Tuesday, April 29, 2003


I have, for a couple of months now, been engaging in a very small but regular penitential act for the first time in my life. I'm Irish enough (read: "superstitious enough") to think that I can tell you I am doing "an act" without naming that act and still preserve the merit in it, but that telling you what I am doing will destroy its value. So you'll just have to trust me when I say it is minor.

In spite of that, I have found that it is hard enough to do that I require an internal dialogue each week to keep it going, which I take to be a good sign about my choice of actions, but not so hard that the dialogue results in failure. (It is also flexible enough to allow for an occasional modification when keeping to it would affect a third party, or require me to perform a "naming call" and--shudder!--describe it to them.)

I undertook it principally as a free gift: an offering up of something minor but important to me, in penance for my own sins and for the sins of those on whose behalf I have undertaken to pray. I did it in the hope of receiving no earthly benefit, and the grim realization that it promised little heavenly reward, its nature being so insignificant.*

So it is with not a little surprise that I report a result or benefit that is wholly unexpected. Having chosen freely and without obligation to offer something of myself to God in a more disinterested manner than is my usual standard, I find myself increasingly unwilling to surrender to, and more able to resist, certain vices that are entirely unrelated to the penance. Most of the virtue I have practiced in my life has been of the sulking, obligatory, minimalist sort practiced by the conscript, the one who unsuccesfully tried to get his draft board to rate him 4-F. But now, one tiny and seemingly insignifcant but wholly voluntary act has for the first time shown me that duty need not be unpleasant. Patton once said that he wouldn't fall back from a position because he didn't like paying for the same ground twice, and I finally begin to glimpse what he meant.

(*Don't pester me with arguments about the nature of Grace, and the fact that we cannot earn it at all. You know what I mean, Tom. I could just as easily cast the phrasing above as talking about earning indulgences, but then you would only have launched into the nature of those. )

UPDATE: The last remark in parentheses sounds angry and annoyed, when it was intended to be light-hearted and humorous. I guess I shouldn't try to be lighthearted and humorous after writing a blistering reply to an obnoxious comment. Sorry, Tom, if the tone conveyed the opposite of the intention there.


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