children can’t afford to get back and forth from school or pay for lunches. Crime and gang activity is rampant in much of the country. Public services are sparse. And El Salvador attracts more than its share of natural disasters. The country is prone to earthquakes and tropical depressions that regularly kill thousands.

Resilient and Kind
Still, Salvadorans are among the most resilient and kindest people I’ve ever met. They exhibit heroic hope in the face of apparent hopelessness. The kids we help and their families are obviously smart. And they’re grateful, and tell us so over and over.

While there and upon my arrival at home, I find myself asking questions with no apparent answers. How is that I was born into relative prosperity in a prosperous country and so many people around the world live in misery? What, exactly, did God have in mind?

The only honest answer is, “I don’t know.” What I do know is that my relative prosperity isn’t anything I earned. I have absolutely no reason to feel superior or to have any sense of entitlement.

For me, the inequality into which we’re born has nothing to do with “God’s will.” And it isn’t random. It exists because we allow it. And no amount of prayer to God to fix it will make a difference.

No, God has given us the job of helping people like Salvador’s family. Programs like ours help; but as human beings overall, we’re failing miserably.

If you would like to see more pictures from Tamanique, or contribute to the scholarship fund, click on http://assumptiongranger.org/parish-ministries/tamanique-sister-parish/






Thursday, April 6, 2017

Must You Be a Soldier in the Culture War?

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David Brooks, the famous columnist for the New York Times who often appears as a commentator on TV news shows, recently wrote a column called “The Benedict Option.”

An apparently non-practicing Jew, Brooks often writes about faith, usually in a way that suggests that, like many of us, he is searching for God.

Anyway, Brooks writes about his friend, Rod Dreher, whose new book, “The Benedict Option,” is already “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” According to Wikipedia, Dreher is senior editor at The American Conservative and is a frequent commentator on National Public Radio and other media. Raised a Methodist, he converted to Catholicism in 1993 and to Eastern Orthodoxy in 2006 after writing about the sex-abuse scandals among Catholic clergy.

Dreher, writes Brooks, says it’s futile to keep fighting the culture war, because it’s over, presumably meaning that anti-religious forces have won. Instead, believers should follow the model of the sixth-century monk St. Benedict, who set up religious communities as the Roman Empire collapsed around them.

Withdraw Inward?
Like monks, Dreher believes, “Christians should withdraw inward to deepen, purify and preserve their faith. They should secede from mainstream culture, pull their children from public school, put down roots in separate communities.”

Brooks maintains that Dreher errs in thinking that Christians are under attack by most Americans, and I agree. Around 77 percent of Americans identify as Christians, and though there may be a bit more public criticism and hostility shown to Christians than, say, 30 years ago, it’s nothing compared to the hostility suffered by Muslims and Jews.

“By retreating to neat homogeneous monocultures,” Brooks argues, “most separatists will end up doing what all self-segregationists do, fostering narrowness, prejudice and moral arrogance. They will close off the dynamic creativity of a living faith.”

David Brooks
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I’m a fan of monasticism, but it’s not for everyone. It’s a special vocation. And I disagree with Dreher as well about his position that the culture war is over. It is still clearly being fought in Congress and state legislatures and among people with strong opinions about social and political issues.

As I wrote in a blog a few years ago, the “culture war” is generally taken to mean the war between those who are conservative/traditionalist/rightists and those who are liberal/progressive/leftists. The “battles” are over abortion, same-sex marriage, assisted suicide, and to some extent, the “welfare nation,” “big government,” and gun politics.

What’s important here, in my view, is that people searching for God refuse to base their ethical/social views on whether they conform to liberalism or conservatism. In some areas they may happen to conform to one or the other - may happen to lean toward Republicans, Democrats or Independents - but what defines people searching for God is the extent to which their opinions and actions conform to the object of their search.

We may use the terms liberal and conservative easily when talking about the relationship of faith to issues of the day, but are they really applicable? Religion is not an ideology, let alone a political faction or movement. It’s a relationship – to God and others – which is typically expressed in a particular denomination, the obvious way to conduct one’s search for God.

