Lent is a great time for spiritual “spring cleaning”. But did you know it can also be a great time for spring training as well? No, not the kind your favorite baseball team does in the winter to prepare for a winning year to come! I’m talking about something our Lord referred to in the Gospel read on Ash Wednesday when he talked about fasting.
People spend time in gyms improving their muscular strength, not that this is a bad thing, in trying to get and stay healthier. But there’s another muscle that all of us need to workout, in one way or another. I would call it a muscle of abnegation.
What is Abnegation you ask? Merriam Webster’s online dictionary defines it as being an act of denial, especially self denial. Working this “muscle” can make your sacrifices become less and less burdensome, and even joyful, in helping you free yourself from whatever keeps you from getting closer to God and experiencing His peace.
Such sacrifices are also known as penances and fasting, abstaining from something enjoyable, such as certain foods, for example. Yet you can fast from more than just food.
Think of grudges, in this regard, those scabs of resentments we all love to pick at that can stunt your spiritual growth, or even imperil it altogether! These toxic emotions are harder to “give up” but doing so is well worth the effort!
Our Lord Himself showed his "muscle" against temptation in his famous rebuke of Satan after His 40 days in the desert (Matt 4:11, pictured above).
Yet, in a society that has become so imbued with the notion that you shouldn’t have to deny yourself anything that feels good or might give you pleasure in some form, such a notion of deriving any benefit from sacrifice might seem somewhat strange.
Yes, the media and the world at large urge us constantly to use less energy to save the planet from some feared future climate crisis. Such environmental appeals can indeed have value. No one wants polluted skies and waters for example. But giving up something for a greater good shouldn’t be only for worldly concerns.
(Or, for that matter, even just for Lent, which is the traditional time when people are encouraged to “give up” something such as chocolate for those famous 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Holy Thursday 6 weeks later!)
There are four main benefits from developing and exercising this muscle of abnegation I referred to earlier: The first of these, that I touched upon earlier, is that you can draw closer to God by getting rid of distractions and temptations keeping you from seeking His will and acting on it.
These might include binging on junk food or junk TV. Or spending hours on gossipy social media instead of praying more and consuming more nourishing fare, such as scripture and good spiritual reading, which can strengthen your relationship with our Lord!
The second benefit comes when you offer up those sacrifices to help others, family, friends, acquaintances, even enemies, as well as those you don’t even know, with their salvation as described here.
Think of these sobering words from our Lady of Fatima from 1917 in this regard, She told the three visionaries there that many souls go to Hell because, as she put it “they have no one to make sacrifices and to pray for them.”
The third benefit is a good byproduct of the second in that you can help others materially as well as spiritually by taking the money you might have spent on a meal you gave up, for example, and donating it to a worthy charity or food bank to help others in need.
Our fourth benefit is more subtle but quite powerful nonetheless. In fasting or taking on some other voluntary penance you are restraining your sinful and otherwise concupiscent impulses. You’re giving the 3 year old tantrum-throwing toddler still inside of you, as well as the 13 year old ornery adolescent, both of whom want what they want now, some much needed discipline!
This can help bring about more peace and the joy I mentioned earlier! Where is the joy?It comes with the calm you experience when you find you don’t need those extra donuts, those Facebook likes or other such momentary pleasures that you felt you just had to have!
As I mentioned earlier fasting from grudges can help bring you more peace of mind as well! Lugging those around with you all the time becomes quite a heavy burden indeed. And it can keep you from receiving God’s graces to help you carry whatever crosses come your way.
St. Thomas Aquinas, one of our most preeminent theologians, touched on these various benefits in his landmark work Summa Theologica when he quoted St. Augustine from one of his sermons as saying that “Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, and kindles the true light of charity.”
St. Thomas, also known as the Angelic Doctor of the Church, affirmed this quite succinctly himself when he wrote that that “fasting is useful for the removal and prevention of sin, and for raising the mind to spiritual things.”
If this sounds like too tall an order, or too lofty a goal, don’t worry about that! Your penances don’t need to be Herculean. You can start small, say, in fasting from some food or pleasure one day a week and do that dutifully, and this is crucial, out of love for God and neighbor.
If it’s all about you, the devil can more easily manipulate your emotions and build up increasingly strong feelings of either resentment or bogus superiority!
In fact if you’re fasting to show God or other people how good you are, the danger is that vanity and pride will take over and you’ll be giving things up or taking on extra tasks to satisfy your own ego somehow.
Another danger in this is that you might get discouraged then over the efforts you are or aren’t making. Don’t let this kind of overzealousness get in the way, but rather be persistent in your penances out of love, not pride.If you fall, perhaps by giving into that temptation you swore you wouldn’t, get back up as soon as you can with God’s help and grace!
Jesus touched on the danger of spiritual pride running amok in the Gospels, as in the reading on Ash Wednesday. Christ famously disparaged those Pharisees who made it a habit of displaying their fasting and almsgiving in public for all to see (Matt 6:1-4, 16-18). (Remember as well in this regard how He said they received their reward, the empty praise of others, if that, for what were essentially empty gestures!)
Penances done for the love of God also make His yoke easier and His burden lighter (Matt 11:30), as is anything done with true love when we want what’s best for others!
They can also make you more spiritually fit to deal with the trials and tribulations of these turbulent times, and all the uncertainty over the Coronavirus, and the shaky state of the debt saturated world economy putting many, if not all of us, at various stages of risk one way or another.
Indeed, our Lord spoke of the necessity of carrying our crosses in following him. The more you can adopt a spirit of equanimity in carrying whatever crosses he allows you to experience, the less burdensome they will be and more easy to carry.
And when you adopt an attitude of true Christian love for God and neighbor (as our Lord speaks about in Matt 22:37-40), the more you can help others carrying their crosses through prayer and good works. Then Jesus can assist you spiritually and emotionally in carrying your own crosses!
Our Lord spoke of those who listened to His words and acted on them, presumably to the best of their abilities with His help, as building houses on foundations of solid rock to withstand fierce storms. Those who did otherwise would see their flimsy spiritual dwellings built on foundations of sand, blown away and ruined by the same forces of rain, winds, and floods (Matt 7:24-27).
The more you can free yourself from bad physical and emotional habits and sinful behavior through penances and fasting the more you will be able to withstand whatever logistical shocks (such as the loss of jobs or loved ones) you experience and not be defeated by them.
Then they can become opportunities for you to grow closer to Our Lord and Our Lady as you seek their grace as much needed shelter from upheavals of one sort or another. I more than grant you this is easier said or spoken of, than done, but such an attitude nonetheless can help you withstand hard times better!
Jesus may not easily calm our troubled waters as he did with the disciples when their boat seemed in danger of capsizing (Mark 4:37-39), but he can at least give you His life jacket of grace to help you not lose hope that your Easter Sundays will indeed follow those Good Fridays!