Letters to a Struggling Young Friend
I'm going to take the next few posts and respond to a young friend who is struggling in his faith right now. Life, school, and trying to be faithful to the God who loves him is difficult. And the reason why I am responding to him on my blog is because, well, I'm an adult and he's a minor and VIRTUS says I cannot correspond with him without his parents' permission. But seeing as how I have no idea who his parents are, that cannot really happen. So I will anonymize his letter and try to give some helpful, honest answers.
And brother R, if you read this through, know that I've got a bunch of people praying for you, including myself. Hold on!
BEGINNING OF THE LETTER
This lent was terrible. I didn't give anything up. Because honestly I don't know of I belive anymore. All my life I had no friends. My parents are mean to me. And I go to a Catholic school, and most of the teens there are atheist, non practicing, or don't follow church teaching (example: an actively lesbian girl altar serves, a religion teacher says it's okay if gay marriage is legal, and at a retreat in the school they said that the Church is wrong about contraception, pre marital sex, and gays). I have many questions about the church and no one seems to be able to help answer them. My youth minister, priest, and religion teacher always tell me to pray about it. But I never feel anything. I feel so lonely. I feel like no one cares about me and everyone treats me like garbage. So maybe you can help me with my questions.
Lent is tough when faith is tough. It is intentionally a dryspell, or desert, experience in our spiritual life meant to intensify our desires for the Lord, but when we aren't in a good place this desert experience just saps our strength and drains our resolve. So I want to reach out to you and give you a better place to start for the next time Lent rolls around, or when you want to just have a redo in your faith.
For many people, the time of Lent is actually used more like a Catholic version of a New Year's Resolution, only instead of giving things up for a year, you just do it for 40 days. I know people that give up things for the sake of will power or a diet (bye, bye chocolate!). Many have lost the meaning of Lent and so, when it becomes meaningless, it ceases to be life-giving.
That's not what Christ is looking for in His disciples who engage in fasting and abstaining. Jesus is clear that fasting is an integral part of the Christian prayer life. He says, "When you fast..." and not "if you fast." One of the best expressions on what fasting and abstinence during Lent is supposed to be is found in Isaiah 58. This part of Isaiah is powerful because in it the prophet is near the end of his warnings to the People of Israel and his calls to repentance. They aren't listening, they aren't changing, they aren't responding. In many ways it sounds like the people around you who aren't caring about actually living their faith, but still wear the "Catholic" label.
First, Isaiah 58 is all about repentance, about knowing truly what our sins do to us, to others, and to our relationship with God. A lot of people don't really talk about repentance, especially in Catholic circles lately. Repentance is a deep and soul wrenching process, rooted in humilty and truth. Repentance says, "This was wrong. I knew it was wrong. And I did it anyway." That's a hard thing to face sometimes.
Secondly, springing from repentance are acts of penance, which is simply doing actions to repair the effects of our sins or to counteract sins' damage to our own hearts. For instance, some people give up chocolate for the sake of the waistlines, but from a disciple's perspective, abstaining from chocolate might be a way to give up a normal pleasure and to offer it up for someone else as a form of intercessory prayer. When I was traveling Europe in college I found out that my mom was sick and not recovering. So I decided that when I would be out traveling I would do two things: I would pray the "Emergency Novena" of 9 Memorares in front of a popular image of the Madonna and child, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and I would forego a bed and sleep on the floor. This was not merely a penance done for me, but a little sacrifice done as a form of intercession.
Thirdly, the amazing thing about Isaiah 58 that so many Catholics are losing is the absolute way God directs our gaze to the poor and hurting. God says through the Prophet Isaiah: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?" See that? Lent should be about repenting of our personal sinfulness, doing acts of penance, such as abstaining and taking on extra spiritual devotions and disciplines, and also an heightened love for the poor, the hurting and the outcast.
About three years ago when I first really encountered this Scripture verse and let it ruin me, I was a youth minister for middle school kids. So during Lent we would read through this passage in Isaiah and each week the kids were to fast from one meal a day, save that money, and buy an item for our weekly donations to the poor. One week we asked the kids to bring in fresh produce for a battered women's shelter. Another week was shampoo or tooth paste for a runaway teen at a local youth ranch. Things like that connected fasting to serving and made it more meaningful, allowing middle school students to grow spiritually.
ABOUT YOUR SCHOOL AND SUCH
R, I know that staying faithful to the Church when some of her teachings (or seemingly all of them) are out-of-season. Right now there is a full-fledged assault on key moral issues, like the ones you mentioned above. But the weird thing is that there are Catholics who are trying to do the right thing, but they end up responding in wholly negative, judgmental or otherwise unloving ways. St Paul instructs us to "Speak the truth in love", but sometimes is seems that some would rather win arguments than souls. That's nasty, and that's what we call pride.
It is a shame and a scandal that your Catholic school is Catholic in name only. The Church's teachings belong to Christ, not to us, and they are not amendable by us. The only thing we contribute to the Church's teachings is how we apply these timeless truths to the times we live in. To say, "The Church is wrong on contraception" is really saying, "Jesus is wrong." And brother, I don't want to be on that side of the argument!
Furthermore, when you ask an older brother or sister in Christ an honest and legitimate question about the faith, and all they do is tell you to "go pray about it," they are failing in their ministry as teachers, pastors, and ministers. Maybe they are ignorant of how to answer you questions, because they are intense and well thought out, and they don't want to look like an idiot in front of you. Or maybe they are unsure of their own faith, so they just mumble something vaguely pious like "go and pray about it," hoping it will go away. Or maybe they actively doubt the teachings of Jesus Christ and His Church. I don't know where they are coming from.
But I do know this. Jesus Christ is more important than your teachers, your pastor, your ministers, and me. Jesus Christ is in love with you and suffers with you, even in the midst these dark times and depressions. He experienced loneliness like you or I could not fathome, so take comfort in the fact that, because of the Mysteries that we just celebrated: Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, Jesus suffers with you.
Jesus suffers with you. God is not immune to your pain, your experience of isolation, of confusion, and of loneliness. Jesus is there with you, screaming out to the sky, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The Son of God took upon himself all of your feelings of being alone, of being forgotten or ignored, whether it is by God, by supposed leaders in the faith, by your peers, or by your family.
I wish I could write a few sentences and suddenly you would feel the happiness and contentment that every human longs to have. I wish just a few words on this website could give your soul some of that sweet peace that St. Paul talks about Philippians 4:7, "And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
What your heart needs is community, real Christian community, and it sounds like you are not getting that at school, at church, or with your family. There's a couple Catholic youth conferences that you might be interested in attending, such as Steubenville Youth Conference. Maybe hooking up with something like that can give you what you need and are seeking.
R, if you are reading this, one thing you need to know above all is that faith is not an emotional experience. We have had many great saints who struggling with what we would today call clinical depression. Supernatural faith means giving yourself over to God and letting God give Himself to you. "Abide in my love" Jesus says. When life is coming at you from all these different directions and things are getting very difficult, sometimes all we can do is just abide in Him and beg Him over and over to let us remain in Him and with Him.
You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:3-5)