In these Covid times, plans and projects are being upended, or at least postponed. So many of us are in a bit of process overload so “deadlines” have to be extended. Students and teachers are in catch-up mode, sometimes starting up again only to have to pause. It’s touch and go, hurry up and wait.
The endless election season seems to be winding down but no one I have spoken with is at peace with where we are as a nation. Political tensions have not spared families, even our church families. Our institutional and personal resources are strained by the economic, emotional and spiritual hungers so many are experiencing now, and there are no quick fixes.

Perhaps the worst time to go food shopping is when you are hungry. This may at first seem counterintuitive, but when we want anything quickly it is easy to make poor choices. Physical hunger and the desire to eat something now is not conducive to wise menu planning when “fast food” is readily available. A quick meal, we know, is not always the healthiest.

Deeper hungers are just as liable to lead us down the wrong path for our well-being. Isolation and loneliness — which cannot all be euphemized as mere “social distancing” — is real and cannot all be blamed or rationalized by Covid consciousness. The impulse, especially among the tech-savvy, to feed that hunger for human attention, affirmation and companionship through social media, texting or surfing the web can lead us into temptation and “dangerous liaisons,” as a movie with that title portrayed of another era. Virtual and fantasized “reality” have much in common, regardless of the age or era of those who are drawn into it.

I have heard it said, “there is no fool like an old fool.” I have to take that to heart! Though we often assume it is younger folk who are more likely to be led down the primrose path, our seniors are just as vulnerable to all kinds of TV and telephone marketing scams, which seem to be on the rise. Not to mention the perennial presence of “remedial” medications. Substance abuse is increasing at all age levels. Quick fixes, whether meant to stave physical, emotional or spiritual hunger, often do more harm than good.

Anyone struggling with addictions knows how frustrating life becomes when under their spell. Whether it is the drink, the website, the drug, the posting or even the person at the end of the day — one can get addicted to anything — there is a real enslavement, the growing sense of being a slave of the object of dependency, not being able to live with it, not being able to live without it. So it is with all idolatry. 

We sometimes think of “idols” as strange creatures, statues with the heads of birds or animals, like in Egyptian mythology, or even a real person, like a celebrity, whom we know but do not know, for the image is not the real person. And that’s just it: idols are not real. They are false gods, false cures. They cannot feed our deepest human hungers. Only God can.

More than any other saint whose life I have learned from, St. Augustine seems to have struggled with the lure of beautiful things and persons, to which he directed his passions and spiritual hungers, seeking satisfaction and happiness. Not until he experienced the emptiness and desperation of “looking for love in all the wrong places” could he admit that he was misplacing his desire for God. “Late have I loved you, Lord,” he writes in his Confessions, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Jesus is the calm and the peace at the center of all of life’s storms. How often we read in scripture of the fear and desperation of the apostles, caught up in a tempest. Jesus always shows up. Sometimes they do not recognize him, thinking he is a ghost or a figment of their imaginations. Sometimes he seems to be asleep.

Recall the incident in which, during a storm, Jesus is sleeping in a boat on a cushion. That little detail which the evangelist notes tells us something about the place of God in our lives: always with us, always in charge. The helm, where the cushion is placed, is the captain’s seat! If we allow the Lord to be the captain of our ship, whether he seems to be awake or asleep, he is always with us.

The message is a simple one. No one knows our hungers, our needs, our anxieties better than Jesus. In fact, he is really the solace we are looking for. In St. John’s gospel, Jesus tells us that he is the “Bread of Life” and who feeds on him will never die. All of the idols or false gods lead to death. Sooner or later, every addiction ends up taking control of the user, dominating their life, and draining them of it.

God is, by nature, a lover, a giver of life. Jesus will never deprive us of our freedom or our true self, because it is the nature of love to respect and to enhance the identity of the beloved. Many other scriptural images come to mind, such as the depiction of the vine and the vinedresser, who often has to trim off dead and useless branches so that the vine can flourish and produce its yield.

We can imagine these dead branches as bad habits and old attitudes that do us no good. Jesus will show us how to live without them. Sometimes the pruning process may be painful, but remember the vinedresser is never closer to the vine then when he is pruning it!

The message is clear: God is always with us. Because the Lord is not a bully and does not shout or shut us down to get our attention, the knock or the whisper may be very gentle. This is why prayer and reflection are so important. Our first impulse when we are afraid or desperate is often to run or rush into something. The best advice is: don’t just do something, stand there! Take the time to ask God, “What are you trying to tell me? What can I learn from this?” God uses everything, even our sins and failures. Remember, the Lord is always near, always with us.

Soon we will be entering the season of Advent. Advent means “coming to.” God comes to us. The word “Emmanuel” itself means “God comes to us.” Our faith is one of fulfillment, but it also demands waiting. It is an attitude of openness toward the God who comes. Our lives are full, our mission in life is fulfilled, when we live in God, and God in us.