If you were to walk into my living room at any given moment, you would never find a thing out of place. In my bedroom however, where no one visits except The Cat, things can easily become something of a mess if I let things go too long. Mail and opened packages get strewn across the desk where I hardly ever write anything. The window bench becomes a towering pile of sweaters and jeans that need to be folded and put away.
I began this Lenten season with an enormous clear-out, putting everything away in its proper place, and carrying out tons of trash. It helped that we had a blizzard here in DC, where I was trapped in the house for nearly 5 days, so that I could take my time in carrying out this task. With everything rationalized and clean, I felt like I had visually shown myself what I hoped to do with my interior life this Lent.
As part of my Lenten sacrifices I gave up many of my favorite things: social media, coffee and cigarettes, sweets, and fried foods. In their place, I was supposed to take a number of things. Among these, I was going to find time for nightly prayer, I would send a donation each week to a different Catholic charitable group, and I would even make a herculean effort to go out on at least one date, something I’ve not done since last summer.
The end result of all of this has been imperfect, and I can tell because, quelle surprise, my desk and window seat are all cluttered again. I’ve cheated on a few of my give-ups. For example, I was briefly on Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp yesterday, and I will admit to having some sweets and fried foods during the weekdays. Although I must confess, the cookies at the office cafeteria are sinful objects in and of themselves. I’m sure that they are baked in the deepest, hottest ovens of Hell, until they have just mixture of softness and slight saltiness in the dough.
Neither have I accomplished all of the take-ons I set out to do. On one hand the almsgiving has gone well, since that just involves writing a check a week, but nightly prayer didn’t exactly happen, at least not in the way I had intended. I didn’t go on any dates, but then I didn’t run into anyone I was interested in taking out, either – which is admittedly an excuse, rather than a legitimate justification.
You could look at this and say that I’ve failed – except that I don’t see it that way.
What Lent brings home is the fact of both our imperfection, and our need to be grateful to God for His Mercy. In recognizing that we are imperfect, you and I realize that we are no different from the woman caught in adultery, whom we heard about in this past Sunday’s Gospel. I, too, am an adulterer, a glutton, a murderer, a thief, a bully, a layabout, a hothead, a liar, and all the rest. So are you, if you’ll pardon me for pointing out that fact. We don’t deserve to be forgiven for what we’ve done, nor for what horrible things we’ll probably do in the future.
Similarly, in the Passion according to St. Luke that we will be reading at the Gospel this coming Palm Sunday, we hear two of the Apostles are armed and ready with swords, and ready to fight for Jesus, before He goes out into the Garden of Gethsemane. Given their gung-ho nature, I suspect the two were the brothers Zebedee, St. James and St. John, whom Jesus nicknamed “The Sons of Thunder”. Yet they, too, like the rest, all melted away in the garden before the temple authorities, because they were weak and imperfect. It is only later, at the foot of the Cross and after the Resurrection, that they admit their weakness and thereby come into their own.
When we, too, realize our weaknesses, we are also given the opportunity to realize how grateful we must be that He loves and saves us anyway, despite our imperfections. Through Lenten sacrifice, we learn how weak we are, but we also learn how generous God is. In coming to grips with our own inconstancy, we become aware of what scrawny little things we are on the inside, while at the same time we become aware of how infinitely strong He is, even as He puts up with our cringing and whining and excuses.
So my view is, if you have come to a greater realization of your own imperfection and utter dependence this Lent, count yourself as fortunate. Without Him, we cannot persevere in the self-imposed trials of the Lenten season, any more than we can hope to persevere in what life throws at us, from cradle to grave. For our hope, despite all of our imperfections during Lent and otherwise, is that the grave is not our end – He is.
Sts. James and John, detail from a panel by Pere Serra (1385)