A quote from G. Michael Hopf’s novel Those Who Remain is making the social media rounds for the simple reason that it is obviously true: “Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.”
So, what is to be done about this obvious truth? The Jekyll and Hyde nature of culture has been referred to as the swing of the pendulum. Given the four self-evident cultural phases, as outlined by Hopf, that cultural stir seems to be much more of a vicious circle than a pendulum.
If the truth of this is something that most of us can readily recognize, while knowing that, historically, these cultural cycles have often been murderously catastrophic, shouldn’t the avoidance of this be paramount in our minds? After two millennia of Christianity, shouldn’t the Church have a formula for avoiding this?
The simple fact is that the Church does indeed have a formula for avoiding this, but in our day, to paraphrase Christ, its light seems to have been relegated to a place under a very thick, heavy bushel basket.
Most of us make a minimal effort at spiritual exercise every Lent, but for the rest of the year it seems that we never cease feasting on Easter candy. What I’m talking about, of course, is our lack of self-denial. Strong men and women don’t stay strong by self-pampering. We always want to reward ourselves. Those who have suffered and fought through hard times always want to thoroughly enjoy the good times they have enabled. We easily forget that nothing would have been gained without the hand of God. We too readily set aside any concern about our weaknesses and concupiscence.
To put it simply, most of us live without regimen; that is, without a lifestyle plan for maintaining spiritual strength. No military force is successful without a regimen. In fact, a military unit may be referred to as a regiment. What is your spiritual regimen?
We Americans are, collectively, the fattest we’ve ever been. It doesn’t seem that most of us have much of a regimen when it comes to eating, drinking, and exercise. And before discussing spiritual regimens, what about all of that eating, drinking, and sitting around? Can we say that these excesses are without a spiritual downside? We think of gluttony as the sin of eating and drinking to excess, but what about eating and drinking like unrestrained children, that is, eating and drinking only things that give us a pleasure fix without regard to health? Is that not a form of gluttony?
If we are not setting an example of any kind of physical regimen to our children, what is the likelihood that we are doing so in the spiritual realm? I would say it is very low. And what about in the area of sexuality? St. Paul advised his spiritual children who were married: “Do not deprive each other, except perhaps by mutual consent for a time, to be free for prayer…” which implies that, as married couples, we actually have a prayer life. I think that for most of us, without a plan and time set aside—without a regimen—prayer seldom happens.
So, what about that vicious circle? What are we doing to keep ourselves from going soft? Catholics used to abstain from eating meat on Fridays in a solidarity of remembrance of the Lord’s Passion and death on Good Friday. What are we doing for that remembrance now? Are we spiritually tough? Are we raising spiritually tough children or weak men and women who will create bad times?
Failure to embrace self-discipline invariably becomes its own bleak reward. That is to say that God respects our freedom because without it we’re not truly human, and His respect for our freedom must allow us to fail or freedom is a lie. So it is that we are the only ones who can end the vicious circle, and it can only be accomplished by hard spiritual work—by creating our own “hard times.”
And what exactly is spiritual work, or perhaps more correctly, a spiritual workout? It is anything that has potential to make us holy, which simply means to be made more like our Father in Heaven. It is the work of striving for perfection, the same goal as a serious effort in any pursuit. The attainment of spiritual strength operates under the same set of rules as attaining physical strength. The first order of any self-improvement is to strengthen one’s resolve. Effort in any arena will fail without resolve, the most basic ingredient of success.
I use the word arena very purposefully, as its etymology refers broadly to a sandy place but more specifically to a fighting arena. Attaining holiness is, in many respects, a battle against our own concupiscence, that is, against our tendency to always seek selfish pleasure above all other pursuits. I use the qualifier “in many respects” because it is certainly possible to conquer one’s drive for pleasure for less than holy reasons, for example, for very puritanical reasons; that is, to simply gain the attention and praise of others.
Some historians suggest that, in the Middle Ages, as much as one-third of all adults in Catholic Europe had chosen monastic life: one third of all adults practicing self-denial to the exclusion of sex and wealth and dedicated to a life of prayer and obedience. I have no delusions of the Middle Ages being perfect, or of there being no corrupt monasteries, but there were certainly cultural practices and personal holiness that we would do well to emulate. Monasticism has all but perished in current times, and it has left a gaping spiritual void. In a culture that promotes an extremely low birthrate, where are the parents who are going to promote the monastic life to their children?
