Every time that we come to the Olympics, we seem to lay aside our differences and concentrate on the greatness of human effort and the respect that we should accord to such striving. While in a healthy form of competition we seek that place in the sun for our own nationality and background, we cannot help giving honor to those athletes from other nations who have, against all odds, striven against great challenges and endured so as to be able to triumph. It is a time to lay aside our differences and give human striving its deserved reward.
To see these athletes, who have worked so hard for years, finally arrive at their Olympic dreams is to truly be thankful for our own humanity and the greatness of God’s creation. For even though our bodies don’t quite correspond to the glory that belongs to the bodies of these athletes, they are, even in our humble and sometimes aging way, made from the same stuff of nature. Like them, we are human beings and thereby share, by communality, the specialness of those disciplined and youthful men and women.
Often athletic imagery is used of the spiritual life. We are in the holy season of Lent, which is a time of spiritual training. During the time of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (4th – 6th centuries), the spiritual discipline was arduous and even physically exhaustive; the desert was no place for the faint of heart! Why, then, did they do this? Evidently, they were willing to give up so much comfort, not because they hated themselves or were masochists, but because they believed in something more than what the world presented them with. They trained their bodies like spiritual athletes for a higher purpose: The Kingdom of God.
We all know that, in our bodies, it is very easy to get out of shape. It is easier to gain weight than to lose it! When we decide to get into a program of physical exercise, the first day is relatively easy, but then the aches and pains begin and it is much easier to just let it go! Climbing up a mountain is harder than going back down. So it is in the spiritual life; we need times like Lent to get ourselves in shape spiritually. What is important is the purpose why we do the actions we decide on.
Dieting and fasting may have the same result, but one is not spiritual and the other is.
What we look like after fasting is beside the point. It is, at best, an accidental occurrence. Fasting is a redirecting of the appetites toward God as the ultimate need. It is a putting straight what had become crooked, so that if one believes in God, the privations and the discomfort involved become acceptable and even desirable. When there is no belief in God, then there can never be the spiritual discipline of fasting for there is no longer a higher purpose. One can still diet for health reasons, but it is not fasting and never will be.
The “ascesis”, or what we do during Lent to prepare ourselves spiritually for Holy Week, we choose and follow through on is just a means to an end. The danger in doing these things is that we fall into the trap of the Pharisees: doing them to be seen to be holy by others. This is why Jesus teaches, in no uncertain terms, that what we do should be done in secret otherwise we could be fooling ourselves and actually be performing our Lenten resolutions for the hidden applause of other’s regard.
A guard against this egotistical drive is Almsgiving. Over and over, God says in the Old Testament: the fasting I require, the fasting that pleases me is when you feed the hungry. Doing acts of social justice throughout the season of Lent insures that we keep the focus off ourselves.
In fact, if we pray, we should pray for others and if we fast, we should become sensitized to the starvation that haunts this world.
The only way to prevent the season of Lent from becoming a time of self-help is to do it all for that higher purpose: the Love of God and of our neighbors.