Saturday, August 21, 2010

Spiritual Exercise

Readings for Sunday, August 22:
Isaiah 66:18-21
Psalm 117:1-2
Hebrews 12:5-7,11-13
Luke 13:22-30

People often try to paint Jesus as this super-nice, ultra-optimistic guy who just talked about heaven and good things all the time. But as we’ve seen in recent weeks, he talked a lot about the reality of judgment and Hell. In fact, Jesus talked about those two things more than any other person in the whole Bible. Why? Because He knew they were important for us to reflect upon and are things we sometimes don’t want to think about.

When we start to reflect on our own personal judgment, when the Lord looks at our life and determines whether we enter into the heavenly banquet or are left outside, we will inevitably arrive at the point when we focus on the question of how it is possible to avoid the rejection and condemnation to Hell that he speaks so sharply to those in the gospel. Or put more positively, we will look to see how it is that we can enter through the narrow gate and be welcomed into the heavenly banquet.

You all know the answer because we’ve heard it more times than we can count – we must pick up our cross daily and follow Christ.

It isn’t for no reason that Christ says that we must strive to enter through the narrow gate. It’s not possible to just casually walk along and mosey through it. It takes a serious effort and a lot of what we call ‘want-to’ in order to be able to approach the narrow gate and enter through it.

A lot of times we don’t like discipline. We want to do what we want to do, when we want to do it, and that’s just how it is. But that isn’t good for us. I’d love nothing more than to be able to eat Raisin Canes and Coldstone Ice Cream every day, but I know that I can’t. And I’d love to never have to exercise again, but I know that I must. And that’s where we experience the discipline – both in positive and negative ways, in doing things and avoiding things. And as the writer of Hebrews says, it may not at the time seem like a cause for joy but for pain. But if you persevere in that pain for the sake of the Lord, it will shape you and mold you and in the end it will bear great fruit in the form of righteousness.

Last semester at the seminary I decided to start doing the P90 workouts – an intense 90-day workout program. I got the DVD’s and a friend and I started doing these daily workout routines to help us get back in shape. At first there was a lot of pain involved – moving muscles that had had not been worked in a long while, stretching in ways I hadn’t before, and pushing myself to keep up with quick-paced routines all were ample sources of physical pain. And yet, as I endured it, I found that I was eventually able to keep up with the program and do pretty well. But that was only half of the battle. In addition to the “do this” aspect of the exercise routine, there was also the “don’t do this” aspect. That part included things like not going back for seconds at meals, not going to fast food joints every other day, and not celebrating a good workout with a Gotta Have It size cookies and cream milkshake at the Coldstone down the street from the seminary. What I found was that the ‘don’t do this’ aspect that was the most difficult part. The exercise was easy; I could do it in 30-45 minutes and be done with it for the day, I could check it off the list. But the part about avoiding bad food choices – that was with me all day every day. It was much harder to struggle with, but the struggle was worth it and the discipline of the program was worth it because in the end I felt better, I was in better shape, and I had a bit more pep in my step going through the day.

As I think about the fact of how much effort I put into the exercise routine to get in better physical shape, I had to wonder: What do I do to get in better spiritual shape? What sort of exercise does my soul get?

You see, in the spiritual life there are certain disciplines, positive and negative, that are given for us in order be in good spiritual shape. Most of us know the ‘do this’ list of Catholicism– we must attend Mass every Sunday, go to confession regularly, pray daily, forgive others, love our neighbors and the like. Those are all pretty easy because once they’re done, they’re done. But like that exercise program I was in, the hard part isn’t the ‘do this’ list but the ‘don’t do this’ list. This is where we need the real strength and must do the real striving that Christ spoke of because these are the trials and struggles that are around us all day every day. Some of the major ones we know are drunkenness and gluttony, using profane language and speaking negatively about others, sexual promiscuity and pornography, and neglecting the poor and needy. But there are a ton of small things also, little instances throughout the day when we have to choose between doing good or doing wrong. And wherever we go, matter how many times we are victorious over temptations to sin, the temptations always return and we must strive to overcome them and continue on the path to the narrow gate. And if we do, then our discipline will bear the fruit of righteousness in God’s eyes.

In the act of contrition I say when I got to confession, there is a line that says “In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against You, whom I should love about all things.” How wonderful would if be if at the moment of our judgment we could stand before the Lord, victorious over the temptations to sin, and tell him instead “In choosing to do good and failing to do wrong, I have shown my love for You, Whom I do love above all things.” God’s grace is abundant and He is always willing to give it. All we have to do is ask and it will be given, and then on the last day, we will hear not “I do not know where you are from” but instead, “Well done my good and faithful servant, enter into your heavenly reward.“