"Too Political?"
People who look to their political parties or cultural-war affiliations for guidance on moral issues have a hard time being believers. They will complain that religion is being “too political” when it weighs in on social justice issues or issues surrounding human sexuality or reproduction, as if faith should be excluded from some aspects of human life.

Or they will resent people of faith who publicly express themselves on the issues, as if a religious motivation is excluded from the democratic process. Indeed, you often hear that people of faith are “cramming their religious beliefs down other people’s throats,” as if people motivated by politics or ideology are not. 

People searching for God in the Judeo-Christian context must base their political and social views on the Bible and their tradition’s teachings, not on whether they agree with the views of President Trump, Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi or Elizabeth Warren. And they must always do so with respect for others’ opinions and tolerance for diversity.

To paraphrase Pope Francis, people searching for God shouldn’t think of themselves so much as soldiers in the culture war as caregivers in political and social field hospitals.














Thursday, March 30, 2017

Sweating the Small Stuff

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The sign on a college classroom door reads, “Philosophy 101.” A professor walks in and places a jar, about the size of an average cookie jar, on his desk.

He extracts from his brief case a box full of golf balls and apparently fills the jar with them. Then he asks his students, “Is the jar full?” They all answer, “Yes.” Then he takes a container of pebbles out of the brief case and adds them to the jar up to the brim. “Is it full now?” he asks. Again, the class says “yes.”

Then he takes a container of sand from his brief case and fills all the crevices between the golf balls and pebbles, also up to the brim. “How about now?” he asks. Their answer is a more emphatic, “yes.”

But he’s not finished. He pulls two bottles of beer out of the brief case and pours the contents of one of them into the jar, truly filling the jar.

The lesson? We all have only one life to live, he says, “a fleeting shadow of all that exists in this vast universe.” The jar represents your life. Golf balls are the important things in life – your family, your friends, your health and your passions. The pebbles are the other things you care about, your car, your job, your home. The sand is everything else, just the small stuff.

Take Care of the Golf Balls

“If you start by filling up the jar with sand,” he continues, “you won’t have room for anything else. The same in life. If you spend all your energy and time on the small stuff, you won’t have time for all that is really important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Take care of the golf balls first, the really important things. Set your priorities because everything else is just sand.”

This is all from a video that has been circulating on social media. Unlike much of what appears there, this advice is worth noting. And many Christians will notice the striking similarity to Jesus’ words in the gospel of Mathew.

“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

Henri Nouwen
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The professor’s advice, “Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness,” is essentially the same as that of Jesus. Though in terms unfamiliar to many secular contemporaries, seeking first the kingdom of God means establishing a relationship with God, and seeking “his righteousness” means striving to be Godlike. And that will make you happy.

Personally, I’m forever grateful to a friend in high school who one day was brave enough to say to me, “Carney, don’t sweat the small stuff.” I still care too much about the small stuff, but at least I’m painfully aware that I do. And I recognize that it’s an obstacle to my relationship to God and others.

I also see that true happiness derives from my relationship to God and others. I recognize that many others don’t see it that way and that many doubt that there’s any relationship between religious or spiritual practice and human happiness.

And I know that many who are searching for God, or for God by another name, neglect finding what they’re looking for because they miss the obvious.      

The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen writes:

Hoping for Change
“Aren't you, like me, hoping that some person, thing, or event will come along to give you that final feeling of inner well-being you desire? Don't you often hope: 'May(be) this book, idea, course, trip, job, country or relationship (will) fulfill my deepest desire?'

“But as long as you are waiting for that mysterious moment,” he adds, “you will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied. You know that this is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether we are getting anywhere in the long run. This is the way to spiritual exhaustion and burn-out. This is the way to spiritual death.”

Spiritual life, and the happiness that we all seek, is found in pursuing the search for God with patience and acceptance of uncertainty.

By the way, one of the professor’s students asked what the beer represents.

“I’m glad you asked that,” he responded. “It shows that no matter how full your life seems to be, there’s always room for a couple of beers with a friend.”  




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.