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I got a frantic e-mail from one of my students. She wrote it sitting at home, in her old room. She said she could feel her old surroundings and old habits and old relationships literally swallowing her faith whole.
She was experiencing exactly what happens to all of us: The summer is like a giant yellow sponge soaking up spiritual energy.
We build a spiritual identity when we hunker down in the Fall. Christmas makes it seem easy. Lent deepens and strengthens it. Easter re-energizes it. Then come the lazy hazy dog days of dissipation, dissolution and desperation.
“Don’t forget what Benedictine College taught you,” I told her. “Community, faith and scholarship are not just slogans on campus: They are the building blocks of your spiritual life, direct from the Rule of St. Benedict.”
Use them to build your identity, I said.
First, Community: Find people who build your true identity.
“Become who you are,” said St. John Paul II. Who you are is a person in a community: you are a son, daughter, husband, wife, father, mother, aunt or uncle.
Without a community, you don’t exist, and without a faith community, your faith disappears.
Skeptics might look at that reality and suspect the faith of being some kind of groupthink; an illusion that needs to be fed by peer suggestion to survive the harsh reality of truth.
But the same thing is true of any aspect of your personal identity: You can’t be a Royals fan without the Royals; you couldn’t have become a hipster unless other people liked Mumford and Sons; and very few people marked “no religion” until lots of people were marking “no religion.”
I am not me without others. I have found this again and again. The Tom Hoopes who gets up, prays, and decides which Mass to go to fades fast when Tom Hoopes travels; and doting dad Tom Hoopes, conscientiously keeping the kids on task, is nowhere to be found when April Hoopes is away.
We really are like the Velveteen Rabbit: Other people make us real.
So, find a community. It could be a new community, an imperfect community, or even an online community.
Or maybe it’s your family. Often, your family in summer looks like a threat. If you are a college student, they are the people from your high school-era Facebook albums, trying to drag you back into those pictures. Or if you are a parent they are the people you love dearly in specific, controlled doses, but fear spending hours at a time in a van with.
To make them a community, love them. It’s one of the most repeated commands of Jesus, to love others, and that means it is something that you can (and must) decide to do. Serve them without expecting repayment. Listen to them without cynicism. Pray for them with no hidden agenda.
Speaking of which:
Second is Faith: Have a specific prayer routine.
If you stop talking to your friend, he will become a stranger to you. If you stop talking to your wife, she will leave you in heart and mind — or both, by walking away.
If you stop talking to Jesus, he too will become a stranger. He too will walk away. You might as well hate him as stop talking to him.
It is hard to exaggerate how important prayer life is: It has been said that if you pray sincerely every day, then surely you be saved; and if you don’t, then just as surely, you won’t.
Again, this is no mind trick. We don’t pray to train our brains to believe the impossible. Regularly talking to the Invisible Pink Unicorn won’t make you believe in the Invisible Pink Unicorn, because there is no such thing.
There is a God, and our faith in him grows through prayer the way our faith in our grandma grows the more we talk to her.
Set a daily prayer routine and cling to it like you would cling to a rope if you were being air-lifted out of quicksand. If you can get yourself in front of the Blessed Sacrament, all the better: Jesus is really there, and the difference between being in his Real Presence is like the difference between home alone and home with a loved one: subtle but total.
But don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If it’s impractical to go to a chapel, pray at your bedside; Almighty God has no trouble reaching you there.
He only has trouble reaching people who blow him off.
Last is scholarship: You must feed your faith from your reason.
If your faith doesn’t touch your intellect it is like kitsch art or pop music: it is sometimes sweet and sentimental but ultimately silly and insubstantial.
Find the spiritual reading that will stimulate your brain. My favorites: Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis’ meditations on Matthew, Father Robert Spitzer’s Five Pillars and Pope Benedict XVI’s Magnificat meditations.
Or go to the classics: C.S. Lewis’ apologetics works, G.K. Chesterton’s Everlasting Man and Orthodoxy, St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul.
Or start with the excellent “Sermon in a Sentence” series to figure out where to go.
But remember: The Catholic you is made of community, prayer and study. Without them, you’ll disappear into video games, bad movies and chlorine fumes by the Fourth of July.