Offering It UpELIZABETH SCALIA
We Catholics who grew up straddling the cusp of the conciliar divide may have a vague memory of the phrase “offer it up.”
"Penance" has received a bad name over the last thirty or forty years, largely because it was taught to many in the language of punishment rather than in the language of virtue, offering, and peace.
So, why not, penance? Why not take some of one's suffering and – rather than popping a pill – endure it for a bit; live with it and in it, and do something with it; make it worthwhile instead of meaningless.
If we are told to "offer it up" at all today, it is usually in a tone of sarcasm or very weak irony. To we moderns, the concept has come to be regarded – like formerly common practices as prayerful ejaculations or a solemn breast-beat – as a quaint throwback to a time when notions of sin and reparation seemed to consume entirely too much of the Catholic sensibility. The idea of "offering it up" has fallen under the false but widely promulgated cultural disdain for something called "Catholic Guilt," which is in truth, the marginalizing dismissal of the Catholic conscience.
Far from being a picturesque and nonchalant "there, there" to someone enduring either a minor inconvenience or a larger concern, "offer it up" is powerful theological advice that comes to us directly from scripture. As Paul writes to the Colossians: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and fill up on my part that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the church . . ."
In offering my difficulties to the crucified and dying Lord, I asked him to use them for his purposes and, in case he needed direction, I made a few suggestions: for those with emphysema or asthma, who were in need in those moments; for the intentions of a friend whose child is suffering from depression; for the sake of a family member with whom I am sadly estranged, but who needs healing – as does our relationship.
Making this prayer, I discovered an easing of my own difficulties. Some of that, perhaps, was thanks to the diversion of focus, but beyond that there was a true sense of enlargement – a joining of my meager and desperate act, which contained a mere seedling of love, to Christ's wide, merciful, and all-encompassing love.
And this delivered a simple truth: praying for others, suffering for others, develops a counter-balance to the weight of our own weakness, our distrust, hate, and self-absorption. One cannot participate, even infinitesimally, in Christ's agonies without participating in the expansion of his mercy toward all; a humbling lesson. How does one plead for mercy and deliverance when the Crucifix asks, "but where is your mercy?"
Our enlightened era looks with skepticism on penance, and believes pain is valueless and must be instantly vanquished. Coupled with a prayer of surrender to the cross of Christ, however, they are enjoined to the power of creative and healing love. And then, penance, pain, prayer – it is all privilege.
Elizabeth Scalia. "Offering It Up." On the Square (May 10, 2011).
This article is reprinted with permission from First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life.
First Things is published by The Institute on Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, nonpartisan research and education institute whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.
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Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos, where she also blogs as The Anchoress, and a contributing writer to First Things. She is a former contributor to Inside Catholic, and has been published in a wide variety of Catholic print publications and online political venues. Her book, Care of the Dying with the Help of Your Catholic Faith is published by Our Sunday Visitor. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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