“I am spiritual but not religious”

A Washington Times headline on December 6, 2010 read: “Religious strength tied to well-being” (Wetzstein 2010).  The headline is gleaned from a Gallup-Healthways Well-Being survey of 550,000 participants.  The survey, as reported by the Washington Times, found a direct connection between “emotional health, physical health, life evaluation and work environment” with praying and studying Scriptures and the sense of belonging to a “moral community based on religious faith.”  Additionally, the survey finds that “Christianity, the dominant religion of the United States, embody tenets of positive relationships with one’s neighbors and charitable acts, which may lead to a more positive mental outlook.” Lastly, the Washington Times article, quoting another survey from the American Sociological Review on religious behaviors and well-being, reported that “people who attend religious services weekly and have three to five close friends in their congregation are most likely to say they are ‘extremely satisfied’ with life” (Wetzstein 2010).

Often we hear the statement, “I am spiritual but not religious” which really means the person seeks spirituality aside from a faith community.  Interestingly, the surveys conducted by Gallup and the American Sociological Review, connect spirituality and participation in a faith community together as a key ingredient for one to be “extremely satisfied with life.”   It appears that a journey of faith within an ecclesial (Church) community of faith really does matter!  Expressions of faith, making prayer a part of our daily life and praying in community enables us to discover true and lasting hope.

Fellowship in a faith community matters because we find support for the journey of life. The Gospel of Matthew reminds us Jesus is present wherever two or more are gathered in his name (cf. Mt. 18:20). Community prayer and support help individuals become “extremely satisfied with life” because it ought to lead us to an encounter with Jesus.

Part of our spiritual DNA is the quest for meaning and purpose.  So the heart longs for the answers to such questions as “what (or who) are we really made for”or “what is the meaning of life” and “is there more to life than meets the eye”?   Other questions unfold before us as we confront life’s situations and world events that perplex us and perhaps cause disquiet within our being.  Who of us has not pondered the question, “why do bad things happen to good people,” or “how is it that the ‘innocent’ seem to suffer so much evil?”

Today we begin our annual pilgrimage into the heart of the Pascal mystery. The drama of jesus enters jerusalemthe Passion, death and resurrection of Christ is where we can and ought to bring our questions and our restless heart. Let this Holy Week with all of its readings, prayers, symbols, rites and rituals seep deep within our inner most being.   Let the Church’s worship and our meditation become for us the lens through which we examine our actions and interpret life’s events.  Reflecting on the crowds laying palm branches before the humble Christ entering Jerusalem on a donkey, St. Anthony of Crete offers this spiritual pearl to us:

Let us run to accompany him as he hastens toward his passion, and imitate those who met him then, not by covering his path with garments, olive branches or palms, but by doing all we can to prostrate ourselves before him by being humble and by trying to live as he would wish. Then we shall be able to receive the Word at his coming, and God, whom no limits can contain, will be within us. (Oratio 9 in ramos palmarum: PG 97, 990-994).

The last line of St. Anthony’s reflection gets at the heart of what it means to be “extremely satisfied with life.”  The key to our quest for meaning and satisfaction, our longing for community, and love is found in our encounter with Christ.  Our God is a transcendent God who wishes to make his home within us.  Holy Week reminds us to what lengths God went to do just that…to make his home within us.   Today, on Palm Sunday, let us be present, with all of our questions, hopes, doubts and faith so we can

… spread before his feet, not garments or soulless olive branches, which delight the eye for a few hours and then wither, but ourselves, clothed in his grace, or rather, clothed completely in him. We who have been baptized into Christ must ourselves be the garments that we spread before him. Now that the crimson stains of our sins have been washed away in the saving waters of baptism and we have become white as pure wool, let us present the conqueror of death, not with mere branches of palms but with the real rewards of his victory. Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches as we join today in the children’s holy song: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the king of Israel.  (Oratio 9 in ramos palmarum: PG 97, 990-994)

Great will our satisfaction be in this life and the next if we open our souls and welcome Christ who is indeed our Savior and the answer to all of our questions and our longings. Let us now be on our way to accompany Christ that he may accompany us.

Lisa Gulino teaches pastoral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Standing by Christ

On the afternoon of March 13, 2013, during a long break in a class I was teaching, students watched, on the “edge of their seats,” the live, televised papal election of Cardinal Bergoglio, presented as “Pope Francis.”   They cheered and screamed exuberantly. In the excitement of the moment, I reminded them that, when the world views him more critically—when the pope’s preaching and living the Gospel evokes anger and hatred among those “of the world”—then they must continue passionately supporting and encouraging our Holy Father. Not so easy, though, when popular culture castigates the Church’s stance “in truth” as an outmoded and bigoted vestige of dark ages in humanity’s past.

We may view Pope Francis’s exceptional popularity—a huge boost for Catholic counter-culture and waning Church attendance—as a timely but provisional blessing from God. As we know, popularity comes and goes. Jesus’ sobering words clarify our focus on realistic discipleship: “…because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you…If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:19-20)

Today, we celebrate Palm Sunday, on which we recount Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem during his earthly ministry. Just prior to this entry, descending the MoPalmunt of Olives toward Jerusalem, Jesus’ multitude of disciples accompany and receive him. They lay down cloaks and leafy branches on the road before him and proclaim Jesus of Nazareth the “son of David,” the “king.” This alludes to and fulfills Psalm 118:25-27: “Lord [actually, YHWH], grant salvation! [in Hebrew, Hosanna!]…Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord…The Lord is God and has given us light. Join in procession with leafy branches…!” Jesus’ extolled, messianic procession also fulfills prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 and alludes to Isaiah 40:9 and 62:11. Concerning Jesus’ approach toward Jerusalem, the intertextuality between each Gospel and the Old Testament is significant and intricate in messianic contour.

Jesus’ peak of popularity, and the renown proper to him as the true Messiah and world Redeemer, are quite transitory. Shortly following his climactic reception on Palm Sunday (as we call it), the religious leaders of Jerusalem—at risk of suffering the fate of the unrepentant sinners of Zion, of those consumed among unquenchable flames (Isaiah 1:27-31)—falsely arrest, torture, and crucify the Christ.

Jesus, undaunted by the esteem of men or their status (Matthew 22:16, John 5:41), boldly speaks the truth: “…for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37). Jesus’ mission of testifying to the truth corresponds to his identity, Truth itself (John 14:6). If our discipleship of Christ is genuine, we must be faithful to his word. Can we withstand the pressure to conform to “the world?” By what we say and do, and even at times by our silence or act of omission, do we fail to courageously, faithfully embrace all of Jesus’ teachings? Out of fear of social reprisal, do we slight duty and devotion to Sunday Eucharist and holy days of obligation, patience and kindness toward all, chastity and the sanctity of real marriage, material solidarity with the poor, etc.? When we conform to our fallen nature, we deny our divine image, as well as Jesus, the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). In our denial, we are saying about the Christ, in effect, “I do not know this man!”

In contrast, by the amazing grace God lavishly bestows on us, along with our freely-chosen resolve, we each can stand by Christ in courage, saying, “I can do all things through him who empowers me” (Philippians 4:13).

Mark Koehne teaches moral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.