Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Weight lifting for Lent

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the March 13, 2011 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Michael Savelesky My channel-surfing fingers recently discovered that a local television station was featuring an international weight lifting championship. There were the men: muscles bulging and veins protruding. With every lift there were the grunts and groans as these men of might competed with one another to excel in strength and skill.

It’s amazing how much the human body can achieve. The weights these men were heaving over their heads were phenomenal compared to the few pounds most of us push around each day. Obviously, a great deal of training and hard work went into the competition. After all, bulging muscles are developed only after long periods of workout and persistent training.

The thought occurred to me that Lent is an appropriate time of year to watch weight lifting contests. They may display for us what can be achieved by the human body; yet, at the same time, they can remind us that the development of the human spirit is another matter. Only a few of us can press the kinds of weights the professionals are trained to push around; each of us, however, is capable of developing a spiritual life which may – or may not – match our bodies in greatness.

Lent is a time for intensified spiritual training, as it were, but we must remember the focus of our efforts. Our goal is not to prove the value of our technique or to display our spiritual muscles. This is a temptation we must avoid at all costs. God is not impressed with spiritual weight lifting: the bags of candy, cartons of cigarettes, bottles of booze, or plates of dessert that we push away during the unfolding weeks of Lent. Such so-called spiritual exercises impress us much more than they do God. At most they manage to display how much we master our desires and habits.

If only practiced as ends in themselves, Lenten weight lifting of this kind provides little success in the development of the human spirit, our relationship with God or with one another. In fact, it can distract us into thinking either that such spiritual exercises make God happy, or actually are the cause of our own growth in holiness.

The impressive weight lifters I found myself watching on television do not spend hours and hours of effort and denial just for those few seconds of television exposure. They have goals that stretch into the future, whether they be personal health, a career, a commercial chain of exercise gyms, or whatever. If anything, they can become distracted by their own appearances; we’ve all heard the stories of athletes who stooped to using steroids or other drugs in order to artificially increase their body mass, to the detriment of their long-term health.

So it is with our own spiritual growth. Our Lenten penances and exercises are not ends in themselves. They might make us feel good, feel like we’re doing something great and even sacrificial; they might make us look good in the eyes of the friend or neighbor who might be impressed with our hardiness during this season of penance.

Furthermore, we must remember that spiritual growth and development come less from the exercise of self-discipline and more from that attentiveness of heart to which God’s Spirit calls us. The faith tradition we call our own provides a constant reminder that sacrifice and the exercise of self -discipline during Lent (or whenever) fail before the Lord unless they are matched by a heart which strives to respond to God’s life with us. We neither win accolades nor prove anything by our Lenten penances. The kind of penance and sacrifice asked of us by God during Lent receives no reward: the care of the poor, the visitation of the lonely, the righting of wronged relationships, the forgiveness of enemies.

It is easy to lift spiritual barbells of sacks of candy, cartons of cigarettes and the like. The kind of weight lifting which produces genuine spiritual development is not so simple – but it takes as much, if not more, self-discipline. It is the kind that leads to life, and not a moment of glory before the cameras. Perhaps that is what Our Lord had in mind when he spoke to us in Matthew’s Gospel on Ash Wednesday: Do your prayer, fasting and almsgiving “in secret,” for the One who sees in secret will repay you.

(Father Savelesky is the diocese's Director of Deacon Formation and pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane.)

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