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September 27, 2006

Today, I was able to do one of my all-time favorite activities. I stood alone, so to speak, in Times Square.

With a wee bit of concentration, I made the noise go away. In this interior silence, the towering billboards, scrolling news headlines, and glittery theaters found their proper perspective. I thought of the people, past and present, who made this sparkling wonder come alive and mused about what made them tick, why they worked so hard and sacrificed so much for material success.

My reflective moment was likely brought on by my recent study of religious and spiritual trends in America. The Barna research group recently reported that while half of all Americans said their faith helped them cope with the shock and uncertainty of the September 11 terrorist attacks, and there was a considerable spike in church attendance after the attacks, by January 2002 churchgoing was back to pre-attack levels and has remained consistent in the five years since.

As I looked out on 44th Street and Broadway, humanity was everywhere.

I knew behind the construction of every skyscraper was the wrinkled brow of a passionate risk-taker. Behind the genius of every advertising blitz were many late nights at the office and, perhaps, a disgruntled or lonely spouse at home. Behind the doors of every luxury hotel were hundreds of hardworking staff, scurrying about feverishly. And backstage of every Broadway show were a few actors who used to wait tables…and many more who still do.

What motivates us to work, sacrifice, and worry so much if we know one day, relatively soon, none of this will do us any good?

My own pastoral experience confirms the findings of the report I cited above. Personal tragedy invites us to be at our best and changes our priorities. In moments of crisis, we ask ourselves the big question: what at the very end really matters? What am I looking for? And if I continue on this path, will I find it?

Honest and smart people come to different and even contradictory conclusions, but despite our differences, most agree that we've been duped by a materialistic culture. Religious folk like myself, who believe the quality of our after-life depends on the way we live today, wonder, during moments of forced reflection, why we invest so little in eternity. The non-religious, in similar circumstances, wonder why, if life is so short, they spend so much time on such unimportant things.

Perhaps bad habits are to blame. New data show that we invert our hierarchy of values in our twenties and only come back to more traditional values in our golden years. Only one-fifth of twenty-somethings (20 percent), for example, have maintained a level of spiritual activity consistent with their high school experiences.

Tragedy and old age, then, have a way of waking us up. The problem is we don't always make it through either of the two.

The wisest among us are those who start now and invest in what lasts.

What lasts? That's up for grabs. I think it has to do with love — what we do for God and what we do for others.

God bless, Father Jonathan

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