In visiting our Mission Statement over the past few weeks, we have given an overview of understanding and recognizing spiritual starvation. A very simple summary would be:
1) Spiritual starvation happens when we are disconnected from others, and ultimately, disconnected from God.
2) Symptoms of spiritual starvation are difficult to detect, but almost always center around self-preservation.
We must also include this stipulation:
3) In order to address and prevent spiritual starvation, people must first understand and recognize the process of spiritual nourishment, beginning with themselves.
The first two principles make up the “what” and the “why” of our Mission. The third is our “who.” As for “when” and “where,” the answer is always: everywhere, right now. In upcoming weeks, we’ll go in greater depth into “how” we propose to address and prevent spiritual starvation by following the way of Saint Thorlak.
It is very tempting to leave things here. These are our most fundamental points. Anything else might expand, expound, explain and adorn them – but, until we commit these points to heart, there is little gained by adding words.
Let us, then, sit with these thoughts and ponder them.
(If that’s not quite a full enough glimpse, here are some questions to help reveal the bigger picture.)
Q: Is it important to know why someone is disconnected from others?
A: Not immediately. We would not ask hungry people how they became so famished before feeding them first… but, after a good meal and a supply of groceries to take home, it would be very helpful to learn about the particular circumstances.
Q: If symptoms are difficult to detect, how do we know who we intend to help?
A: Everyone. The answer is, it does not matter – we help everyone. Anyone who is human qualifies. Spiritual nourishment originates with God and may be accessed at any time without fear of running out. Give nourishment freely and give often.
Q: Why begin with ourselves? Isn’t this contrary to the missionary mindset? Isn’t this like taking a choice portion for ourselves before distributing to the needy?
A: It may seem like we’re encouraging selfishness and greed, but our instruction is similar to the pre-flight safety announcements when traveling by airplane. “If the pressure in the cabin suddenly drops, oxygen masks will deploy automatically for your immediate use. Please secure your own mask first before attempting to help others with theirs.” Why? Because we ourselves need oxygen in order to effectively help someone else. Spiritual nourishment is accomplished through connection. If we are adequately nourished, we not only have an abundance to share with the under-nourished, but we’re also well-versed in, and living, the example they may need to see in order to gain confidence or move toward openness with others.
More importantly, if we are not well spiritually nourished, we ourselves are likely acting more in self-preservation than in openness – and this is contrary to the example we intend to foster.
Q: Why bring other people into it when we could just connect with God, ourselves, directly? What about monks and hermits who live in solitude? Are they also spiritually under-nourished?
A: (… Can we just say, we really like questions like this!) Our answer is twofold. First, we believe people are designed and intended to interact with one another. Christians can find this principle throughout Sacred Scripture (such as Matthew 5:16), but anyone of any belief system can generally agree that our physical and emotional needs are best met through contact with others. This may be less true in adulthood than in early childhood, when our lives depend on care and shelter from others, but it is nearly impossible to exist well in isolation. Second, religious monks and hermits may indeed live in physical isolation, but the focus of their life is connecting to their Source (God) on behalf of themselves and all humanity. Christian monks and hermits particularly spend hours in prayer not just for their own benefit but for raising up the needs of, and calling down heavenly graces upon, all humankind. We have yet to meet monks or hermits whose work is undertaken for their own benefit. We assert that this is an extraordinary, transcendent form of connection with others. Instead of connecting to one person at a time, such mystics open their hearts to all humanity at once.
We leave you with these images to review and reinforce our core understanding of spiritual starvation.
Aren’t we being redundant in driving these points like this?
Perhaps. But we are also using something called best practices for instruction. By using graphics and repetition, and by rephrasing points across multiple contexts (like our Q&A), we maximize the opportunity for this information to stick and make sense. Educators discovered this when tailoring lessons to students with learning disabilities and processing difficulties… but, as it turned out, it helped people of all abilities master concepts better.
That, by itself, is almost like a parable to what we are doing. By taking extra care to reach people who need help in a specific way, we end up finding out how to help… everybody.
