Friday, April 3, 2009

Spiritual Muscle Building

On Sundays, after Mass, our pastor holds Catechism class for adults. It's a wonderful addition to the day.

This past Sunday, he talked about defeating bad habits, and practicing virtue. He said you can do this in steps: first, get rid of the mortal sins. Then, the venial sins. Next attack the bad habits, and finally, start seeking out virtuous behavior.

I have to admit I never thought about it this way before - it's a bit like planning to run a marathon when you're not even running yet. Where to start? By walking each day, of course.

He even suggested keeping a notebook in your pocket, and when you catch yourself doing something you shouldn't and don't want to be doing, you mark it down. Keep track of the type and nature of the fault. A picture begins to emerge.

Another priest addressed the enumeration of sins in the confessional. I have to admit I had also never really understood why we are supposed to say what we did and how many times we did it. The how many times, I now see, is a clue to how ingrained this behavior is in our personalities, in our day to day lives. Of course we all lie. But do I lie ten or twenty times a day, or ten to twenty times per month?

I've said before, but I reiterate here: Thank God for these men who devote their lives to the salvation of our souls.

And it also got me thinking how our Church needs so much to return to this kind of pastoral care - really helping us find ways to be better people on a daily basis.

When I was about 10 or so, it struck me very forcefully that we modern humans are very comfortable with the idea of building our minds (school, study, books, etc.), and our bodies (workouts, running, gyms), but we gloss over and neglect our spiritual selves. We understand that learning and physical training will demand an element of discipline and pain: getting out and starting that run is not going to feel "good." Yes, I'll feel better after, but not for the first 6 or so minutes. Why do we expect that training our souls is going to be any different?

An even bigger question: why have we completely abandoned the idea that our spirits even need to be disciplined? We seem to shy away from that idea - or even reject it with hostile vehemence. The "do you own thing" of my childhood became "you're perfect as you are," and finally, "you are God," as if you were perfect and all powerful spiritually just the way you are.

It strikes me this is kind of absurd, and even dangerous. We know that our bodies will decline and become ill if we don't discipline them (watch what we eat, get exercise, etc.). We know that our minds will slow down if we don't keep them active (reading, practicing music, even playing games). Why would we presume to think that third leg of our selves is any less in need of a good workout?

I realized that the Catholic Church, with it's "medieval" practices of fasting, abstinence, Confession, penance, etc., was actually on to something. When I deny myself something, however small, I'm taking control of my spiritual self - I'm building my spiritual vocabulary, my soul's muscles. These small acts build up; eventually I can take on greater challenges. And the payoff is when something truly big comes up: I'm tempted to cheat on my taxes or my spouse, for example. Because I have practiced saying no, because I have taken the time and suffered the pain of spiritual muscle building... maybe I can reach deep and actually avoid this temptation.

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