This Wednesday we are going to being the holy season of Lent.
I often equate Lent to spiritual boot camp.
I love the Rocky movies. They have provided me with years of continual uplift and entertainment. These movies are almost a genre unto themselves in that they have certain qualities that must be in them or else the experience is very unsatisfying. You can see this in the almost universally rejected Rocky V which does not build up to Rocky’s big final fight in the ring with his opponent, but instead ends with a street brawl. The Rocky movie formula builds to that final fight, but beforehand there is the training montage. We watch Rocky get into shape to prepare for the fight of his life.
Lent is our Rocky training montage.
We are in the fight of our lives. We are in spiritual war. As St. Paul reminds us, “ For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. “ (Ephesians 6:12) Throughout the year, the constant wear of the needs of the world can distract us from the fact that we are in the middle of this war. The more distracted we are, the less prepared we are to fight.
This is why we need Lent.
Lent is the time when refocus our energies. On Ash Wednesday, we fast and pray and receive ashes. All of this brings upon us graces from Heaven. But they also serve as reminders that we are in training.
We tend to deny ourselves food if we have a goal of weight or health. We understand that sacrifice here is done for some greater good. That familiar feeling of hunger remains with us on Ash Wednesday and we should keep in mind the greater spiritual goals of the soul.
By prayer we spend more time with the Lord. During Lent we are called to lay down our sins before Him and reflect on His saving love in a deeper way than we have done before.
The receiving of ashes not only serves as a mediative reminder of our own dying to self, but it also is a sign of our solidarity. Sacrifice is difficult, especially when we carry that burden alone. But if we can see that others are in the struggle with us, we can draw strength and inspiration from our fellow brothers and sisters.
Often in homilies, I will hear priests disparage the giving of up of things like chocolate. I understand their point: there is more to Lent than the denial of tasty food. This is where many children begin in their Lenten sacrifices. The point that the priests make is that Lent should include other spiritual exercises.
While I agree with the overall point, I think it is a mistake to criticize these small sacrifices. Any sacrifice to the Lord, as long as it is done with great love, can have great spiritual benefit. On top of this, those who have weak wills may need to start with simple things in order to strengthen their resolves. The more we indulge our desires, the less we exercise our will power. Some of our desires are good, some are bad. But either way, if the will can master the desire, this is a good exercise of the soul. The more I can exercise self-control overs small things like chocolate, I am better able to have self control over larger things like sin. The stronger my will becomes in one area, the better chance I have of strengthening it in another.
And yet, these priests are correct that the denial of indulgences is the beginning of the spiritual boot camp, not the end. I often analogize the physical regimen of diet and exercise to the spiritual regimen of fasting and prayer. One is about removing something and the other is about adding something. Both things are necessary for health (spiritual and physical).
Spending more time in prayer can be a wonderful spiritual exercise, although quantity does not always mean quality. Five good minutes of deep contemplation of God is better than an hour of distracted prayer, at least for me. The important part is to set aside time for God. The amount is going to vary from person to person, but it probably be more than you are setting aside now. It is good to let this practice habituate in you so that after Lent is over, you may find that you are loathe to give it up. This often happens to people who become daily communicants.
And with any exercise, the first thing to do is to assess where you are the unhealthiest. If you struggle with generosity, perhaps your prayer should be coupled with almsgiving. If you struggle with lust, perhaps your prayer should be fortified with some spiritual reading on the subject. If you struggle with faith itself, then perhaps you should focus not so much on adding more prayers to your exercise, but to being open to the Lord about your struggles. Believe me, He hears you and wants you to open your heart to Him.
Before Ash Wednesday, take an honest evaluation of your spiritual life. Look at where you are sinning the most. Perhaps see how you have backslid in some of your spiritual zeal. Ask yourself where holiness is most wanting in your life. Dr. Peter Kreeft is fond of quoting William Law on this point: “If you will look into your own heart in complete honesty, you must admit that there is one and only one reason why you are not a saint: you do not wholly want to be.”
Use this Lent to stir into a flame the gift of God in you. Use this spiritual bootcamp to let the Holy Spirit get you into spiritual shape so that you can run and not grow weary and run up those stairs to the heavenly kingdom.
Copyright 2019, WL Grayson