The Lent of Limitations

I am tired. At this moment, I would like nothing more than to crawl into bed and grab a few more hours of sleep, but I can’t. I work the graveyard shift tonight, so I intentionally crawled out of bed at 4:30 a.m. with the hope that rising early will enable me to take a nap before heading off to work.

Lucky me. This is going to be one of my ping-pong weeks. I work two graveyard shifts and four day shifts without a day off between the two. And, as the weekend rolls around, day five and day six of my work week, I’ll be tackling a few managerial responsibilities in addition to my normal eight-hour shift. How did I get to be so lucky?

An employee decided not show up for work on Saturday night. I had gone in at 11 a.m. because the manager had taken a long weekend and I had a few chores to tackle before working my 2-10 shift. By 10 p.m., I was tired. By 10:15, I knew that I was in for an even longer workday, because the gal scheduled to work hadn’t arrived and hadn’t called to say she was going to be late. I consulted the manager — even though he was technically on vacation — because I knew I couldn’t work another eight hours and then turn around after being off work just a few hours to work my regular 2-10 shift on Sunday. He said he’d come in at 2:30.

Needless to say, I missed Mass on Sunday morning. I might have been able to move had someone told me the building was on fire, but then again, I might have said, “I’ll die of smoke inhalation before the flames reach me, so just let me sleep.” Yes, I was that tired after working 15.5 hours.

The whole season of Lent has challenged me to face up to my physical limitations. The store manager had to use some of his vacation time or lose it, so I’ve been working long weekends. Normally, I work 2-10 on Saturday and then noon to six on Sunday. With a schedule like that, I can usually drag myself out of bed for 8 a.m. Mass, even if my back and feet still ache from standing on concrete floors for eight hours the previous night and from lifting cases of pop and beer. I know that after Mass, I can sit down in the recliner and rest or nap a few more hours before going to work.

However, when I manager is gone, I have to schedule other employees for my shift during the week in order to take care of his responsibilities. By the time the weekend rolls around, they’ve worked the maximum number of hours the company allows, and I have to work longer hours than usual. Week after week, I wake at 6:45 a.m. on Sunday morning, put swollen feet on the floor, and pull myself up bracing myself on the dresser, and then plead, “Please forgive me, Lord,” and sink back down on the bed to rest for a couple more hours before work.

It’s humbling to recognize the physical limitations of aging. When I was young — going to college, caring for two young children and working part-time — it wasn’t unusual for me to function on five or six hours of sleep, sometimes less. The alarm would go off and I’d groggily crawl out of bed, take a shower to wake up, grab a Diet Coke and immerse myself in the routine of the day. I can’t do that anymore. I need more sleep, especially when my body has been taxed by physical challenges.

I’ve been asking God for wisdom. My well-formed Catholic conscience feels enormously guilty when I miss Mass, but another voice says, “God needs you rested for your ministry of presence at the convenience store. How can you serve him by caring for his people if you’re so tired you can’t even smile?” I don’t know if the voice that comforts me by saying this speaks the truth or is just assuaging my conscience. Because my life remains deeply steeped in prayer and I attend Mass during the week whenever possible, sometimes driving 50 miles in order to do so, I lean towards trusting the impulse which allows me to rest when my body cries out against rising.

At first, I was bothered by that age old question: What will people think? But as Lent has progressed, it has struck me how much Christ’s passion and death were a result of that mindset. Judas offended because Mary anointed the feet of Jesus with costly oil instead of selling it and using the proceeds to care for the poor; what will people think? The Pharisees and high priests conspiring against Jesus because he challenged them with a spirituality based on the spirit of the Law rather than the letter of the Law; what will people think? Peter denying Jesus following his arrest; what will people think? Pilate unable to follow his conscience because … what will people think?

And in reflecting upon this, I’ve been drawn into Christ’s suffering in a new way. Part of being human involves acknowledging both our limitations and the limitations of others. It has struck me that in his passion and in his death, Christ revealed how fully he had assumed our humanity.

We are shown how he was tempted following his baptism. The devil says, “You’re hungry, eat something.” He says, “No, the bread of life will be given later in my ministry, to feed the hungry who follow me.” The devil says, “I can trick everyone in the whole wide world into following you,” and Jesus says, “No, I will call people to me with the voice of truth, and those who are mine will hear my voice and follow me; I don’t need your deceitful ways.” Finally, the devil says, “You don’t have to die, you know; angels will prevent you from being injured,” and Jesus says, “Get lost.”

The devil tempted him with words and images, but as he felt the crowds turn against him in Jerusalem, he must have been tempted in a more visceral way to display the power of God. When he sat down to the Passover supper with his friends, he talked and talked and talked and talked. The night before she died, my mother was like that, too. She talked and talked and talked; she had so much more she wanted to teach me. But, I think Jesus talked — and gave us the Eucharist — because the temptation was stronger at that moment than in the desert, when he was filled with the Spirit, to display God’s power.

He talked, because like all of us, he needed to bolster his courage. And then, he went into the Garden and embraced the course which had been set for his life. He allowed circumstances to carry him to the cross and the death which awaited for him there, stumbling with exhaustion — and perhaps with the frightening realization that it was really going to happen — as he carried upon his back the instrument of his death.
I can almost hear him say to himself, “I am God; I can stop this,” and then, “No, I am man and I will die.”

He embraced the full implications of the Incarnation and allowed himself to experience the fullness of what it means to be human. In the face of his example, how can we do less? We must learn to embrace our humanity and to open ourselves to the way in which he shapes us with the circumstances of our lives. We must do it, not because doing so is self-serving, but because only through doing so will we reflect him into the world in a way that others can experience as love.

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