I've mentioned before that I'm a fan of Stephan Pastis' comic strip, Pearls Before Swine. Pastis writes with a lot of insight into human nature; coming from an Orthodox background he seems not to mind tangling with eternal verities from time to time, and has probably featured themes involving death more than any other comic strip writer whose work has ever been syndicated.
I was thinking the other day about a series of strips Pastis wrote which can be found in his collection book, Lions and Tigers and Crocs, Oh My! In the series, magnetic letters on the refrigerator in Rat and Pig's house begin forming ominous messages like "The End is Near," and "Repent." Though the sweet and innocent Pig is ready to take the messages seriously right from the first, the more cynical, worldly Rat's initial response to the seemingly apocalyptic refrigerator is to suggest that they eat out. When a much more elaborate message quoting Revelation 9:6 appears, though, even Rat is scared; the next thing we know, the two are in a monastary, copying Scripture and wondering how to spell "Leviticus."
Alas, Rat's carnal nature is not a good fit for the monastery, and even Pig misses "beer and pizza" night. The two return home and vow to pay no further attention to the fridge (though they're quite willing to be pandered to by the television).
I was thinking of this series because of a very strong truth about human nature it expresses: it is easy to seek religion, to cling to faith, in times of uncertainty or fear--but it is hard to persevere in faith when times are relatively easy.
Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have written about the dangers of materialism; we Catholic Americans who rightly opposed communism for so long sometimes forget that nearly as many warnings exist about godless capitalism and its dangers to our souls. When times are good, men tend to forget that God is still the author of our lives, the beneficient Love Who gives us every good thing; they start to believe that they themselves have made their own successes, by following a series of pragmatic decisions, understanding and exploiting the rules of the market, or otherwise creating their own destinies.
The terror attacks upon America in 2001 were a momentary reminder that this is not the case, that we are not the masters of our fates, that even the man in the Bible who stored up grain and celebrated his riches was called a fool by God, Who did not intend the evil that is death, but Who allowed for that possibility when He gave man free will. People responded to the great evil of the terror attacks by seeking what is good; churches were packed. But only for a time; our parish seemed unusually crowded right up through that Christmas, but by the following Lent there were plenty of empty seats again.
What gets in the way? I'm sure the people who started coming to Mass after September 11, 2001 had every intention of drawing closer to God, of spending time each week in worship and prayer, of returning to the practice of the faith of their youth, or finding a spiritual home even if they'd never had one. And here and there, some probably did remain, a few souls out of many who were able to keep those promises and open themselves up to the mystery of grace.
But so many more, making the same promises and having the same intentions, did not keep them. Why is this?
In the microcosm of Pastis' comic, I can see three of the reasons why people are unable to persevere:
1. Doubt. Having lived with cynical scepticism, perhaps for a whole life, some people may find that once the moment of fear or anxiety which drove them to seek God is over, their doubts return, making the practice of coming to church seem like folly.
2. Flesh. Having indulged their carnal natures, they are unprepared to reform their lives when called upon to do so. While neither the Catholic Church nor the various Christian churches expect people to live completely free from sin, there is an expectation that believers will be constantly heeding God's call to reform their lives and live in accordance with the Gospel, with Church teachings, and with the desire and intention of practicing virtue. But someone who has never tried living this way may refuse to give up certain sins, or slide back into them so often that they begin to resent and reject the Church's transformative message.
3. Habit. Like Pig and his desire for a "beer and pizza" night at the monastery, people form habits which are not always sins in themselves, but which can be very hard to lay aside and do without when they are called to do so for the sake of the Kingdom. The most obvious of these in our present culture is the habit of sleeping in on Sunday mornings, but there are other habits of self-indulgence which can get in the way of the practice of a Christian life and regular habits of worship and prayer.
But just as these three things get in the way of those who, in bad times or times of fear and uncertainty, seek a return to the practice of their faith, so do they also get in the way of those of us who do practice our faith on a regular basis. Doubts can enter our mind and weaken our love for God; the lure of the flesh can make us try to reason that we can still be a good Catholic (or a strong Christian) and do or have something that the Bible and the Church both say we can't have; and our habits may be the most pernicious roadblocks of all, lulling us into laziness and self-indulgence all while convinced that we are living the Gospels in our day-to-day lives.
The enemies of perseverence in faith surround us, as they always have surrounded believers. Lent, as it always does, provides us with a wonderful chance to see more clearly what stands between us and God, and to work on weeding those things out of our lives, to let His work bloom in us more fully as He calls us to become fit citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.