by Theresa Notare
April 2, 1999
I will admit it--I've had an impossible Lent! I usually like to spend my Lent in a somewhat "recollected" way, quietly going about my work ever mindful of the Lord's presence. Not so this year. Lent has been everything but recollected! I've had too many projects which I had started only to stop and begin something else; too many public events to oversee, too many phone calls to return while others kept coming in; and way too much socializing--as in "it's so and so's retirement party, you have to come!" I have also failed miserably in keeping all of my many Lenten promises. I've skimped on my daily prayer time. I haven't turned off the TV set the way I had wanted to. I did eat those desserts when I could have made a small sacrifice. Amidst this insanity, the temptation to become frozen in the face of the enormity of my work has become even more real. Think of it--I am part of those who are trying to help other Catholics accept the Church's teachings on chastity and birth control. Sometimes I think I'm spitting into the wind!
Nightmares abound in this scenario. Picture this, David Letterman interviews me and says before all America: "So, what do you do for a living?" "Well, I am responsible for helping Catholics reject birth control and practice chastity." Letterman, with a smirk on his face: "So, how successful are you?" "Well," (pause) "I'd say, not too successful." Next scene: Me looking like a bag lady, out on the street surrounded by my files, with no where to go. Result: wake up screaming.
So why am I revealing the chaos and insecurities of my overworked inner self? Because I really do have an important thought to share which was given to me by two servants of God in the last week of Lent. The first, a priest in Confession. "You must look to Jesus"; and the second, a retired diocesan director of Marriage and Family Life, "Be like the child with the seven loaves and five fishes--bring it all to Jesus."
Did you notice in the above scenario that all my ravings had everything to do with me? I was the principle focus of all my work. I was going to force myself to be recollected. I was going to make myself live ascetically. I am responsible for getting Catholics to accept the Church's teachings on chastity and birth control. Without knowing it, I committed the number one mistake of people in ministry, I shifted my focus from Jesus to me and my abilities. That is a recipe for disaster. It can only lead to frustration, further temptations, and failure.
The utter reality and power of that simple message, "You must look to Jesus," must never be taken for granted by Christians. All of us can get into lots of trouble when we lose sight of our Lord, especially those who labor publicly in the Church. It is true that we must do our part to contribute to the good, to strive against our weaknesses, to come up with strong ideas to help ourselves and others grow in faith. But without our primary focus on Jesus, we too easily can fall into radical self-reliance, pushing our own agendas, or even worse, worshiping ourselves.
This last point is an especially subtle seduction for anyone who comes forward to work in the Church. Priests, deacons, religious, and lay ministers are the ones who reportedly take the faith seriously. After all, they have given their lives in service to the Church. They, we, are the ones who are already doing a host of spiritual things that we hope will help us grow in holiness and help us do God's will. With this kind of life, it can easily lead us to think that "we are doing just fine." When we add the fact that we are the ones who "program" the faith, we can also be set up for a "works righteousness" mentality where action becomes the be all and end all. Take for example the typical person who coordinates Natural Family Planning services in a diocese. The coordinator schedules NFP classes throughout the diocese, develops continuing education for teachers, clergy, doctors, and clients. She trains couples to witness in marriage preparation programs and creates and implements chastity education for adolescents. The diocesan NFP coordinator may also find herself writing articles for the diocesan paper, doing budget proposals, playing supervisor to a novice NFP teacher, and advising the bishop on policy matters relating to infertility/fertility. That's a lot of activity! Added to this ecclesiastical programming, the fact that the NFP coordinator is usually married with her own family, one wonders how she could do it all. And this is just my point: she can't, but God can.
Like the child who had nothing more than seven loaves of bread and five fishes, we must take our gifts and good intentions to the Lord. He is the one who will get it all done--and not necessarily in the manner we had prescribed (human plans and programs can only go so far). It is true that we need to organize ourselves when our lives are that busy, to be aware of our abilities and limitations. We should strive to be disciplined, mindful of our responsibilities, both public and private. And it is not a crime to do our best. None of that is misguided; however, virtue dies when we lose sight of Jesus. It is only Christ who can take our limited time, talent, and energy and do marvelous things--if only we would lay it all down before Him!
The asceticisms of Lent should have provided us with the means to move us out of ourselves, to turn our attention back to Christ. If they didn't, all is still not lost. Jesus is the risen Lord! For all of you backsliders, those who like me somehow lost Lent, let's regroup with Christ's help. He is the structure from which we need to operate. Invited or not, He is always present to us. Let us pray to live the Easter season with our eyes fixed upon the Lord. "Here we are Lord Jesus, with our basket full of talents, abilities, weaknesses, and work--bless us and do what you will with it all!"
Theresa Notare is the Special Assistant of the Diocesan Development Program for Natural Family Planning, a program of the Bishops' Committee for Pro-Life Activities.