Thursday, September 17, 2009

Faith is strengthened in experience of God

By Ted Furlow
Director, diocesan Office of Pastoral Planning

We have seen some interesting examples of runaway individualism recently. From the Oregon football player who struck an opponent and then went ballistic with the crowd, to the Representative from South Carolina calling out the President in the House as a liar, and to the mayhem that has passed for “Town Hall meetings” on health care, social conventions seem to have taken second place to my right to do my “own thing”.

I see it in our faith life as Catholics, with the recent statistics from the 2007-2008 Pew studies showing 32% of the baptized walking away from the faith, many simply to languish in a malaise listed as “unaffiliated"…. presumably doing their “own thing,” worshiping on Sundays at the NFL. The trends reported among the other 68% of Catholics who still claim the faith are of little help, since only 20% to 40% of them regularly participate in the Church. Strange behavior for persons raised Catholic, where doing your “thing” generally means doing it with someone else.

The numbers beg the question, “Why?” For the 32% who have left, is it sufficient to simply say that there was no longer a “there” there? And for the non-frequent faithful, is it a matter of a diminishing “there” that keeps them away? Someone once observed that our behavior in faith is predicated on our experience of religion... so is this a matter of having no experience?

Since I believe that anyone who places themselves in faith has some form of spiritual experience, perhaps the larger question is what is being done with that experience? Dr. Janet Ruffing of Fordham University, a Sister of Mercy who specializes in spiritual direction, touches on this in a 2007 article in Conversations, where she makes the point of tying spiritual experiences to the making of meaning. Anyone who has had a significant experience of the movement of God in their life will long for more, but working with a grammar school or Confirmation class level of formation, they may lack the skills that would help them to respond. How does someone see the change in them that is affected by a change in their relationship with God? How does someone understand that a growing relationship with God calls them to a change in all of their relationships? How does someone understand that while God is always at our core, how we relate to God and how we experience his indwelling presence changes over time?

We teach the children and then cast them off after Confirmation, confident that a 15 -20 minute homily once a week should bridge them to salvation. The Pew numbers say, “not.” Perhaps what the large body of 20somethings to 50somethings who are sitting in church, at home, or just watching the game wondering what it is all about, really need, is a companion to walk the journey with them. Like Jesus on the road to Emmaus, no one should walk alone. Spiritual directors do not make meaning of our experiences, but they help us make our own meaning, to find that Christic presence that is the indwelling of God that touched us in our person, and shaped our faith. We need to stop being individuals, and reach out to help and be helped.

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