Pray: Dear Father in Heaven, help us commit these ideas to our very lives so that we can be better equipped to spiritually nourish the people around us. Send others to nourish us, and help us receive them openly - so that we all continue and perpetuate this work begun in You.
Contemplate: Come up with your own questions about spiritual starvation… and then, using the three points from this week’s post, attempt to answer them. If you get stuck, keep trying – or contact us and we’ll give it a try.
Relate: Connect, connect, connect. Remember everything we have looked at thus far. Don’t just socialize; connect. Don’t avoid the opportunity right in front of you; connect. Connect in the place where you are, with anyone the day provides. You should not have to go far out of your way. Start small and local.
In keeping with the clinical analogy, it makes sense to look next at symptoms. Physical starvation concretely affects the entire person: body (e.g., weight loss, anemia); mind (e.g., lethargy, difficulty concentrating); and emotions (e.g., agitation, depression). But what would then be the spiritual analogs to these symptoms? Is there such a thing as spiritual weight loss? Furthermore, the overlap between mental and emotional effects is confounding in and of itself. The overarching problem is that symptoms, by definition, are an individual’s personal experiences, and are as variable as the people facing them.
Perhaps we need first to look for a common denominator. Is there a point to which both physical and spiritual starvation may be reduced, which can then be compared as an analogy between the two?
Aha – we think we’ve got it. Something which should sound familiar: SELF-PRESERVATION.
In physical starvation mode, the body automatically turns to self-preservation by slowing down metabolism and cognitive functioning to minimize expenditure of energy. People show increased agitation and irritability as both a function of imbalanced chemistry and our instinctive survival behavior which draws attention to the fact that something is wrong.
In spiritual starvation mode, our thoughts tend to turn inward. We fortify ourselves to survive without connections by empowering self-statements:
Defensiveness and distrust build gradually if left unchecked. As we repeatedly assume the worst intentions from others, we prepare for (or even pre-empt) pain and rejection.
There is a noteworthy distinction between the physical and spiritual. Self-preservation in physical starvation is the body’s drastic, involuntary effort to prompt for help to remain alive. In spiritual starvation, however, the mechanism serves the opposite function: to push help away and to shut our connections down.
Is it drastic? Yes.
Is it involuntary?
(pause) In part.
In the measure that it is a function of habit, we believe, yes.
It is theoretically impossible to speak definitively for every person in every circumstance, and for our purposes, it is not necessary. We are fairly certain, though, that we can make a few general statements common to all human nature and stay within the limits of reason.
Let us simplify by saying that spiritual self-preservation is an act of deliberately withholding one’s self from connecting with others. We can speak both of isolated instances of last resort and long term self-preservation as a habit nurtured over many years. As with anything else, change is always possible, but ingrained behavior is quite nearly automatic – and much more difficult to root out.
Here’s another wrinkle: Spiritual self-preservation can occur without insult, injury or interference from others.
Take autism, for instance.
Someone with the best intentions may experience extreme anxiety in the presence of others. Ambient noise may jumble a person’s thoughts. Eye contact may be painfully difficult. Words may come out incorrectly, or slowly, or in choppy stutter. Social rules may be unclear. In any of these cases, the choice to isolate rather than interact seems more like survival than avoidance. Yet, the outcome remains the same: disconnection.
It is easy, in the case of physical starvation, to cleanly point from cause to effect. Such clarity does not exist in the spiritual realm.
What we do know is that disconnection from others is a sign of spiritual malnourishment… and is detrimental to spiritual health.
Very often, we will find someone – perhaps, even, ourselves – isolating from others, for one reason or another… once in awhile, or habitually. The outward signs are not always clear, or obvious, or even detectable.
What, then, do we do, if we do not know who amongst us is spiritually hungry, and who is spiritually well-nourished?
The answer is simple: Nourish everyone. Those who have plenty will appreciate the nourishment. And, those who have none… will appreciate the nourishment. There is no such thing as too much generosity when it comes to spiritual nourishment.
Starting with ourselves.
Pray: Heavenly Father, we pray that You reveal our innermost habits to us, so that we may recognize the symptoms of our own spiritual hunger before it turns to starvation.
