Conversion

I’ve been helping people get physically stronger for nearly eight years. In that time, I’ve gone through a lot of changes in how I teach others and how I train and care for my own body. I’ve watched my students learn and grow. I’ve seen my training program, change, evolve and it continues to do so.

Change is inevitable in all areas of our lives, and it can be good, but sometimes life hits us hard with any number of challenges in family, work and life. On top of that, we are aging and dealing with forms of physical suffering, such as injury, illness and infirmity. In our physical difficulties, we learn about the spiritual power of suffering with love and perseverance—and by God’s grace, we have an opportunity to grow spiritually and to develop more compassion for the hardships faced by others.

Spiritual conversion is similar in that changes occur in us that can be both uplifting and challenging. We may experience many conversions in our lifetime as God seeks to bring us closer to him to help us grow in holiness. Changes, both big in small, by the grace of God, can lift us up, lead us into darkness, move us into new ways of serving, living and doing for God and for others. The changes might surprise us, even frighten us a little, and we may, believe it or not, even have an occasional longing for some sins that we’ve left behind.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1989: “The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification in accordance with Jesus' proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high.”

Sometimes conversion, or this movement away from sin and toward God, means we change how we use our resources, our time, our energy, and even the people we spend our time with. We might be called to simplify, to give more, to lead or to follow in new ways, to pray more, or to just be more. God works with us so personally that the path of conversion is not predictable nor is it ever universal.

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I look to the saints for wisdom on this journey of conversion which we pray continues throughout our lives here on earth. The saints are regular people who had many points of conversion in their lives and grew to great holiness by their gradual, yet eventual submission to God’s will.

Pope Saint John Paul II encourages us. “I plead with you! Never, ever give up on hope, never doubt, never tire, never become discouraged. Be not afraid.”

The fruit of conversion can in fact, be the gift of journeying more fully with and for others. Other times, it can be more of a dark and lonely road like St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta experienced when God didn’t feel near to her — and so we rely on faith to keep moving forward without the clear light of His presence guiding us.

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In our physical journey, as in our spiritual journey, there will be changes, conversions, movements, big and small, good and not so good — I pray that we listen to our bodies and respond with prudent care — and more importantly, listen to God, accept and cooperate with his grace with a steely focus on the ultimate goal of eternal life.

St. Padre Pio knows well the struggles we face. “The life of a Christian is nothing but a perpetual struggle against self; there is no flowering of the soul to the heart of its perfection except at the price of pain.”

Holy Friendships

This Scripture passage really hit home recently, from Matthew 12:47-49, “Someone told him, “your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wishing to speak with you.” But he said in reply to the one who told him, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? And stretching out his hand toward his disciples he said, “Here are my mother and brothers.”

This Scripture can be a confusing because we love our mother and our brothers. However, recently I gained new clarity when I had the opportunity to visit St. Louis to meet new people, speak and lead SoulCore Rosary prayer and exercise at a parish.

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A sister in Christ read a blog post that I’d written for soulcore.com and she contacted me to see if I could speak at her parish. The Holy Spirit worked out the details, and I had a wonderful visit to share, learn and grow with some marvelously faithful sisters in Christ.

Studies show that they key to a long and happy life, well into our senior years, is strong connections with others. When you love Jesus, and are united to him in Baptism, and you have that in common with someone, I have found that friendship comes easy. You have a bond that is not of this world, and God willing, can help prepare our hearts for the next. That is what I experienced with my new friends in St. Louis.

It is both holy and healthy to build authentic and loving connections with our brothers and sisters in Christ. While we are called to love and serve all of God’s children, but those who are on the journey with us can play a special role as they challenge, support and intercede for us.

Holy friendships can inspire us to be more faithful to the Sacraments, to nurture an active prayer life, study Scripture and to become more bold about sharing our faith with others.

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The disciples traveled in pairs and small groups—and for good reason; we need each other! We are called to love God and love neighbor and we can get all caught up in ourselves if we try to do it alone. God works through each of us differently, and in many cases, speaks to us through those friends with which we have a spiritual connection.

When I have a life challenge, I have no qualms about asking a friend to pray for me for strength. Intercessory prayer is powerful!

