Once again we enter the season of penance. And the question is not what affect our little acts of self-denial — and, let’s face it, most of them are little — have on our lives during Lent but what remains when Easter comes. Unfortunately, for many of us our Lenten penance is akin to dieting; after Easter we are back to our old ways. Our efforts are cyclical, leading to no permanent change.
"Athletes deny themselves all sorts of things," wrote St. Paul (1 Cor 9:25-27). "They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified." So as St. Paul counsels, the finish line is not Easter but the end of our earthly journey.
Regardless of whether goals are short term or long term, people have always felt the need to discipline and master their bodies. One way is by self-punishment. There is a strong penitential tradition in Hispanic culture. Juan de Onate, who led the first Spanish expedition of colonists to New Mexico in 1598, scourged himself.
When I was a boy growing up in a remote community in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the Society of Our Lord Jesus the Nazarene had rituals re-enacting the crucifixion, including scourging. That penitential spirit lives on.
In the 1980s, I twice participated in pilgrimages for vocations to Chimayo, a New Mexico shrine famed for its healing powers. Men and women, from ages 10 to 70, walked 100 miles in five days from four directions. After the first day, the feet of many pilgrims were raw with blisters. But no one dropped out.
But there is another way to master our bodies, hearts and minds: by accepting the trials that life deals us.
In an issue of U.S. Catholic, Leslie Scanlon relates the experience of Father Paul Scaglione, director of the Office of Pastoral Care for the Diocese of Louisville. After his mother, then 47 years old, was paralyzed by a virus, he spent seven years praying that she be able to stand up and walk. But she finally told him: "I’ve been praying for the wrong thing. … God wants me to understand he is with me in my life right now, whether I walk or not." She remained paralyzed until her death at 81.
Accepting our limitations and the pain we suffer, sometimes from morning until night, is a particular challenge for us seniors. At the same time, we are still not exempt from duty and responsibility.
Recently, my 19-year-old granddaughter asked me to give her a ride twice a week to an evening class in her college, a 40-mile roundtrip each time. The other grandfather takes her the other two days. An uncle picks her up every night after the class ends. Even though it is difficult, always dreading icy roads and snowy days, I could not say no.
My granddaughter and I have great conversations on the way. And as I reflect on the difficulty of this chore, I think it is better to have demands than to be forgotten.
The local paper recently carried a story about a 78-year-old woman who lived alone in Chappaqua, a nearby village in Westchester County, New York. She died at home in August and her body was not discovered until recently, six months later.
Let’s count our blessings.
Sandoval is a columnist for Catholic News Service.