Contemplate: What habits of spiritual self-preservation do we nurture? Before this exercise, were we aware of these habits?
Relate: Spiritual self-preservation pushes people away in our moments of need. If we catch ourselves doing this, pause and consider the outcome… and, if at all possible, try a different route. What happens?
Last week, we began studying spiritual starvation by comparing it, conceptually, to physical starvation. We looked at the definition of physical starvation as being a state of food deprivation which, if left untreated, can lead to death. We examined if it is possible to compare an abstract concept such as spiritual starvation with something concrete and measurable as physical starvation, and determined it is. With that established, we can now go forward in more fully defining our concepts, theoretical as they may be, so that everyone has the same basis for understanding what we mean by combating spiritual starvation.
We could spend days debating what we mean by “spiritual.” We could parse, lump and exclude. We could stretch until we lose sight of the horizon on each side. Still, we need a working understanding of what we mean by “spiritual” if we are going to do this right.
We want it to be clear that we believe every human being is comprised of body, mind and spirit interconnected. Some immanent character of our nature essentially and uniquely separates us from the other animal species. Since this character is defined in ways as numerous as there are worldviews, we know we have to draw our starting point firmly declaring our position that there is One, True Source of life whom we call God. We embrace the Christian view that God is triune in nature and that humans are unable to fully comprehend the workings of God because our intellect has been clouded by our ancestors trading their unquestioning acceptance of perfect order for skeptical scrutiny (… said with no presumption of summarizing Genesis in eighteen words).
We do not believe that it is necessary for people to share our theological view in order to benefit from the work we do and the ideas we promote. We will always maintain that the only qualification a person needs to be a Missionary of Saint Thorlak, or to partake in the fruits of our work, is to be human. It is helpful to understand our theological underpinnings, but not necessary; nor is it necessary to adopt our beliefs if you currently do not hold them.
Of the nearly infinite elements we could include in exploring things that are “spiritual,” it comes down to a practical need to limit ours to the specific focus we keep as Missionaries of Saint Thorlak. The definition of “spiritual,” then, which we will use for our purposes, is: matters which pertain to the essence of God endowed in each human person.
Saint Thorlak - The Bishop who Battled Starvation
The Icelandic settlers of the Middle Ages faced terribly harsh living conditions. Iceland’s terrain and climate were not crop-friendly and livestock required decades to establish. Fishing provided a steady supply of food when the weather conditions were favorable. Overall, conditions were difficult, and food scarcity during long winters was a hardship many endured.
Thorlak Thorhallsson, who rose from deacon to priest, from scholar-theologian to abbot, and eventually, to bishop, was a champion in the fight against starvation in his time.
He did many things to see that everyone – families, widows, children and homeless beggars alike – had adequate food. At a period in history when Catholic bishops held high social status, Bishop Thorlak used his position of privilege to invite the poorest in his diocese to dine with him (… but not before taking time to wash and dry their feet, in the tradition of the Last Supper, and to delight them with gifts from his own treasury).
But more so than these acts of magnanimity, Bishop Thorlak instilled his firm adherence to Matthew 18:20 to everyone he met, everyone he mentored, and everyone he admonished. He took great joy in recalling that, wherever two or more gathered in charity, Jesus Himself became spiritually present – creating a bridge between heaven and earth, and a direct connection to God. In other words, he propagated spiritual nourishment abundantly, everywhere he went!
Bishop Thorlak saw each person before him as bearing the essence of God, and was not afraid to teach about that in all that he said and did. From political figures to fellow clergy to ordinary people… from diplomatic relationships to the sanctity of the marital union to the sacrifices required of priests for the good of their people… Bishop Thorlak consistently taught that everything comes back to how well we nurture our connection to God in whatever our state in life asks us to do.
Bishop Thorlak battled spiritual starvation tirelessly… and, quite successfully.
May his way open doors for us as we now set out to propagate his model in our time.
PRAY: God, Our Father: You are the Source of our very life, and the Source of the life of each person we see… those we know, and those we do not… those with whom we speak, and those familiar through publicity and celebrity. Your essence dwells in each of us. May we learn to see You in everyone, and to recognize Your essence, even in those who seem distant from us… and distant from You.
