When it comes to Lent, the knee jerk reaction is giving up goodies. I’ll say no to desserts or coffee or snacks, and I’ll be good to go! There’s nothing wrong with these sacrifices, of course, but this year I’m hoping to change something else in my life — my relationships with other people.
The thing about other people that is so frustrating and maddening is that we can’t control them. Oh, we can steer a toddler in various directions by discipline and love, but once the child is grown, all bets are off. Then we have to do the most difficult thing of all, which is to love them even when they do exactly the opposite of what we think is best for them.
I have a relative whose doctor told her in no uncertain terms to avoid driving while taking a certain medication. But she went against the plan and drove anyway. Her being on the road was a danger to others, as well as herself. She made it home safely, but I found myself simmering with anger.
There are other relatives who spend money carelessly and are deeply in debt. Others who are addicted to booze and overeating. Over the years, I’ve fretted over their troubles, but then it hit me: we have a choice.
We can either become ensnared by our relatives’ troubles and wring our hands in despair because Aunt Betty is drinking again, or daughter Susie is in another bad relationship – or we can pull back and recognize the truth: Sometimes, all we can do is pray.
And what better time than Lent to give flesh to this realization? Instead of blathering on and on with unasked-for advice, which I have done in years gone by (“That guy is a loser; you need to date someone else.” “Your eating is out of control; how about Weight Watchers?”) here is the plan:
I’m going to give up trying to control people for Lent.
Every time I find myself thinking, “Oh, I’m so worried about (fill in the blank: my sister, my aunt, my niece, my friend),” I’m going to pick up my rosary beads and start praying. Every time I’m tempted to tell someone, “You should do such and such,” I’m going to pray instead.
In his book Interior Freedom, Jacques Philippe sounds a deep note of truth: “To see someone we love in difficulties without being able to help is one of the bitterest sufferings there is.” He mentions the agony of parents especially who watch their adult children fall into bad love relationships or turn to drugs. What to do?
“We can believe that God will not abandon our child and our prayer will bear fruit in due course.” During Lent especially, we can “carry that person in our heart and prayer…” As he points out, even when we feel our hands are tied because the advice we give falls on deaf ears, “We still have inner freedom to continue to love.”
Obviously, our relatives can be sources of great joy for us, but they can also bring us searing sorrow. An adult son may leave the Catholic faith. A daughter may run with the wrong crowd. Instead of wringing our hands and wondering why these terrible things are happening, we have to stay strong in our faith.
Jesus was surrounded with people who disappointed him. Early in his ministry, the crowds tried to throw him off a cliff. Later, Judas betrayed him, and Peter denied knowing him. When he stood before Pilate, the people who could have asked for Jesus’ release asked for a terrible criminal instead.
During Lent, we can keep silent when a relative hurts and disappoints us, and instead of criticizing them, we can continue to love them. Get down on our knees and pray for them. And, most of all, carry them in our hearts.
Lorraine’s latest books are “The Abbess of Andalusia: Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey” and “Death in the Choir.” Her Web site is www.lorrainevmurray.com