“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it’” (Matthew 16:25).
For about three months, culminating on Easter Sunday, I took part in a spiritual program for Catholic men focused on prayer, ascetism, and fraternity. During this program, men ‘unplug’ from the world, deny themselves, and live in a specifically intentional way for the Kingdom of God.
This journey requires men to participate in fraternity with other men, read Scripture and reflections each day, spend at least 30 minutes in prayer with the Blessed Sacrament, and then other things, including: no social media, no computer or phone if not for work or other mandatory tasks like paying bills, taking a cold shower every morning, no sweets, no snacking between meals, no alcohol, getting at least 7 hours of sleep each night, no watching sports, and fasting and abstaining from meat every Wednesday and Friday.
This is a journey through the Book of Exodus alongside Moses and the Israelites as they escape slavery in Egypt and learn how to live in true freedom in the Promised Land. The Book of Exodus is a brilliant metaphor for the modern man, called to a freedom rooted in the ability to choose the good for the sake of God and His Kingdom as opposed to a having a ‘false freedom’ and being a slave to desires and passions.
Receiving screen time reports on my iPhone each week made me realize how much of a slave I am to my cell phone – to social media, to sports, to instant gratification. I desired to free myself from my phone in a radical way, which this program helped me achieve. This is just one example of how this journey invited me to restructure my day and rid myself of lazy habits.
This journey was hard: the first few weeks were hard; the last few weeks were hard. I wasn’t perfect at maintaining all of the disciplines of the program. I can recall starting the cold water for the shower in the morning and letting it run for 5 minutes trying to pump myself up to jump in. This happened many times. But after 3 or 4 weeks, I was jumping right in. The old adage is true: First we make our habits, then our habits make us. The more we exercise true freedom – denying ourselves and making choices that counter our desire for comfort – the easier it is to live in freedom.
Feeling much more liberated, I still do not have any social media apps on my phone, I take a cold shower from time to time, and prayer time is a staple of my daily routine. Making these types of continued choices is not easy, and that is why participating in community with the Body of Christ – much like the disciples did— is essential to continued spiritual growth. Though each choice and discipline of this program is deeply personal, a community of like-minded men working through the same disciplines in their own right was a crucial element of this process. This community allowed me to give and receive motivation and encouragement and ensured that the disciplines were being completed in a physically and spiritually healthy way. This is why the Church, in her wisdom, has encouraged the formal development of many religious communities – such as the Dominicans, Franciscans, and Pallottines. I believe this is also why the Church today is stressing Collaboration and Co-Responsibility in ministry. The journey to heaven is not one that should be walked alone. I would encourage you, in whatever spiritual journey you undertake for God and his Kingdom, to do so in community.
Question for Reflection: Have you ever participated in a spiritual program, conference, or retreat that had a positive impact on your faith?
Tyler Lomnitzer received his B.A. in English Literature from The Catholic University of America in 2015.
The last full week of Lent, before Holy Week begins, has always been a bit of a struggle for me. Usually by this time, I’ve already slipped up on my voluntary Lenten penances once or several times, I’m ready for the Triduum to just be here already, and I’m completely over the color purple. My husband and I jokingly call this spiritual sluggishness or restlessness “the end-of-Lent slog.” It seems like these particular days before Holy Week ramps up are when we are tempted the most to go back to the things we’re fasting from or to just throw in the towel on Lent because we’re “basically done.”
My husband and I pray Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours together, and one of the readings that has resonated with me this Lent comes from St. Paul. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he encourages his readers to imitate well-trained athletes and to “run so as to win.” He continues: “Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.” When I was a teenager, I viewed Lent as a sprint: choose some really intense or difficult penances, struggle to maintain an unrealistically high level of spiritual rigor, and then after Easter gleefully go right back to doing and eating all the things I had given up while tossing out all the spiritual growth I’d supposedly just undergone. As I matured in my faith, I came to understand that Lent is not meant to be a temporary, intense lifestyle challenge; rather, it is the start of a marathon. It’s a specific time to motivate ourselves to grow deeper in our relationship with God by letting go of the things that keep us from Him and by doing more difficult penances for our sins and vices—preferably by abstaining from them and thus breaking our addictions to or reliance on them.
Like St. Paul says, we ought to treat our spiritual lives the way that athletes treat their sport: they dedicate themselves to it, setting higher and higher goals, training their bodies, denying themselves in order to maintain peak physical performance. And all of this to win a crown of leaves! How much more important, then, are the things we take on during Lent? We are training and preparing our souls for an eternity in Heaven with God, not for gold medals or accolades here on earth. Do we approach Lent as something that we need to win right now, this year? Or as something that trains us and jumpstarts us for the rest of the year—and the rest of our lives? Do we find ourselves fasting from the same things every year because we couldn’t maintain virtuous habits once the Easter bells started to ring? Or have our old Lenten penances and prayers become so incorporated into our daily lives that we can build upon them with each new Lenten season?
Once I realized these things about Lent, all those times I “failed” in my Lenten practices didn’t seem so terrible anymore. I no longer want to “quit” Lent when I accidentally slip up on my penances or when I find myself giving in to temptation. If Lent is meant to jumpstart us on spiritual practices that we continue for months and years afterward, then we have to acknowledge and move past the stumbles and crashes when they come. Our failures to live up to our promises to God are still regrettable, certainly, but when we are in it for the long haul, our stumbles are also much more forgettable. St. Paul shows us that in “forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead” we must continue in our “pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.” We must acknowledge and repent of our broken pasts and our sinfulness, but we also must look with hope toward the future that Christ has made possible for us. If we allow ourselves to dwell too much on our failures, our concupiscence, our weakness as mortal men, then we can lose sight of the ultimate goal for which we strive: to be with Christ in Heaven. As Lent moves into Holy Week and Eastertide, let us strive to be like Paul’s well-disciplined athletes, winning the marathon of life by training our souls for the eternal prize of Jesus Christ.
For more resources to accompany you throughout the Lenten season, please click here.
Question for Reflection: How can you build on your Lenten practices throughout the liturgical year?
Helena Romano is an Editing Associate for the Catholic Apostolate Center.