Okay, this isn’t really about the death of Sheryl Crow. Despite the fact that I don’t really like her music or her politics, I don’t want her dead. Just so we’re clear about that. We’ll come back to old Sheryl in a bit.
I got a request to write about the beginning of my faith life, so here goes.
I really started taking my faith seriously during my sophomore year of college after I was challenged by a friend to reexamine some of the choices I was making. I accepted his challenge for one simple reason: I wasn’t particularly happy. I felt like I was missing something, something that he and some of the other guys I hung out with seemed to have, and that something was a sense of peace. I was restless about my romantic life, about where I stood on the soccer and rugby teams I played on, about what I was going to do after college, about some things family members were going through; I was just plain restless. And my friend pointed me to Christ with the promise that “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O God”.
In the one Sheryl Crow song I actually like, she asks bluntly, “If it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so sad?” If anyone had asked me if I was happy as a sophomore, I probably would have said yes; I loved the college I was at, had found a great group of friends, was doing well in my classes. But there was no denying that this happiness was paradoxically accompanied by a sadness that I hid, deeper and less tangible, but real nonetheless. And it was this emptiness that the faith spoke to, the problem to which Christ was the Answer.
So with the help of friends, I started doing some reading and praying and returned to the sacraments. And everything just built from there.
I got in touch with a priest who served as my spiritual director for several years, and he put things in perspective for me. If you haven’t noticed from other posts, I like to think in analogies, and he provided a great one for me to really conceptualize what I was trying to do as I re-examined my faith.
He said that a good faith life is like a bird’s nest. You have to have a base, an adhesive of mud and spit and feathers, something that holds everything together. For the Catholic, the Sacraments are that foundation. They are the real, tangible, earthy substances that provide the divine help and protection we are seeking. We need a home to shelter us from the cold nights of this life; the Sacraments provide the walls and floor of that home.
Returning to confession was the biggest step for me in beginning my journey anew. I had been going to Mass weekly, but knew that something was standing between Christ and me. That something was my sin, and the Sacrament of Reconciliation removed that barrier. Without it, there was no chance I would have been able to move forward. The priest I confessed to was great. I was extremely nervous and wanting to get it over with, so I packaged my sins into about five vague categories which I named quickly, followed by “and I’m sure there’s more, but that’s all I can remember for now.” The priest smiled and said the last thing I wanted to hear: “Let’s unpack that a bit, shall we?”
30 minutes later, I left the confessional feeling vulnerable, relieved, and a little bit nervous that the people outside might have heard me talking or wondered what I could have possible done that took a half hour to talk through.
But the journey had begun.
After I built my foundation through the sacraments, then I started building a prayer life around them. Doing a Morning Offering or morning prayer when I woke up, saying grace at mealtimes, doing an examination of conscience at night, adding at least 2o minutes of meditation each day, participating in Eucharistic Adoration as often as I could: these were the twigs and grass and straws that I added to my nest, one piece at a time.
But my faith was fragile like a nest too. I went back to my director time and again, frustrated with what I perceived to be a lack of progress, down on myself for committing the same sins and failing to make time to pray and failing to be an example to others. The lifestyle and habits I was trying to leave behind seemed always waiting for me, ready to fill whatever emotional needs I had that I should have been bringing to Christ. I kept returning to the same empty wells, and even though I was no longer wondering why I was still thirsty, I was left with bewilderment and dejection as I came to truly understand my own weakness. I was also frustrated because I felt like each time I sinned I was undoing whatever progress I had made in building my faith life.
And in a way, I was.
Just as a bird’s nest can be blown from its tree by a strong wind, our faith can be knocked down by the storm of our sin. My little mistakes and venial sins blew some of the straws away, eating away at some of what I’d worked to build up. But it was when I let mortal sin enter my life that the whole nest got knocked down, and I would have to start over again, beginning with confession and the Eucharist. This process of restarting so often, trying to put this nest together when I was just blowing it down every couple of days, began to wear on me.
But my spiritual director made sure I knew that there was no reason to despair when I committed mortal sin. Even though I had to start putting my nest together again, I could be sure that the pieces of the nest were not far from where I had brought them. It wasn’t really starting completely over, because I knew where everything was. The pieces were blown apart, but I didn’t have to go all around searching for what I needed. I knew what they were, and they were closer than the first time I tried. They were just lying in the shadow of the tree, waiting for me to pick them back up. It was simply a matter of weathering the storm and beginning again, hopeful that the good weather was there to stay.
The friend that first challenged me often talks about how The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” is his favorite song. I can see why.
“I look at all the lonely people; where do they all come from?”
It was this loneliness that he saw in me, this separation that first necessitated my movement back to Christ.There’s so much hurt, so much pain in all the people I know and love, so much hurt and pain in my own life. We have this ache of dissatisfaction that we all want to fill, and we try to fill it so many different ways. But at the end of the day, you have to stop and ask why you’re still sad if these are the things that are supposed to make you happy. Why haven’t things gotten better? Why don’t I feel fulfilled? If this is the answer, then why is my brain still full of questions?
One final quote to finish this up: Einstein says that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. What my friend and spiritual director and so many others have helped me realize is that some behaviors and habits and ways of thinking inevitably result in the feelings of sadness or loneliness we all want to avoid. And the answer is simple.
Do something different.
If you haven’t been to confession in a long time, go. If you haven’t been to Mass in a while, get there after you go to confession. And then see if those questions start getting answered, those aches start getting soothed, those fears start getting relieved. I promise you that the answer is Jesus Christ and His Church. Go there, go to Him, and see if the results are not different.