I’m not what you’d call “competitive.” My mom used to summarize my little league soccer games saying, “yeah . . . sometimes the ball would hit your foot.” I’ve been known to intentionally lose a pick-up game of volleyball because it was getting cold outside . . . and after three times around a Monopoly board, I’ll give you the Boardwalk and all my hotels for a chance to leave the table and do something else.
One area of life where I compete is my spiritual life. Not because I want to be holier than my friends or have a Church named after me (although I think St. Alison the Great has a nice ring to it). I’m competitive because in the quest for holiness, competition isn’t against each other, but a common enemy — the devil.
Just like an athlete can never sit back after scoring one goal, one basket or running their first mile, as Catholics we need to be constantly striving for greater discipline in our spiritual lives. Just like a lack of discipline will keep you from succeeding at sports or learning in school, it’s un-helpful and even harmful to your soul. So how does one acquire discipline? Prayer and penance.
Sometimes we think of penance as something just for Lent, but the Church actually states that “the penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent” (Can. 1250).
Hold on. Every Friday of the whole year?
Yep. Because Friday is the day that Christ made the ultimate sacrifice for us, the Church instructs that we should call this to mind frequently—not just the forty days before Easter. While most of us are familiar with abstaining from meat on Fridays in Lent, we are challenged by the Church to recall the importance of Good Friday throughout the year by making some act of penance each week.
While penance may not be our favorite thing to do, it is how we remember the sacrifice of Christ not just theoretically, but in our day to day experience. When we remember what it’s like to go without something or do something that we don’t want to do, it reminds us how much Christ gave up out of love for us.
If you follow any of the Bishops in the U.S. on twitter, you may have noticed that they’ve started challenging their followers to #MeatlessFridays. When Cardinal Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, addressed the Bishops in November, he reminded them that as the Church seeks to influence the world, “we cannot challenge unless we first let Him challenge us”.
While meatless Fridays outside of Lent are not mandated, the Bishops are challenging us to unite and return to some form of penance on Friday. Abstaining from meat is a suggestion, but sacrificing anything you desire—chocolate, coke, French fries, sleeping in—will help you develop discipline and recall Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
In the 2000 years of our Church’s history our finest moments didn’t come from her members seeking comfort and how to get by with doing the bare minimum. Rather, our great saints were formed from ordinary people like you and me asking what Christ was challenging them to when he commands that one “deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Your competition is real and the consequences eternal. Strive for greatness in the spiritual life by embracing Christ and taking up your cross.