Debt has been identified as one of the key contributors to stress in the lives of Americans. It places pressure, a great weight, looming as it does over one’s comfort zones. Everyone has a desire to be independent of feeling bound to please or placate some other person or agency, a need to be debt-free. 

Ironically, it is often the desire to be free and independent that is the temptation that leads to the indebtedness! The stress that comes from debt, being tied to obligations and expectations beyond one’s capacity to manage, or to see light at the end of a long, dark tunnel, can lead to desperate attempts for relief, however inadequate and transient. Not only borrowing on credit — which really just postpones debt-payment as interest rises — but taking certain trips or breaks from reality only compound the problem. 

The nexus between drugs and stress is well documented. The drugs or medications, sought after as a means of relief for the gnawing pain, become burdens themselves, not only cost-wise and, at times, questionable legality, but with the added weight of dependence or even addiction. The victim becomes even more enslaved. 

Ads abound on how to consolidate or even eradicate various forms of debt or to stop addictions. Many of them, however, provide only temporary relief, if the underlying toxic patterns — of spending, gambling or indulging — are not abandoned ­entirely. 

For all the talk and rancor over which substances should be legal or not, is it really sanctions that matter when the root issues are the emotional trauma and spiritual hungers churning in the mind, heart and soul of the hapless user. 

It does not help persons and families who struggle amidst the joint pressures of debt, depression and drugs when a nation itself continues to spend beyond its means, accumulating debt for generations to come. But who wants to talk about this elephant in the middle of the room. 

The prodigal son in last Sunday’s parable from Luke 15, depicts a foolish young man who squanders his father’s generosity on all the pleasures the world offers and finds himself stuck in a pigsty. He has no one to blame but himself for the hole he has dug himself into. What brings him back is that he knows he can count on his father for forgiveness. And we know the rest of the story. 

How powerful is the gift of ­being forgiven! The joy of the Gospel and the attractiveness of the Christian message have always been in the experience of a real and enduring way out. St. Paul does not mince words when he reminds his people of where they once were, mired in sin, citing many of the vices and addictions with which we are all too familiar today (cf. 1 Cor. 6-7).  

Throughout his preaching and writing, St. Paul seems always to be aware of how his own life once hung on a thin rope and how grateful he is to Jesus who confronted and encountered him on the road one day, bringing him to his senses. 

Every road to recovery begins, as Paul witnesses to, in an encounter with God. That meeting involves both a confession of sin and the joy of being forgiven. The prodigal son knows he has hit bottom and returns to the loving arms of his waiting father, giving him the embrace of forgiveness. 

This gift is available to all of us at any time we are ready. It is as near as this very moment of grace — where sin increases, grace overflows all the more (cf. Rm 5:20) — when, wherever we are on our spiritual journey, Jesus meets us. If that path has led one away from him, whether through foolishness, habit or some wrong turn, just stop! It is not God or some imaginary fate that is pulling us down. At least the prodigal son recognized this, as those in 12-step programs do each day.  

The decision, however, is up to each of us alone. It must, like all love, be free and freely chosen. Forgiveness begins the moment the sin is named and the pattern ends. It could be right now. The prodigal was already on the road to recovery when he decided to return to the father. The decision itself to seek out our Loving Father in the Sacrament of Penance is already a response to a grace, which the beautiful blessing of absolution will secure.

The road to recovery also requires amendment of certain ways of thinking and acting and making efforts, reparative and restorative, to bind up and heal the wounds our sins have brought upon ourselves and others. The joy of being forgiven makes that road possible and so much easier, Jesus re­assures us. “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” (Mt 11:28-30)