Tuesday, February 22, 2005

No Pain, No Gain

No pain, no gain.

Feel the burn, baby.

I hit the wall, and kept on going.

You've got to work your way through the pain.

What doesn't kill me, only makes me stronger!

The more you sweat in practice, the less you bleed in battle.


If you are serious about athletics, the above proverbs are very familiar. We Americans wouldn't blink at hearing a coach say something about working through pain to achieve a greater goal. But the same kind of attitude used to be used in spirituality.

Nowadays, if you mention corporeal mortification as a necessary component of the spiritual life, you would be considered insane, or stuck in the middle ages.

In athletics, what does this mortification gain you? Winning a contest, perhaps? Money? Becoming more attractive so that you can have better-looking lovers? Self-gratification?

In spirituality, this is what mortification gains: Denial of self. The spirit of poverty. Solidarity with the poor and sick. Possibility of Heaven.

I would think that mortification of the flesh has better application in the spiritual life.

Our current American society is well-illustrated by contrasts. We have the most successful athletic programs in the world, and we have the highest incidence of obesity. While it may seem that these show contrasting attitudes within society, I would think that they show the same attitude, expressed in different modes. The Athlete and the Obese both desire self-gratification; they act for their own carnal pleasure.

We Americans like a comfortable religion, one that doesn't require much of us, other than an occasional visit to the local Worship Facility. Those who demand that religion must be challenging, end up just challenging religion itself, quoting from the 'Gospel of Thomas' and worshiping the 'feminine divine' (not that they actually do that particular worship themselves). We don't want a religion that asks us to make sacrifices, unless that just means supporting some ballot proposition that will increase our sales tax by 1/4 of 1 percent.

Catholicism, at one time, used to make strong demands for sacrifice, which mirrors the sacrifice which is re-presented in the Mass. These demands, with charity, will return, have no doubt.

Some corporeal mortifications seem quite bizarre to the modern American. The world charges that some of these practices are a form of sadomasochism: but, if pleasure is received from mortification, then it is a grave sin, and should be stopped immediately, and council with a good spiritual advisor is needed. Americans don't understand this! However, the most basic self-sacrifice, which nearly everyone is able to fulfill, is fasting. No one would consider fasting a form of masochism (although some may consider it a form of political protest). And since so many Americans are obese, perhaps this is a sacrifice that could be very widely practiced. What easier, yet noble, sacrifice could we do for Lent than have only one full meal a day? When we do not eat, we would feel compassion for the very poor, who have nothing to eat. When we do actually eat our meal for the day, we would be thankful to God for giving us that meal. We are to see Christ in the poor, and are to give thanks to God for our gifts: I would then think that fasting is an excellent spiritual practice.

It is commonplace for an American to consider the pain of athletics acceptable. Why not suffering with Christ, who suffered for us?

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