Practical Faith for Challenging Times

Here’s another one of my published pieces, first written for a pagan magazine called Thorn at the end of 2008. While things have improved since then, there is still information that can apply today….

Practical Faith for Challenging Times: Some Thoughts for Yule

Catherine Kane

            As I write these words in the closing days of October in the year 2008, we are all of us living in challenging times. We are entangled in a seemingly endless war; commanded by a leader with limited skills, questionable ethics and desperate need to prove himself; saddled with a crumbling economy, with businesses failing across the country. Our people are starving, divided, in despair. Worst yet, there are people eager to increase these problems by using the language of fear— words like “terrorism,” “socialism” and “recession.” While times are hard, words like these can lead people to panic, doing things that make bad situations worse. Together, this can seem a challenge more than humanly possible to face, let alone remedy.

            What’s a practical pagan to do?

            Challenging times are when faith is most needed. I’d say now is the time to actively live your faith.

            This may seem philosophical but impractical, like saying, “Think happy thoughts and all the bad things will go away…”

            The truth is more interesting than that. Faith can be a living presence if you actively practice, a source of power to survive and thrive in challenging times. Research from sources including Yale, Harvard, Duke and Temple Universities, and the Merck Manual of Geriatrics reveals that regular positive spiritual practice correlates with better physical and mental health and has a positive relationship with remission, recovery and survival rates in serious conditions like cancer, heart attack and AIDs. As early as 2001, Dr Larry Dossey (Prayer is Good Medicine) noted over 130 studies  that showed the contribution of prayer to recovery for folks injured or ill, whether they knew they were prayed for or not . Prayer had similar effects even on animals and plants.

            The current climate of fear can cause us to act from panic, making frightened decisions that on a wide scale could result in bank panics, neglect of health and safety issues, and critical accidents caused by distraction. Per Harvard Medical studies, regular positive faith practice, especially involving meditation, can generate a “relaxation response,” which not only relieves the effects of stress, including medical conditions, but also makes us more focused, aware and empowered. Acting from faith, not fear, can put us in a sounder place to make wiser decisions.

            An environment of ongoing crisis (sound familiar?) can exhaust people, leaving them emotionally immobile and unable to cope with what they’re currently facing. Positive spiritual practice is shown to help support personal resilience, both in “bouncing back” from illness (International Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation 2007) and in adapting to deal with any challenges at hand (Koenig, 2004). Given that our current circumstances take us into uncharted waters, resilience is a valuable gift.

            Spiritual practice with others seems to add additional benefits connected to community, including choosing healthy behaviors and preventing depression. Faith can support greater honesty, generosity and the ability to interact more positively with others, both in your spiritual tradition and outside of it (Norenzayan, Science 2008). Faith inspired people of many different spiritual backgrounds to work with lepers and the poor with Mother Teresa, house the homeless with Habitat for Humanity, and provide long-term solutions to hunger through Heifer International— three world-changing movements that each started with one person making a choice based on faith).  In divisive times, faith can be a powerful way to bring people together.

            Faith might even help you live longer. Research finds that neighborhoods with certain kinds of churches– ones with active programs for individual community needs, like soup kitchens, and policies of  co-operation with other groups–  have decreased mortality rates not only in members, but the whole neighborhood (ScienceDaily, 7/3/08).

            Finally, positive spiritual practice seems to be an important survival skill. Noted psychiatrist Viktor Frankl formed much of his framework of mental health while imprisoned in a World War II concentration camp. One important thing he noticed was that those who faced the camp as meaningless horror were at higher risk of dying there. The people with a strong spiritual connection, who chose to find greater meaning in their situation, were far more likely to survive.

            If Spirit can have a positive effect under those conditions, it can surely help with the challenges we face.

            These benefits are universal across different religious and spiritual practices. The important factors seem to be positive spiritual beliefs, a regular practice, and making your spiritual beliefs an integral part of your everyday life.

            For some, practicing their faith is enough to bring them through challenging times. I must admit, my weakness is faith in action. The key is build your faith into how you live. You pray that your needs will be met— but you also feed someone hungry. Ask for Divine blessings for your home and family— but also bless others by donating to improve someone else’s life. Do energy work to attract a new home—but also check the classifieds.

            You walk your talk and let your spiritual beliefs shape how you live every day, even if it isn’t always the easiest choice. You also talk your walk, and choose the words that empower people rather than drive them into despair.

            You have Faith.

            In ancient times at Yule, our forebears faced the longest night of the year: the shortest day; Darkness pressing in against the Light and the fear that went with that.

            How did they come through it? They held onto their faith— a faith that there was Something greater than themselves that cared about them. They chanted, prayed and reached out to connect with that Something…

            And the sun rose.

            Now, just as in those ancient times, we find ourselves in times of darkness— not only physical darkness, but also the darkness of a declining economy, intolerance and disaster.

            How shall we come through darkness?

             Let there be action, but let there be Faith as well—

             And let the sun rise again. ”

Catherine Kane


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