Praying with Fr. James’ Martin SJ’s Examen app recently, I heard the words, “Lent is drawing to a close. For Christians, that means not only is there some anticipation for the celebration of Easter, but also some inevitable disappointment about your Lenten spiritual practices …”
The words froze me still. And completely validated my experience. Are you saying, prayer podcast creators, that everyone else is just as awful at fasting as I am? Are you telling me no one succeeds in the spiritual life, that none of us are actually excellent at being disciplined?
My mind wandered into the pit of questions, momentarily distracting me from praying the Examen. Why do we work so hard to grow closer to God, to journey on the path of holiness, if we know that we will stumble? Why do we remain dedicated through the trials, even if our efforts become floppy and we mess up so much? Could the trick of Lent actually be that it doesn’t really matter what penance we do, but why we do it?
What if the actual point of Lenten penance is that it teaches us our desperate need for God?
I’ve been here before, much more in touch with the darkness inside of me at the end of Lent. I seem to repeat my patterns every Lenten cycle; I practically write every year about my failure to make it through.
This year, though, I don’t feel like a failure. I feel grateful to have gotten in touch with the Truth: I am a sinner, a woman who must be fully rely on God. Only with God’s grace am I able to offer my broken, half-hearted self and allow God to make it into something beautiful –something that can be used for God’s purposes.
I can have faith in God’s presence, God’s eagerness to help me grow and recover, again and again, from the darkness in me. I can have faith that God will find a way to use my weak and broken self, and make me more wholly into a woman made for God’s purposes. I learned a new Bible verse at the start of Lent, one that has been a comfort to carry me through: Trust in God’s faithful love forever. (Psalm 52:10)
Even when I fail, God remains faithful. This is what I can trust in, believe in, and rely on.
So, yes, it is inevitable that I stumble and fail, that I become disappointed with myself and my imperfections. But, this isn’t all bad. Each time I become disappointed in my efforts, I see the truth of who I am, I come to know the darkness within me. This causes me to turn to God, to know the power of God’s grace and faithfulness again and again, to open space for God to remake me, which God never seems to grow tired of doing.
“It [grace] strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.”
~ Paul Tillich, “You Are Accepted”
You have to be pretty naive to be a Christian in today’s world.
This thought strikes me frequently and no more so than during the season of Lent. Lent is that season especially dedicated to penance and spiritual self-renewal and every year I treat my Lenten penances as a sort of Catholic version of New Year’s resolutions. This is the year that I am going to finally rid myself of that troublesome vice. This is the year I am going to improve myself beyond that pattern of sinful thought. This is the 40 days in which I will finally mortify my flesh sufficiently and begin living a saintly life.
And while Lent has undoubtedly been good for my soul, it so often falls short of my expectations. Most of my pet sins remain. Most of my largest spiritual struggles are still exactly that, entrenched in my soul as they always have been. This year my self-renunciation is aimed at a spiritual trouble spot that I have been attempting to reform for years. For years.
I am naive to think that this Lent will be any different, any better. It is naive to think that, after falling 70 times seven times, this will be the time I get up and stay up.
Our society is faring no better than I am in its battle against its demons. The problems that have always plagued us plague us still. Columbine was 18 years ago and yet more children than ever are victims of a violence that back then was unthinkable, but now habitual. The sirens about the terrors of climate change have been sounding my entire life; now they are here, with Cape Town set to run out of water in mere months. Dorothy Day died in 1980, and yet her country is more inequitable and more violent than when she departed from it. Yet so many people — faithful people, and people of good will — continue to work and march and witness against injustice all the same.
We are naive to think that we can fix our broken world. It is naive to think that, after failing to heed the warning signs and to learn from the pain for so long, that now is the time things will change.
But here I should confess that I do not consider naiveté a bad quality, especially when it is not something we possess without realizing it but rather something we specifically cultivate. To be naive means to be simple and a little foolish, and it is sometimes simple foolishness that gives us the courage to persevere.
For all the darkness that surrounds us in our lifetimes alone we have seen miracles happen. For all the darkness that fills me I can think of some demons I have beaten, some sins I have shaken.
Naiveté, when chosen, when specifically engendered within ourselves, is the antidote to a cynical word. It means trusting people who are not trustworthy. It means forgiving someone you have already forgiven a multitude of times and believing this will be the last time you will need to. It means thinking they will be better this time. It means thinking you will be better this time.
But this foolish, simple belief is what makes the space, what gives the time for true repentance to occur. Our act of believing translates to endurance in the face of failure, and it is the very thing that helps bring about the conditions for change to be realized.
It takes a lot of telling to make a city know when it is doing wrong. However, that was what I was there for. When it didn’t seem to help, I would go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it would split in two, and I knew it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before together.
When my fellow-workers smiled, I used to remind them of the Israelites that marched seven times around Jericho and blew their horns before the walls fell. “Well, you go ahead and blow yours,” they said; “you have the faith.” And I did, and the walls did fall, though it took nearly twice seven years. But they came down, as the walls of ignorance and indifference must every time, if you blow hard enough and long enough, with faith in your cause and in your fellow-man. It is just a question of endurance. If you keep it up, they can’t.”
~ Jacob A. Riis (1849-1949), photojournalist and social reformer, on his attempts to improve living conditions for the poor in the slums of New York city. (I was introduced to the quote via this illustrated rendition of it.)
When we look at all the realities of our corrupt world, at our corrupt selves, and choose to try again anyway, we are being naive. But in just such instances, when we choose it freely, ‘to be naive’ means the exact same thing as ‘to have hope.’ And unlike the occasional unsuccessful Lenten resolution, hope is something that does not disappoint.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter and very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.