Imagine you’re married and have three kids (if you don’t already. If you do, think back to when you were just starting out). Day and night you’re constantly caring for your little rugrats and you have some great moments of joy (“My kids are incredible!” “I’m so thankful for my spouse!”) and moments of great difficulty (“I should have left the kids at Grandma’s for a little while longer.” “When will my spouse finally offer to change the diapers?”) One day you come home to find your spouse packing up their bags and you ask “Where are you going?” They respond “I’m going on a four year break. I just need to take a break from this for a while, you know? Figure me out. I’ll be back, probably, I just need four years to take a breath.” How would you feel? What would you do?
I’ve been in a college setting for the last four years and I’ve seen a lot of college students fall away from their faith after high school. Some students set foot on campus finally free from mom and dad and they suddenly realize it’s their choice whether they want to continue to go to church every week, grow in their prayer life, and hang out with friends who can help them on their faith journey. Unfortunately many students implement what I call the Four Year Break plan. I use this term because I’ve heard one student blatantly state: “I’m on a four year break right now. I just need to take a step back and get a breath of fresh air, you know? My parents made me go to church my whole life and they were like SUPER Catholic so I just need to take a break. Maybe do a little exploring. Maybe become Buddhist.”
Granted, there are a lot of things I don’t know about this person, or other students who implement the Four Year Break plan. I don’t know about the brokenness of their past. There really are a lot of reasons why someone would want to break away and implement “The Break”, but I can only think of a few extreme cases where someone would actually have a legitimate case for doing so (temporarily). We’ve all got some sort of wounded-ness from our childhood or teen years, but running away from the Father’s embrace when we get to college and experience a new level of freedom is not the solution.
In my experience, those who go on the Four Year Break do not (usually) set aside time every week to academically study world religions or the philosophy of God as they seem to suggest they will do on their break. The excuse that “I just need a breath of fresh air” turns into “I just need to go to parties on the weekend to distract myself from myself” and the whole notion of “exploring” generally leads to “get caught up in a secular, relativistic world that sucks the meaning out of life.” Granted there certainly are countless individuals who have come back to the faith after falling away for a while. But once they do they make the startling realization that even during the time when they took a break from God, God’s loving presence had not been taking a break from them.
If we go back to my analogy at the beginning, you wouldn’t want your spouse to pack up and leave just because times were tough. You would want to talk about it, try to reason through it, show your spouse that maybe they’re not thinking clearly in that moment of giving up. You wouldn’t take comfort in your beloved telling you there was a slight chance that they might come back in four years after they figure themselves out without you. When we leave the Father’s embrace, He longs for the day when we will come to our senses and return.
Those who take the Four Year Break are not the only ones who could use our prayers. I’ve also seen so many people with great intentions at the start gradually slip further and further away as college goes on. I’ve heard people a few years into college say “I was going to go to Mass on Sunday, but I had a test on Monday I needed to study for” or “I’d come on the retreat/to the Bible study/to the talk, but I’m just really busy”. We are all busy, but whom or what are we placing at the center of our busy lives? If our faith is seen as just another item on our checklist of things to do we’ll constantly let other things take priority over it. If we don’t place God at the center of our lives we’ll develop an attitude of minimalism where we’ll begin to ask “What’s the least I need to do in order to get by?” Our hearts were not made for minimalism; our hearts were made for Love Himself.
The Four Year Break rarely turns out to be beneficial. The attitude of minimalism will not lead to a satisfying life. The only solution, when we find ourselves distant from the Father’s embrace, is to come running back as we are. Not once we’ve “figured ourselves out” (for who goes to the doctor when they start to feel good?), but while still covered in our slop and feelings of guilt. It is there that we will find the warm and loving embrace of our Father that we were never meant to “take a break” from. If you’re in the process of a Four (or more) Year Break right now, I invite you to come home. Come home to the loving embrace of the Father. Come home to the fulfillment of your deep desires for intimacy, peace, and meaning. Come home.
“Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.’’ So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ Then the celebration began.”
– (See Luke 15:11-32)