If you want to win friends and influence people, don’t mention the cross. It is an unlikely enticement to attract us to someone, and yet, it is precisely what Jesus Christ offered us. “If anyone wishes to come after me must deny himself” (Luke 9:23).
Although the prospect of self-denial and suffering is repellent, the attraction to unite ourselves with Christ helps us to overcome our reluctance and even choose to deny ourselves in order to draw nearer to Him. This was the theme of a recent retreat given by Fr. Wayne Sattler. He has given retreats to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in six countries and throughout the United States.
Sattler put our spiritual lives in perspective by pointing out that our bodies will one day die but our souls live on for eternity. Thus, it is important to take good care of our soul by strengthening our internal spiritual muscles. He identified three ways in which we can do this: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. “Prayer is to the soul as food is to the body,” he said. “If you don’t pray every day, your soul will get weaker and weaker.”
But prayer is only part of what is needed to take proper care of our soul. Sattler explained that fasting is not just for Lent but something that should be done at least once a week in order to develop our interior muscles for doing God’s will. And almsgiving should not be considered optional. “We need to be a good steward of God’s gifts,” he said. Sattler noted that the early Christians understood how “Everything is from God and is given for the good of all.”
“If we neglect alms, we will not be able to enter into the rest from our work that God invites us into, and will exhaust ourselves with financial worries.” He cautioned against giving God our leftovers and suggested instead, to give him our first 10% and to trust he will take care of us. Sattler reminded everyone of the story of Cain and Abel. Both offered sacrifices to God but Abel gave God his first and best while Cain gave his leftovers. God accepted the gift of Abel and rejected Cain’s. Sattler pointed out that ironically, it’s often the case that the more God gives us, the harder it is for us to be equally as generous. The larger our income, the larger our 10% becomes, and if God has decided to entrust to us more, shouldn’t we be just as eager to return the favor?
“We forget we are not here to stay,” Sattler said. “The temptation is to turn outward to the world and only trust what we see but we need to turn inward and trust the voice that is trying to speak from within.”
Trusting that voice involves clearing space in our lives so that God can speak to us and we will take the time and be spiritually connected enough to hear his voice. According to Sattler, it is through self-denial that we strengthen our spiritual muscles, which serve to subdue our passions–much like the taming of a wild horse. As with the wild horse, taming happens gradually and through persistent work. “But we don’t want to kill the horse, we just want to tame him,” he said. And so it is with our passions. He explained that we are called to be the master of our passions and self-denial gives us the discipline to do so. Overdoing with severe penances, however, is like being so harsh that the horse bucks back. So, he advises that we begin where we are by simply increasing whatever we are doing now rather than striving for a drastic life change that our passions buck back.
Acts of self-denial—which can include simply not eating in-between meals, giving up smoking or abstaining from any pleasure—can often tempt one to be irritable. In such a case, Sattler said, “If you can’t to do it for love, then don’t do it. If the fast is making you grumpy, then eat something and be kind.” He was not saying to give up fasting altogether, but to work up to it and use it as a vehicle to holiness rather than endure with resentment and irritability. “It’s not the sack cloth and ashes and being miserable that is pleasing to God,” Sattler warned. He said that fasting is about healing our will to conform to God’s will, for in God’s will is our greatest happiness.
Ironically he pointed out that fasting ultimately brings us to a fuller enjoyment of life. Over-indulging in pleasures actually inhibits us from truly enjoying what our passions desire and we become slaves to them. Self-denial, however, opens a space for God in our lives, builds discipline, and increases our enjoyment of life’s pleasures.
“By voluntarily denying ourselves pleasures, we also strengthen ourselves for resisting illegitimate ones”, Sattler said. “And, through sacrifice and self-denial, we begin to trust more in God’s Providence, that He will provide what we need.”
Through our crosses—both those given to us and those we freely choose—we can remain with Christ by freely embracing them. For this reason, Sattler said, in spite of feeling repelled by suffering, we choose to deny our self, take up our cross daily and follow Jesus (Luke 9:23).
© 2013. Patti Maguire Armstrong. All Rights Reserved.