Lent: Getting in Spiritual Shape

The season of Lent marks the beginning of 40 days of fasting, penance, prayer, and good works in preparation for Easter. Lent commemorates the 40 days Jesus spent praying and fasting in the desert before beginning his public ministry.

“The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).” Catechism of the Catholic Church #1438

The 40 days of penance and fasting during Lent do not include Sundays because Sundays are considered “little Easters”. There is no obligation to fast or to do penance on the six Sundays of Lent or any Sunday, but rather it is a day to be joyful, attend Mass, and rest from work.

” ‘as God rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done,’ human life has a rhythm of work and rest. The institution of the Lord’s Day helps everyone enjoy adequate rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social, and religious lives.” Catechism of the Catholic Church #2184

On Ash Wednesday one of the prayers that may be said when we receive ashes on our foreheads is: “Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return.” This prayer reminds us to get our priorities in order as this life is short in comparison with eternity, which lasts forever.

An alternate prayer when receiving ashes on the forehead is: “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”

Why repentance, penance, and fasting?

There is something to be gained or lost in this life and that is eternal life. While salvation is a free gift from God through the merits of Jesus Christ, there are requirements to receive it and to keep it.

St. Paul reminds us in the Bible that athletes make sacrifices to win, and this applies to the spiritual life too. The prize St. Paul is talking about is eternal salvation. It takes effort and sacrifice to avoid sin and remain united with God, but God gives us the power of his grace to do this.

“Don’t you know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run like that, that you may win. Every man who strives in the games exercises self-control in all things. Now they do it to receive a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible. I therefore run like that, as not uncertainly. I fight like that, as not beating the air, but I beat my body and bring it into submission, for fear that by any means, that after I have preached to others, I myself should be rejected.” 1 Corinthians 9:24-27

How can we get in spiritual shape?

We need to do more to stay in God’s grace than the important initial step of accepting Jesus and being baptized. We must persevere and at the hour of death also be in God’s grace to go to Heaven.

Lent is a time to reflect that repentance is the first step to restore friendship with God if we are separated from God through our own fault and sin. Repentance includes turning to God with sorrow for sin, confessing our sins, and a firm resolve to stop sinning. Serious (mortal) sin separates us from God and takes away God’s life within us, the sanctifying grace in our souls that we received at Baptism.

“For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: ‘Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.’ ” Catechism of the Catholic Church #1857

If we commit sins after baptism and are sorry, God desires to forgive us so that we can return to God’s grace and friendship. Even though God forgives us for our sins as soon as we have “perfect contrition” for them, Catholics are required to go to Confession for any mortal sins they have committed before returning to Holy Communion. Forgiveness of our sins in confession requires true contribution but not necessarily perfect contrition. (If interested in types of contribution see http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04337a.htm.)

Prayer, fasting, and good works can help us to grow in holiness. The first step towards holiness and union with God is to make a firm resolution to give up all serious (mortal) sin.

Secondly, we can also continue working on getting rid of all smaller (venial) sins and imperfections. The goal is loving God above all things and seeking his will in all things. God loves us and desires the best for us (while we often do not know what is best). God desires that we all become holy as He is holy.

The importance of prayer

Prayer is essential in the spiritual life. Prayer is the path that leads to union with God. We can do nothing on our own, but with Christ we can do all things.

“I am the vine. You are the branches. He who remains in me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5
“I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13

God loves us and is waiting for us to open our hearts to him. He desires to forgive us and to be in union with us, but he doesn’t force us. Love cannot be forced as it is a free choice. God is the highest good, and we were created for a relationship with him now and for eternity, and we will not end up being happy without putting God in first place.

God is love

God is so loving that the Bible even says that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Even the greatest saints are saved by the mercy of God as no one deserves to go to Heaven through their own merits. Jesus came to save us from our sins because we could not do it on our own.

Due to the original sin of Adam and Eve, we are not born with God’s grace in our souls, but it is a free gift of God through the merits of Jesus Christ. The ordinary way to be born again as a child of God and receive God’s sanctifying grace is to believe and be baptized. Our part along with being baptized is to have faith in God, cooperate with God’s grace, and stay in God’s grace.

Along with frequent reception of the sacraments such as Confession and Holy Communion, a very good way to grow closer to Jesus is to take time each day to pray and to do spiritual reading from the Bible and other good spiritual books. Also we need to put our love for God into action by loving God above all things and also by loving ourselves and others in the proper way.

Do we give God our best, just the leftovers, or maybe nothing at all?

“Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment.’ ” Matthew 22:37-38

God desires that we put him first. He commands us to love him above all things and to do his will, not only because it is the right thing to do but because it is the best thing for us. God desires and knows what is best for us and those we love. We must surrender our lives to God and let him be in control. St. Catherine of Siena even went so far as to say that we must slay our own will.

Of course, this is not easy. There is effort involved along with penance and prayer. It isn’t something we can accomplish overnight. It is more a process that takes place over time as we surrender to God who reveals to us more and more how to bring our lives in conformity with his will.

It is kind of a paradox, that we must lose our life in order to find it. Jesus said, “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16:25

This is the opposite of some popular ideas, which would be to follow our feelings rather than following God’s teachings. We will only end up being happy doing what is right. What is right is what God says, which is the truth, not necessarily our ideas, which might be faulty, or our feelings, which can sometimes be unreliable or even temptations. God want us to use our intelligence and consult our feelings, but they are not to run our lives.

Trust in God with all your heart

We must come to a place in our spiritual lives that we trust God more completely than we trust in our own self, intelligence, or feelings (or that of others). God knows all things and is the highest good. From God comes all good things including the highest truth, love, peace, and beauty.

God wants us to be happy, but what will make us happy is not necessarily what we think or feel will make us happy. Happiness is not just about momentary pleasures or having things. True happiness comes from inside, from loving God and doing his will.

“…if you do a bad thing with pleasure, the pleasure passes and the badness remains: if you wearily do a good thing, the weariness passes and the good remains.” St. Camillus de Lellis

God knows our pains and sufferings and how hard things are for us at times. We all have our individual trials and challenges, just as Jesus did while he was alive on earth.

Our greatest goal in life as Christians is to be united with God in this life and to receive eternal life remembering that God is our ultimate good. St. Teresa of Avila says, “God alone suffices.” God loves us and is very merciful. God wants us to trust him and to love him in return. The idea is to surrender control of our lives to God so that God can bring good out of everything.

“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28

Repent and believe in the Gospel

Lent is a time for repentance for sin, prayer, fasting, and good works. To get in spiritual shape this Lent and to get our life in the right order, we must put God first, and doing God’s will at the very top of our priorities. It helps to realize that God is all-good, all-loving, all-powerful, and has a wonderful plan for our lives. Over time as we keep praying and doing what God shows us, we will be cooperating with God to bring our lives into the right order and become more and more united with God. This will bring peace and joy into our hearts.

Our Lady of Fatima told Sister Lucia that the sacrifice God desires of us in these days is doing our “daily duty”. While time set aside for prayer and reflection is very important and even essential, most of our day should be spent doing our “daily duty”. Our daily duty means whatever our state in life requires of us. Most of the time this means taking care of ourselves, our families, and others for the love of God including doing our jobs well.

Some questions for reflection:

-What place does God have in my life?
-Am I seeking God’s will and plan, or am I just asking God to help me with my goals and plans?
-Do I pray that “my” will be done rather than the will of our loving Heavenly Father? (Jesus taught us to pray in the Our Father prayer, “thy” will be done.)
-Do I seek God’s guidance when making important decisions?
-Do I take time to pray daily including some time of silence to listen to what God might be saying to me?
-Do I make time to do some spiritual reading and reflect on what I read?
-Am I loving others as I love myself?
-Am I living a balanced life of love, prayer, work, and recreation according to my state in life?
-Am I offering my day to God and doing my work well for the love of God?
-Overall, am I keeping the two greatest commandments Jesus spoke of in the Gospels of loving God above all things and my neighbor as myself?
-In doing this reflection, what areas of my life would be most important to focus on improving this Lent?

If you discover something in your life that should be changed to be in closer conformity to God’s will, pray and ask God for his help. It is also good to ask for the prayers of the Blessed Mother and the Saints, and for the help of our Guardian Angel who is always by our side to help and guide us.

God loves us even though we are still sinners. We do not have to do anything to earn God’s love. God offers us his love, mercy, grace, and all good things including the gift of becoming children of God. It is up to us to accept these gifts and to love God in return, which includes doing things God’s way.

Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” John 14:15
“One who has my commandments, and keeps them, that person is one who loves me. One who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him, and will reveal myself to him.” John 14:21
“If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and remain in his love.” John 15:10

The “Seeking Union with God” course was put together to help those who want to learn more about the spiritual life and union with God. Click here for more information: http://www.catholicspiritualdirection.org/csfsignup.html.