Practical Atheism and Reliance on God

Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B.

In the year 1540, St. Ignatius of Loyola founded a new religious community called The Society of Jesus—or The Jesuits—as we often refer to them today. Like every founder, St. Ignatius laid down certain rules and norms for how his community was to be governed, which he called The Constitutions. And in chapter four of The Constitutions, St. Ignatius describes six so-called “testing experiences” which every candidate who wishes to become a Jesuit must undergo. St. Ignatius describes the third testing experience in this way: “The third experience is to spend [a] month in making a pilgrimage without money, but begging from door to door at times, for the love of God our Lord, in order to grow accustomed to discomfort in food and lodging. Thus too the candidate, through abandoning all the reliance which he could have in money or other created things, may with genuine faith and intense love place his reliance entirely in his Creator and Lord.”

This is something Jesuit novices still do to this day. In the United States, the novice is often given a small sum of money—perhaps twenty or thirty dollars—as well as a one-way bus ticket to a destination which he and his novice director pick out. After arriving at his destination, the novice has a month to find his way back, relying entirely on God’s providence to guide his journey. Along with their thirty-day silent retreat, this is one of the most formative experiences for any Jesuit novice, as I’m sure it would be for any of us if we had to do it. The closest I’ve gotten to doing something like this was hitchhiking across Washington Island in Door County, but that’s a story for another time…

Without a doubt, this third testing experience which St. Ignatius came up with was heavily inspired by our gospel passage today, and other passages like it. Like the Apostles, the novice is instructed to take almost nothing for the journey. The Apostles got sandles, walking sticks, and the clothes on their backs. The novice gets clothes, a bit of cash, and a bus ticket. And in both cases, the point of the meager supplies is the same: to help those on the journey to place their reliance entirely in the Lord. The more we rely on money and other created things, the less we tend to rely on the Lord. And what we do not rely on, we do not think on, and soon forget. Reliance on the world tends to lead to forgetfulness of God.

This forgetfulness of God, precisely because God doesn’t seem to be a necessary part of the equation for daily living, Pope Benedict XVI called “practical atheism.” He differentiated it from theoretical atheism which denies the existence of God directly, and on principle. Practical atheism denies God’s existence indirectly by living as if He didn’t exist, even if some superficial faith in His existence is maintained. I’ve met very few theoretical atheists in my life, but I’ve met many practical atheists. There are many people who claim to believe in God, but do not let this belief impact the way they live: what they choose to think, and say, and do. If Christians are sometimes accused of being no better than atheists, it’s because many Christians are atheists—at least in practice, even if not in theory.

But the more important point, and the more important question, is this: Do we rely on God? And if so, where? Can we name concrete places in our lives where we rely on God? Or does God have no real place in our lives because we rely so heavily on money and other created things? Has this over reliance on the world led to a forgetfulness of God? Where have we forgotten God? Where are we, in effect, practical atheists? These are uncomfortable questions, but it’s essential that we answer them honestly. Reliance on God, awareness of His presence, dependence on Him—these are not just for the Apostles and Jesuit novices; these are for every Christian, without exception.

So how can we grow in our reliance on God? Besides becoming a missionary or going on a month-long pilgrimage with meager supplies, there are three classic practices for growing in reliance on God: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These are not just Lenten practices, to be dusted off and then shelved after forty days of feeble use. No, these are practices for the entire liturgical year, for the whole of our Christian lives. When we pray, we say, “Lord, I give you these fifteen or twenty minutes of my time. I trust that if I give up this time, you can still help me get done all that I need to do.” When we fast, we say, “Lord, I give you this thing I enjoy; I give you this fleeting pleasure, this food or drink or screen time. And I trust that even amidst the discomfort that comes from giving it up, you can fill me with lasting joy.” When we give alms, we say, “Lord, I give you this portion of my income. I trust that if I give up this money, you can still provide for all that I need.” Through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we grow in our reliance on the Lord. We begin to trust in him more and less in the things of the world. We become more aware of His presence and of our dependency on Him.

Even though it’s not Lent, I’d challenge you this next week to try to grow in either prayer, fasting, or almsgiving. Christ has summoned us, as He summoned His Apostles in our gospel, to go out and preach repentance to a world which has become forgetful of God. By engaging more fervently in these good works, we can grow by God’s grace in greater reliance on Him, and so bring faith and healing to an indifferent and broken world. Amen.