The parish we were members of when we lived in Wisconsin offered a weekly Bible study. Every Monday night we would meet to discuss the Scripture for the following Sunday. One night I walked into what I presumed would be the typical thought-provoking evening and walked out challenged and changed.
I do not even recall what reading we discussed. I only remember the conversation surrounding it.
The subject was our tendency to complain about others. Often when we get angry, we feel a need to vent our feelings somewhere. If we are not cautious in our choice of words, we can easily malign others, even our loved ones, unintentionally. The words we speak can make a difference in one person’s perception of another, and we cannot get them back.
James 5:9 (NABRE) says “Do not complain, brothers, about one another, that you may not be judged. Behold, the Judge is standing before the gates.” It seems that God is asking a lot. It is human nature to complain. Why would He judge this so harshly?
That night, our Scripture study forced me to view my habits. Before that evening, I did not see anything wrong in what often referred to as venting. After all, what is a person supposed to do when they are upset? Doesn’t complaining to others help you release your anger?
Thinking it through, I realized that speaking harshly of others makes it worse for everybody. When I would rage in irritation or anger, it just kept my emotions flamed. Complaining, in general, brought everyone down. God would have us build each other up and grow in love. Words that tear down cause division and separation.
I regret some of the unkind words I have spoken about others. Unfortunately, I cannot go back and erase them. I have confessed and know I am forgiven, but that does not change the consequences
Walking into Scripture study that evening, I did not consider myself a gossip. By the end of the night, I viewed myself in a completely different light. I had some significant changes to make.
You might say that night stretched me.
What does it mean to be stretched? Why is it important? St. Augustine had some ideas about this. In his Tractates on the first letter of John (Tract r: PL 35, 2008-9) he says this:
The entire life of a good Christian is, in fact, an exercise of holy desire. You do not yet see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when he comes you may see and be utterly satisfied.
Suppose you are going to fill some holder or container, and you know you will be given a large amount. Then you set about stretching your sack or wineskin or whatever it is. Why? Because you know the quantity you will have to put in it and your eyes tell you there is not enough room. By stretching it, therefore, you increase the capacity of the sack, and this is how God deals with us. Simply by making us wait he increases our desire, which in turn enlarges the capacity of our soul, making it able to receive what is to be given to us.
Our lives are all about preparing us for our next lives. The words of St. Augustine show us how important stretching is to that. Increasing our desire helps us also to expand our longing to live as God intends us to live.
St. Augustine added:
By desiring heaven we exercise the powers of our soul. Now, this exercise will be effective only to the extent that we free ourselves from desires leading to infatuation with this world. Let me return to the example I have already used, of filling an empty container. God means to fill each of you with what is good; so cast out what is bad! If he wishes to fill you with honey and you are full of sour wine, where is the honey to go? The vessel must be emptied of its contents and then be cleansed. Yes, it must be cleansed even if you have to work hard and scour it. It must be made fit for the new thing, whatever it may be.
We are now in the season of Lent, the perfect time to meditate on those words. We should always work to cast out what is bad, but as a fallen people, we put so much in the way. Lent gives us the opportunity to reset our priorities. It is a time to remain faithful to your penance and allow it to cleanse you and grow in your desire for God.
For Lent 2007, I decided to attend daily Mass once each week. I only remembered to go twice that season, and those two times it was just because the intention was for my mom. I remember one of those times arriving at Mass, looking around, and thinking, “Is it bad that I would not want to attend Mass every day?”
In 2008 I decided once again to attend daily Mass once a week. Then I realized that it would likely turn out much the same as it had the year before. The only way I knew to keep my Lenten promise was to go every day during this season.
I made this decision several weeks before Ash Wednesday. God must have approved because my attitude from 2007 began to change. I became very excited about the prospect of daily worship. When Ash Wednesday finally arrived, I was eager to start the season.
I found that daily Mass kept me more focused on Jesus throughout the day, in a way I had not been before. My desire to serve God and to grow closer to Him increased. I loved daily Mass so much that I did not stop when Lent was over.
Maybe the stretching that I thought had begun that evening at Scripture study actually had its roots in my Lenten resolution. I joined that particular Bible study as a direct result of daily Mass. My appreciation for all that God gives us through His church grew as well.
I know many Catholics who are struggling regarding the Church scandals. Some have left the Church because of it; others are considering it. It is a confusing time. What can we, as individuals, do to transform ourselves and the Church?
While we should always be examining how we can grow closer to the Lord, the Church offers us Lent as an entire season to repent and turn back. In this way, each one of us can make a difference. Jenny Uebbing reminds us that we are all part of the body of Christ. She states:
This Lent our beautiful, broken, and beleaguered Church needs all of us to repent more sincerely and with more humility than we’ve ever managed in the past. We are all scandalized by and mysteriously, simultaneously, the cause of scandal within the Body of Christ. Since “God is light and in Him, there is no darkness, at all,” (1 Jn 1:5) we know that any duplicity and darkness within His body belongs … to us.
I say this not in order to minimize the horror or depravity that 2018 brought to light but to remind myself, foremost, that the single most effective thing that I can do to transform the Church and the world is to become a saint. And that God has offered a pretty great template for sainthood in the 3 pillars of Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
On a similar note, Jonathan Cahn, author of The Harbinger and The Paradigm, speaks of the evils of the expanded abortion laws in a recent video. He agrees with Jenny Uebbing that it is up to each of us to change the world. He reminds us that we cannot be dependent on others for revival. The only conversion we can guarantee is our own conversion. Cahn states that there is no revival while we are attached to the world; no revival without repentance. He asks us to put away whatever we have to put away and take up whatever God is asking us to take up.
The author then challenges viewers to consider where they are going to stand when it costs to be a believer. He says each of us must become stronger, bolder, and more on-fire for God.
I agree. My problem with this is that boldness is a trait I lack. To be bold, of course, does not mean to blurt out whatever you are thinking. If we are on fire for God and want to bring people to Him, we need to speak in love and truth.
I avoid controversy. Rather than speaking truth, I often avoid speaking at all. In other words, opportunities to persuade others might be ignored. I am always concerned that my words will alienate people rather than draw them closer to God.
Listening to Jonathan Cahn speak of boldness sounded like a Lenten challenge to me. The question becomes twofold: 1) Is this where God is calling me this Lent, and 2) If He is, how do I achieve this?
Jenny Uebbing has an answer.
I transform myself – correction, Jenny, – I allow myself to be transformed most effectively and most fully through prayer. No self-improvement campaign can ever succeed without starting there. And trust me, I’ve tried them all, and I’ve tried doing it without prayer time and time again. I am coming to understand that prayer is nothing more than pulling my fingers out of my ears, fixing my heart on His, and aligning my will with God’s as best I can.
Mass, the greatest prayer of the Church, has stretched me before. Still, over time, I began to pray less. It is time to return to better prayer habits.
As a start towards that objective, I am reading Remember Your Death: Memento Mori Lenten Devotional by Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP. (You can read more about this book in the Peter Socks’ recent column). With the daily reminder that I am ashes, the Memento Mori Examen, and the prayers, I hope to allow myself to be stretched again. Maybe I can begin to detach from what is not important and to align myself with whatever it is God wants of me, even if it calls for boldness.
It is time to pull my fingers out of my ears. For this Lent, my goal is to “be made fit for the new thing, whatever it may be.”