Seeing Mercy and Spiritual Progress in Lent

 

spiritual progress

“Mom, are we allowed to eat that?” During the first weeks of the fast in Great Lent, I am asked this question at least a dozen times by any one of my kids. They know the fasting rules. I tell them at the very beginning what we are fasting from (for us it’s no meat, limited dairy) but still, they ask.

Recently after walking home from Presanctified Liturgy, and nearly being blown away by the icy Wisconsin wind, I made them a treat of hot cocoa. After saying thank you, Vivi said, “But I thought we weren’t allowed to have chocolate on the fast.” I explained that technically only milk chocolate isn’t allowed, dark chocolate doesn’t have dairy. Then this led to a mini history on cocoa beans because I love food history and am that kind of mom.

Being a persistent child who wants a satisfactory answer, and after listening to my food lesson, she continued, “But I thought we aren’t supposed to have sweets during the week.” In our house, I reserve all sweets for Sundays. With a sigh, I repeated what Manny’s response is to such questions, “You let me worry about that, you just eat and drink what you are given.” She smiled and enjoyed her cocoa. Manny is a smart man.

Since this conversation with Vivi, I have had similar ones with other kids. Instead of getting into the technicalities of the fast (an attitude I do not want to foster in my children anyway) I have simply said, “Your fast is to eat what you are given, I’ll worry about the rules.”

As often happens, these situations provide an opportunity for me to reflect. I think my childrens’ desire to keep the rules, their concern for doing what is allowed, is sweet and shows they are making a conscious effort to be obedient. Their persistence amuses me, even while it wears me out often. Thinking about this from my perspective as their mom who wants to be merciful and kind to them with a cup of cocoa (or a cheese sandwich, or any other break from the fast), has turned my thoughts to God and His mercy and kindness to me.

I can see myself in my children. The concern for the rules, the persistence, the desire to please God and the double checking of the soul (triple, quadruple checking!). The regular taking of my spiritual temperature, especially during times like Lent.

I do these things far less than I used to but instead, I do other things. I have a hard time accepting God’s mercy and seeing His love; especially if that mercy and love are given through others (which is often how God works). My kids aren’t always sure if they should accept that merciful cup of cocoa (or whatever I’ve chosen to give them) in the first couple weeks of the fast. It takes me reminding them to let me and their dad be in charge and a bit of practice on their part to simply accept what we give them with gratitude. Yeah, that sounds far too familiar to my relationship with God.

Manny and I always return again to the direction we were given when we first started attending the monastery. Abbot Nicholas started every fasting season by telling the extended community that gathered to worship with the monks, “Aim high and do what you can.” Father Peter (he was a visiting priest) would tell us “Stop taking your spiritual temperature.”

Abbot Nicholas’ guidance wasn’t always heeded. Some years we would aim high and beat ourselves up for whatever we couldn’t do, instead of accepting our limitations. Or aim high and lose focus on the point of askesis, keeping ourselves distracted with keeping the fast “perfectly,” and not enough on our relationship with God and others. Learning to keep the ideal in view but with reasonable expectations of what we can and should do, especially with a growing family, has taken many Lents to figure out.

The temptation during these fasting periods, most especially Great Lent, is to approach the time with a checklist:

  • Prayer Rule completed.
  • Fasting Rules kept.
  • Charitable Giving fulfilled.

We may not think we are doing this, but when our focus is on the tools given to grow in Christ more than Christ Himself, then we have missed the point. We do not fast merely to be strict with ourselves and avoid certain foods. We fast to overcome our passions, and grow in love, grow to be more like Christ.

The other half of the guidance we received reminds us to stop thinking about our spiritual progress–stop taking our spiritual temperature. These two ideas may seem contradictory or at least appear to have little in common. On the one hand, we are told to keep the ideal in sight and reasonably work towards it, on the other hand, stop checking on the progress of one’s work.

They are, however, closely related.  Both are calls to patience and mercy. We must be patient and merciful with others shortcomings and also with our own. As a parent, I have found the need to be patient with myself to be of utmost importance because I am modeling behavior for my children and if I teach them nothing else, I want them to know God is a God of mercy, patience, and love. I want them to aim high and know their spiritual progress isn’t a sprint but a marathon race–they need to train without checking for immediate gratification but work towards honest growth which comes over time. I want them to learn God isn’t a tyrant, wanting them to be miserable but wants to help them grow in Him. I want them to keep their eyes on Christ and trust Him to lead them.

Reflecting on the last 20 years of Lenten seasons, I know growth rarely looks like what I expect it to and rarely happens how I think it should. I also never see it happening except in hindsight. Isn’t that how growth and change usually happens? One day you see your teenager shoot up, and his pants are too short. Or you see your kid maturing and waking up early to bake something for breakfast without you asking. Or you realize that messy, unwiped table no longer makes you lose your temper and you patiently remind your child to clean it right.

Sure we know what to do to help growth along, and we should use those tools, not discard them. But we cannot approach our relationship with God or one another like a task to fulfill and accomplish with high marks. If only it were that easy!

Just like growth doesn’t always look like I think it will, same for God’s mercy and love. That is more my own blindness, though. I have a hard time seeing God’s love and an even harder time seeing when other people are loving me. This is because I have an idea in my head of what love looks like. Usually, I think it should be the way I would express love. Foolish of me, I know.

It was during confession this Lent when I learned this and began to understand that I fail to hear God and accept the love not only He but others are giving to me. I had been too wrapped up in my thoughts, feelings, concerns, and agenda that I was missing the forest for the trees. Too busy worrying about what I needed to be doing, how I believed things should be, that I was missing the way things are.

I wasn’t expecting to get any of those lessons out of confession that day any more than I expected a cup of cocoa for my kids would help me understand the abundance of God’s mercy and love. He sure works in mysterious ways.

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