The Only Mistake You Can Make
When we get this close to Holy Week, many Catholics are looking back over their efforts since Ash Wednesday and grading them “E” for “echhh.”
Maybe your Lent hasn't been very meaningful because you’ve just been slacking off, because Lent is hard. Maybe you just don’t feel like reining in even your little bad habits. Or maybe you could probably manage to change some physical habit, but the idea of facing God sincerely is just a little too much, and you’d just . . . rather not. You're not proud of it, but your plan is to keep your head down so as not to attract attention, and soon it will be Easter and you can eat candy and feel guilty, and then you’ll be safely back in ordinary time before you know it.
Not cool, Catholics. Not cool.
Or, maybe your Lent hasn't been very meaningful because you're crushing it -- on the outside. But what about on the inside? Strangely enough, Catholics who have been busy penitential bees for the last several weeks may be in exactly the same spot as the slackers, without realizing it. It's entirely possible to keep up a hectic schedule of fasting, almsgiving, good works, sacrifices, and devotions in a way that completely avoids actually placing ourselves in the presence of God.
Not cool either, Catholics. Not cool either.
Lent is about one thing, above all others: coming closer to God. Life is about one thing, above all others: coming closer to God. It's not possible to come closer to God unless we talk to Him, sincerely, every single day. One open-hearted sentence makes a world of difference, even if every other moment of your day is taken up with mundane things. It would be better to speak one open-hearted sentence to God than to say fifteen decades on your knees, if those fifteen decades are done to impress yourself, or to impress someone else, or to check "Lent" off your list, or for any other trivial reason you could concoct.
Fr. Robert Barron speaks of "the disorienting quality of real prayer," which he describes as the kind of experience that, like a great work of art or an encounter with true beauty, "break[s] us out of the prison of our self-absorption." He says, "We need the good — in one form or another — to burst through the carapace of our fearful self-regard."
Barron gives us the example of the publican in Luke 18:9-14, and how his prayer differs from the self-congratulatory prayer of the Pharisee:
This man realizes he is in the presence of a power that he cannot even in principle manipulate or control; and he signals with his body, accordingly, that he is positioned by this higher authority. Then he speaks with a simple eloquence: “he beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.'” Though it is articulate speech, proceeding from the mind and will of the publican, it is not language that confirms the independence and power of the speaker, just the contrary. It is more of a cry or a groan, an acknowledgement that he needs to receive something, this mysterious mercy for which he begs.
Simple as it may be, sincerity like this isn't always easy to achieve. That "carapice" Barron speaks of constantly renews itself. You can't just break through it once, in one glorious moment of truth, and then waft away on your pretty new wings that will carry you straight up to paradise. Conversion of heart is a long process, not a moment, and the effects of original sin come creeping back constantly, and have to be scrubbed away constantly, over and over again. But as Father Barron says, the real goal is disorienting ourselves from our self-imposed prison of self-regard, and re-orienting ourselves correctly: positioning ourselves in the proper relation to God.
And God isn't fussy! The smallest effort will be received by Him with joy. If the best we can do is tell God, "I know I'm not praying right. Please help," then that's a sincere prayer, too. The only real mistake you can make is to do nothing. Nothing is the one thing the devil is hoping for. Nothing is his stock in trade. Nothing is his dearest wish for you, forever.
So don't give it to him. Instead, give God something -- something sincere, no matter how brief or inarticulate. Have you made a sincere prayer today? If not, then stop and do it now! O God, be merciful to me, a sinner. That works. It works like you wouldn't believe, thanks be to God.