Tuesday, February 23, 2010

To Tell or Not to Tell?

A few years ago, I was part of a prayer group for moms.  We met weekly to talk about the upcoming Scripture readings for Sunday Mass, discuss our faith, and support one another in our vocation. One year, as Lent approached, someone (it could, ahem,  have been me -- I can be both talkative and nosy) asked, "Do we want to talk about Lenten sacrifices?"

Another mom objected, saying that she'd always heard that one should keep all sacrifices a secret or they weren't true sacrifices. I had never heard it put quite that way. I suddenly felt overly talkative and really nosy.

But I understood her point. Certainly, on Ash Wednesday we hear:

“When you fast,
do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.
They neglect their appearance,
so that they may appear to others to be fasting.
Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you fast,
anoint your head and wash your face,
so that you may not appear to be fasting,
except to your Father who is hidden.
And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.” (Matthew 6: 16-18)

Since this advice comes straight from The Top, I take it seriously. I've never wanted to perfect the gloomy hypocrite pose (though I'm sure I stumble regularly into gloomy hypocrisy without even trying.) I know that our Lord doesn't want us making meaningless sacrifices that appear to be for His sake but are in reality for the sake of earthly kudos. But I also wanted my friend to understand that I didn't advocate sharing Lenten ideas in order to sing our own praises. I didn't want us saying, "Hey, look at all the really big stuff I'm giving up for Lent! I am so good at this sacrifice stuff!"

Rather, I think that on the human level, it can be quite helpful to share ideas and choices, for a few reasons:

1. Sometimes, we fear that we won't do very well with our chosen fast. Telling a few friends about what we're giving up can help us to feel more accountable.  While it's true that we're really accountable to God, it's also true that having a friend say, "How are you doing with that?" or having them pray for us or offer encouragement can be a good thing.

2. New ideas.  The other day, I was telling my daughters about the year I gave up wearing jewelry (other than my wedding ring, scapular, and crucifix.)  They were so interested! They asked how it made me feel, and did my pierced ears feel bare and plain? Did I miss it? What did it have to do with my relationship with God? What did I do when Lent ended? I have also gotten great ideas from other people through conversations like this.

3. Help with the kids.  Moms love to get, give and share advice and ideas. Swapping stories about what works and what doesn't is as much a part of being a mom as a strong stomach is. 

4. Have you ever had the feeling that you're taking on something too big? Too easy? It can be helpful to talk that over with trusted friends.  Sifting through ideas and experiences can lead to new insights.  So can praying for each other that throughout Lent our sacrifices -- however large or small -- will bear fruit.

I suppose that sharing some details of our fasts could turn into a temptation to spiritual pride, but I've always found the opposite -- sharing details is humbling, because as soon as I voice my intentions, I know a couple of things: that I am pitifully weak, that I'm spoiled, pampered and overfed, and that I need God in order to accomplish my goals, which I know that I am only truly accomplishing through and with Him.

All that said, I have to admit that I know there is also enormous benefit in hidden sacrifices. Silence can help us to pursue good works without counting the cost to ourselves. It can keep us from grumbling. Silent sacrifices, hidden from the world, are not hidden from our Father, Who knows when we succeed and when we fail, when we're trying and when we're not, what is too hard, what is too easy, and what is just right.

Still, it would be hard for me to stay silent about everything.  Depending on what I've given up in a given year, there are situations in which those around me would suspect: "Obviously she gave up chocolate, but the silly girl won't come out and tell us that!"  Honestly, in a case like that, I'd rather just say it as have you tempt me with something that is rich and dark and will lead to me embarrassing myself by muttering bitterly about a major chunk of the liturgical year.

But, that's not really always true either. This year, I gave up something that led Atticus to say, "Oh, I'll just give that up, too, and then you won't have to be around it," but I didn't want him to do that.  Sometimes, I think I need to relearn that I can indeed be sitting right next to the thing I shouldn't have, and that, too, is okay.  So, tempt away.  I'll see your temptation and raise you God's grace. 

Anyway, what I have finally settled into over these last few years is a combination of approaches. There is usually some "big" thing, a difficult or challenging thing that I choose to give up. And then there are some other fasts, too, "smaller" things, sprinkled in here and there. Some of them I talk about, and some I keep to myself.

