It’s no secret that society is in a downward moral coiling. Family, self-control, self-sacrifice, defense of the defenseless–none of these are a given anymore. It isn’t the first time that this has been the case in human history, but it determines it no less concerning.
Moved with a desire to console the heart of Jesus, I’ve seen a lot of fellow Catholics speaking out on social media about their plans to take on additional penances, as mend for the lack of love that so many picture God. I trust their discernment to the spiritual fathers in their lives, and I am glad that there are parties in the Church that are focused on taking on additional penalty for the sake of the love of Christ.
Many of us may find ourselves unable to take on the self-mortifications that we would like to this Lent. We cherish God, but our life and vocational environments make it imprudent to do so. A mother of a newborn isn’t undoubtedly called to begin going to early morning daily Mass. Someone with special needs( like autism or an feeling condition or ADHD) might not be able to manage a full holy hour. Someone deep in the throes of a new sorrow probably won’t be able to lead a Lenten Bible Study. Even when our spirit is very inclined, our flesh is often weak.
Actually, let’s look more closely at the storey in Scripture where that utterance comes from.
Mercy in the Garden of Gethsemane
When Jesus went to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, he brought along his apostles. I ever find it interesting that he didn’t bring his mother or any female devotees with him. I am sure that those women would have been wide awake, ready to offer him comfort as he wept.
Of course, Jesus knew that. But still, he returned his apostles. Bless their stomaches, but the apostles really struggled to get it right in the Gospels, didn’t they? They had one project that night–stay awake and pray. They knew Jesus was acting strangely that night, and that something was severely wrong. But what did they do? They fell asleep.
I didn’t grow up with brothers, but as I’ve gotten to know other males over the years–friends, spiritual fathers and spiritual lads, my husband–I can attest to how predictable this behavior was from a group of men. Men have a deep, deep desire to “fix” things when a person they affection is suffering. When they can’t fix it, you can see the incredible weariness on their faces. Their exhaustion comes not from apathy, but from a sort of system overload.
Now, if I had been Jesus, I would have climbed down that mountain, appreciated all my best friends sound sleeping and felt a wave of deep sadness, loneliness, and maybe some frustration and temper. I would wonder if their doze aim a lack of love, if it meant that they didn’t attend.
But Jesus arrived at a very different conclusion. His heart was moved with a cordial sort of pity for them. He knew that they had fallen asleep from the exhaustion of grief.
Perhaps it would therefore be exactly of him to reprove them for not maintaining vigil. But the justice of God doesn’t operate in a vacuum-clean. It is too tempered by mercy.
How does this relate to our own Lenten practice?
Penance Received by Mercy
I have three living children, aged 10, 7, and 3. My anticipations for them are wildly different. I know what each child struggles with, and I can tell when they are trying as hard because they can( and when they’re trying to get away with mischief ). Right now, my three-year-old is in a stage of classic three-year-old behavior–yelling, meltdowns, insubordination, etc. She spent the whole day recently, getting into one rake after another and refusing to obey my solicits. I tried time out. I tried promoting my tone and speaking securely. But, in the end, I remembered–she’s 3 years old. She’s grumpy because that’s developmentally relevant. Disciplining her is important( and she is working towards breaking the family record for time-outs, apparently) but so is loving her in more lenient spaces. On the day in question, I knew that she had woken up too early, hadn’t been siesta, and was tired. So, in the end, I eventually stopped trying to gave her in time out alone, and I laid next to her and gave her a huddle. It drove. She needed boon.
God is a far better parent than I am, and so he knows this even more. His children are different, and they each have unique deficiencies and fights. He knows the perfect balance of discipline and tendernes for all children, and he knows when small children of his is giving him the most appropriate. He doesn’t point paws and say, “Child of mine…why can’t you be more holy like such person or persons ?? ” He is recognized that for some of us, this Lent will begin with our attempt to break the world record for time-outs…errr, I want, penances…and will likely end with him wrapping our grouchy selves in his beloved appendages.
He knows us. He desires us. He ascertains great efforts to. And, like my petulant three-year-old–he wants us to know that we are safe to struggle with improving our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. He is consoled by our shaky( but sincere) endeavors.
This Lent, as we stumble together with our penitential patterns, must be remembered he receives them with not just justice, but with the most tender Fatherly mercy we can imagine.
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