CONTEMPLATE: At the very foundation of what we do is the acknowledgment of God’s essence in every person. Ponder this, deeply, in order to let it become part of our ordinary consideration of everyday things.
RELATE: As we go about our week, try to recall that God’s essence is in us… and in those surrounding us. Every interaction is an encounter with God’s essence. Are you aware of this more as you encountering God, or God encountering you?
As we frequently say, our primary focus as Missionaries of Saint Thorlak is to combat spiritual starvation. Yet, we do not screen at the outset for spiritually well-nourished people who can then go find and feed the hungry. In fact, we want people who have seen what spiritual starvation looks like – or, better still, what spiritual starvation feels like – because these are the people who will be most fervently committed to the cause. In truth, there is no person immune from spiritual hunger. If you are fortunate enough to be spiritually well-nourished this day, you are valuable to our team for all the strength, support and balance you bring. We encourage you to pay close attention as you mentor others, because it is always possible that circumstances may change and you find yourself on the other side of the coin for awhile. Hopefully, your Missionary work will be a steady stream of nourishment when you need it yourself.
There are others among our ranks who, today, are not yet well nourished spiritually. We invite you, if you feel this describes you, to feel free to apply this to yourself. There is no reason we cannot benefit from our own teaching. Quite the opposite – it is essential that we assimilate and experience all that which we hope to model and offer to others.
So, then: What is spiritual starvation?
This, of course, refers to physical starvation. Spiritual starvation, its analog, would thus be the state of having no spiritual nourishment for a long period, often causing death.
We define spiritual nourishment as being meaningfully connected to our Source (God), either in direct relationship or through discovering the essence of God by meaningfully connecting with others.
(Here’s an easier shortcut: Connection. Spiritual nourishment means connection.)
Does it seem drastic to assert that having no meaningful connection to God or others for a long period might lead to death? Perhaps in the literal sense of cause and effect. Being lonely, isolated or ostracized would only seem to cause death if it reverted back to the physical, with social deprivation coming as a result of physical deprivation, and the cause of death being a consequence of this physical starvation. However, a compelling case can be made that meaningful connections protect against things such as substance abuse, suicidal ideation, addictions and criminal behavior. Is it possible that lack of connection (i.e., spiritual starvation) contributes in many cases to unhealthy choices, even to the point of risking death? Yes.
Let us look back at physical starvation for a moment. The four most common factors leading to physical malnutrition:
How would these translate into the analogs of spiritual starvation?
These premises are the very foundation of our cause. We believe that spiritual starvation can be defined, and therefore understood. Once we do this, we can learn to recognize it by its signs and symptoms… and then, to address it using methods patterned after the life and ways of Saint Thorlak.
After taking this pause to better understand (or review) the concept of spiritual starvation, you may more clearly recognize it in yourself or someone very close to you. If so, take heart: you are very well qualified for this cause.
Even though Saint Thorlak was severely impacted by speech impairments and overwhelming anxiety, he met success after success in the realms of public ministry, clerical reform, church administration and spiritual mentorship. Wow. This is an admirable résumé for anyone. We boldly propose: If Saint Thorlak, with his known limitations, spiritually fed thousands in his lifetime… perhaps his methods could spiritually feed hundreds of thousands in ours.
Let’s find out.
PRAY: Dear Father in Heaven, You revealed to us through the prophet Isaiah: “If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday” [58:10]. Help us see how this applies to others… and then, to making sure our own souls are nourished with meaningful connections leading to You.
CONTEMPLATE: Call to mind the last time you remember fasting. Dwell on the sensations and urges you recall. Derive from that memory a parallel to how these would be experienced and expressed if it were spiritual hunger.
RELATE: Ask someone this week if they have ever been spiritually hungry. If we were able to record everyone’s responses, we imagine a very wide variety of richly thought-provoking responses.
May the power of Divine Love shine in and through my weakness, so that He might be glorified in and through me, and that in my weakness, His power may reach perfection. Through Christ Our Lord, AMEN.
Fr. Mark P. Nolette - Spiritual Director for the Mission of Saint Thorlak