This Lent I have set myself the goal of daily Mass attendance. So far I have missed it twice, but not because of my unwillingness. Once I turned up half an hour too late by mistake. Another time, I was struck down with a virus and was bedbound for twenty-four hours.
What these failures have taught me is that there are two things that can prevent us from accomplishing a goal: one is sin; the other is circumstance.
Sin and Circumstances
The difference between these is that while we have a choice over whether or not to sin, we often have no choice over circumstances. I didn’t choose to catch a virus, just like I didn’t choose to misread the timing of the service. These form part of my limitations as a human that I have no control over.
This makes the decision not to sin especially important because, even when I do not sin, there are always other obstacles and limitations that will get in the way of the goals I set out to achieve. That is to say, even if I strive to be perfect, circumstances will always get in the way. Which is why it’s all the more important that when it comes to my own choices, I make the right ones.
A concrete example: I like to wake up early, before my children get up, in order to get a few things done while I have the chance. It is not always easy to do so. Sometimes, when I’m particularly tired, I consider getting an extra hour’s sleep instead of getting up, thinking: I can do x y z while the children nap, or while they are occupied for a moment. But how often does something not end up playing out as we imagine it? Perhaps that first hour is my last chance to get those things done – they might not nap very long today, or something else might end up taking precedence, or I might catch a virus and not be well enough later.
What Lent is teaching me is that life is unexpected. This means we should only worry about today, as the Lord commands us when he says ‘So do not worry about tomorrow: tomorrow will take care of itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.’ (Matthew 6:34) This also means that I must not assume my ability to do something good now is endless. When I get the opportunity to act in accordance with God’s will, I must seize it. It’s true that we can always return to the Lord, that we can always choose to do the right thing at the moment. But this right thing, this one right now, I only have the chance to do it once.
This understanding helps with the smaller, seemingly inconsequential sacrifices. During a homily recently, the priest said he overheard someone ask: what difference does a bit of meat make on a Friday? It’s true, the priest said, it’s hard to think it makes any difference to the Lord, or to anyone, whether or not we have meat each Friday of Lent. The reason the priest gave for doing it really opened my eyes to the fundamental purpose of sacrifice. We abstain from eating meat, the priest said, in order to give the Lord a sign that we love Him. It’s a way of demonstrating that we don’t just do what we want, we don’t just do things that are expedient to us, for self-interested reasons: we do what we do out of love for Him.
So when I am thinking about whether or not to get up early even though I am tired, it’s not just that I have no control over the day and therefore I should get things done while I have the chance. It’s also that by doing what I set out to do, by doing what I believe is the better thing to do, I am choosing the better part, like Mary: whenever we sacrifice, we choose the better part: ‘ you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing’ (Lk 10:42)
Often this passage is conveyed to mean choosing prayer life over a life of action devoid of contemplation (like Martha in this instance). But there is a deeper meaning to this passage: to choose the better part can mean to organise a house instead of sleeping. It can mean to cook a meal that is more expensive and takes longer to cook but that is your family’s favourite. The truth about ‘choosing the better part’, about what that ‘only one’ thing that is needed is, is a truth discovered in each moment, with active, ongoing discernment. This Lent I am learning to slow down and see the choice in front of me each moment so that I can choose that better part that cannot be taken from me.