Before St. Augustine’s conversion into the Catholic faith, he was enslaved by his passions for sex, drinking, food, partying, and other worldly pleasures. In his "Confessions," St. Augustine writes about his long time struggle with temptations of lust of the flesh and with eating and drinking. His former way of living can often shock the cradle Catholic who erroneously believes that the Saints were "practically perfect in every way" (to quote Mary Poppins)! I know, because I was one of them!
I often imagined the Saints up in Heaven with their bright halos drinking tea and eating crumpets, with their pinkies up and saying in a British accent, "What a miserable bunch those humans are on earth. If only they could be more like us, holy and perfect!" I pictured them all as religious men and women who never faltered in their faith or even fallen into temptation. This faulty view of Saints impeded me from drawing closer to God and discouraged me in my journey towards holiness.
Upon closer inspection on the Saints, I was floored by just how wrong I was. The Saints did not become Saints overnight. Like St. Augustine, many of the Saints struggled with various sins for numerous years, even decades!
The Gospel reading for the daily mass on May 19 is from Mark 9:41-50. The verse that always astonishes me is when Jesus says to His disciples, "If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire." That seems pretty extreme, doesn't it?
Jesus, however, is trying to make a vital point for those seeking to grow in holiness- whatever is causing you to sin, cut it off! Cutting off everything and everyone that causes you to sin is the first stage of spiritual development which is called the purgative way. It is a process of dying to one's self and learning how to live a new life in the Spirit. As such, the first stage entails purging oneself of sins through the grace and mercy of God. It is a conscious act of choosing to remove all the obstacles or sins that keep oneself from forming a true relationship with Him.
What or who do you feel God is calling you to "cut off" from your life?
This process of purgation is essential to the spiritual life, because you must first be emptied from all of these sins, to be filled and made whole in Christ. Think about a sport or talent you are trying to develop and master. What did you have to cut off in order to improve in this sport or talent? If you are a wrestler or ballerina, you most likely had to cut off junk food, TV time, and late nights partying in order to make it to your morning class or practice. Similarly, we are called to cut off certain habits and sins to make room for God. Yes, this can often be a daunting task, but through God's grace, all things are truly possible including expunging your darkest of sins or temptations (Matthew 19:26). Here are several tips that can help you in the purgative way:
1) Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you
The Holy Spirit dwells within you, and He is there to help you in your journey towards God. When you pray, ask the Holy Spirit to show you who or what is causing you to sin. Take some time in silence to reflect on what the Holy Spirit is trying to tell you.
2) Make a list of what the Holy Spirit is calling you to "cut off"
Once you understand what the Holy Spirit is calling you to cut off, write it down in your prayer journal. By writing it down, you are acknowledging that there are areas in your life that you need to improve on, and it makes you less likely to forget or ignore the insight you received in prayer regarding your sins. In addition, you are less susceptible to rationalizing these sins later on.
3) Receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation
It is easy to fall prey to deep shame when we recount everything that we have done wrong. This deep sense of shame, though, is not of God. A healthy sense of shame brings us closer to God whereas an unhealthy sense of shame brings us further away. This is why receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation is so important- it reminds us that our God is a merciful Father who forgives endlessly and loves unconditionally. Nothing you do will ever make God love you any less! So go, receive the healing, forgiveness, and grace God has to give you to combat all the struggles you are currently facing.
4) Take it one step at a time and one day at a time
If you are like me, you want to do it all and get it done right the first time (A.K.A the perfectionist problem). However, I implore you to reflect on St. Augustine's life again, and if you are so called, to read his autobiography, "Confessions." We did not fall into these immoral habits overnight, and so, we cannot expect to be free of them overnight.
Ask the Holy Spirit to show you which of the sins you listed is the one you need to work on first, and then, start chipping away at this particular sin. In prayer, reflect on what can help you avoid this sin. If you struggle with gossiping, for instance, try changing the conversation when your friends start talking about someone or sharing with these friends that you no longer feel comfortable talking about other people. If you struggle or have an addiction to alcohol, try avoiding spending time with friends at the bar and instead, play a sport or watch a movie together. God may also be calling you to seek the help of a therapist or support group. Whatever your sin may be, take it one day at a time, continually offering your victories and your failures to God. Before you know it, there will be more victories than you could have ever hoped for!
5) Fill yourself with Christ!
I have several people who come and talk to me regarding their struggles with addictions of all kinds. They state that "giving up cold turkey" just doesn't work on it's own; it has to be paired up with acquiring the necessary healing and the tools needed to combat the daily temptations to relapse. This is especially true in the spiritual life. We must fill ourselves with Christ at the same time we are emptying ourselves of the things, people, and situations that lead us astray. Again, take small steps. Schedule time to pray for 5 minutes a day, then slowly increase this time when you feel you are ready. Go to mass on Sundays if you are not already doing so and incorporate reading the Gospels as part of your daily routine. The more you fill yourself with God and His Word and Sacraments, the easier it will be for you to cut off what causes you to sin.
May you know the mercy of God and be strengthened in your resolve to grow in holiness!