Spiritual Junk Food

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Two words.  Junk food.  I love it.  I know you do too.  I know I don’t need it.  Look at me.  And neither do you, really.  But it’s just so good.  All that salt and sugar and saturated fat, and crunchy, savory, mouthwatering, flavorful unhealthy goodness.  Sometimes it’s so decadent it makes your eyes roll back … way back.  And when you remember to say grace before eating, you know God takes away the calories … or is the calorie equivalent added to your time in Purgatory?  I made that second part up, but doesn’t it make sense that it would take an indulgence to reverse another indulgence?  A moment on the lips, forever on the hips, or so I am told.

The term “junk food” was coined in 1972 by Michael Jacobson, Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.  It encompasses that portion of the human diet that “contains high levels of saturated fat, salt, or sugar, and little or no fruit, vegetables, or dietary fiber, and is considered to have little or no health benefits.  Common junk food includes salted snack foods like chips/crisps, candy, gum, most sweet desserts, fried fast food and carbonated beverages/sodas, as well as alcoholic beverages.”  In short, most everything we enjoy snacking on while we watch TV or use to quell the stomach tremors till dinner time, is bad for us.  We’ve heard the health warnings.  We can read the studies online.  Our doctors tell us what we don’t want to hear.  And yet, sales of junk food rise when stress levels rise.  Perhaps we are just generally weak in the face of temptation.  And we are more inclined to seek what satisfies for the moment instead of choosing wisely what is of greater long-term benefit.  Why is that?  I know it takes great discipline to eat healthy.  And like all good habits, healthy habits are easier to pick up when we are young, when we are better informed, when we are affirmed and encouraged, and when we are surrounded by others who support our good decisions.

When it comes to nourishment for our spiritual lives, we generally see the benefit in an early start.  We teach our children how to pray, how to make good choices, how to resist temptation, how to hear God’s voice in the pages of sacred scripture.  We teach them what holiness is by the example of the lives of the saints.  We prepare them for the sacraments, and encourage frequent reception of reconciliation and holy communion.  We help build an environment for their young faith to flourish, by guarding them against the influence of the media, and wanting to meet their friends.  We help them reflect on their life’s experiences, and affirm God’s goodness, justice, providence and compassion when it becomes evident.

But we know over time, as they begin to discover and consume junk food, they also discover and consume spiritual junk food.  Then the healthy spiritual nourishment we tried to give them must compete with a spirituality that is largely entertainment, emotional manipulation, sound-bites and superstition.  They can get caught up in religious practices that do not transform their hearts and minds into the likeness of Jesus Christ, but are gimmicks sprinkled with catchy tunes, quick and shallow answers, and idolatry in the guise of religious marketing.  Spiritual junk food.  Lots of saturated fat, sugar and salt, but very little if any true spiritual nourishment.  Unfortunately, we are also often responsible for bringing junk food into their spiritual lives.

Jesus wants to feed us truly nourishing food for our soul.  But if we have gotten accustomed to spiritual junk food, it will take a lot of discipline to undo the harm and be receptive once again to what truly nourishes.  First we must recognize what is harmful to our spiritual lives.  For instance, there is a rigidness that is sometimes associated with religious practice that is more intent at fulfilling the letter than the spirit of the law.  We cannot deny the value of rules and procedures in the sensible ordering of our lives.  But these are intended to keep us grounded so we might focus on what is of even greater value.  Take the ten commandments for instance.  “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods besides me.”  We are instructed to set aside other gods, and encouraged to grow in relationship with the One True God, to discover his will for us, to understand what he asks of us, to participate in the fulfillment of his will.  Instead, we find that we increasingly devote our attention and resources to that which is not God, and with which we cannot possibly have a lasting relationship – money, technology, material possessions, fame and celebrity.  They have replaced God in our lives.  And if God is to regain his rightful place in our spiritual lives, we have to set these false gods aside.  “You shall not kill.  You shall not commit adultery.  You shall not steal.”  These commandments are based on justice.  No one has the right to take another human life; that is God’s prerogative.  When one breaks the marriage vow, they take back from their spouse what they had promised in good faith before God.  When we take someone else’s property, we deprive them of what is rightfully theirs without just cause.  So if we are mindful of justice in our lives, we might actually put energy and effort into giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.

Another piece of spiritual junk food is the mindless practice of religious ritual.  When properly understood and reverently practiced, religious ritual can capture a dimension of life that transcends the physical.  We know for instance what good liturgy is supposed to be like, even if we are unable to describe it.  When the music we sing, the readings proclaimed, the homily, the communion between us and those around us, and the overall atmosphere within this sacred space lifts our hearts and minds, strengthens our convictions, assures us of God’s mercy, and energizes us to put the gospel into practice, the ritual is no longer the focus.  If the ritual is our primary concern, we are feasting on spiritual junk food.

Also, there is junk food that disguises as nutrition, even claiming lower sugar and sodium content, lower saturated fat, but only compared with the competition.  It’s like saying this potato chip will still kill you but not as bad as brand X.  Spiritual junk food that disguises as healthy spiritual food is filled with references to Jesus and the lessons of scripture, but is still focused on material things and manipulating our emotions.  True conversion does not require that we rend our garments or weep uncontrollably.  If we do, that’s okay.  But true conversion is about turning our lives around, from attitudes and behaviors that are contrary to Christian life to a new way of seeing and making better choices.  Spiritual junk food does not bring lasting change.

When the people were hungry, Jesus told his disciples to “give them something to eat yourselves.”  Jesus can feed the world with what little we have to give.  But if we have nothing, then we will see nothing wrong with consuming spiritual junk food, and with giving it to others to eat … or else we starve … and sometimes we do both.