It's the annual countdown to Lent and some of us young Catholics are brainstorming ways to make this year's Lenten season worthwhile. Will it be the usual no sweets and no social media til Easter deal, or has our troubled world inspired us to go "all out" in penances? After all, giving up sweets is too easy. Let's go the extra mile and live off one meal a day: bread and water, plain oatmeal, or salads without condiments for a whole forty days! Maybe this will mean walking to mass daily in the cold, with the battle cry "no excuses!" ringing through our minds. While this is all good and noble, there is one downside: the possibility of damaging our health in the process. For some of us, self abuse comes easier than self compassion... meanwhile we rush to help our neighbor! So for this year's Lenten write-up, I will discuss being rational with penances. Of course, this is in no way an encouragement to slack off or to be mediocre. Every Lent, we ought to contemplate the mercy of God and be merciful to our neighbors by giving alms and donating our time, but we must also remember who our closest neighbor is: ourselves.
As someone with empathetic qualities, I find it difficult to be selfish. Anyone who thinks otherwise has it twisted. Ever since my compassion reawakened, when seeing someone in need, my first impulse is to act on the other person's behalf. To deny that takes effort. At times reason must, poetically speaking, restrain compassion from giving more than what is necessary. This rational intervention may look like "selfishness" on the outside, but it is a necesary self-preserving mechanism. Without it, we'd be drained, used, incapacitated to the point of not being able to give any more. It's to protect compassion. At times, our consciences (this is the case with sick "scrupulous" consciences) tells our compassion "no" when trying to help ourselves, registering the self as somehow "unworthy". Why is this so? Because as our own closest neighbor, nobody other than God knows our faults, flaws, and sins better than ourselves. In this scrupulousity, believe it or not, lies a certain pride. We wish to condemn ourselves rather than let God. However, while we live we have as many second chances as our neighbors do, so we shouldn't deny ourselves mercy, especially not the mercy of God.
A sick conscience may consider compassion towards the self as "selfishness", and any basic self care as "indulgent". It's bizarre when I really think about it. It's almost masochistic, that voice in the back of the mind that pushes us to continue with our fasting even when weight has dropped below what is healthy, that accuses us of laziness if we're not putting our health and safety on the line, being the noble 21st-century martyr God supposedly wants us to be. At this, we must run a reality check and let compassion put the pride of perfectionism in its place. Our bodies are gifts from God and we must take reasonable care of them. Imagine this from another perspective. If somebody else was abusing her own body in the same way, would you encourage it or not? If not, maybe you shouldn't do it either. Finally, is this truly motivated by penance and a love of God (e.g. to suffer like Christ) or is it coming from a place of self-loathing and you are using Lent as an "excuse" to inflict harm upon yourself?
We must keep in mind that while Lent is a good time for self-reflection and eliminating bad habits and self indulgence, it is also a time to add holy habits into our daily routines. If you are still recovering physically from excessive fasting during Advent, maybe living off one meal a day again is not the right Lenten activity for you. For someone in need of temperance, that may be the case. Instead, make an effort to pray your rosary daily, add fifteen minutes of spiritual reading, or designate a day out of the week to go to an extra mass. Maybe our penance can be to complain less (no, this write-up is advising, not complaining!). Say a brief prayer when tempted to do so. Maybe your goal should be to overcome a bad temper or practice humility. Our Lenten goals should not be about making our bodies weaker but about making our souls stronger.
To conclude, it is not selfish to show compassion towards ourselves. We are not weak for knowing our limits. It's a sick conscience that mistakes prudence for a weak will, mistakes our own friends' advice as "temptations" and mistakes the instinct of self preservation as selfishness. (Perhaps trauma and poor religious instruction can also twist the conscience in that way.)We cannot give what we do not have and if we damage our own health, we lack the strength to go out and help others. Saving ourselves before using that energy on someone else isn't selfish because we can't do corporal acts of mercy, stay alert at mass, or perform our duties of state when we've passed out from fasting for days. Additionally, how deep is our compassion for our neighbors if we fix others but never invest a minute to fix ourselves? Remember, the greatest commandament is to love God with our whole heart and to love our neighbor as ourselves. If we cannot show compassion and mercy towards our closest neighbors, we're doing something wrong!