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Do you suffer from lightheadedness? Ringing in the ears? Do you sweat excessively? Do you have unexplained pain in your feet? How about difficulty concentrating? It’s enough to turn anyone into a hypochondriac.

I’m talking about a form I have to complete every time I see my doctor — that is, every six months. On it is an extensive list of symptoms; I circle the ones that seem to apply to me. As always, I struggle with honesty. Well, yes, my back does hurt. But does it hurt hurt? Do I want to open that can of worms, or should I just try not to sleep on my back so much?

It’s rather like examining the current state of one’s soul — as a person is wont to do during Lent. (Am I following through with my Lenten promises? How can I improve?) It also reminds me of the sacrament of Reconciliation. Before I can confess my sins, I have to make a list of them. And it seems like the same old sins keep appearing on this list, just as I continue to report the same health symptoms to my doctor. “Being short-tempered” is my “continuing asthma.” “Selfishness” is right up there with “osteoporosis.” I might as well bring a form into the confessional with me.

What happens when a symptom becomes a chronic health problem? Well, you fight it, of course, with a program of prescriptions and wellness techniques: exercise, healthy eating, etc. But what should you do when the chronic problem is a sin — the same one, time and again?

It is all very well and good to promise you won’t do it again — something I do, and have done for years. And every time I really mean it. And then, halfway home from church, some small annoyance starts my skin tingling, like a form of eczema, and I snap. Or judge someone’s appearance or actions. Or fall prey to depression. And suddenly, it’s déjà vu all over.

Maybe it’s time to look at underlying causes. Is that cough a cold or tuberculosis? Am I being selfish because I don’t feel loved enough or because I am greedy and childish? Do I lose my temper because others don’t live up to my expectations (and why should they?) or because there is something about my life that needs radical change? These are the questions I should be asking, investigating, and diagnosing.

What’s on your list? What symptoms keep popping up to plague your spiritual life? And what can you do about them to effect systemic change? Consider Lent your yearly check-up. And then get to work.

Recent news item: Cardinal Timothy Dolan responds to those (the majority of Americans) who think the Catholic Church is out of touch. Of course, he says. The Church deals with eternals; it is bound to be out of step with our ever-changing, fad-driven world.

Only one problem: No one is asking the Church to hand down a dictate on skirt hemlines this season, or whether pink is the new black. (It isn’t, is it?) There are eternals, and then there are those things thought to be eternal — like the Earth being the center of the solar system — that we learn are simply wrong. Knowledge must not be shunned because it is new. Just ask poor Galileo.

But Dolan’s right about one thing: The Catholic Church is likely to be at odds with Americans because it is not very American. America is all about racing to the finish line and getting there first; the Church concerns itself with shepherding the entire flock to its destination. Americans focus on individual success; the Church with sharing. In many ways, America can be boiled down to its mythologized icons, both real and imagined: We are Daniel Boone, forging the way West, doing just what we want to do — gollblamit! — rugged individualists to the core.

That’s not how the Church works. Take the sacrament of Reconciliation, for example. Forgiveness is a beautiful thing, but it only takes one person to do it. Reconciliation is different in that it insists on mutuality. And not just between a person and her God, but between the sinner and her Church — the body of Christ. It emphasizes the notion that what we do we do not do in a vacuum: Our actions affect others. And to be truly forgiven demands that both sides are reconciled to one another. This notion hasn’t much place in an America that accepts half-hearted “apologies” from sports figures, musicians and others for their bad behavior but does not demand from them any real action to promote healing. Saying “I’m sorry” is considered enough. And for a minor slip-up, maybe it is. But for ongoing, unrepentant, ingrained proclivities to violence, abuse, prejudice, or hatred, it falls short.

One more funny thing about the American Catholic Church: Most of us tend to be conservatives. I’m hoping Pope Francis will get us to expand our thinking on that front by promoting social justice — which includes working for the poor, immigrants and marginalized among us. Me, I’ve never much understood the correlation between Catholics and conservative thinking. I tend to agree with the great and wise Graham Greene:  “Conservatism and Catholicism should make…impossible bedfellows.” There’s nothing conservative about love. And shouldn’t that be the heart of any religion?


Have a Mary Little Christmas

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