As we fast approach Ash Wednesday, the Catholic mind naturally turns towards the question of how the coming days of Lent can help us grow closer to God. Like countless others, I too am going to use this Lenten season to pray and prepare myself for my own conversion. I have no doubt that Christ wishes to teach and heal me, but I am often my own worst enemy. I can either accept or reject the redemption Christ offers. Scripture makes it pretty clear that merely saying that I accept it – even saying it sincerely – does not make it so. Actions are an inseparable part of what faith is.

When I was in grad school a couple of my professors introduced me to the concept of “active receptivity,” an influential concept in the thought of a Polish philosopher named Karol Wojtyla. Roughly, it means willingly desiring to receive certain gifts and, if necessary, actively doing things to make such reception possible. For instance, when I was a student, if I truly wanted to learn, I had to desire to learn, to actively listen, engage and study concepts to truly understand them. This idea is key for me in my spiritual life.

With this in mind, this Lent I intend to be more mindful of how I spend my time. My former pastor, Monsignor Mike Heintz, once wrote a bulletin essay highlighting the profound impact of what we think about:

“In the early Christian tradition of mystical theology, there was an aphorism of anonymous origin and goes like this: “you become the object of your contemplation.” That is, whatever we fix our attention upon, whatever becomes the focus of our energies and our imagination, whatever it is that consumes our thoughts and desires, has an imperceptible but genuine impact upon us, shaping our sensibilities, molding our personality, and making us – far more than we often realize – who we are. The standard objects of fallen human desire: power, pleasure, wealth, can subtly take hold of us, and our desire for them changes who we are; we stray farther and farther from God and find ourselves in a land of unlikeness. 

He would exhort his parishioners to strive for virtue because virtue creates the condition in your soul that facilitates the reception of grace. He would also encourage us to contemplate Christ, especially in the Eucharist. With Christ as the object of our thoughts, we’d grow to become more like Him and be more able to receive all that He wants to give us.

Interestingly, even entirely secular people recognize the truth that you become what you think about. New Age philosophy even talks about a “Law of Attraction” where you must obsessively visualize exactly what you want and you will get it. Although I don’t believe that something magical happens when we constantly visualize something, doing so often does seem to have an effect. Check out this brief exhortation and think about how you might apply it to have a better Lent:

Have you ever noticed the eyes of the saints? Padre Pio. Mother Teresa. John Paul II. I’ve spoken with people who have met all three. All of them remarked upon their eyes. Something about the eyes of these saints stood out. How did their eyes become so remarkable? They spent a lot of time contemplating Christ.

You become what you think about. 

When I was in high school, there was a famous photo on the cover of National Geographic magazine. It was of a young Afghan girl who had stunning green eyes. This was long before the days of photoshop. Her eyes were beautiful but she looked scared. Over thirty years later, the photographer who took the photo went in search of her and eventually found her. After 30 years of suffering, her eyes had changed. He took another photo of her. Note the comparison.

A life of suffering changes a person. On the left is a girl who is scared. On the right is a woman who has seen and experienced hardship and evil.

You become what you think about. 

St. Paul acknowledges this when he wrote his letter to the Phillipians:

“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.” Phil 4: 8

If you want to become true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy, then spend your time thinking about such things! Do not spend tons of time watching or thinking about the opposite. Raunchy movies, tv shows that portray evil as entertainment, video clips of various forms of hostility, music that presents a lewd or unloving message: these things are like poison. They do affect you. Of course they influence your thoughts and actions. Deep down, I think virtually everyone understands this.

You become what you think about. 

This Lent, I am going to reset the inputs into my soul. No low brow vulgarity. No ranting, screaming, raving political or sports commentators. I’m not going to watch garbage for entertainment. I’m going to do what St. Paul tells us we must do: think about good things. I invite you to join me in thinking about Christ. Why not immerse yourself in reading the gospels and praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament with an open heart? It is sure to change you.