In light of all the news about clerical sexual abuse, a lot of Catholics are struggling with their faith in God and faith in the Church.
My wife and I recently spoke at an event sponsored by the Diocese of Pittsburgh. It was held to help parish ministers do a better job supporting people who are struggling with their faith, especially in light of the Pennsylvania grand jury report that revealed the long history of abuse in their diocese. The pastors and diocesan personnel we met shared stories of parents who have pulled their children out of religious education or who have stopped going to church altogether.
However, research shows that abandoning one’s faith and spiritual practices tends to cause even more problems. Faith represents our attempt to satisfy a deep, universal longing for peace, meaning and transcendence. When we lose our faith, those longings don’t disappear. Instead, they force us to seek fulfillment in what psychologist Ken Pargament calls, “false gods”; things like workaholism, unhealthy relationships, sex, addictions and other obsessional behaviors that ultimately lead to empty, disintegrated, disordered lives. Studies show that even when their relationship with their faith is complicated, people who manage to hold onto it tend to be healthier in the long run.
The healthy alternative
So how do we hold onto our faith even when it’s hard to find joy or comfort in it? Pargament’s research suggests that people who successfully work through faith crises tend to go through three stages.
The first is “Recognizing the Limitations of Current Strivings.” That means taking time to reflect on whether the former approach I took to my spiritual life is adequate for helping me deal with the present crisis I’m facing. For instance, perhaps my previous vision of God was “too small” and, at least unconsciously, I didn’t believe that God was big, loving, merciful or powerful enough to handle the struggles I am currently facing. Perhaps the spiritual practices I relied upon to maintain my connection to God in better times just aren’t sufficient to help me maintain that connection in difficult times.
Rather than simply giving up I need to view the crisis I am experiencing as an opportunity to increase my spiritual bandwidth. I may need to allow my vision of God to grow. I may need to discover new spiritual practices that are up to the task of helping me stay connected to God, my faith and my values through this trial.
Willing to change
The second step is “Letting Go.” I need to be willing to stop going about my spiritual life the same old way despite getting less and less out of it. I need to see the crisis I have experienced as a challenge to develop a more mature, expansive and engaged approach to faith than I have previously exhibited.
This is hard. When we’re going through a crisis, we don’t want to have to be the ones to change. We’re the victims, after all. We want the circumstances to change so that we can keep being comfortable doing what we always did. But this sets us up for new and possibly more devastating disappointments down the road. We have to be willing to let go of old, comfortable, but less compelling, ways of living our faith in favor of new approaches that challenge us to make our faith an even more meaningful, intentional part of our everyday lives.
Process feelings with faith
Finally, we need to “Center The Sacred.” When we first experience a spiritual wound, our pain, anger and fear take center stage in our lives. If we cling to these things, we become stuck in a place of emptiness, anxiety, obsession and rage.
We need to make the effort to process those feelings through our faith instead of vice versa. If we can do this, our faith becomes a deeper and more effectively integrating force in our lives that almost always leads to greater health, happiness, peace and resilience.
Holding onto faith isn’t always easy. But those who make the effort to do so have a much greater chance of experiencing the joy of the Resurrection than those who allow themselves to get scared off by the appearance of the cross.
Dr. Greg Popcak is the author of many books including his latest, “Unworried: A Life Without Anxiety.” Visit him at CatholicCounselors.com.