It’s that time of year again, and several people have already asked me what I’m planning on giving up for Lent. Tough question, because it’s something I don’t take lightly. I view Lent as potentially the most spiritually profitable season of the year. I’ve been through 10 Lents now as a Catholic, and many of the decisions that I have made concerning what I was going to “give up” have eventually become lifestyle changes for me. One year I abstained from listening to the radio in the car on my commute, which led to a permanent habit of praying while driving. Another year I gave up sleep to get up early each morning and recite the Sorrowful Mysteries; I now pray the Rosary every day. After 10 years I have made so many practices like these a part of my life that, to be honest, I was having trouble coming up with something to abstain from this year. And then it hit me.
I’m going to give up complaining.
When the thought first crossed my mind, it seemed like a pretty good idea. After all, what is God-honoring about a state of disgruntlement? The Israelites complained their way through their 40-year trudge to the Promised Land; we have it on good authority that their ingratitude angered God (Num 11:1-4, 21:4-6). He miraculously provided for them in the desert, giving them quail and manna (Ex 16:1-36). “Only quail and manna???” was their complaint. When God promised them a prosperous life in a land flowing with milk and honey, they couldn’t hear Him; they were off in a dream world pining for the pleasures they had left behind in Egypt. I’m no better – it seems that no matter how God blesses me, I can always find a downside if I ponder it long enough….
It goes without saying that complaining is incompatible with Christianity. Christians are commanded not only to rejoice when God blesses them, but to rejoice when they suffer! Rejoice always? If I can’t rejoice over my blessings, how in the world can I rejoice while suffering?
So for the past couple of weeks I’ve tried to imagine my life minus the groaning, just to kind of try it out before I commit to a whole Lent’s-worth of abstinence. Two weeks ago we woke up to 9 inches of fluffy white stuff clogging our driveways, and I found myself called upon to shovel a great deal of it out of my way before I could think about going to work. I spent 40 minutes in the great outdoors engaged in a hearty bout of totally uncharacteristic early-morning aerobic exercise until my path was finally clear and my no-wheel drive vehicle could putt and shudder its shaky way off my property and onto the frozen road. To my shock I realized that the only thing that had sustained me through the trauma of that forced labor was the thought of how I was going to complain about it when I got to work. It was very clear to me that in this instance, as in many others, complaining is my source of consolation. Yet, as a Christian, I am called upon to proclaim Jesus Christ as the Source of All Consolation….
There seems to be something of a disconnect here. I am a Christian, yet the root of grumbling runs so deep in my life that I can hardly imagine an hour without it. Since I have started paying attention to it, I have noticed that complaining is a part of nearly everything I do. If I give it up, I will have to learn completely new habits of thought. I will be forced to distinguish between frank and helpful discussion of potential obstacles to the achievement of certain goals, and garden-variety bellyaching – something I’ve never had to do before. I’ve always just blurted out complaints; now I’ll have to monitor every thought pattern to try to head grousing off at the pass. If I give up complaining for Lent, will I even be able to speak?
On Good Friday, Catholics venerate the Cross. Those in attendance at the Good Friday service kneel before, bow to or kiss a cross held by a priest, or a larger one placed somewhere in the sanctuary. This practice has always meant a great deal to me as a Catholic; it is both a way to thank God for His unfathomable sacrifice, and to pledge devotion to His plans for me. Yet when I kiss the Cross, I have to remember that I am thereby committing to embrace a way of life that hurts. There will be plenty to complain about – yet by my kiss I pledge to love the crosses He sends as I see behind them the One who bears those crosses with me. Kissing the cross means accepting whatever God sends into my life; kissing it, while rejecting what God has sent, is a dodge worthy of Judas Iscariot. It is a two-faced lie. So this Lent I am committing to praise rather than to curse, to thank instead of grumbling. There’s going to have to be a mighty outpouring of grace for me to make it through 40 whine-free days, and truthfully at this point I just don’t know how all this is going to play out. There’s only one thing I know for sure.
It’s going to be awfully quiet around here.
On the memorial of St. David of Wales
Deo omnis gloria!