It may be spring according to the calendar, but here in Western New York, next to the giant cooler that is the frozen Great Lakes, snow still flies and gardens are still dormant and rock hard. I understand in other parts of the world some of you folks are well into planting, weeding and even harvesting! The word “Lent,” coming from the English and Germanic words for spring, confirms what it’s supposed to look like outside my window, and suggests what I’m supposed to be able to be doing in my backyard. As a long-confirmed northerner, I will have to confine my March-April gardening to my soul. Perhaps that is for the best, because after a long winter, it surely is in need of some attention.
Though it seems so long ago, as I recall, gardening involves a lot of digging, weeding and planting. The soil is an apt metaphor for the humus of the soul, and Lent is the perfect time to break up the clods, get rid of what doesn’t belong and plant what does. Living our Catholic spiritual lives with the amazing grace of the sacraments, especially of the Eucharist and Reconciliation, we are blessed to be well on our way to healthy garden-like souls. But there are some sins, faults and failings that seem more persistent than even our best efforts. For these, Lent is a good time to get down in the dirt and do some gardening.
The Examen: Getting Rid of the Weeds
The Daily Examen is a prayer designed to help us become aware of and grateful for the ways that God is working in our lives, moving in our hearts. We look back at our day in God’s presence and ask Him to show us what we need to see: the good, the bad and the ugly. It is a gentle and loving prayer meant to encourage and help us along the way. Used regularly, it allows us to see patterns in our thinking and acting. This grace can lead us to strengthen what is good and root out what is harmful.
A weed in the garden is harmful. It sucks up all of the nutrients from the rich soil and can even strangle the good plants that we planted there on purpose. Weeds sprout up quickly and are often quite strong. A healthy garden requires regular, even daily weeding. In our soul, the Examen can act as that regular weeding. As we begin to notice the pattern of sin or imperfection that is harmful to us and to our relationship with God and others, we can “weed it out” by our daily time in God’s presence. By the simple act of recognizing and confessing a fault to God and asking his help to choose better the next time, we tend to our garden.
Weeding is not complicated or confusing. If it is, perhaps we have fallen into a trap of overthinking it. The simple humility of saying, “God, I messed up again just like yesterday, please help me,” is all that is required. If you need to be shown what your motivation for the sin is, what the wound that needs healing is, God will show you. For our own sake, we do best to keep it simple. Pull the weed. Move on. When we complicate the process, we are less likely to go back and do it regularly. If we know it’s only going to take a few minutes of our day, we are likely to be consistent and get the eventual results we hope for.
Mortification: Weed Killer
As any gardener knows, certain weeds will never, never stop coming back, no matter how many times you pull them. Perhaps they were allowed to grow unabated for years before we decided to do something about them. They need stronger stuff. They need weed killer. To keep the soil healthy, we do best if we use a natural, gentle weed killer like vinegar and water or some other time-tested, noncommercial treatment. Our souls also produce weeds that won’t be eradicated no matter how much we examine, how often we “pull.” Our souls also need gentle care that doesn’t do more harm than good. We want to kill the weeds, but nurture the soil.
In Volume Two of In Conversation with God by Francis Fernandez, the author offers a spiritual weed killer that is as old as Christianity, and older: mortification. Using this same metaphor of spiritual weeds, Fernandez writes:
They are like tough weeds the roots of which have remained in the soul and which we need to eradicate by means of penance, to prevent them from springing up again and bringing forth bitter fruits.
There are many reasons for doing penance during this Lent, and we must seek out specific little ways of practicing it: mortification at meals – such as the abstinence commanded by the Church; living punctuality; keeping guard over our imagination. … And, also, with the advice of our spiritual director, of our confessor, other bigger mortifications, which can help us to purify our soul.
Through a spiritual mystery we won’t fully comprehend this side of heaven, our choosing to die to self in some specific, intentional and directed way, acts as a weed killer against those faults we have so very little “success” eradicating in any other way.
Very few of us are called to make harsh penances, and those who are, only under spiritual direction. Instead, the natural, gentle weed killers Fernandez suggests are:
The penance of everyday life, and in serving people around us. A Christian’s life can be filled with this penance that God sees. It could be the offering up of an illness or just tiredness; giving way and surrendering our own opinion; putting everything into our work which we do well and finish off for love of God, imposing order on our effects and personal things. … The type of penance that is particularly pleasing to God is that which brings together many little acts of charity and which tends to make the way towards God easier and more pleasant for others.
Some of the best penances are those which refer to love for other people: knowing how, for example, to say sorry when we have offended someone; making the sacrifice involved in forming somebody we are responsible for; exercising patience; seeing the need to forgive promptly and generously.
St. Augustine offers an even more simplified penance that will benefit our soil and kill many weeds: “Forgive offences – and stop complaining about those who have done you some harm.”
The naturalness and simplicity of these penances should encourage us. God can use the everyday, garden variety sacrifices to act as weed killer to our most stubborn faults.
Practicing the Opposing Virtue: Fill Our Gardens
Using the Daily Examen and mortification to clear our gardens of weeds, in the greater context of an engaged sacramental life, will still leave our garden looking a bit like a patch of dirt. We haven’t planted anything yet! Through the process of continually examining and tending the garden of our soul, the patterns exposed often reveal a “root” or “dominant” sin that affects much of our personality and behavior. In Catholic tradition these are the “Seven Deadly Sins.” But as God would have it, in the perfection of His universe, each one of these sins has an “opposing virtue” the practice of which will help us to overcome even the most deeply rooted failing. These seven pairs are:
Pride – Humility
Covetousness – Liberality
Lust – Chastity
Anger – Meekness
Gluttony – Temperance
Envy – Brotherly love
Sloth – Diligence
To “plant” something good and beautiful in the garden of our soul to oppose the sin that we struggle with, we simply and gently practice the virtue that opposes the vice we struggle with. As we all know, simple is not the same as easy. Practicing the virtue that goes against the vice we naturally tend toward is hard work, which is where the “gentle” part comes in. Encourage yourself. Take small steps. Set achievable goals. Be merciful to yourself when you fail. The goal here is not to create a soul that looks like a well-stocked greenhouse, but a fruitful place where life flourishes, we are happy to be and others feel welcome and loved. God is always the Master Gardener, guiding us, whispering in our ears, “Mercy.” If we gently, consistently continue our gardening, soon our souls will overflow with the bounty of His love and mercy.
As I complete this little essay, it is snowing quite steadily here up north. God is granting plenty of time for me to focus on the garden of my soul and leave the literal garden for a later season, perhaps Easter. I pray that we all make the most of God’s Lenten graces and experience the Resurrection of our souls and our gardens, along with our blessed Lord Jesus Christ, whenever spring decides to appear.