Physical hunger is a serious problem; We are obliged to assist the starving and malnourished. But even more prevalent these days is spiritual hunger, if not outright starvation. As is the case with physical hunger, the source of spiritual hunger is not God, who has given us abundant grace and truth; it is we who are the source. It is a strange starvation to be sure, for it is largely self-inflicted. Further, it seems to be at an advanced stage.
I am told that as physical starvation advances there comes a time when a kind of lethargy sets in. Although a person knows he is hungry, he lacks the mental acuity to want to do much about it. This seems to be the stage of spiritual starvation at which many Westerners find themselves today. Most people know they are spiritually hungry and are longing for something, but through a kind of lethargy and mental boredom, they don’t seem inclined to do much about it.
I’d like to look at the progressive stages of physical starvation (gleaned from several medical sources) and then speak of their spiritual equivalents. Please understand that when I use the pronoun “we” I am not necessarily talking about you, but rather about a large number, perhaps even a majority, of people in our culture today.
- Weakness – In our time of spiritual starvation, a great moral weakness is evident. Self-control in the realm of sexuality and self-discipline in general seem increasingly lacking in our culture today. Many are too weak to keep the commitments they have made to marriage, religious life, or the priesthood. Addiction is a significant issue as well: addiction to alcohol, drugs, and pornography. In addition, we seem consumed by greed; we are obsessed with accumulating possessions, and the more we have the more we seem unable to live without them. Increasingly, people declare that they are not responsible for what they do and/or cannot help themselves. There is a general attitude that it is unreasonable to expect people to live out ordinary biblical morality, to have to suffer or endure the cross. All of these demonstrate weakness and a lack of courage, signaling the onset of spiritual starvation.
- Confusion – As spiritual starvation sets in, the mind gets cloudy; thinking becomes distorted. There is a lot of confusion today about even the most basic moral issues. How could we get so confused as to think that killing unborn babies is OK? Sexual confusion is also rampant, so that what is contrary to nature (e.g., homosexual acts) is approved and what is destructive to the family (e.g., illicit heterosexual behavior) is widely accepted as well. Confusion is also deep about how to properly and effectively raise, train, discipline, and educate our children.
- Irritability – As spiritual starvation progresses, a great deal of anger is directed at the Church whenever she addresses the malaise of our times. In addition, there is growing resistance to lawful authority and a loss of respect for elders and for tradition. St. Paul describes well the general irritability of a culture that has suppressed the truth about God and is spiritually starving: They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy (Romans 1:29-31). Because we are starved of the common meal of God’s Word and revealed truth and because we have rejected natural law, we have been reduced to shouting matches and power struggles. We no longer agree on the essentials that the “food” of God’s truth provides. Having refused this sustenance, we have become irritable and strident.
- Immune deficiency – As our spiritual starvation grows we cannot ward off the increasing attacks of the disease of sin. We more easily give way to temptation. Deeper and deeper bondage is increasingly evident in our sin-soaked culture. Things once thought to be indecent are now done openly and even celebrated. Many consider any suggested resistance to sin to be unreasonable, even impossible. Sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy, abortion, the consumption of internet pornography, divorce, and cohabitation are becoming widespread. Like disease, sin spreads because we are less capable of fighting it off.
- The body begins to feed on its own muscle tissue (after fat cells are depleted) – In our spiritual starvation, we start to feed on our very own. We kill our children in utero; we use embryos for research. We euthanize our elderly. Young people kill other young people in gang violence. We see strife, power struggles, and wars increase. In tight economic times, we who have depleted the fat cells of public funds and amassed enormous debt fight with one another over the scraps that are left and refuse to give up any of our own entitlements, instead of restraining our spending and re-examining our priorities. Starving people can be desperate, and desperate people often turn on others. In the end, we as a body are consuming our very self.
- Internal organs begin to shut down – In the spiritually starving Western world, many of our institutions are becoming dysfunctional and shutting down. Our families are in the throes of a major crisis. Almost of half of all children today no longer live with both parents. Schools are in serious decline. Most public-school systems have been a disgrace for years. America, once at the top of worldwide academic performance, now lags far behind. Churches and parochial schools also struggle as Mass attendance has dropped in the self-inflicted spiritual starvation of our times. Government, too, is becoming increasingly dysfunctional; strident differences paralyze it, and scandals plague the public sector. As we go through the stages of starvation, important organs of our culture and our nation are shutting down.