It's the right balance for me -- I can seek support, advice and prayers as needed. I can be nosy and ask my friends what they're doing, if they feel like talking about it. But I also share sacred secrets with my Father in Heaven, and sometimes it's lovely to know that He knows me as no one else does.


Thou Art Jules said...

I think sharing probably gives you ideas as well and it's always helpful to hear yourself say something outloud!

Suz said...

I'll see your temptation and raise you God's grace.

Love that line!

I think accountability helps, and also it help people who haven't thought about it much see the possibilities for their own life.

Jennifer said...

I do the same thing. A more public, trivial sacrifice, so to speak, and a more private one. I agree that it is humbling to share your sacrifice. To 'fess up to being weak and flawed. I think that is helpful sometimes. Great post Karen.

Cathy said...

I agree...somethings are ok and helpful to share (like times when you may be guiding a new Catholic, or children who need good ideas), and others are best kept between you and God (like personal obstacles in obtaining virtue that you are trying to overcome). Here's my question, though. We know we don't want to be as the Pharisees and gloat about how great we are and be all "oh look at me and what I am giving up for Christ this Lent!" But, what do you do when you are in a situation that is more prudent to just break your penance for the sake of the situation. Obviously I'm not talking about compromising your faith or something like that, but my family and I were at a birthday celebration this past weekend (for a friend who turned 30). It was not Sunday. And they had cake...not to give anything away, but let's just say for the sake of argument that my husband and I are avoiding sweets this Lent ;). Perhaps he told me quietly, while they were passing out the cake, that it would probably be polite to just eat a small piece in honor of the birthday boy instead of taking a pass. So, that is sometimes my dilemma...do I stick up for my fast in little situations like this and run the risk of boasting (because sometimes a polite 'no thank you' doesn't just stop there - there are questions and in the end, you are forced to reveal the sacrifice - because that has happened to me as well), or is it more prudent to just have a little piece and then offer up something else in it's place so that you can stay out of the lime light, so to speak? Just curious about your opinion there...

Karen E. said...

I think that's a great question, Cathy. For me, it depends on the situation. If the entire group was made up of Catholics, I would probably just go ahead and say "no, thank you" -- surely some in such a group have given up sweets, while others haven't. On the other hand, if I didn't know everyone, or it was a mixed group, I might also do the "just be polite" thing and give up something else that day. In the end, I guess it's a matter of quick, on-the-spot discernment: depending on the group, which course of action is the best witness while also staying true to my faith? And, not to get scrupulous, but I personally love sweets enough that I ask myself if I'm falling back on politeness just to get that piece of cake. It would probably depend on what kind of frosting it had. :)
Anyway, bottom line for me -- sometimes the answer would be to say no, but I agree with you that there are times when politeness is also a great witness.

Cathy LeBlanc said...

Good points Karen. I guess being Catholic is not as black and white as we'd like to think! Every situation warrents discernment. But, I guess that's the way God designed it...so that we can turn to him in EVERY situation for guidance =) What a wise Father we have!


Julie said...

Karen, I had a conversation last week with someone about this very topic. I had sent an email out to a bunch of my Catholic friends asking them to check out my Ash Wednesday post on my blog and for them to post a comment on what they were giving up. An elderly friend from my church emailed and said she couldn't possibly tell me what she was giving up because she would lose "merit" for it. I just shook my head. It would have been better for her to not emailed at all rather than say something like that. She missed the meaning behind my asking which was exactly what you are talking about in your post. By the way I linked to your blog in that post about your preparing for Lent post from last week. But I don't think very many people saw it. Only two bothered to post anything at all. Oh well, I enjoy writing it even if I'm talking to myself. Haha

Karen E. said...

Hi, Cathy -- yes, I think the voluntary stuff requires regular discernment. There's plenty that is b/w about Catholicism, but also much within personal spirituality that is not.

Hi, Julie -- I'm sure she probably meant merit in the traditional sense, and was trying to avoid being pharisaical, but I agree that maybe her thoughts could have been conveyed with a little more charity. :) You were trying to charitably attempt to help others with the info.

Barb, sfo said...

I think it's very helpful to be able to share the struggles behind the sacrifices. And hearing what others have given up, or are adding on, for Lent gives me good ideas for the future.