A homily last week included advice that “Lent is a marathon, not a sprint.” Either way, it’s a spiritual workout. Building our virtue-muscles is not always easy, but the rewards are out of this world. St. Paul, too, likened a virtuous life to an athletic event: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith (2 Tim 4:7).”
He’s right that growing a bicep has a lot in common with growing a virtue. Virtues are habits of doing the right thing. And the only way to build a habit is to, well, do something over and over until it causes joy rather than resistance. Until it feels wrong to do it the old way.
A few weeks ago, I let my exercise routine slip. I’m no Serena Williams, but I do a little aerobics, take long walks, and ride my bike. And I’m a huge fan of stretching every day. With no exercise, I started to feel flabby and weak and, worst of all, felt my motivation for exercise slipping away with my muscle tone. But after returning to aerobics class, I felt joyful and optimistic.
Then I took a nap :)
I was worn out, but it only took one “yes” to get back on track!
Our virtue muscles can weaken in the same way. If we’ve let our spiritual discipline slip a bit (most of us have been there!), and with it, our motivation to exert ourselves in patience, forgiveness, and generosity, we need to get back into the race.
There are 7 aspects of physical training that we can use to get holier: strength, nutrition, flexibility, speed, agility, injury prevention, and balance. Let’s see how they can jump-start our spiritual life this Lent.
In “virtue training,” strength of will to do the right thing makes everything else possible. If we haven’t made up our minds that we want to be happier, freer, and more joyful (and that it’s worth the sacrifice to lose habits that don’t serve us anymore), then we’ll never get off the starting blocks. As the coach said, “Ya gotta wanna!”
Ways to start:
The Sacrament of Confession is the ultimate de-tox. Telling Jesus the ways we’ve distanced ourselves from Him and asking for his healing opens our souls to the grace He is waiting to give us.
Pray. Tell God about your successes and failures and then listen to Him.
Read about those who are strong in virtue—the saints.
Hang out with people who think growing in holiness is important. Support each other and pray for each other. Start a book group. Plan a regular phone call or meet for coffee.
These things help us build the “core strength” of will that moves us to want friendship with God more than anything else.
What a swimmer eats and drinks can make the difference between making the team or not. We can train as hard as anyone else, but if what we eat makes us lethargic and flabby, we can kiss the gold medal goodbye.
Same with the pursuit of virtue—it’s good to notice what makes our will strong to do good, and what makes our mind drift off track, and adjust our “diet” of conversations, videos, books, thoughts, and actions accordingly.
If we write down the shows and movies we’ve watched, books we’ve read, and look honestly at our conversations and thoughts—and bring that list to prayer, God will move our hearts to let go of what leads us from him. Approaching this “nutrition inventory” fearlessly and prayerfully yields a great payoff of freedom from unhelpful habits.
The more intentional we are about what we put into our minds and hearts, the more spontaneous and joyful we’ll be because our words and actions will more likely be good.
A gymnast knows that stretching is slightly painful if you’re doing it right. Flexibility in virtue means “stretching” your desires to match what is right, even if it’s not always comfortable.
A priest told me recently that a good way to minimize self-will is to ask a family member or co-worker how they think something should be done, and then to do it their way—especially when I think my way is the “right” way.
Did I say stretching is slightly painful sometimes?
An old proverb goes, “He who gives quickly gives twice.” Doing the right thing without hesitating is a sign of mastery in virtue.
I have a habit of putting off doing generous things because whatever I’m offering seems inadequate, and then I don’t do it. But then I think of the Christmas my neighbor arrived at our door with a loaf of Italian bread from the bakery. I was so touched, it still warms my heart, years later.
It turns out it is the thought that counts.
A tennis player has to be ready for a ball coming from any direction at varying speeds at any moment. We never know what life will bring next, so we need to be familiar with the virtues in our “toolbox” and develop a habit of putting the right ones to use in each circumstance. Click here for a tip sheet I did a couple of years ago on the four Cardinal Virtues and how to put them into practice.
