Do You Have Regrets in Life? ‘Relax the Mandible,’ and Let God Wipe Away Your Tears
“The Christian who seeks to purify himself of his sin and to become holy with the help of God’s grace is not alone.” (CCC 1474)
“The strongest man is weak to his own conscience.” —G.K. Chesterton
I have an old ratty easy chair next to a bookcase, next to a small side table with a candle on it. I call it my brooding spot. Every morning, I shamble downstairs, grab a cup of coffee (if I remembered to set the Mr. Coffee the night before), and then settle into my brooding spot to, well, brood. Often, I just plop down and scowl at the world for a bit until the coffee perks me up. Eventually I’ll light the candle, say my morning prayers, and then reach for a missalette to see what the Lord has for me in the morning’s readings.
Right in front of me as I sit is another table — almost a credence table or a little home altar. There’s an icon of the Holy Spirit, a statue of the Blessed Mother, and a riot of holy cards at her feet. On the edge of that table facing me is a sticky note — a pink sticky note with Sharpie writing on it in all caps, not to be missed: “RELAX THE MANDIBLE!”
What’s that all about?
You see, I know from experience that if I’m stressed out about something at work or overwhelmed by family issues, financial or otherwise, the first place it’ll show up is my chin — that is, in the masseter muscle that controls the jawbone. Despite the lit candle and the open missalette, if I’m clenched of mouth, I’ll be clenched of spirit — my mind, preoccupied with anxiety and travails (real or imagined), won’t be able to give in to the brood. And so that little pink sticky note is a stark reminder to abandon myself totally to God in the moment. I see the note, I assess my jaw, and, if clenched, I slacken it with a sigh.
Now I’ve arrived in my brooding spot. Now I can attend to the Lord as I seek his voice in Scripture, spiritual reading and prayer.
Here’s the thing though: My brooding has taken a melancholy turn in my dotage. Formerly, the morning jaw-clench would be tied to immediate concerns — the needs and intentions of my wife and children, my friends, my coworkers; all the anxieties of the moment and the moments ahead. Recently, my a.m. musings seem to drift backward, and they often settle on events of my past tinged with compunction — not huge sins, not crimes, but countless lapses of judgement and character that I wish I could do over.
Parenting errors come to mind most readily — times I could’ve been more present to my young ones, but wasn’t; times I should’ve been more lenient and flexible with them, but stubbornly refused. The same goes for my marriage, of course, although the permanence of the vow means that I will have until death us do part to correct and improve on my spousal shortcomings. No such luck with my sons and daughters, I’m afraid. They’re growing up and moving on — which is the point, I know. Parents do well when they work themselves out of a job, yet there’s always a sense that it was a job that we could’ve done better. At least that’s the case for me.
But what really gnaws these days are memories of my own folks — my mom and dad who themselves did their best to love me and my siblings, to provide us with what we needed to launch our own lives, and who, despite their difficulties, managed to stay married (an accomplishment not to be downplayed in any age, but especially our own). As a dad myself now, I’m particularly burdened by how I mistreated my father — how I took him for granted toward the end of his life, how I brandished his struggles with alcohol as an excuse for keeping my distance. I should’ve gone to visit when he started to fail in the end; I certainly should’ve flown out to Colorado when he was received into the Church before his final days.
But no. I stayed put. “I’ve got a young family here to care for,” I convinced myself, smug in my rationalization. “I can’t go flitting off and leave them behind.”
Man, that hurts. Oh, how I wish I could have it to do over now.
It’s a hurt that calls to mind a favorite film: The 1951 version of “A Christmas Carol” starring Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge. I’ve been watching and re-watching this masterpiece for decades. It never wears out its welcome, and I always come away refreshed and inspired with every Yuletide viewing. Most of my family view this annual ritual as an odd quirk, which means I’ve taken in Sim’s performance many a Christmas Eve in solitude. The past several years, my son Nicholas has been joining me, although we have to turn down the volume when Marley’s ghost starts to scream — too freaky for Nick (and for me, too, to be honest).
My favorite scene is Scrooge’s post-conversion mirth toward the end of the movie, when he’s dancing around, bestowing guineas and good will hither and yon, and generally exulting in the gratuity of grace. “I don’t deserve to be so happy,” he says at one point after surprising Bob Cratchit with a raise. “I can’t help it,” he finally confesses, tossing his pen down and giving into his mirth, “I just can’t help it.”
Lately, there’s a different favorite scene occupying my thoughts and morning broods. It’s not in the original Dickens novel, but it’s a standout in the movie — a compelling glimpse of a soul wracked by remorse, and a scene I increasingly identify with. Scrooge, as a young man, is attending the bedside of his sister, Fan, who is near death following a traumatic labor and delivery. He’d come to depend on his sister’s unremitting love and devotion, and her passing fills him with rage — a rage he ultimately projects on Fan’s only child, Fred.
