Involuntary Penance

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"Involuntary Penance" by Michelle Hamel (CatholicMom.com)

Image credit: Pixabay.com (2017), CC0/PD

We have arrived at Holy Week! The end of Lent is getting very close. Just a little longer and we will be able to stop all of those voluntary penances. What do I mean by voluntary penances? Voluntary penances are all those sacrifices we chose to make on Ash Wednesday.

Lent can be a challenging season. Have you found that this season of the liturgical year is filled with challenges and changes that were completely unexpected on a day to day basis? I don’t know about you, but each Lent there appears to be “extra opportunities” that God sends our way to help us stretch and grow … whether we wanted to stretch and grow or not! I call these “extra opportunities” Involuntary Penances.

My definition of Involuntary Penances are those trials that God sends our way giving us all sorts of opportunities to work on lots of different virtues that we never had any intention of working on never realized we were going to have to work on during Lent.

We may have chosen to give up desserts, or chocolate, or wine, but God often has a different idea about what He wants us to work on. He might want us to work on patience, trust, humility, or any combination of virtues.

God creates our own personalized Lenten journeys!

Involuntary penances don’t really surprise me anymore, but thinking about what God might send each year doesn’t usually make me approach Lent with joyful anticipation! I generally slide into Lent amid feelings of dread and fearing all of the involuntary penances God will be sending my way.

But not this year …

This year, I had a very different perspective as Lent approached. I actually had an internal desire to spend these 40 days with God and, by working on my heart and mind, enter into a time of closeness with Him. I felt like this Lent would be an opportunity for some inner transformation, and I actually felt some excitement to see what might come.

Sometimes people around me seem surprised that life seems extra challenging this time of year. My response: #Lent! I certainly had lots of Involuntary Penances to offer up this Lent, more than would fit in the length of this post(!), but I will share just a few.

About halfway through Lent, I had a three day stretch that brought lots of opportunities to work through some Lenten Involuntary Penances. One morning, I got woken up at 4 AM by our dog vomiting in her crate. I took her out, cleaned off her paws, and let her outside. (Full disclosure: I did not clean out the crate, which I know cost me some grace. But in all fairness, I never wanted a dog and I didn’t actually wake my husband up to clean it. I just “saved” it for him. You could say I was just sharing the grace …) Anyway … I had to clean the kitchen floor at 5 AM because of the same vomiting dog. She kept vomiting, so we had to bring her to the vet where she got a couple of shots and an xray that didn’t rule out a blockage. Then we had to worry about her having a blockage and needing expensive surgery … overnight while we waited to see if whatever was “stuck” would come out on its own. (Thank God it did! Our dog, Josie, had eaten a bad combination of paper towels and a sock!) #Lent

The same day as the doggie trouble, we had our gas meter replaced as part of regular maintenance by the gas company. That night I smelled gas outside the house and the gas company had to send someone to fix the leak on the new meter. Worrying about your house blowing up right before bedtime isn’t the best recipe for a night of restful sleep! The next day, the meter seemed fine. But the second morning, I went outside to head to work and I smelled gas again! I called from work and the gas company sent yet another person to check on the new meter. He fixed the leak and said he covered the meter in soap and there were no other bubbles, which would indicate a leak, so we should be good now. Let’s hope so! #Lent

My 96 year old grandfather was having some health issues the same morning as the second gas-meter repair, and my parents were on a cruise so I was in charge. He needed some extra help and some TLC. #Lent

I know people say that things happen in threes, and that was certainly the case that particular morning when someone broke my husband’s car mirror when it was parked outside a patient’s house. And they didn’t stop to leave a note! #Lent

And that was just three days’ worth of Involuntary Penances this Lent!

It wasn’t just external annoyances and struggles that I had an opportunity to offer up this Lent. God also sent opportunities to strengthen my marriage, opportunities I wasn’t expecting.

My husband, Jay, and I are blessed to have a really great marriage. But since there’s only true perfection in Heaven, there are lots of times that our broken humanity shines through. This Lent, God showed us that we don’t always do the best job communicating with each other.

A little back story: Twenty years ago we had our home enthroned to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The process involves having a large statue of Mary brought to our home for a week by our local Men of the Sacred Heart Group, followed by a large statue of Jesus for a week, and culminating with a priest coming and blessing our entire home. Jay felt inspired to have this process done again since we’ve done several additions to our home and family in 20 years (Three home additions and five more children since that first enthronement). He very enthusiastically spoke to one of our parishioners who is part of the Sacred Heart group and set it up for the next week.

I knew that Jay was excited to do this, but my own feelings of the process didn’t exactly match. Jay didn’t seem to remember that a group from the men of the Sacred Heart brought each of the statues and attended the blessing. When they bring each statue, one of them gives a little talk on the history of the group and the process and prays the Rosary (#needforhospitality). Jay also didn’t consider the amount of cleaning and organizing that would have to happen if a priest was going to bless every.single.room in our home. (Seriously, did all my fellow moms just shudder reading this?!)

I did mention my concerns a couple of times to Jay, but his memory of the process didn’t include the same insecurities and worries as mine. He kept saying it wasn’t going to be a big deal and should only last a half hour. I tried really hard to embrace the sacrifice. I even cleaned our room thoroughly! I even tried to console myself that maybe the thought of our priest seeing his room would finally get one of my sons, who shall remain nameless, to tackle his mess!

The day of “Mary’s arrival” that Jay had scheduled was just very busy (one of the reasons I am usually in charge of scheduling things). We spent the morning and early afternoon driving to our niece’s birthday party an hour and a half away. We got home an hour before four men arrived with the statue — two men we knew and two we’d never met. We listened to an hour long talk followed by a Rosary, consecration prayer, singing, and sharing a cheese and cracker plate. When they left two hours later, I was feeling overwhelmed and a little angry. It was way more than a half hour, I knew that the process was more involved than Jay kept telling me it was, and I just felt uncomfortable about the whole thing.

Jay and I had multiple discussions over the next couple of days about the enthronement. One of our close family friends helped Jay to see that, while he certainly listens when I talk, he doesn’t always hear me.

The miscommunication wasn’t just Jay’s fault either. God also showed me that sometimes I have a lack of true openness in revealing my heart to my husband. In particular, I have a hard time sharing my feelings when he feels differently about a subject and is looking forward to something. I don’t do a good job discerning when I need to assert my feelings on an issue and when I need to just offer it up. I feel guilty when I put my own feelings/wants in front of my husband or children’s feelings and wants. But, when I offer up something that I know in my heart I really don’t want to do, frustration and resentment can take root. And that is not a healthy place to be emotionally.

While the “Enthonement debacle” made things uncomfortable for a couple days, in the end it really brought more grace into my marriage and helped Jay and me to grow closer as a couple. I know that God will give us lots more opportunities to practice communication. Hopefully, this particular Involuntary Penance will be bearing much fruit!

Have you experienced Involuntary Penances this Lent? How was your response? Did you use these struggles to lean in closer to God and work on the issue(s) He was trying to bring to light? Why or why not?


Copyright 2019 Michelle Hamel

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About Author

Michelle Hamel is a cradle Catholic who tries to keep up with the chaos of raising eight kids with her high-school sweetheart. She spends her days trying to make sure everyone feels loved and squeezing in Adoration visits. She is especially grateful for her bonus babies as she navigates the lands of teenagers and young adults. Michelle blogs about faith and family at Normal Chaos.

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