St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori said, “How pleasing to Him it will be if you sometimes forget yourself and speak to Him of His own glory, of the miseries of others, especially those who mourn in sorrow; of the souls in purgatory, His spouses, who long to behold Him in Heaven; and of poor sinners who live deprived of His grace.”

When people express concern about having a personal relationship with the Blessed Mother, I explain that seeking Our Lady’s intercession is just like asking a friend to pray for you. Our Lady loves each of us and wants nothing more than to grow in friendship with us to continually move us closer to her Son and his will for us.

We have to make some effort to foster holy friendships. When you ask the Holy Spirit to bring holy friends into your life, you might be surprised what happens next. That was my prayer a few months ago and I see the Lord placing new people in my life who are striving to grow in holiness and who desire to be a saint—and they inspire me.

May these words from St. John Vianney challenge us to persevere in our quest to build holy and healthy friendships: “O my dear parishioners, let us endeavor to get to heaven! There we shall see God! How happy we will feel! If the parish is converted we shall go in procession with the parish priest at the head … we must get to heaven!”

Efficiency

One of the things I am learning from Pope Francis is to focus more on people and less on efficiency. What that means is that in our quest for efficiency we can miss Jesus in the face of our neighbor when we are solely focused on completing a task, a mission, even if it’s a good work. A right and just activity should not be forged at the expense of kindness and care for others.

“We must grow in passion for evangelizing,” the Pope said. “If we must sacrifice something, let’s sacrifice organization and move forward with the mysticism of saints.”

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As the Pope exhorts us to be witnesses to the Gospel in our work and play, we might ask ourselves how we can live the “mysticism of the saints” in our daily lives? This is an immense topic to take to prayer that can help us become more holy and healthy.

I’ll share an example from my life. I’m part of a spiritual book group with some women from my Church. We meet weekly—and at first we efficiently marched through the books sharing our thoughts, but staying on track with the topic at hand. Over time, we started sharing more personal stories and experiences (that related to the book most of the time), but now it can take us months to finish a book. We might only get through a few paragraphs in one meeting.

When I look at how our time has changed, we are definitely less efficient, but I see in our approach the Pope’s call to us to live with the “mysticism of the saints.” Sharing, learning, loving, praying and caring for each other has had a profound effect on each of us. We leave our time together feeling that God has touched us and that we have shared the Gospel with each other in new, personal and substantial ways. We’ve learned that it’s not how efficiently we can review a book that matters, but that it’s the listening, loving and moving forward under the guidance of the Holy Spirit that really impacts us.

Pope Francis said, “Mission is never the fruit of a perfectly planned program or a well organized manual. Mission is always the fruit of a life which knows what it is to be found and healed.”

Being “found and healed” is such a powerful sentiment. These words remind me that efficiency isn’t solely about slowing down, but it’s also about truly tuning in to each other. The beauty of this practice is that when we pause to care, God softens our hearts and amazing changes can unfold in both the giver and the receiver.

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Here is another personal example. One day I was taking communion to the hospital and I really wanted to make it to daily Mass afterward. I admit, I hurriedly visited patients, but it quickly became clear that this was not being a good witness to the Gospel. Desiring communion for myself is a good thing, but not at the expense of taking communion to the sick. So I slowed down and took more time to converse and be present to the patients. An amazing peace came over me and I left the hospital feeling Christ’s presence in a way that was quite honestly akin to receiving him in Holy Communion. What a powerful lesson in efficiency that was for me!

So I urge you to prayerfully consider the Pope’s call in your own life and ask the Holy Spirit to show you how you can be a ‘wave of missionary passion” to others.

Simplifying our Lives for Jesus

Trying to live a more simple life can help us to become more holy and healthy. What is a simple life? That will vary for you and for me. Here are some thoughts for us to consider.

A good place to start is looking at areas of our lives where there are excesses. I’m thinking about my kitchen pantry right now that has built up with too many items; it’s time to clean it out and give food to my local food pantry. Too much stuff weighs us down. In the example of my pantry, I can’t find things quickly and easily, so it takes extra time to prepare a meal. I also end up buying duplicate items because I can’t see anything in the mess. Simplifying helps me be more efficient at home and giving food away helps others.

