Common question among churchgoers after Ash Wednesday. I’m a vegetarian, so I can’t give up meat. Of course, there’s a lot more I could “sacrifice.” Years ago, however, I thought about what to give up—daily wine with dinner, desserts, etc. But every way I turned this in my thoughts, it just came out silly. Foregoing ice cream did not seem anything more or other than a minor nuisance, more likely to make me irritable than to make me holy.
Instead, I decided to give up one specific thing, so I could focus on it, and I decided to give up complaining. This may not seem credible, but it’s true: The difference was remarkable. Complaints come to mind before they come to lips, so it was necessary to counter a complaint mentally. I had to notice the good in every complaint-evocative situation—I had no choice. Here are a few of the more minor examples (There were also major ones):
Thank you, Lord, that I have a friend to meet me for lunch. She didn’t show up on time, but, because I’m not complaining, I am free to enjoy our lunch together, without having to harbor a nagging resentment that her quarter-hour tardiness might have caused me.
Thank you for this unexpected bill. It makes me conscious—again—of my good fortune in having a pension that enables me to pay it. Many people are not so fortunate. For so many, an unexpected bill can be a budgetary crisis.
Thank you for the Mass this morning, for the loud pianist/cantor who seemed to regard the Mass as his personal concert—he was there, not somewhere else. And in his way, he’s participating in Mass. Thank you for reminding me that Mass is not my personal path to holiness, but everyone else’s too. (Mental note: Think more about Mass as shared. After all, we share the one bread, the one cup.)
Thank you that the doctor has kept me waiting a half-hour so far—it’s a wonderful opportunity to sit in quiet meditation, one I might not have had without this delay.
Thank you for this wonderful young priest we had among us for this short time. He’s leaving, but he was here long enough to remind some of us that we are Catholics, not members of some socially-acceptable progressive culture. His departure will break some hearts, but we must be grateful for that too, lest we become dependent.
Indeed, thank you for every deprivation, every loss, especially those that are great. Every loss is a grace, for it is the removal of yet another veil, bringing us ever closer to you.
When I gave up complaining that Lent, I found that gratitude filled the void without any effort or will at all on my part, almost without my even noticing the exchange at the time. Only later, during Easter, did I notice it.
This Lent, I’m giving up criticism. I don’t know what the fruits of that surrender will be, but so far, it looks a little like humility….
Have a blessed Lenten season.