The spring semester of my junior year in college (1978) was the best semester I ever had as a college student. It was also the most challenging. I had a full load of 300-level classes in accounting and business and competition among the students was very tough.
In one of my accounting classes, the teacher routinely assigned as homework 10 of the 60 problems that were provided after each chapter of the textbook. At the beginning of the semester, in order to really learn the materials and gain a competitive edge, I decided that I was going to work through all 60 problems after every chapter. But I had one problem. The answer key for the problems was not available to students, so there was no way for me to know if my answers were correct.
I found out from one of my classmates, a foreign exchange student, that she could order the answer key from Hong Kong, so I gave her the money and two weeks later I had the answer key in my hands. Each time I came up with the wrong answer to a problem, I figured out what I did wrong and reworked the problem. The problems that were used by the teacher for the tests were variations of the 60 problems at the end of each chapter.
During that entire semester, I was at the top of my game. Focused. Motivated. Disciplined. But there was a reason I had my act together. It was because I gave up everything that had sugar in it for Lent. I stopped drinking my favorite daily soft drink (Pepsi), and I stopped eating my favorite daily snacks, which included Hostess Brands’ donuts and apple pies. At that time, I was addicted to sugar. My favorite breakfast cereal was Trix, which had sugar as one of its main ingredients.
As I recall, I had massive cravings for the first three days of Lent. After that, each day got better. Within two weeks, my cravings were gone. In addition to having more energy, my mind was sharper than ever. The biggest change that I noticed was the iron-willed discipline that I developed as a result of denying myself my favorite foods.
I believe that my newfound energy and mental clarity was primarily the result of my abstinence from sugar, and I believe that the discipline that I developed was a direct consequence of the constant self-denial that was required to completely abstain from the products that I desired. It was because of the self-denial that I was able to control my “flesh” — my mind, my emotions, and the conditioned reflexes and tendencies of my body.
At a recent Sunday Mass, we were reminded of the well-known gospel reading that explains how Jesus was tempted by Satan three times after He had fasted for 40 days in the desert. (Matthew 4:1-11) One of the primary reasons the human side of our Lord was able to resist the temptations of the devil was because of what the 40 days of self-denial did for Him. It helped to give Him complete control of His mind, emotions, and body.
Self-denial, offered up as a sacrifice to God, is one of the highest forms of prayer, and is the most effective tool that’s available to us to take control of our own flesh.
Take a look around. A large number of the people you come into contact with have lost control of their minds, emotions, and/or bodies. Why? Because they don’t know what we devout Catholics know — that the practice of regular self-denial enhances a person’s ability to discipline his or her mind, emotions, and body.