I spent Friday and Saturday at a teaching conference in Baltimore. As usual, I bought too many books. One of them, Freedom from Sinful Thoughts, by J. Heinrich Arnold, brought me up short. “[Being] poor in spirit,” he writes, “means readying ourselves for God as we truly are…rather than ‘fixing ourselves up for him.’”
As Lent approaches, “fixing ourselves up” is on our minds. Is that bad? Aren’t we supposed to be shedding our bad habits of sin (vice) and replacing them with good habits of virtue?
I admit that sometimes I treat growth in virtue like a construction project. Shoring up a weak foundation here, plastering over some cracks there. Maybe what Arnold means is that renovation work is good, but we also need to keep track of who the real foreman is in this project.
Here’s how Father John Langlois, OP, defines the purpose of our Lenten “project”: “Lent is a special penitential season when we mourn our sins and seek to draw closer to the Lord as we prepare for the great feast of Easter. To take on a special penance…[expresses] regret for past sins and…a desire for conversion. It is also a way of detaching ourselves from material…consolations to grow in desire for God and things of the Spirit.”
Lenten renovation project
Are you still deciding what “renovation project” you’ll concentrate on to grow in desire for God? Me too. Normally, I give up sweets – it’s a pattern-interrupter that reminds me many times every day how good God is and how I can take his sweetness for granted. But I’m considering two other ideas.
The first is from Father John, who says this penance has been especially fruitful for him. “Rather than choosing a penance for yourself, allow God to choose a daily penance for you and then say ‘yes’ to that!…[A]ccept the daily inconveniences, trials, disappointments, and frustrations that come your way without…complaint…[I]f you wholeheartedly embrace this form of penance you will find yourself in a true battle with your rebellious self….”
That reminds me of something the late Fr. John Hardon, S.J., said: “If you want to be holy, stop complaining.” Give up complaining for Lent? Are you up for the challenge?
The second idea is from Father Bill Wadsworth, who suggests giving up “a sin that you are good at….a favorite sin that we just love to commit.” Think gossip or procrastination. He adds, “It probably will be really hard, but that’s a good thing!” I’m assuming Father Bill has tried this for 40 days and survived.
Don’t leave the foreman out
We live in a universe of both/and rather than either/or. Christ both God and man. Mary both virgin and mother. We simultaneously live in time and eternity. Something of this mystery is reflected in nature – the acorn is both an acorn and the blueprint for turning into something else – a majestic oak tree. And we take for granted that the sun is shining as brightly as ever, even when all we can see are dark rainclouds.
So are we supposed to be “fixing ourselves up” during Lent or “accepting ourselves as we are”? Yes and yes. Both/and. Arnold writes that we need to avoid thoughts that lead to our bad habits, but not to get anxious in the process.
Because trying to heal ourselves by ourselves will make us anxious. Believing that God won’t love us if bad habits still cling to us would make it all about us. But it’s not. It’s about God’s powerful healing mercy.
It requires honesty and humility to “ready ourselves for God as we truly are,” because half the battle is naming the habit that needs healing! The other half is allowing God to do His work in us, even if that involves the pain of “knocking down a wall” when He removes a habit, like complaining, that we’ve used for support and then, little by little, shows us how to stand firm in freedom without it.
Psalm 23 famously asks, “Who will climb the mountain of the Lord? Who will stand in his holy place? The one who is innocent of wrongdoing and pure of heart….” Jesus is the only one who fits that description. But luckily, we’re members of his body. In renovating the house of our soul, he’s the foreman. If we stick with him and do our part, he will renovate us into himself. He will guide us up the mountain if we hold his hand.
Arnold sums it up this way: “this is the root of grace: the dismantling of our power.” That is, in releasing our small, willful power, we gain the infinite power of God to love and be loved. May we all discover more of that power in the coming 40 days of Lent.
P.S. If you scroll down and leave a comment on which idea sounds better to you, it may tip the scales on what I decide for my Lenten project! I’d love to hear what you think — or share other Lenten ideas that have been fruitful for you. :)