Usually about this time during Lent, one of my kids comes up to me with a long face and asks if they can change their Lenten resolution. I’ve got to admit, I know exactly how they feel. Fasting and other kinds of sacrifice don’t come easy. We have good intentions but quickly grow tired and want to revert back to our “normal” lives. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak…1
Thankfully, God understands our struggle and doesn’t leave us to our own devices. He has given us a will to face these – and even more challenging – situations. Along with our reason and intellect, the will allows us to direct the course of our lives – to reject what is evil and to choose the good.2 But we often forget – or don’t take the time – to strengthen, harness and direct it. We are blessed with “free will,” but for many, it’s an ill-used and under-appreciated gift. The only way we’ll ever be able to tap into its hidden power is by putting it to work (and even then, it’s by God’s grace).3
In the spiritual life, the will can help us let go of those things that have a hold on us – both sin and the “affection for sin.”4 For instance, say you’ve got an insatiable sweet tooth, like me. One day you walk into the kitchen and, remembering a treat tucked away in the cabinet, you get a little thrill and think, “I can have some and no one will stop me.” And while that’s true, the someone who should stop you is you. The problem isn’t eating the sweet, necessarily, but that we lack the discipline to resist it. That’s the ‘affection for sin’ talking. And like all seemingly harmless ideas, it can get us into trouble. We’ve got to kick the sweet tooth – our “taste” for sin. We know what’s good for us but often don’t do it. We allow our bodies – our desires and cravings – to control our actions rather than the will.
So how do we train the will, or at least rein it in? By little acts of self-denial. We commonly associate fasting and sacrifice with Lent, but they can be helpful practices anytime. Here’s a couple of ideas…
- Start with something small, like not putting sugar in your tea or salting your food. How often do we take such simple pleasures for granted?
- Don’t hit the snooze on the alarm. Of course it’d be good to use those extra minutes to pray. But either way, this act of the will can help us become more disciplined.
- I’m not a fan of cold showers, but what about turning the water off periodically in between soaping and rinsing?
- Or, take only one helping at meals. Oftentimes we continue to eat even after we’ve had enough, just because it tastes good. To deny ourselves such privileges is not only a great way to form the will, but also helps us become more sympathetic towards the poor.
- Hold your tongue when you’re inclined to disagree; don’t insist on your own way. Isn’t that what St. Paul tells us in his famous discourse on the true measure of love?5
These types of “mortifications” have always been a part of our Catholic culture and were common practices just a generation ago. But in our modern-day culture of indulgence such holy inspirations have become wholly unpopular – even looked down upon. Yet they still have a place in our spiritual lives as long as we remember their purpose: to form the will, foster self-discipline, and, ultimately, to help us grow closer to God.
History is rife with accounts of incredible feats that boggle the mind and defy the laws of nature: tales of exploration and discovery, and accounts of survival in extreme and dire situations. These examples show us what the human person is truly capable of: heroic virtue. One of my personal favourites is the story of Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who lived through the horrors and atrocities of WWII. In Man’s Search for Meaning, the author describes how he was able to survive – and even find meaning in his life – while imprisoned in a concentration camp. By consciously choosing to get up each morning – despite the hunger and misery that he felt – the author discovered that, in a certain sense, he was free; his captors had no hold over him.
Interestingly enough, even casual observers see here the “indomitable human spirit” at work. It’s a common thread that draws us to such stories. Yet what some fail to recognize is the source of that power, a power that rests not in mere human strength but comes from God alone. Because we are made in His image and given His Spirit, we have access to this power and can use it to overcome any obstacle or failing. Ultimately, it’s how we will find our way to heaven and become saints. What a gift…
So if you’re feeling the same way as my kids about now – tired, frustrated, and a bit grumpy – take heart! Remember that the struggle is worth it, for the “work” we are doing now will help prepare us for bigger challenges that may come our way. We don’t know what lies ahead, but the Lord is faithful and promises to accompany us. Holiness is a journey, not a destination, and purifying the soul is no doubt hard work. But as St. Francis de Sales reminds us, victory lies in the struggle: “…we are never conquered unless we lose our courage… ”6
– Kelley Holy
1 Cf. Matthew 26:41.
2 This is a topic that I’ve explored before, here: https://swordsoftruth.com/2013/01/08/on-a-quest-for-peace/
3 The danger is falling into the mindset that by exercising the will – by our own efforts, apart from God – we are able to do what is good. This heresy, called Pelagianism, came about in the fifth century but was strongly refuted by the Church. On the contrary, any good that we are able to do requires an ongoing reliance on God’s grace.
4 Cf. St. Francis de Sales, Philothea or An Introduction to the Devout Life (Charlotte, North Carolina: Saint Benedict Press, 2010), 18.
5 Cf. 1 Corinthians 13:5.
6 Cf. St. Francis de Sales, Philothea or An Introduction to the Devout Life, 15.