Thirty minutes from now I will stop working on this article and, with that strange combination of eagerness and resignation that animates mothers around the globe, prepare to pick-up my children from school. Forty minutes from now, one of my children will grab their forehead, let out a low moan, and admit to forgetting their social studies/math/vocabulary book in the classroom. You heard me say “eagerness and resignation,” right? Anyway, none of this is remarkable. I always have to pull myself away from writing, and, at least one of my children always forgets something. What is going to make this day remarkable, however, will be my response. Instead of unleashing a verbal attack on the forgetful child, I am determined to say, in as friendly and understanding a voice as possible, “It seems you forgot one of your books. Tell me what books you did remember.”
That ought to knock their socks off, because my children identify me in two ways: by my ubiquitous flip-flops, and by my shrill and empty threats. I imagine we’ll all just stare at each other for a second–the children casting covert looks at my feet to make sure it’s really me. And then, once the shock has passed, the surprised child might smile timidly and offer a solution to his or her problem.
But it’s not the solution I’m really interested in. One missed math assignment (or even two or three) in the course of a fifth grade year won’t have a disastrous effect on my child. My constant over-reacting to such mistakes, however, might. So, instead, it is my plan to impart to my children this Lent, a happier understanding of God’s merciful love for them.
This came to me on Ash Wednesday when I responded to Monsignor Gonzales’ “May the Lord be with you” with a sincere but inaccurate “and also with your spirit.” “Not again!” I groaned. Since the inception of the new responses, I haven’t uttered a single one entirely correctly. If I remember that God is the maker of all things visible and invisible, it is an absolute certainty that I will forget his church is now holy. And while I’ve almost managed to get God entering under my roof, it is only with the acknowledgment that I am not worthy. My soul, it seems, is pleading the fifth. In each case, with each new response, I either begin correctly and end falsely, or the other way around.
But these mistakes are so small, so unintentional, and so ultimately unimportant, that they have had the happy effect of raising my awareness of the much more significant mistakes I make everyday. My dutiful little conscience is using this Lent to point out the difference between serious sins and thoughtless mistakes. “It is right to give him thanks and praise” I mumble, and my conscience responds: “That’s what we call a ‘verbal slip.'” “Screaming at my son George to find his @*#! shoes, is a ‘verbal attack.'” Indeed.
And really, is misplacing one’s shoes that much worse than misplacing one’s words? If God unleashed his full wrath on me every time I forgot something (laundry detergent, paper towels, soy sauce) at the grocery store, I’d be a mere pile of ashes. Instead, God not only looks the other way, but when I do commit serious sins (and repent), he shows me the greatest mercy of all–his love.
After all, one thing that hasn’t changed is that “The greatest of these is Love.” And if I don’t do a better job of reflecting God’s merciful love to my children, and thereby strengthening their relationship with him, it will be nothing short of a tragedy. And it will most certainly be: “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”