Another area of our lives to consider is our activity level. Do we have too much going on, feel stressed, too busy, rushed or worn out? These are signs that we might be doing too much and not doing God’s will. Taking this to prayer can help us sort out what God is calling us to do—and then we can reduce or eliminate activities that are not using our gifts and talents to be balanced and peaceful servants for Christ.

We can also look at how we spend our time. Time management can be critical in simplifying our lives. For example, we can examine how much time we surf the Internet, watch television or pursue a hobby. If we are not finding time to pray or keep up with work and family responsibilities, we might need to adjust activities that are not essential to our vocation. 

Simplifying our lives doesn’t necessarily mean we are doing less. Before making changes, we should pray and ask the Holy Spirit to help us order our lives. It might mean adding in more activity that is aligned with God’s will for us and removing those that don’t contribute to our desire to be holy and healthy. Maybe we need to add more silence to our lives, commit to a regular Holy Hour to talk to Jesus, exercise for more mental clarity, read a good book, or reconnect with a friend.

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Simplicity can make more room for God to work in us and help us be better to serve the people we love—and this can help us grow in holiness. 

“Order your soul. Reduce your wants.”―Saint Augustine

The Holy Spirit has showed me that I need to give more time to nurturing friendships. I’m trying to organize my time so that I’m more available to meet friends in person, talk on the phone and hand-write notes. Simplifying my exercise routine and spending less time online is helping me do this.

When our lives are too busy, too complex, with too much stuff, activity, or noise, we can feel lost, lonely, out-of-control, and out-of-touch with God and his mission for us.

Think about a saint you know and love. Look at that saint’s life and you will see a spirit of simplicity. One thing common among the saints is their desire to love and serve God and to do his will—and they make a lot of changes in their lives to do this. Ask your special saint to intercede for you as you seek to simplify your life to be more free to respond to God’s call to you.

The more you have, the more you are occupied. The less you have, the more free you are.” ―St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta

The Slippery Slope of Sloth

Have you ever thought about the sin of sloth? It’s number four on the list of the Seven Deadly Sins. I haven’t thought about it either, until recently, when I would catch myself having difficulty attending to both temporal and spiritual responsibilities.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church #2094 states that “spiritual sloth goes so far as to refuse the joy that comes from God, and to be repelled by divine goodness.” Wow, that’s more serious than I thought!

“Because of laziness, the rafters sag, when hands are slack, the house leaks.” Ecclesiastes 10:18

I was looking at sloth as laziness in my temporal activities, but more importantly, I was reminded how much sloth leads us away from God. If we ignore our day-to-day responsibilities, we can fall prey to the evil one who would like us to think we don’t have what it takes to serve God either. Sloth can lead us into a lonely pit of selfishness and despair.

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St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Sloth is sluggishness of the mind which neglects to begin good. it is evil in its effect, if it so oppresses man as to draw him away entirely from good deeds.”

It’s not holy or healthy to be slothful. So how do we get off the slippery slope of sloth?

We are nearing the end of Lent, so hopefully we’ve been trying to be faithful to prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Acts of love, where we put the needs of others first, can strengthen us. Reading Holy Scripture fortifies us. Frequenting Mass and the Sacrament of Reconciliation help lead us away from sin and toward God.

In my own life, I see the lure of sloth in unstructured time, so I often ask the Holy Spirit to order my day and set my priorities. Isn’t it amazing how much we can accomplish when we ask the Holy Spirit to guide us? Haven’t you been amazed at what you can do when you seek God’s will in your daily affairs… especially when you think you don’t have the time, energy or resources you need?

“I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:13.

Some closing thoughts for staving off sloth:

First we can pray and ask God for everything, anything, big and small. Don’t limit God. He knows our needs better than we do and He delights in helping us with even our smallest corporal concerns.

Second, we can look deeper to see what is tempting us to sloth. There may be an issue behind our sloth that needs to be taken to prayer or addressed with a spiritual director or a faithful friend.

Finally, sloth is a sin against God and it will harm us spiritually, especially if we are not fulfilling the duties of our vocation. We have to fight like St. Paul to be Christ-like, put on the armor of God, and run to finish the race … because God is counting on us.