A hurdler with strong and flexible muscles is less prone to injury. Our souls will be less prone to sin if we’ve had good virtue-training, and if we do sin, the “injury” is likely to be less serious.
I used to cheat on my taxes in a tiny business I ran decades ago. I figured if I could get away with it, why not? My dishonest actions injured me by taking me farther from God. I was growing my pride, not my virtue, putting myself at even greater risk of injury to my soul.
When I re-discovered the good God and by His grace grew in my desire to be like Him, I gained protection from mortal injury to my soul (or jail time!).
A boxer needs good balance so he doesn’t get knocked down when he gets hit unexpectedly. An “upright person” does not easily fall when tempted because he has made a commitment to thinking about right and wrong before he acts. He has practiced not letting his emotions rule his behavior. And he or she asks God for his guidance every day.
When a thought comes into my mind that I want to strangle someone I’m frustrated with (which happens embarrassingly often), I laugh it off by reminding myself, “That’s just a garden-variety temptation.” It helps to keep our balance if we remember that the tempter hates being laughed at!
The more we develop these core strengths, the more we see that God’s got this — and we’re along for the joy-ride!
Rose, I loved the advice you sent today about spiritual core strength. I bookmarked it so I could refer to it often. Thank you so much.
Thank you so much for this post. As an aging athlete, it hit me at my core (pun intended).
Like you, I endeavor to be faithful to my workout routine throughout the week. I have been seeking Strength, Flexibility, and Endurance in my physical body since the late 70s when I taught aerobic dance classes—picture leg warmers and sweatbands. Yikes!
I continue to seek the same three traits for my soul. Akin to my aides for yoga (mat, block, strap, and blanket), I have the tools necessary for my spiritual fitness -God’s love, the grace of the Holy Spirit, the sacraments, and guidance from earthly trainers like you, Rose.
I pray for the strength of will to continue to get up off the sofa and “just do it.”
Have a blessed Lent.
This was perfect. I felt as if you wrote it for me. Thank you
Thank you. One of my reflections this lenten season. God bless
I believe you wrote this for me, I am having a difficult time with a few people in my life. I love this is just the garden variety temptation. Something to keep me on the right track. Thank you so much
Love your thoughtful and insightful lessons! Thank you and God Bless you!!
I was intrigued by SPEED as one of the seven ways to build spiritual core strength. My earliest working experience as a sixteen year old was at a company that produced perishable animal foods for daily delivery by its own truck fleet. Fixing trucks and plant machinery on the fly was essential; there was no alternative. The people I apprenticed under saw it as a calling. They had all inherited a strong tradition of German craftsmanship and precision and a desire to hand it down to the next generation. Not every business called for it but this work called for speed. There was satisfaction in a job done well and with speed.
Exhausted and in despair after 10 years caring for my stroke paralyzed wife, I sought out the church and discovered the intrinsic blessings of being a caretaker. Once again I began to apply the techniques of speed to caretaking and, believe it or not, speed respite; respite on the fly! For 22 years I have run through my “spiritual cockpit preflight checklist” Which translates: Get there early and get there prepared.
It was apparent that you have been following these ‘Rules of Engagement’ in your physical and spiritual Life when I was introduced to you at a Catholic Womens’ Conference. How wonderfully you glowed inside and out!!
I too give God all the credit for bringing me peace from despair when my wonderful husband was introduced to me thirty years ago after our two earlier marriages that had no peace, true love, or
spiritual foundation. My husband and I had been searching for a kind, soulful mate for some time and knew instantly that God had brought us together. We actually said “I love you” to each other at the point of meeting for the first time. Unbeknownst to me, he had seen me at a large business social gathering and was appreciative of the fact I was not flirtatious and I turned away from forward advances from strange men, being kind but strong. Thank you Holy Father for bringing him into my life and giving us
thirty years of beautiful and glorious God-inspired Love. We are truly blessed!! Much love, Diane
Wonderful suggestions Rose! Thanks for sharing!