Imperfect Joy: On a Messy Lent and God’s Better Plan
by Alexa T. Dodd
This Lent, Joseph and I decided to really embrace the spirit of sacrifice by potty training our two-year-old. During the process—because it’s been quite the process—I’ve learned that our normally easy-going second child can be very strong-willed when he wants to be. I’ve also learned that, when it’s the fifth dirty underwear of the morning, the twentieth time asking Asher to please stop turning handwashing into wash-the-whole-bathroom-countertop, I’m much less patient than I’d like to be.
I definitely had expected potty training a second child to go more smoothly and, to be clear, I’m not an optimist. I usually plan for things to go poorly. Thankfully, the physical and emotional trials of the process did fit well into our Liturgical season, even if I also had a different plan for my Lent.
On Ash Wednesday, I had written out my plans for these forty days—what I was fasting from and what I was adding to my spiritual practice—and had discerned that I would focus on cultivating the virtue of joy this Lent. But, as we near the end of the season, I frequently find myself very short on what I tend to define as joy.
Maybe it’s the number of laundry loads, maybe it’s sicknesses that cancel our plans, the toll of housework and small children, the heartache from the suffering of friends and family and the world around us, but I often reach the end of the day with two primary feelings: exhaustion and guilt. Guilt at what I didn’t get done in a day, guilt for snapping at my kids, guilt for forgetting to pray, guilt over the myriad ways I fall short again and again, and even guilt that I don’t feel joyful.
The Catechism says that joy is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, “perfections that [He] forms in us as the first fruits of eternal glory” (1832). In other words, joy is a gift from God. While we can pray for it, we can’t exactly strong-arm our way into feeling it. But sometimes when I pray for joy, I think I am secretly imagining that God will infuse me with happy feelings that no amount of trial can deflate. I imagine I won’t be tempted to yell at my kids when they are climbing on the table, and I won’t feel a sting of frustration every time they interrupt me right in the middle of something. I imagine I won’t feel disgruntled when my husband works late, and I won’t feel annoyed at him for forgetting to put his clothes in the hamper. I imagine that I won’t have jealousies or insecurities or selfishness. In other words, I imagine that I will elude all temptations without the least bit of internal struggle, that I’ll sail through the day like Josh from Blue’s Clues and You, singing and laughing as I cater to the desires of my charges who lack the full capacity for reason (not including my husband, obviously).
But I know that joy is different from happiness, which is fleeting and subjective. I know that even Jesus was tempted. And I know that, because of Christ, suffering and holiness are never truly in opposition. If joy is one of the first fruits of eternal glory—that is, holiness—then it must not be in opposition to suffering either. I do think God is calling me to joy, but He is showing me—as He has shown me all my life—that joy can arise in the midst of suffering. As a good friend from a prayer group mentioned, sometimes God has a different plan for our Lent than we originally imagined. And as our priest said at the homily on Ash Wednesday, the point of Lent is not cold, hard perfection.
This Lent, I have seen how my inadequacies can be sources of suffering, not just my sinfulness but also my humanness. These limitations prevent me from being everything I want to be. But I have also been hearing God softly calling me to let go of that person I wish I was. I’ve heard him asking me to let go of my plans and surrender more fully to the trials of life as they come. This itself—accepting that I am imperfect—is also a source of pain. But it is a pain which, once surrendered, leaves room for the greatest joy of all: that Christ has already wrought my salvation. I cannot, need not, merit it on my own.
My task is only to live “from one moment to another,” as St. Therese of Lisieux says, trusting in His grace. I may fall, but—much like I’ve been telling my toddler every time he has an accident—I can try again. Learning to accept my own weaknesses also reminds me to accept my children as they are. Not only must I foster their strengths, but I must also recognize that what I may see as weaknesses—a strong will, or a tendency to get too caught up in what’s he doing—may in fact be part of a temperament that God will use for His greater glory. And there is great joy in that.