This past Sunday, I had the privilege of attending a conference talk on Heaven by Father Isaac Mary Relyea, part of a Lenten mission series on the Four Last Things hosted by The Fatima Center. In the car on the way there, I joked about how my fiancé and I needed Father Isaac to give us a good old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone scare session before Lent begins. I knew that Father’s talk would be edifying and convict me with regard to the depth and multitude of my sins, and he did not disappoint — for a talk on Heaven, there was a lot said about Hell!
Indeed, we did need to rekindle our fear of the Lord, including the fear of judgment, Hell, and the torments we will face if we end up there. The world does not speak of such things. Our pope and the majority of our bishops and priests remain largely silent on the topic. It is incredible just how easy it is to forget eternity, to elevate this pilgrim life to a stature that it does not merit. In this quiet season, the fresh excitement of Christmastide long behind us, I must confess that I am even more guilty of this thoughtlessness than usual. My prayers are less devout. My spiritual reading is faltering. Areas in which I had attained to some growth in virtue seem fraught with temptations and difficulty, and worse, I find myself failing His tests time and time again — even those I once passed with ease.
Surely, the Lent God wanted me to have would be focused on taking up with renewed energy those past habits which had fostered my prior zeal! More rosaries. More difficult fasting. More reading of the saints. More praying for others. Just more — I just needed to do more. If I did more, it would all be right again. I wouldn’t feel like such a failure, I wouldn’t feel such despair about becoming a saint, I would be able to let go of the heaviness that has been following me like an unwanted shadow for months. Those were my thoughts as I listened to the talk, trying to sit up straight and to avoid fiddling with my fingers. Trying not to cough, or adjust my veil, or twist my engagement ring around, or to make any other small motion that would reveal the uncomfortable fact that I am not perfect. That I am not in control.
This went on throughout the hour-long talk. I got emotional a few times. I laughed at the right moments. I felt the motivation and consolation I had hoped for, but it was dampened by my own frustration with myself — why was I so self-focused even as I sat before Christ in the Tabernacle? Why did I care about the thoughts of others about me, as if anyone was concerned that I looked stupid in line for Holy Communion or sneezed too loudly? Why couldn’t I seem to get out of my head and away from these vain thoughts?
And then, at the very end of the talk, when Father was discussing Lenten penances, I heard the one thing I truly needed to make lasting, fruitful changes in my spiritual life. I had expected him to tell us all of the things we weren’t even achieving that should be the bare minimum. Instead, he said this: “You know, sometimes, people bite off too much — more than they can chew. I’d rather you do one thing good than five things badly.”
Something clicked for me with those words. Surely, Father did not intend them — and I did not hear them — as an excuse to confirm myself in my lukewarmness with certain spiritual practices. However, they did help me to find clarity about something I’ve been struggling quietly with for quite some time. I have known since my conversion that my root fault is pride — but what I did not want to admit is that so many of my good spiritual practices have become poisoned by it, right at the heart of them, where charity should live.
How could I have been so naïve as to imagine that Satan would not use my past struggles with anxiety and obsessive compulsive tendencies to tear me away from growing in humility? This is what he has been doing from the beginning — prodding me along, urging me to get lost in an endless muddle of worthless thoughts about myself, followed by thoughts of everything I need to do to get out of an impossible cycle. And then, as his final blow, he made me ashamed. He assured me that if I admitted to this wicked tendency, my pride would be made even clearer to all. He taunted me, convinced me that two years should have been enough time to overcome those old, pathetic ways of thinking.
My plans for Lent have changed, and they have remained the same. I will be doing more — not too much, nothing to tempt me to glory in myself — but a little bit more. More importantly, though, I am asking God to help me place my focus in a different direction. Doing more is not the problem. Like most prideful souls, I am good at doing more. I thrive on goals, on difficult tasks, on deadlines and measurable progress. This attitude of control, left untempered, makes its way into the most minute details of my life, until it feels like performing rather than living. I am tired of letting Satan use this to hold me back — I am asking Our Lady, my Mother, for help.
No, this Lent, my biggest spiritual practice will be to do less. To offer to God those treasures I have hoarded up — writing projects, exercise programs, healthy eating habits, journal-writing, stacks of books read, rosaries prayed, Marian consecration meditations completed, Masses attended, intentions prayed for — and to entrust them to His care. To sit with God, to pray, and to not worry about all of the boxes I am not checking off. To let go of doing, to stop for more than a breath, to let the thoughts racing in my mind do their worst and to keep turning back to Christ with each distraction, even if it takes me one thousand tries. To give the Holy Ghost time to enkindle my heart with the fire of His love.
This Lent, I resolve to give up time. In exchange, I know that God will give me eternity.
Stefanie Nicholas is an unexpected Catholic convert from a (very lapsed) Greek Orthodox background. The history of the Crusades played a positive role in her faith journey, and she believes firmly that the Rosary will save the world. Readers can connect with her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @StefMNicholas.