Any worthwhile achievement requires immense effort. When speaking to the Corinthians, St. Paul uses images from the world of sports to explain that the spiritual life requires continual exertion and struggle. St. Paul knew that the Greeks would understand these images since they hosted the original Olympics.
Raise the Bar During Lent
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pummel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).
The goal of Christianity is eternal life. The acquisition of this goal demands intense daily effort. The liturgical season of Lent provides us with a special arena in which the daily effort is intensified. When we push ourselves even more and raise the bar during Lent, we will advance in the spiritual life. Our personal efforts, combined with the grace of God, will bring us to a higher level of self-improvement and intimacy with God.
The spiritual life is not an easy endeavor because of our wounded human nature. True, baptism washes away original sin, but we do not have complete control over ourselves. St. Paul brilliantly describes this continual battle. He portrays this battle as an inward struggle (Rom 7:14-25), a treasure in a vessel of clay (2 Cor 4:7-18), and a thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12: 7-10).
Because of original sin, an inner force will always move us in the wrong direction. Continual effort is necessary to control the inner movement of our egos, and allow the presence of grace to take control of our thoughts, desires and actions. The battle of the spiritual life is like walking in a river against the current. If we do not continue to walk or grab on to a rock, the current will carry us in the opposite direction. Lent provides us with an excellent opportunity to strengthen ourselves so that we can keep walking against the current.
“Because man is a composite being, spirit and body, there already exists a certain tension in him; a certain struggle of tendencies between spirit and flesh develops. But in fact, this struggle belongs to the heritage of sin. It is a consequence of sin and at the same time a confirmation of it. It is part of the daily experience of the spiritual battle” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2516).
Go Against the Culture: Deny Yourself!
If the spiritual life is a continual struggle because of original sin, the present circumstances of our contemporary culture make this struggle even more difficult. We have all grown up in a culture that denies nothing. Everything is permissible. Discipline, self-control and virtue are seen as repression. The icons of the modern culture know exactly what buttons to push. Our decadent world is attractive to fallen human nature. It is easy to succumb to any of the seven deadly sins.
A successful Lent requires us to develop a serious plan of action. Our program should consist of both the general practices that the Catholic Church requires of everyone, and our own particular Lenten program.
As a general practice for all Catholics, the Church requires that we fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. We are also asked to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent.
Aside from what the Church law of fast and abstinence requires of us, we should come up with a personal program for spiritual growth. I have always recommended to my parishioners that they come up with something negative and something positive.
By something negative, I mean that each person should commit themselves to giving up something or a number of things. This sacrifice should be serious and demanding. The self-control that we exercise in giving up a legitimate pleasure strengthens our will and curbs the inclinations of our passions.
By something positive, I mean that each one should also do some kind of act that we would not normally do on a regular basis. Attending daily Mass, visiting the sick, volunteering time at your parish or praying a Sunday evening Rosary with the entire family are positive acts of virtue that have helped many people progress in their relationship with God.
Self-Mastery is Training for Freedom
Lenten practices of penance have great benefits for our spiritual lives. A serious Lent will be like a spring-cleaning, which will purify the clutter that has accumulated in our souls. A serious commitment to penance will also help us to conquer addictions, obsessions and compulsive behavior. A serious Lent will purify our soul and allow us to experience a deeper interior freedom.
Although the spiritual life demands an intense effort, all of our work will only be possible with the help of God's grace. St. Paul tells us, “God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control” (2 Tm 1:7). A daily disciplined regimen of prayer, Scripture reading and sacramental life develops those channels of grace through which the Holy Spirit gives us the ability to control ourselves and conquer our base tendencies.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls self-mastery a training in human freedom. “The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy” (#2339). The Catechism goes on to say that “self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life” (#2342).
It is quite possible that when we consider the demands of our spiritual life and the constant bombardment of modern culture that we simply throw our arms up in despair and give in. Without a doubt, authentic Christianity is difficult to live and it demands radical decisions. However, we must always remember two passages from the Scriptures that will fill us with confidence and peace. One passage is from the Master, and the other is from one of His most passionate Apostles, St. Paul. Commit them to memory and repeat them often. Let them be a source of motivation for your Lenten practices. “In the world you will have hardship, but be courageous: I have conquered the world” (Jn 16:33). “I can do all things in He who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13).
The Lent that we are beginning provides all of us an excellent opportunity for spiritual growth. We can change.
© Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange
Father James Farfaglia is Pastor of St. Helena of the True Cross of Jesus Catholic Church in Corpus Christi, Texas. Originally from Ridgefield, CT, Father has founded and developed apostolates for the Catholic Church in Spain, Italy, Mexico, Canada and throughout the United States. He may be reached by e-mail at Icthus@GoCCN.org.