Catechesis teaches us what to believe and how to behave, but Catholics also need down to earth advice for putting their faith into action. Lent is one of the times to make a new resolve, roll up our sleeves and make some spiritual progress.Fr. Longenecker writes here on the need for fasting. He also provides practical advice on prayer and the Catholic life in many other places.
GREENVILLE, SC (Catholic Online) - I have to admit, one of my favorite verses from the Bible is I Timothy 4:8, which says, "Bodily exercise is of little value." Going to the gym and taking physical exercise simply doesn't interest me.
If we were to exert even a fraction of the self discipline we see in the gym on our spiritual lives we'd all be on the fast track to heaven. If we were to break into a spiritual sweat we'd soon get fit spiritually. If we'd watch our spiritual calorie intake (avoiding all fatty, sweet and indulgent TV programs and movies for instance) and avoid all spiritual toxins (junk computer games, pornography, trashy novels, shallow magazines) and took a regular diet of high energy, nutritious fare (prayer, Scripture, church teaching, the lives of the saints) think how healthy we'd be spiritually!
Lent is the time for us to get fit for God. Too often our attitude toward Lent is one of doom, gloom and guilt. While we are called to examine our lives and repent of our sin, I think the proper attitude toward Lent should be healthy, vigorous and positive.
St Paul uses imagery from athletics time and again in the New Testament. In his first letter to the Corinthians he writes, "Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever."
St Paul says he "beats his body and makes it his slave." In our comfortable society, where every pleasure is available at the flick of a switch, it is easy to forget the need for physical discipline as part of the spiritual life. While not calling for extreme forms of physical mortification, it remains true that we must discipline our physical desires if we are to achieve spiritual perfection in Christ.
In our pleasure seeking society it is convenient to forget that our sufferings in this life are part of God's discipline in our lives. The writer to the Hebrews encouraged his hearers, "In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons:
'My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.' Therefore, endure hardship as discipline."
The sufferings that come to us through life are part of the discipline that purifies us for heaven, but we can also adopt certain hardships in order to co operate with God's work of discipline in our lives. Fasting is the most simple and effective way to do this.
Fasting has many benefits in our lives. On the physical level, it helps us to attain control over all of our appetites. If we can control our food intake we will be better able to control our other raging desires as well. Furthermore, fasting is actually good for us. Unless we suffer from some sort of eating disorder, fasting helps to purify the system and clean out the toxins we accumulate.
Fasting also makes us more alert. When we are hungry our senses are sharpened. Mentally we are on edge, and spiritually we are more aware of the otherworldly battles to which we are called. Finally, fasting has a real spiritual benefit. Jesus says that demons are cast out through prayer and fasting. When we combine our spiritual exercises with sacrificial fasting our prayer power meter surges upward.
Fasting during Lent is a healthy, vigorous and active way to take part in the spiritual battle and run forward in the way that leads to eternal life. St Paul put it this way when he wrote to the Philippians: "Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus"
Running the race and fighting the good fight during Lent is the calling of all the saints. When we learn what they accomplished, and how they learned to live in God's grace we are not only encouraged by their example, but we're strengthened by their constant intercession and encouragement.
So the writer the Hebrews encouraged his readers, and encourages us: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us."
A version of this article was first published in the National Catholic Register.
Fr Dwight Longenecker is the author of The Romance of Religion. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com For help in your practice of the Catholic faith subscribe to Father Longenecker's free newsletter FaithWorks! You can also read his daily blog Standing on My Head and follow him on Twitter @dlongenecker1
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