Someone’s idea of a practical joke was to register me for an advanced physical fitness class. The first day, our instructor marked our running time by ordering the entire class to run five laps outside the gym. I circled one block, panting in the heat, before I decided to hide until the final lap, when I rejoined staggering fitness buffs. I don’t know what I clocked, but I smelled fresher than the rest of them.
Needless to say, if I had to run for my life because Armageddon was chasing me, I probably won’t survive. But, I can find a good hideout spot for my survival kit and I live in hope that because I work hard at my spiritual fitness, when my body is out cold and flattened by a kingdom-come-stampede, my soul at least has a fighting chance of floating to the locker room of purgatory. Then I can receive the final cleansing before reaching the heavenly gates.
I have nothing against health, sports or fitness per se. I’ve enjoyed my fair share of kayaking and waterskiing; I don’t begrudge marathons or the Zumba if that’s your thing. However, I do think ESPN’s obsession with physical fitness for entertainment or Hollywood’s pursuit of the “perfect” body image has gone overboard to idolatry proportions. It’s rubbed off on us and needs be dethroned by spiritual fitness.
So, what does it take to be in advanced spiritual shape?
- Eucharist. Out of 168 hours in a week, God only commands for one Sunday Mass, roughly 1 ½ hours. To add another half an hour of daily Mass or two during the week isn’t that demanding and goes a long way in sustaining a healthy soul. The Catechism teaches that the Mass is at once a sacrifice, worship, and communion with Christ and His Body, the Church. From this Sacrament, we are sanctified by sacramental graces and sent out to the world as disciples so that we may fulfill God’s will for our lives. The Body of Christ contains all that is essential for a soul’s nourishment. John 6: 51 says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will have eternal life.”
- Examination of Conscience. According to the Catechism: “A thorough examination of conscience is a prayerful reflection of our words and deeds in the light of the Gospel to determine how we have sinned against God.” On the USCCB website, there are tailor-made examinations based on the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes, for children, youth, single or married people. St. Josemaria Escriva advised an examination must be conducted daily if we are to follow our Lord with sincerity. He added that, “your particular examination should be directed towards the acquisition of a certain virtue or the rooting out of a predominant defect.”
- Confession, otherwise known as the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation, is not as Pope Francis said, “a psychiatric session that neglects the question or sin or a mental email to God that avoids a face to face encounter with God through a priest.” Precisely, the Catechism teaches that because sin is an offense against God and a rupture of communion with Him and the Church, the sacrament of penance as instituted by Christ in scripture, is necessary in order to return to full Communion with the Church. Through Confession, we acknowledge our sins, seek God’s mercy through his Church, who forgives in the name of Jesus. Then we return to full Communion with the Church, much like a delinquent gym member can return to privileges after settling fines with management.
How often should we confess? As often your examination of conscience compels you to. St. Pio suggested, “Confession is a soul’s bath. Even a clean and unoccupied room gathers dust. Return after a week, and you will see it needs dusting again.”
- Prayer and Scripture. St. Ignatius defines prayer as two-way, “asking some favor, acknowledging faults, and communicating to Him all that concerns us, our thoughts, fears, projects desires, and in all things seeking his counsel.” The Catholic Church has an inexhaustible list of traditional prayers like the morning offering, the noon angelus, the liturgy of the hours, nine-day novenas, or the rosary as a family prayer, to which promises attached. Or it could just be a simple glance toward heaven, as St. Therese defines. The more important, and less emphasized focus is God’s input, which we find through meditation of scripture, the inspired word of God. Apart from the traditional leccio divina, modern technology has enabled easy access to scriptural reflections through the Laudate app and websites www.wordamongus.org and www.blessedisshe.net.
- Fasting. Other than the Lenten practice of fasting and abstinence, Canon 1251 provides, “Abstinence from meat or some other food… is to be observed on all Fridays unless a solemnity happens to fall on a Friday.” The Catholic Bishops of the United States has allowed other forms of renunciation as discussed in its pastoral statement. But every Friday remains a day of “self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.” Fasting trains our bodies that we are not of the world, and it strengthens our souls for fidelity to Christ and His Church.
If you find the advice of bishops and saints rigorous, you can always seek the spiritual direction of your priest. He, like a physical trainer, will know how to tailor your program to the state of your life and the welfare of your soul.
The urgent challenge is to prioritize an advance in spiritual fitness. Not because the fig trees are blossoming or there’s a comet tail in sight, but because Jesus said:
“Do not worry about your life and what you are to eat, or about your body and what you are to wear…instead seek His kingdom, and all else will be given to you besides.” (Luke 12: 22, 31)