Junk Food for the Soul

Beyond Empty Calories to Real Spiritual Sustenance

Oatmeal is not a favorite food of two-year-olds. Mine wasn’t too thrilled to see it arrive on the breakfast table this morning. He ate grudgingly, intermittent spoonfuls hitting the table and floor. I cajoled it into him, bite by bite, nudging the bowl back every time he pushed it away.

It would have been a lot less hassle just to slap a box of Reese Puffs or a couple of those frosted toaster treats in front of the kid. Or any other of those morning-time goodies that fill our supermarkets, such as breakfast pizza or one of those frosted, sugar-dipped, marshmallow-laden “cereals” always prancing across our TV screens. All fast, easy, and purportedly tasty, at least to kids.

Junky breakfast food is part of that increasingly strange group of quick, easy, appeasing products beloved by North Americans. No matter how nutritionally bankrupt, if it’s convenient and gratifying enough, we’ll put it in our mouths. Fake cheese, supersized things, those deep-fried Twinkies that appeared at state fairs this year.

We flock to instant and disposable, too—magic weight-loss pills, baby bath-time washcloths you throw away after one use. Las Vegas has drive-through wedding chapels. There are even quick and easy ways to feed your spirit. The religious marketplace abounds in trinkets and ideas that make the work of nurturing our souls much sweeter, more effortless.

Finding God-related comfort and guidance has never been simpler. Why peruse the Good Book yourself when you can purchase it in small, pre-selected chunks? The people who make a living selling such things will print Bible verses and “inspirational” Christian sayings on anything—mouse pads, coffee mugs, clothing, pillow cases. Lollipops inscribed with the words “Jesus Loves You” come in five different flavors, and you can buy fortune cookies that hold snippets of Scripture rather than fortunes. The nation’s bookstores are also well-stocked with easy-to-read spiritual answers. If you want, you can live on Oprah-style pop-wisdom and that whole Chicken Soup for the Soul phenomenon. Not that I don’t crave these sugary, feel-good parts of religion myself. I’ve often sat through Mass tuning out everything but the pretty songs and occasional happy words about Jesus. Any reading containing the words “weeping and gnashing of the teeth” sends my mind wandering purposefully elsewhere.

And maybe spiritual junk food has its place in our diets. The pleasure my two-year-old gets from the odd piece of candy I allow him is probably good for him. But I would never expect him to journey through this complicated, faith-testing world we live in on the likes of “Jesus Loves You” lollipops. Overindulging in empty spiritual calories can leave us sugar-crashed, exhausted, and feeling let down by religion.

Why not just take the time for a proper breakfast? A friend of mine has found renewed spiritual energy by going to Mass every Friday, instead of just on Sunday. Another gets together with a small prayer group one evening a week; they sing a little, do some shared and individual praying, and listen to each other. My mother committed herself to weekly volunteering with a program that provides meals to the homeless.I like to hide in my bedroom at night and read, sometimes the Bible (I just follow the daily schedule in the front of my New Testament), and every now and then one of my “pope books.” “Crossing the Threshold of Hope will always be a favorite. Henri Nouwen, David Stindl-Rast, Kathleen Norris, and Tom Ryan also come recommended.

The way to God is not quick or instant; it requires a lot of thoughtful, steady effort. When we finally realize this all we have to do is go back to the kitchen table. God will be there, a persistent parent, ready to nudge that bowl of oatmeal back to us.