- Hallucinations – St. Paul spoke of the spiritually starved Gentiles of his day and said, their thinking became futile and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools … Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind (Romans 1:21-22,28). As we in the West spiritually starve, our thinking becomes increasingly bizarre, distorted, fanciful, silly, vain, and often lacking in common sense. Since our soul is starving, we hallucinate.
- Convulsions and muscle spasms – Violence and turmoil run through our culture as basic social structures shut down and become dysfunctional. The breakdown of the family leads to many confused, incorrigible, and violent children. This is not just in the inner cities; violence, shootings, and gangs are in the suburbs as well. Even non-violent children have short attention spans and are often difficult to control and discipline. Although ADHD may well be over-diagnosed, overstimulated children with short attention spans are a real problem today. Adults, too, manifest a lot of convulsive and spasmodic behaviors, short attention spans, and mercurial temperaments. As we reach the advanced stages of spiritual starvation in our culture, convulsive and spasmodic behavior are an increasing problem.
- Irregular heartbeat – In the spiritually starving West, it is not as though we lack all goodness. Our heart still beats, but it is irregular and inconsistent. We can manifest great compassion when natural disasters strike, yet still be coarse and insensitive at other times. We seem to have a concern for the poor, but abort our babies and advocate killing our sick elderly. Our starving culture’s heartbeat is irregular and inconsistent, another sign of spiritual starvation.
- Sleepy, comatose state – Our starving culture is sleepy and often unreflective. The progress of our terrible fall eludes many, who seem oblivious to the symptoms of our spiritual starvation. St Paul says, So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled (1 Thes 5:6). He also says, And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed (Rom 13:11). Jesus speaks of the starvation that leads to sleepiness in this way: Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness, and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap (Luke 21:34).
- Death – Spiritual death is the final result of starvation. We become dead in our sins. Pope Francis remarked that the lights are going out in Europe. As Europe has forsaken its spiritual heritage and embarked upon a self-imposed spiritual starvation, its birthrates have declined steeply. It is quite possible that during the lifetime of some of the younger readers of this post, Europe as we have known it will cease to exist. Western liberal democracies that have starved themselves to death will be replaced by Muslim theocratic states. This is what happens when we starve ourselves: death eventually comes. America’s fate is less obvious. There are many on a spiritual starvation diet, but also many who still believe; there are signs of revival in the Church here. Pray God that the reversal will continue! Pray, too, that it is not too late for Europe.
Thus, while we know little of physical starvation in the affluent West, spiritual starvation and its symptoms are manifest. Mother Teresa once spoke of the West as the poorest part of the world she had encountered. That is because she saw things spiritually, not materially. Some years back, Cassidy Bugos, a student from Christendom College in Virginia, spent a few weeks working among the poor in Mexico with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Recounting a conversation with one of the nuns there, Miss Bugos wrote,
In the East [India], the soul is different. It is stronger, as she put it, and solid. Whether a person is Christian, or Hindu, or Muslim, or Buddhist, he is a solid Christian, a solid Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist. He will not lose faith because he is hungry, or because he is well-fed. And in India, if people are hungry, they are still happy. The poorest people on the streets, she said, are the happiest. If they have food today, they are happy; they do not wonder if they will have food tomorrow. Their joy, she insisted, is something unlike anything you see on any face in the West …
Here in the West, she said, it is different. Here most poor people have enough [materially], even though they don’t understand how little “enough” is. But they are unhappy, she said. … They are unhappy, because they have no God. That is the real poverty. The farther North you go in America, she added, the more wealth you see, and the less joy you find. Those people … the depressed, and the sad people “with no God and a great big house”, are the poorest of the poor. That’s what Mother Teresa meant. It is hard, she added with a sigh, to find Christ in them. … We must put Him there. …
More than that, she wanted us to understand whom we were serving, when we served anyone’s spiritual or material needs. We were serving Christ. When one of “the Grandmas,” blind and deaf, cried out from her wheelchair, “Agua, por favor,” on the wall over her head we were bound to see a crucifix and beside it the motto of the Missionaries of Charity, the two words, tengo sed. “I thirst.” 
Be well-fed spiritually! Spiritual starvation is an awful thing; it is the worst thing.
This post has been a bit heavy, so I hope you won’t mind if I inject a little humor in the form of the video below. Though humorous, it makes an important point: you’re not you when you’re hungry. Spiritual starvation can rob us of our identity as joyful children of God, meant to be fully alive and fully functioning. Ultimately, we are meant to be Christ, to become what we eat in Holy Communion. When we do not eat, we are “not ourselves.” This video is trying sell Snickers bars, but please understand that I am talking about Jesus. If you’re hungry, you’re not yourself.