I slipped away recently for a women’s retreat and while in a “prayerful” state, I decided to list my Lenten resolutions, the sacrifices I would offer during the forty-seven days in the desert. While comfortably nestled in front of the Blessed Sacrament, I tore open my floral covered journal, wielded my Bic pen and scribbled all the ways I would deny myself during the upcoming penitential season.
It was an impressive list, if I do say so myself, and it included all the important elements necessary for a good Lent — prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. When I laid my head on the pillow that night, I was pleased with myself for having the forethought to pen such fantastic ways to sacrifice. My smug, self-congratulatory attitude should have set off loud sirens inside the walls of that Franciscan convent, but it didn’t. It was only the next morning during Mass, when I realized I forgot to ask God if He liked my Lenten list.
So, right after the homily and right before the Consecration, I requested God’s input. The answer came immediately and clearly.
“Set an alarm and get up early to say your prayers.”
Really? That’s what you want? But look at all these other things? I mean, daily spiritual reading, no blogging and Internet, no sweets, and no television? These are great!
But no. The alarm was the golden ticket.
I groaned silently, calculating what a set time of daily rising would personally cost me. My three-month old, Edward, awakes at least once or twice a night to eat, making the thought of a buzzer sounding in the early morn as appealing as sharing a beverage with my backwashing three year old.
My disinclination towards the penance made me realize it was exactly the right one.
So much for my grandiose list.
Shortly after the retreat, I stumbled upon this quote from Saint Francis de Sales which states:
“. . . we all color devotions according to our own likings and dispositions. One man sets great value on fasting, and believes himself to be leading a very devout life, so long as he fasts rigorously, although the while his heart is full of bitterness; — and while he will not moisten his lips with wine, perhaps not even with water, in his great abstinence, he does not scruple to steep them in his neighbor’s blood, through slander and detraction. Another man reckons himself as devout because he repeats many prayers daily, although at the same time he does not refrain from all manner of angry, irritating, conceited or insulting speeches among his family and neighbors. This man freely opens his purse in almsgiving, but closes his heart to all gentle and forgiving feelings towards those who are opposed to him; while that one is ready enough to forgive his enemies, but will never pay his rightful debts save under pressure. Meanwhile all these people are conventionally called religious, but nevertheless they are in no true sense really devout.”
Oh, have I been religious, but not devout. If you want proof, maybe you should take a gander at my great Lenten List of 2014.
Saint Francis’s words started me thinking.
Is it possible the alarm suggestion would actually help to make me devout instead of just religious?
If I followed through with a specific time for rising—like I do when I don’t have a baby — is it possible I might have more time for prayer and even a bit of writing before my family wakes?
Perhaps St. Francis was right. Perhaps the sacrifices I wrote that night on retreat were colored. Maybe my list was a feeble attempt to strong-arm my way into holiness.
“Look, Lord! I’m a Spiritual Rock Star! No Internet for me!”
The problem with this approach is the entire time I’m patting myself on the back for such great dedication to fasting and penance, I’m actually neglecting what Christ actually wants — growing closer to Him, dying to myself and my sinful tendencies, and behaving in a kinder way towards those around me. Fasting isn’t about concocting the world’s best self-improvement plan so we can be reminded how fabulous we are. Fasting should be penitential. It should remind us of our complete dependence on God. It should be a way to reign in our concupiscent nature so that we can better love God and serve our neighbor.
On Ash Wednesday (after I tore up my Lenten List), I set my alarm and I awoke early, a habit that I’ve continued with since the beginning of Lent.
Baby Edward, my darling night crawler, has started sleeping through the night.
I know. I can’t believe it either.
I don’t want to jinx Edward’s newfound ability to sleep for eight gloriously uninterrupted hours, but I can’t help but wonder if this development isn’t a small reward from God, a reminder from Him that He will take care of me if I step out in faith. Maybe there is something to that whole “His yoke is easy and His burden is light” thing after all.
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