In July, 1999, John Kennedy Jr., his wife, and sister-in-law, perished when the plane he was piloting plunged into the Atlantic Ocean. The investigation of the crash concluded that Kennedy had suffered from spatial disorientation when fog combined with low lighting made visual flight difficult.
Because of this confusion he simply flew the plane into the water. Other pilots at the time reported, “losing the horizon” as well. Kennedy was not certified for what is known as instrument flight conditions, when a pilot must rely upon the plane’s instruments rather than his own physical sight and instincts. This most often occurs when there is poor visibility due to clouds, fog, or poor light. In these conditions it is easy for an inexperienced pilot to become disoriented, not knowing the direction he’s flying or where the ground is.
As we attempt to navigate our lives through the world and culture around us we are often like pilots flying in instrument flight conditions. It is easy to lose our moral and spiritual bearings when confronted with the events and influences of the culture around us. Pope Benedict XVI, in a letter to the bishops of the world, accurately described the condition of our modern world:
“In our days, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel, the overriding priority is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God. Not just any god, but the God who spoke on Sinai; to that God whose face we recognize in a love which presses “to the end”– in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects.” (emphasis added)
We live in a time when we can no longer simply trust our sight and instincts. We can no longer look around for positive reinforcement from the culture. We are flying in a fog and we must rely on the instruments God has given us to successfully navigate our spiritual journey. The world is telling us that up is down and down is up and if we just go along with the flow we will crash and burn—literally, as in burn in Hell. The stakes are life and death. “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.” (Deuteronomy 20:19)
So what are the navigational instruments God has given us?
The Catholic Church. Jesus left us with his Church, under the care of the Apostles and their successors (bishops), and guided by the Holy Spirit. We are called into the same community of faith as described in Acts 2:42, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” We celebrate our life together through our shared creed, the moral life, liturgy and sacraments, and prayer. The Church guides us in each of these aspects through formal teaching and through the examples of the lives of the saints. When we can’t see clearly, when we become confused about right and wrong, we need to look to the teaching of the Church and lives of the saints for guidance.
Scripture. “All scripture is inspired by God andprofitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) There is no substitute for spending time reading, studying, praying, and meditating over the Word of God. Scripture reveals to us God’s heart and plan for us. In the Gospels we see the living example of Jesus and are called to follow him like the disciples. St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.” If we want to know the way to go, how to live and how to respond to the things going on around us, we must make ourselves familiar with the scripture.
The Holy Spirit. What better guide is there to navigate in the spiritual fog of our culture than the Holy Spirit, the very presence of God living in us? Too often we forget that we have this great gift available to us. St. Paul tells us, “if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” (Romans 8:13-14) We received the Holy Spirit in baptism and confirmation. We know that the Spirit lives within us, making us “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 16:9). The Spirit is always at work in us to lead us on the way to holiness, to make us saints. The Spirit is always speaking to us, in our thoughts, imaginations, desires, and dreams, but we need to learn how to recognize him. Like a pilot who needs to learn how the flight instruments work and how to trust them, we need to learn to recognize the leading of the Spirit. This comes with time and practice, and requires faith. The good news is, them more we yield to the Spirit, the more familiar we become to his leading.
Lent is a great time to practice our spiritual navigation skills. We’re in a season with an emphasis on prayer and fasting. It is a time for refocusing and resetting our spiritual GPS systems on what is real, true, and good. Let’s take advantage of this Lenten season and look at is as spiritual flight school to better prepare us for the challenges of navigating through the fog of our world. May the words of St. Paul be our Lenten goal, “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this worldbut be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2)