A Catholic Parent Takes on the Challenges of Parenting

Every day, the cross, with joy!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Prayer that Makes it Work: Voluntary Mortifications

Photo Credit: Damian Gadal
Lent is rapidly approaching, and hence it is that time of the year where we try to think about what we can offer as a penance during these 40 days of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. One of the premises of parenting mortification is that parenting is a blessing because it offers so many opportunities for involuntary mortification. Parents undergo all sorts of difficulties that they would never choose for themselves, but in embracing these challenges, the mortifications become an opportunity to die to self and to live for God, uniting parental suffering or inconvenience with the passion of Christ.

Voluntary mortifications are different from parenting mortifications because, well, they are voluntary! And yet at the same time, voluntary mortifications like those commonly practiced during Lent, are an important training opportunity for parents who strive to embrace the involuntary mortifications that come with parenting.

Prior to the Lent of 1967, Catholics in the United States participated in daily Lenten fasting as their primary penance for the Lenten season. Yes, you read that correctly, Catholics fasted on every day of Lent (excluding Sundays and solemnities). This obligatory fasting has now been reduced to two days: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Those of us (myself included) who struggle to maintain the fast on those two days may wonder how Catholics ever managed to fast every day of Lent. I suggest two possible explanations.

First, Catholics were much more used to these kinds of mortifications. In addition to the season of Lent, Catholics were required to fast before such big feasts as Christmas and the Immaculate Conception. They fasted an additional four times during the year in three day periods known as Ember Days. They abstained from meat on all Fridays THROUGHOUT the year. Additionally, Catholics were urged to accept and embrace the difficulties of their lives as mortification. In other words, Catholics were trained in the practice of mortification. This is not to say that Lenten fasting came easy, but rather that it didn't come as a surprise. Such sacrifice was simply regarded as a part of the faith. Lent wasn't an isolated season of penance, but merely a heightened season of penance.

The second explanation for how Catholics were able to maintain the fast for all of Lent is rooted in the social nature of the practice of daily Lenten fasting. Every Catholic (aside from a few exceptions with dispensations) was obliged to fast, and so the entire Church fasted together. Rather than being an instance of individual will-power, Lent was a testament to the notion of mutual support and the benefit of social practice.

It is with these two points in mind that we ought to consider our voluntary penances for this upcoming season of Lent, and to view them in relation to the goal of parenting mortification. On the one hand, it may seem that parenting in and of itself provides plenty of penitential sacrifice...why commit to anything else?

In fact, the voluntary mortifications of Lenten resolutions have the potential to assist us in the endeavor of parenting mortification. We give up something we like or we add something (prayer, works of mercy) to our schedule as a penance, which reminds us of our sin and need for God's grace. No Lenten resolution can really make up for our sin, but God accepts any sacrifice that we do because the difference has already been made up through Christ's death on the cross. These daily Lenten sacrifices are akin to the daily sacrifices associated with parenting. If we train ourselves to make little voluntary sacrifices, e.g. no sugar in our coffee, going to bed on time, giving up chocolate, we are also training ourselves to make involuntary sacrifices as well. The opposite may also be true. That is, the better we become at parenting mortification, the better we can become at voluntary mortifications like our Lenten penances. Whether voluntary or voluntary, these mortifications are opportunities to die to self and live for God, growing closer to God and depending upon his grace. They should be mutually strengthening.

Next, it is important to remember the social nature of Lenten penance. Admittedly Lenten resolutions in the U.S. now tend to be a hodgepodge of sacrifices, ranging from giving up Diet Coke to writing a letter once a week. On the one hand, this lack of social support may make it more difficult to keep our resolution, and on the other hand, if we keep it well, it may make us prideful. For this reason, it is good to undertake the season of Lent with the knowledge that, even if it doesn't feel like it, Lenten penance is something we are doing together as a Church. To reinforce this, it can be helpful to try to do Lenten penances in a group. Maybe your family could decide to go meatless for Lent or you and your spouse together give up sweets. Sometimes friends or even parishes can commit to certain things, such as meeting to pray the Stations of the Cross or replenishing the parish food pantry by spending less on your own food. Penance is not intrinsically an individualistic practice, but a social one. We do penance as an act of the People of God, the mystical body of Christ, the Church.

And this is a great reminder for parenting mortification as well. Whenever we undertake the sacrifices of parenting - whether cleaning up vomit, changing a diaper, doing another load of laundry, or reading the same board book for the fortieth time - we are benefiting the Church as a whole, offering a prayer on her behalf for the world. It's true that no one may see us making these sacrifices. No one at the parish will know about them. And parenting can at times feel lonely or isolating. However, if we can make sacrifices generously, we can offer these mortifications as prayers for those in need, whether for people we know who are sick, suffering, lonely, poor or perhaps for all those around the world suffering from hunger or in the midst of political unrest. In so doing, we are connected immediately, involved in that mystical body.

Whether it is the voluntary penances of Lent or the involuntary mortifications of parenting, we are called to a conversion away from the self. We inconvenience ourselves purposely and we accept the inconveniences of parenting because this is what's best for us: to die to ourselves, to live for God, to benefit others, to embrace the cross of Christ with joy and to open ourselves to that grace given so generously to us.

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