In the movie, you see the young Scrooge bolt from Fan’s death vigil in despair, while the hovering elder Scrooge, accompanied by the Ghost of Christmas Past, remains to observe the young mom’s unheeded final plea: “Ebenezer, brother, promise me you’ll take care of my boy.” The time-traveling Scrooge reacts with pain at this revelation. “Forgive me, Fan,” he sobs. “Forgive me.”
Those are the words that crowd my mind as I attempt to loosen my mandible while envisioning my filial failures. “Forgive me, dad,” I’ll murmur in imitation. “Please forgive me.”
And that goes for countless other regrettable episodes that flit about in my brain during my morning broods. I’m praying, I’m communing with God, and I can’t keep at bay the times I gave into anger with my family, or selfishness and sloth at work. “Forgive me, all,” comes the Scrooge-like cry. “Forgive me, forgive me!”
I trust that clemency from my dad and others who’ve died is a foregone conclusion — something that’s a matter of course for those luxuriating in the eternal wellsprings of grace (or on the way there). Yet, there are plenty still living whom I’ve harmed, and I’m conflicted by how to go about rectifying those wrongs: How could I possibly track them all down to apologize? And should I? It’s a plaguing reality that we can’t undo that which we now lament. No going back and giving select scenarios another shot; no real time travel, no do-overs, as Scrooge discovered. Remorse is a resin that clings and seals.
Yet, there is also redemption, and we see it at the end of “A Christmas Carol” when Scrooge makes amends with his estranged nephew. Having previously rejected Fred’s invitation to Christmas dinner, the rehabilitated Scrooge, fresh from his ghostly journeys, is determined to reconcile with the living proxy of his departed sister. A servant girl opens the door and is visibly taken aback by the old miser’s appearance. No matter — she’s a priestly stand-in, welcoming the recalcitrant and facilitating reunions. The girl accepts Scrooge’s hat and coat on the threshold and, as he hesitates to join the joyful throng in Fred’s drawing room, urges him on with a slight smile and nod. “Go ahead,” the girl’s subtle gestures signify. “You won’t be rebuffed; you will be received.”
And what a reception it is! Fred calls out his tentative, hopeful uncle, and wishes him warm welcome. “Uncle Ebenezer!” Fred exclaims, and then to his young bride, “My dear, look who it is!”
Scrooge approaches the young woman, whose marriage to Fred he’d vainly forbidden, and bows his head in shame. “Can you forgive a pig-headed old fool for having no eyes to see with, no ears to hear with, all these years?”
The beaming bride, a minor mediatrix, bestows the reconciliation Scrooge seeks. “Bless you, dear uncle,” she beams. “You’ve made Fred so happy.”
See that? No rehearsal of past wrongs; no drawn-out flagellations of guilt. Not even a clear articulation of forgiveness, but rather an assumption that it is an accomplished fact! Plus, it’s a forgiveness ratified in the midst of a boisterous gathering of likeminded souls. How could there be anything but reconciliation in such a setting? The host’s benevolence is buttressed by the sheer joviality of their reveling companions. Even if Fred were tempted to spite — even if Scrooge were to decide he’s not worthy — the pervasive cheer of the clamoring crowd would trump all.
That’s the way it is with us — the way it is in the Communion of Saints. We are surrounded, as it says in Hebrews, by a great cloud of witnesses — and they’re partying down! Like us, they have their share of shame, but it’s all behind them now. They’re too busy with the bustle of beatitude to worry about their past indiscretions, and they’re eager to see us join the seraphic shindig.
Led by Mary, the original Mediatrix of graces, the saints liberally unload the heavenly treasure of merit on us — as long as we’re prepared to receive it. “In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others,” the Catechism teaches us. “Recourse to the communion of saints lets the contrite sinner be more promptly and efficaciously purified of the punishments for sin” (CCC 1475). We go to confession to get rid of our sins, and we do penance to shed ourselves of their temporal trappings, but we can dissipate their odious residue more readily by allying ourselves with the host of heaven.
Just so — to my brooding! As I unwind my masseter and rest in God’s presence, I grin at the mess of holy cards strewn about the table in front of me. It’s like Fred’s eternal drawing room — the reveling redeemed, feasting and toasting and basking in the glow of grace. There’s Benedict and Francis — my friends! — and Teresa, Thérèse, and Thomas More. There’s Brother André, the porter, and John Paul, the pope, and Mary standing tall in their midst.
And — wait, could it be? A space, an opening for me? For you? Yes, Lord, fit us for heaven! Expurgate our pasts and make us saints — like our partying friends!
Hope to see you there.