“Between the spirit and the flesh there is a continual combat. Now, if you wish the spirit to win, you must assist it by prayer and resist the flesh by such means as fasting (for by fasting the flesh is weakened). –From “Sermon in a Sentence: A Treasury of Quotations on the Spiritual Life; Volume 5: St. Thomas Aquinas.” Selected and Arranged by John P. McClernon.
Now that we are at Quinquagesima Sunday, with Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent only 3 days away, it is high time to begin thinking of mortification. Holy Mother Church presents us, so soon after the delights and festivities of Christmastide, with the holy season of Lent to prepare for another, greater holy day, that of Easter and the resurrection of Our Lord. These forty days, should we use them well, can propel us a long way towards detachment from the material goods and pleasures of this world. For while our flesh is still attached to our pet comforts, our indulgent habits, it is hard to make it focus on what is truly beneficial to us–the things of the spirit. Therefore, the Church in her motherly kindness and wisdom gives us the gift of Lent, that we may thereby purify ourselves from material attachments and instead attach ourselves firmly to God and the things of God. She knows that throughout the whole of our lives we must endure the combat of spirit and flesh. She knows that in combat we must weaken the enemy. If our enemy is the flesh, how do we weaken it? By depriving it of all the things it does not need; by fasting. In fasting we only give the body what it requires to live. We do not take extra snacks; we do not allow ourselves little treats here and there. We simply give to our body the nutrients it needs. When we give into our flesh and indulge in some little treat or extra pampering, it strengthens the flesh, making it more likely that we will give into it again, making us more attached and dependent upon these things.
In my psychology class recently, I learned about behavioral psychology and the way this particular branch of psychology views the personality. It works based on a concept called ‘operant conditioning.’ In order to increase or decrease the odds of a behavior happening, we either reinforce or punish that behavior, respectively. Perhaps if we look at the common behavior of man to give in to the flesh to stop its pinings, we can see why the temptations only grow more fierce the more man gives in. If the flesh knows that only a little whining can cajole the man into pampering it, it will continue to whine. If the man tries to resist, it will whine louder until the man finally gives in again. What has the man done to make this behavior continue? He has given in–he has ‘reinforced’ the behavior, making it more likely to occur again, because he has given the flesh exactly what it wants.
Now, fasting is a punisher. A punisher by definition is supposed to decrease the behavior. When we fast, we do the exact opposite of giving in to the flesh–we give it even less, not even taking as much as our normal meals would require. When the flesh realizes that whining is only going to result in much less food, it will eventually cease its complaints, leaving us blissfully free to focus on what is our greatest good–God!
This is why it is so important during Lent to be vigilant about keeping our penances and our fasting steady. One little slip can cause the flesh to re-attach itself to an indulgence, and thus the battle we had been trying to fight is lost. But if we do slip, let it be a humbling reminder that we are ‘dust and ashes,’ and we cannot hope to win the battle against the flesh without God’s grace upholding us. Let us pray for a holy and fruitful Lenten season, and for the grace to persevere in our fasting and penances, that we may be drawn closer to God and be in a worthy state of mind, soul and body to celebrate the resurrection of Our Lord on Easter Sunday!