One of the greatest soul-strengtheners (and soul-crushers) of our Catholic faith is the constant mental gymnastics it takes to exist with the gift of free will. It is a difficult task to be “in” the world, but not “of” it, so much so that in order to remain a faithful Catholic while still participating in the goings-on of the public square, we are forced to experience a multitude of daily obstructions that work against their spiritual advancement. Our souls are worked out in much the same way that competitors’ bodies are worked on a ninja warrior course—a constant barrage of obstacles that we must overcome.
When we think of ninja courses, or any obstacle course of that matter, we tend to imagine them horizontally. There’s a starting line, a whole slew of barricades and pitfalls, then the finish line. The competitor moves from one side of the course to the other and only succeeds if they are physically fit enough to overcome the hinderances.
I believe that modern man views the spiritual life in much the same way it views the obstacle course– horizontally. He thinks that if he is able to pass over the obstacle of his physical appearance, he’ll be better prepared to take on the next barrier of economic stability. Once he overcomes that, he’ll be ready to take on more powerful positions in his work and his community. After that, he’ll be able to attend to the “things of God,” (whatever that means) by tending to the needs of his parish.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen noticed the people of his time struggling in this worldly obstacle course and concluded that we have aimed too low in our end game. In desiring to attain earthly merits, we’ve lost sight of our true goal– God. He wrote the following in his book, Peace of Soul: “Forgetting God, man’s vision has lately been reduced to a single dimension; he now thinks of his activity as limited to the surface of the earth–a plane wherein he moves not up to God or down to Satan, but only to the right or the left.”
Indeed, how polarized has our world become due to the division of the “right” and the “left?”
How many obstacles do these divisions pose not only to Catholics, but all people who strive for peace in their daily lives?
Far more than the reality of our spiritual closeness to God. For Our Lord has elevated us to the highest plane of a vertical obstacle course that has only three hurdles to overcome– the devil, the flesh, and the world.
When Jesus began his ministry he was taken by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil. The Prince of Darkness was for Christ, just as he is for us, the first obstacle to overcome in the spiritual life. He tempted our Lord, just as he tempts us, with empty promises of power and pleasure. When man gives into the devil’s temptations he becomes a soul divided– on one side, he desires his own will to be done, on the other, he wishes that God’s will be done. The further away he retreats into himself, the more he alienates himself from God.
Once man has initially denies God, his begins to alienate himself from himself. He replaces God with fleshly allurements to right/left extremes. Physically, he’ll either over-exercise to satisfy his vanity or overeat to appease his insatiable hunger. He’ll overwork to attain financial stability or not work at all to appease his slothful tendencies. He’ll fornicate, even within the sacrament of marriage, use birth control, and/or masturbate so long as his id is satisfied (and so he need not develop any self-control). In doing all, or any, of these, man becomes an enemy to himself because his will is not correctly ordered to the will of God. On the contrary, he separates himself further from His Creator, thus loosing himself to his own will and passions.
After man denies God, then himself, all that’s left to deny is everyone, and everything, else. In chasing his power and pleasures, he alienates himself from his family, his community, and from the Church. He is no longer dependent on others because he is independently stable in his riches. He no longer is dependent on society because he believes he is independent from its laws. He no longer is dependent on any religion because he has become his own god. He no longer needs anything, or anyone, because he thinks himself to be all powerful in his wealth, all knowing in his intelligence, and all present in the little kingdom he has created for himself in his mind.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen understood that these three obstacles were the key three to conquer if we are to advance on the vertical obstacle course that is life. He even coined them as the “unholy Trinity by which man is wooed away from the Holy Trinity and from the discovery of the goal of life.”
So, how do we conquer the the unholy Trinity?
How do we change the terrain of the worldly horizontal obstacle course of our life “in” the world so as to tackle the spiritually vertical obstacle course to ensure that we are not “of” the world?
Again, the Archbishop explains:
“The church has encouraged the three vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty to make reparations for those who make gods out of their opinions, their flesh, and their money.”Peace of Soul
Lent is supposed to be a season of reoriented our lives to take on the vertical obstacle course of the spiritual life rather than focusing on the horizontal obstacle course of the world. If you’ve succeeded in attaining this perspective, I congratulate you and pray that you, like St. Paul, will continue to ‘fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).
But if your Lent hasn’t been the successful retreat you hoped it would be, the Triduum (the three days leading up to Easter Sunday), is the perfect time to reorient your life through the practices of obedience to the will of God chastity to control your fleshly desires, and poverty to recognize your spiritual worth.
When your bowed down at the foot of the cross, there’s only going up from there.
“There are no plains in the spiritual life; we are either going uphill or coming down.”~Archbishop Fulton Sheen