It’s no secret that society is in a downward moral spiral. Family, self-control, self-sacrifice, defense of the defenseless—none of these are a given anymore. It isn’t the first time that this has been the case in human history, but it makes it no less concerning.
Moved with a desire to console the heart of Jesus, I’ve seen a lot of fellow Catholics speaking out on social media about their plans to take on additional penances, as reparation for the lack of love that so many show God. I trust their discernment to the spiritual fathers in their lives, and I am glad that there are people in the Church that are focused on taking on additional penance for the sake of the love of Christ.
Many of us may find ourselves unable to take on the penances that we would like to this Lent. We love God, but our life and vocational circumstances make it imprudent to do so. A mother of a newborn isn’t necessarily called to begin going to early morning daily Mass. Someone with special needs (like autism or an anxiety disorder or ADHD) might not be able to manage a full holy hour. Someone deep in the throes of a new grief probably won’t be able to lead a Lenten Bible Study. Even when our spirit is very willing, our flesh is often weak.
Actually, let’s look more closely at the story in Scripture where that phrase comes from.
Mercy in the Garden of Gethsemane
When Jesus went to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, he brought along his apostles. I always find it interesting that he didn’t bring his mother or any female disciples with him. I am sure that those women would have been wide awake, ready to offer him comfort as he wept.
Of course, Jesus knew that. But still, he brought his apostles. Bless their hearts, but the apostles just struggled to get it right in the Gospels, didn’t they? They had one task that night—stay awake and pray. They knew Jesus was acting strangely that night, and that something was seriously wrong. But what did they do? They fell asleep.
I didn’t grow up with brothers, but as I’ve gotten to know other men over the years—friends, spiritual fathers and spiritual sons, my husband—I can attest to how predictable this behavior was from a group of men. Men have a deep, deep desire to “fix” things when someone they love is suffering. When they can’t fix it, you can see the incredible weariness on their faces. Their exhaustion comes not from apathy, but from a sort of system overload.
Now, if I had been Jesus, I would have climbed down that hill, seen all my best friends sound asleep and felt a wave of deep sadness, loneliness, and maybe some frustration and anger. I would wonder if their slumber meant a lack of love, if it meant that they didn’t care.
But Jesus arrived at a very different conclusion. His heart was moved with a loving sort of pity for them. He knew that they had fallen asleep from the exhaustion of grief.
Perhaps it would have been just of him to chastise them for not keeping vigil. But the justice of God doesn’t operate in a vacuum. It is also tempered by mercy.
How does this relate to our own Lenten practice?
Penance Received by Mercy
I have three living children, aged 10, 7, and 3. My expectations for them are wildly different. I know what each child struggles with, and I can tell when they are trying as hard as they can (and when they’re trying to get away with mischief). Right now, my three-year-old is in a stage of classic three-year-old behavior—yelling, meltdowns, disobedience, etc. She spent the whole day recently, getting into one scrape after another and refusing to obey my requests. I tried time outs. I tried raising my voice and speaking firmly. But, in the end, I remembered—she’s three years old. She’s grumpy because that’s developmentally appropriate. Disciplining her is important (and she is working towards breaking the family record for time-outs, apparently) but so is loving her in more lenient ways. On the day in question, I knew that she had woken up too early, hadn’t been napping, and was tired. So, in the end, I finally stopped trying to put her in time out alone, and I laid next to her and gave her a snuggle. It worked. She needed mercy.
God is a far better parent than I am, and so he knows this even more. His children are different, and they each have unique weaknesses and struggles. He knows the perfect balance of discipline and affection for each child, and he knows when a child of his is giving him their best. He doesn’t point fingers and say, “Child of mine…why can’t you be more holy like that person??” He knows that for some of us, this Lent will begin with our attempt to break the world record for time-outs…errr, I mean, penances…and will likely end with him wrapping our grumpy selves in his loving arms.
He knows us. He loves us. He sees our efforts. And, like my grumpy three-year-old—he wants us to know that we are safe to struggle with improving our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. He is consoled by our weak (but sincere) efforts.
This Lent, as we stumble along with our penitential practices, let us remember he receives them with not just justice, but with the most tender Fatherly mercy we can imagine.