All our life is sown with tiny thorns that produce in our hearts a thousand involuntary movements of hatred, envy, fear, impatience, a thousand little fleeting disappointments, a thousand slight worries, a thousand disturbances that momentarily alter our peace of soul. For example, a word escapes that should not have been spoken. Or someone utters another that offends us. A child inconveniences you. A bore stops you. You don’t like the weather. Your work is not going according to plan. A piece of furniture is broken. A dress is torn. I know that these are not occasions for practicing very heroic virtue. But they would definitely be enough to acquire it if we really wished to.
—Saint Claude la Colombiére
Lent is fast approaching, and with it comes discussion of the merits or lack thereof of undertaking Lenten sacrifices or extra devotions and other forms of discipline. I explained to my five year old daughter last night that we won't be having sweets or desserts during Lent because Lent is a time for being sorry for our sins and getting ready for Easter. Afterwards, I realised that my explanation still didn't make a very clear connection between giving up desserts and getting ready for Easter. Since many adults don't seem to quite understand the connection either, it seems worth further thought.
There's really two things at play here: the question of the value of small actions--personal fasts and devotions--and the question of connecting these in a particular way to the season of Lent and preparation for Easter. In this post, I'd like to address the former.
Why do small actions and choices matter?
What is the use of giving up something like dessert? Dessert is not an immoral thing under most circumstances, and moderate enjoyment of physical pleasures can help us to be contented and pleasant to the people around us. Self-denial does not obviously or directly make us more loving or kind or generous to others, so what IS the point?
But perhaps that is the point. Self-denial takes away some of the comfortable props we lean on to help us feel well-disposed towards the world. Not all of them--and I don't recommend looking for a Lenten discipline that will leave you thoroughly irritable and out of sorts with everyone around you!--but removing just one or two small buffers can test our charity and goodwill in a real, though small way.
Perhaps that glass of wine at dinner gives the world just enough comfortable glow to make it easy to resist micro-managing how your children do their evening chores. Maybe you're in the habit of popping into the pantry for a square of chocolate whenever your spouse repeats some soundbite that makes you want to roll your eyes. Perhaps you shop online when your busy schedule leaves you feeling frayed, and looking forward to the resulting packages in the mail helps you face your workday cheerfully.
None of these things are bad in themselves, and as you can see, they can all be used in ways that help us live full and good lives.
However, there is more to virtue than arranging our lives so that they are full of comforting rewards and distractions from temptations to anger or sin. Our small challenges can, as St. Claude reminded us, be the means by which we acquire heroic virtue, even if there is nothing especially heroic in the moment about biting your tongue against a sarcastic reply to a coworker or quelling your impatience when returning a small child to bed for the umpteenth time.
The choices we make when we encounter life's tiny thorns are important because they are the means by which we form our characters. To use psychological language, these choices help to mold our affective responses, to change our first, interior responses to temptation.
It's an important lesson, a protection against scrupulosity, to know that we are not responsible in the moment for an involuntary affective response. The flash of anger at being interrupted that I experience when one of my children barges into my office while I'm writing isn't virtuous, but neither is it sinful. It simply is. What I choose to do with that feeling, whether I act on it or let it drain away, can be a moral choice, but the initial feeling wasn't chosen and I am not culpable for it.
On the other hand, to say we are not culpable for our affective responses isn't to say that we have no part to play or responsibility for shaping and training our affective responses over the long term, and how we face the small temptations and aggravations of life has a lot to do with what kind of person we become.
The practice of a Lenten discipline isn't about rejecting the good gifts of Creation. There's nothing innately bad about good food or entertainment or diversions. But choosing to set them aside for a time allows us to test our characters and see who we are becoming.
My middle child is taking a short water safety course that is designed to teach children how to survive if stranded in deep water by a boating accident or mistake in judgement. The program is called "Swim to Survive" and, although the intention is to get the children to where they would be able to swim to shore or stay alive for hours in the water under difficult conditions, obviously the instructors don't teach survival skills by dumping a bunch of 9-year-olds in the middle of a lake to sink or swim.
Instead, they teach them pieces of the skills they need, using repetition to grind survival skills into their heads. They practice heat-preserving flotation techniques in and out of life-jackets while in shallow water. They practice treading water near the dock. They have the children swim short distances at first, and then longer ones, zeroing in on reducing the kinds of bad habits that will prematurely tire a swimmer, like splashing feet and arms out of the water.
None of those children is doing anything extraordinary during any 30 minute session. But by setting aside their flotation devices and water toys for a time, they may acquire responses and skills to survive in an extraordinary circumstance sometime in the future.
By setting aside some of the small material comforts that make life easier and more pleasant for a time and leaning instead on God's graces, may we also acquire heroic virtue against any extraordinary challenges the future might hold.
Image Credit Petr Kratochvil, via publicdomainpictures.net