I saw a sign in front of a local church recently:
Lent is Spring Training for Christians
Goofy me – I never had put the two “seasons” together in the same thought. But I love Lent as one of my favorite times of the year. And the spring months I spent in Florida and Arizona to write about the St. Louis Cardinals and the rest of Major League Baseball during spring training provide some of my favorite memories of working as a sportswriter.
Back in the “old days,” most big-league ballplayers made so little during the regular season that they had to work a “winter job” to provide for their families. For instance, in his early 20s, future Cardinals Hall-of-Famer Stan Musial worked in a zinc factory near his home in Donora, Pa., and later sold Christmas trees on a parking lot in St. Louis during the offseason. Players then needed spring training to work off some of the extra winter pounds and get into playing shape.
Hopefully, Christians don’t need that kind of Lent. Hopefully, they have maintained some kind of spiritual exercise regimen throughout the year and don’t have to sweat their way back into God’s good graces.
Today, in an era of multi-million-dollar, long-term contract, players can’t afford to lose their edge once the season ends. They might take a break from throwing programs and the batting cages for a while after the World Series. But they’re always in the gym, pumping iron and watching their diets. Any player who doesn’t report to spring camp ready to compete for a job soon will be looking for another one.
“These days, baseball is different,” Hall-of-Famer Dave Winfield once said. “You come to spring training, you get your legs ready, your arms loose, your agents ready, your lawyer lined up.”
Now, spring training is about creating “muscle memory.” That’s true for hitters, who try to get their stances and swings down pat, something repeatable every time they go to the plate. That’s especially true for pitchers, who need to find a stance on the mound, their throwing motion and arm speed and release point that will allow them to throw a variety of pitches right where they want it. Every time.
They know what they want to do. All of them have performed well in the past. Spring training is meant to get them back to that performance level – and beyond.
“People who write about spring training not being necessary,” Hall-of-Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax once said, “have never tried to throw a baseball.”
And people who take Lent lightly never have tried to be a saint.
Every ballplayer, when he signs his first contract, imagines himself as an All-Star and maybe even enshrined in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown. And every Christian should imagine herself or himself as a saint in heaven.
A saint is someone who is holy and sanctified. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul began by addressing the community this way: “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy…”
Keep in mind that not all saints will look like Paul or Augustine, Teresa of Avila or Mother Teresa, Francis of Assisi or John Paul II, Therese of Lisieux or Bernadette. Granted, they could appear perfectly holy and never prone to sin. They were human beings, though, and with that carried plenty of imperfections.
I’m not perfect. Not close. I’m a sinner. Believe me, every time I walk into the confessional, I have a list of things to confess to the priest – to Jesus. I have expectations of myself regarding spiritual “exercises.” I have prayer routines, set aside time for meditation and Scripture reading. I try to look at the world through God’s eyes, treat people the way He would have me treat them.
And yet I get spiritually out of shape.
Instead of reading and meditating on the First Letter of Peter, I watch TV. Instead of spending some time in quiet prayer, I read some news magazine that’s already two weeks old. Instead of calling a friend or family member with whom I haven’t spoken for a while, I spend too much time reading stuff on Facebook.
So when Lent arrives, I see it as a time for some self-examination. Sure, I could do that at any time of the year – and I do – but there’s something about Lent that enhances the focus. The readings at Mass have a distinct inclination toward talk of sacrifice and our need for a savior. As Catholics, we receive ashes on our forehead one day and on other days are asked to give up eating meat and to fast in order to more keenly sharpen our spiritual vision.
Prayer, sacrifice, wisdom, confession, reconciliation, the joy of needing salvation and actually receiving it – that is Lent. It is “spring training” geared toward building spiritual muscle memory for saints.
I loved the atmosphere of spring training. There was a purpose and focus to everything done by the managers, coaches and players. There were goals and a destination in mind. There also was an air of relaxation, of hope, of … fun. I started every morning early, as I would leave my hotel or condo about 7 or 8. The sun almost always was warm and shining brightly. A light breeze often was blowing. I would turn on my favorite CD – usually SonicFlood’s “I Could Sing Of Your Love Forever” – and sing along as I drove to the training facility. That usually marked the beginning of a very long day of interviews, watching a game and writing. The players weren’t the only ones preparing their “muscles” for the season.
Baseball’s training camps in Florida and Arizona are winding down. Opening Day is just around the corner. For fans like me, this is an exciting time of year. We will see if all that practice can successfully unfold during the challenging, long, roller-coaster of a regular season.
Lent is almost finished. Easter Sunday is just around the corner. There will be great joy that day. And then …
We are called to be saints. Spiritual hall-of-famers. “Christian spring training” has concluded. Let’s revel in the hope of a new season. Praise God!