How much do Americans spend annually on staying fit? The figure is astronomical―in excess of $60 billion on weight-loss programs and products, health club memberships, gyms, diet drinks, and supplements. According to data from the International Monetary Fund, the economies of 100 countries did not produce in 2012 what we put out each year to stay fit. And that does not include healthcare costs.
The facts show that we are obsessed with physical health and fitness. What about our spiritual health and well-being?
The great penitential season of Lent starts on March 5, Ash Wednesday. The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy states: “Lent precedes and prepares for Easter. It is a time to hear the word of God, to convert, to prepare for and remember baptism, to be reconciled with God and one’s neighbor, and of more frequent recourse to the ‘arms of Christian penance’: prayer, fasting, and good works.”
Later in the same text, we hear: “Notwithstanding the secularization of contemporary society, the Christian faithful, during Lent, are clearly conscious of the need to turn the mind towards those realities which really count, which require gospel commitment and integrity of life which, through self-denial of those things which are superfluous, are translated into good works and solidarity with the poor and needy” (96-97).
From its origins, of course, Lent has been about the preparation of candidates for initiation into the Christian life through baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist. But Lent is also about the renewal of the already-initiated, about “getting fit spiritually,” through more dynamic discipleship living.
A good place to begin is by Looking into the mirror. How often have we stood before a mirror and acknowledged the need to change our habits?
In Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), Pope Francis speaks of one of the spiritual habits we might well cultivate in this season: joy. He writes: “One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, ‘sourpusses’” (85).
In Preface I of Lent, we pray: “For by your gracious gift each year, your faithful await the sacred paschal feasts with the joy of minds made pure, so that, more eagerly intent on prayer and on the works of charity, and participating in the mysteries by which they have been reborn, they may be led to the fullness of grace that you bestow on your sons and daughters.”
Secondly, by Looking into the soul. Each of us can ask, what is the quality of my relationship with God? Is there fire within me, energy, zeal for the Gospel, and love of the Lord Jesus Christ?
In a book of prayers published posthumously, the great Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner confessed:
Only in love can I find you, my God. In love, the gates of my soul spring open, allowing me to breathe a new air of freedom and forget my own petty self. In love, my whole being streams forth out of the rigid confines of narrowness and anxious self-assertion, which make me a prisoner of my own poverty and emptiness. In love, all the powers of my soul flow out toward you, wanting never more to return, but to lose themselves completely in you, since by your love you are the inmost center of my heart, closer to me than I am to myself” (Prayers for a Lifetime, New York, Crossroad, 1989, 13).
Lastly, by Looking into the heart. The heart is the abode of affection and compassion. God’s grace can renew stony hearts that have grown cold and indifferent to others’ suffering and pain, and replace them with hearts of flesh that again radiate understanding and warmth to those around us. The traditional Lenten practice of almsgiving, expressed in deeds of self-denial, charity, and justice, is an invaluable help in this.
Let us “get fit” (spiritually) this Lent!
Anthony Schueller, SSS