Lent: The Season for Conditioning

Well, here we are in Lent once again. I’ve shared in the past how I usually dread this penitential season. My basic orientation is to joy, and sad occasions of want and deprivation wear down my spirit. (O.K., that’s just spin. The truth is, I’m really bad at self-denial. With few exceptions, what I gave up for Lent doesn’t stay given up for long, and I slog into Easter feeling like a bouquet of rear ends.)

But this year looks to be different. I feel led to see it more like a boot camp of spiritual conditioning. For the record, I will never run a marathon. (I’ll never run again, please God, except to escape fire, flood or wild animals.)  But I know that I’m called to be a spiritual athlete. These last months I’ve been gifted with an increasing love of prayer and silence. Still, I worry that in hard times I could easily put second things first (I’ve seen me do it.)

Lately, my prayer has been, “You have showered me with grace my whole life, and I’ve been a sorry steward of that bounty. Now I am asking You for grace upon grace, to make me strong, so that I do not disappoint you, especially when it counts the most.”

So, this year, my conditioning plan is more spiritual exercise than self-denial. I’m going to Mass, praying the gauntlet of Catholic prayers (the rosary, chaplet of divine mercy, etc.) and spending time before the Blessed Sacrament every day. Doing these things just naturally leaves less time for soul-draining activities and self-indulgence.  They also turn my appetite to the good, the true and the beautiful.

Just as I was devising my training schedule before Lent kicked off, I ran across a post that served as confirmation.

“We may be familiar with the analogies that compare spiritual conditioning to physical conditioning. An athlete prepares for an event through training and practice; it’s a lot of hard work and discipline. It may even be described as suffering and sacrifice. The same is true in the spiritual life if we want to defeat our adversary. But St. John touches on something a little different; something that is dangerous even for those who are spiritually well-disciplined. It’s what happens when we are fatigued by divided desires.

He says:
“Weakness and tepidity are another kind of harm the appetites produce in a man. For the appetites sap the strength needed for perseverance in the practice of a virtue…. A man whose will is divided among trifles is like water which, because of some leakage, will not rise higher and consequently becomes useless.”
– St. John of the Cross
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