Long story short, where are the prayer warriors? Who will step up to the plate to end the vicious circle? Who among us is preparing their children for the battle that is raging around us?
What are the weapons that are available? You know what they are. Let’s make a list. My non-Catholic readers will forgive this very Catholic list and will find similar means within their own traditions.
Sunday Mass is a given, but how about daily Mass? Daily Mass may not be a possibility for everyone, but it is available to a lot more of us than are currently availing ourselves.
Reading Scripture. The contemplation of Scripture cannot be overestimated. It is the stuff of sainthood.
Eucharistic adoration. Spending time with the Lord is priceless. It’s an opportunity to shut off the noise that engulfs our lives and just listen with our hearts.
A daily examination of conscience and an act of contrition. If a spiritual regimen has an absolute bare minimum, this would be it.
Reconciliation. This powerful sacrament fuels a myriad of virtues, outstanding among them, humility—so much grace channeled into so powerful a virtue. It is the singular grace that will flood our examinations of conscience with the sunshine of Truth.
Morning offering. I’m reminded here of the daily regimen practiced in my career. Every morning started with pouring through my Franklin day planner, noting the times of meetings and setting goals and expectations for the day. Similarly, making a morning offering prayer is the perfect time for the reciprocal of your evening examination of conscience—it’s an opportunity to prepare or review your day’s battle plan for avoiding sin and pleasing God.
The Rosary or the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. For me these are best accomplished when on a walk or lying in bed unable to sleep. (In the latter case, the Rosary often goes incomplete. But we’re in good company, as St. Thérèse admitted to usually falling asleep during her evening Rosary.) Contemplation of the mysteries of Christ’s life is the best medicine for the soul.
Abstinence. This is a broad term. It can refer to abstinence from meat on Friday in remembrance of our Lord’s sacrifice, a long-standing Church tradition, or it can mean abstaining from anything as a means of self-denial, a tempering of the will. Sacrifice makes us strong.
Fasting. This may not be possible for some whose livelihood requires heavy physical labor, which is not so many of us in our industrialized world, but for the rest of us this is a formidable weapon of self-denial—a win/win for both body and soul.
Virginity. If there is a single weapon that will save future marriages, it is virginity. Maintaining virginity requires unyielding self-discipline and diligence. By and large, virgins who marry virgins don’t divorce. It’s a simple fact of life, one that nearly no one is talking about. You were born a jackpot winner. No state lottery could give you a greater prize than the one you were born with. Your virginity is the greatest, most romantic gift you could ever give to your mate; and as a monastic or holy single person, it is the greatest gift you can give to your Creator. Purity of one’s state in life is the beginning of perfection.
Obedience. This is a tough one. The toughest. What military unit functions without it? What battles are won with a brigade of ne’er-do-well, disobedient slackers? If we allow our children to disobey, we are destroying their future and the future of humanity. And how about our spouses? We promised to obey them. Did no one explain to us that it would be a sacrifice? The toughest sacrifice? And how about obedience to Church teaching—to biblical teaching? Are we creating our own soft Church? Soft on this, that, or the other thing? —don’t pretend you don’t know the list.
Someone will surely point out that none of the above speaks to building holiness through good works. Okay. While acts of love are surely the goal and the ultimate revealer of true holiness, the likelihood that selfish, pleasure-addicted people will be easily motivated off of the couch to head out and do good works is about the same as the likelihood of a couch potato running a five-minute mile. Sending troops to battle before they’ve been to bootcamp is unwise, and spiritual bootcamp is the subject at hand.
The bottom line is that if we have created a spiritually lazy, undemanding, undisciplined, hedonistic life for ourselves and produced offspring in that same mold, the next great cultural catastrophe is in the wings and the blame will be on our hands.
Still, God’s mercy is infinite. As long as we’re still breathing, it’s not too late to go back to spiritual bootcamp and begin a regimen of spiritual calisthenics. The deathbed is the final battlefield for most, a field to which Holy Mother Church has given no small amount of attention—Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
See you on the front lines. Be buff.