How Much is Enough?

When it comes to exercise, the general train of thought is that more is better. Sometimes my first task as a fitness coach is to gently move people to a new way of thinking that developing quality technique is more productive that doing lots of work without careful attention to how the body is moving and recovering.

Most people are exercising for general fitness and overall health for life and sport. Even when they are training for a specific event, such as an obstacle course race or a marathon, focusing on the quality of training, rather than the quantity, is essential to prevent injury and ensure they are well prepared.

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I was reminded recently, in a conversation with a friend, that sometimes we have the same view of our prayer lives … that more is better. That may not always be the case.

If we set a goal of a specific quantity of prayer, rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us as to what and how to pray, we might not even start, or if we do, we might rush through without any heartfelt contemplation at all.

We might be expecting too much from ourselves based on our vocation and especially with our full lives serving family, community and our employer— which, with the proper intention, are also forms of prayer.

Asking the Holy Spirit to guide our prayer lives and coach us on how to pray can be freeing and spiritually productive — without a time element. So we start by setting aside a little time and space, in our schedule and in our hearts, and trust that the Spirit will move us to pray in the way he desires us to pray.

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St. Teresa of Avila said, “Much more is accomplished by a single word of the Our Father said, now and then, from our heart, than by the whole prayer repeated many times in haste and without attention.”

What if it isn’t clear how we should pray? 

We can stop, listen and have an openness to the gentle movement of the heart to pray, for example, a fervent decade of the Rosary for a family member. Maybe later in the day the Holy Spirit will prompt us to pray another decade. We may have a lunch date cancel and we have a desire to attend noon Mass. We might comfort a suffering friend with spontaneous prayer. We can pray the Gospel for that day in a few minutes at bedtime. The possibilities are endless and the Holy Spirit might just surprise us!

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I know that each of us have had ‘God instances’ when we asked for help with time to pray and get everything else done too. Then we look back over the day and see how Our Lady and her Son worked it out all in a way that we could never have imagined.

St. John Vianney reminds us that prayer is love rather than an item on a checklist. “Prayer is the inner bath of love into which the soul plunges itself.” With that thought in mind, let us pray with joy and confidence in the way the Holy Spirit is individually and intimately moving each of us.

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Striving

We strive to improve how we execute kettlebell and barbell lifts and movements in the gym. The word striving makes me think of working harder and doing more. In fact, one definition of strive is to ‘struggle or fight vigorously.’ 

Often what we really need to do when learning a new skill is to relax, slow down, feel and learn, be patient and let the process of learning and advancing unfold naturally and gently over time, rather than forcing it.

Our spiritual lives can be the same way. We might be striving for holiness by doing lots of actions … volunteering at a shelter, joining parish committees, praying multiple rosaries a day and being a caregiver to a family member or friend. 

While these are wonderful ways to serve God, it’s easy to get caught up in doing so many tasks that there is little time to get filled up with God in silent prayer and reflection. We might even get so caught up in striving for holiness, that we place our volunteer responsibilities before our family needs.

I think part of our striving should be to stop striving … to give God freedom, open space and unstructured time to do his gentle and quiet work in us — to fill us up and rejuvenate, renew and strengthen us so our service continues to bear fruit. Even 15 minutes of heart-felt prayer daily can be life-changing.

Some of our striving, or our rush to accomplish, is the nature of our secular culture where we place a high priority on productivity, setting goals and achieving results. The spiritual life is different. God already loves us just how we are; he created us, and like a loving parent, is always there waiting to guide his little children. He gives us the freedom to decide when, how and how much time we spend time with him in prayer. I think St. Francis de Sales said it well:

Every one of us needs half an hour of prayer every day, except when we are busy—then we need an hour.

While we are called to serve others, we are called first and foremost to love; to love God and love our neighbor. Growing in any loving relationship requires time, patience, gentleness and commitment. So giving God latitude to work in us in prayerful adoration, in contemplation, and through the Sacraments is less about striving and more about being faithful to slowing down and trusting that, over time, he will transform our hearts.

“Our hearts were made for You, O Lord, and they are restless until they rest in you.” -St. Augustine of Hippo