Laura Roland ponders the weight of the scrupulosity she'd been carrying around for way too long.
During spiritual direction a few years ago, I asked how you can tell if someone is living an authentically Catholic life. Someone somewhere wrote something about it and in my quest to become a very good Catholic I wanted to make sure I wrote down exactly what I needed to do be good at it, especially as Lent was approaching. This was THE YEAR that I got it right, and I needed to know all the things I should be doing to please God more, to make this a Lent to remember.
Such was my heart at the time – to get it right, to be a very good Catholic. Our children had launched into adulthood and now as a woman turning 50, I wanted to make up for putting my spiritual life on the back burner while I was busy raising those babies. I was tired of living on the surface of the faith and now that I had the time, I longed to do more, to feel more, to be more.
My spiritual director was a 32-year-old priest. After I posed the question, he paused for a moment. Then he looked directly into my eyes, smiled a quirky little smile, and said in his own cheeky way, “The only thing keeping you on the surface is all those shoulds. Those shoulds are making you shoudy, Laura.”
While the pun was not lost on me – I do love a good turn of a phrase and plays on words – I felt sucker-punched. Not because I didn’t understand what he meant, but more to the point, because in that moment I could feel the weight of the scrupulosity I had been carrying around for so long crush me.
My list of things I should do to become a very good Catholic – pray the right prayers, light the right number of candles, pray long enough each day, pray deeply enough each day, pray reverently enough, remember all the feast days, celebrate the days accordingly, make a good confession, go to confession frequently, read the right books, talk to the right people, volunteer enough hours – took on a life of its own, becoming exhaustive. Exhausting. Unachievable.
All those shoulds? I understand better now that I was making God’s love conditional rather than relational, bartering time spent doing all the things for a scrap of His attention and love. Trusting that God loved me regardless of how well I executed the list was not even on my radar. I was merely skimming the surface, holding too tightly to what the world said I should do.
No wonder I couldn’t breathe.
I talk quite a bit about but then Jesus these days. One day I’m [barely] living on the surface of the faith and the next I encounter Jesus in a conversation with a 32-year-old, and everything changes. That encounter, that priest, his words of absolution as I asked God to forgive me for being shouldy were both ordinary and profound. My but then Jesus moment went something like this:
“Laura, you know God loves you, really loves you and it can’t be earned, right?”
“Yes. I think so.”
“You think so or do you know?”
“Well, I thought I knew it but now I don’t even know what all of this even means. I am usually so sure about everything, or at least I’m good at pretending I have it all together.”
“Take that to prayer. Ask God to show you what He means when He says, ‘I delight in you, Laura; when He says ‘Laura, you are my beloved.’ Ask Him what He wants of you this Lent. You might be surprised – He might not want you to do anything at all.”
“In His answer, will He tell me how to get it right, to be enough for Him, that He sees me as a very good Catholic?”
“No. It doesn’t work that way. There is no scale on which how Catholic one is can be measured. This isn’t about that. Once you understand the depths of His love for you as you are right now, you will desire to know Him more. Those prayers, candles, feast days, sacraments, people to turn your heart to – those will all become part of who you are rather than what you do because you do it all for Him, to Him. Do you find any solace in that thought?”
“Yes. I think so.”
“My prayer for you is that you will come to know it.”
Lent 2021 is here. Maybe you’re questioning your Lenten goals. If you find yourself feeling shouldy – I know I should’ve committed to doing more this year! I really should go to confession every week rather than once a month because that will make me holier. Maybe I should read three books and do a journal rather than settle for just one book; I really should go to Adoration daily because that will be more meaningful than going once in a while – take heart.
There is a layer of truth in each of these shoulds. Confession is good for us; reading books that engage our spirituality and draw us closer to the Lord are good and holy pursuits. Spending time with Jesus in Adoration is a balm to a weary soul for sure. Before committing to doing more, ask yourself why you are feeling you should do those things. Is it because someone somewhere said that these are what a very good Catholic does or is because God has asked you to do them?
Of course, the answer to both questions can be yes.
It is from where the desire comes that we need to take note.
Copyright 2021 Laura Roland
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About the Author
Laura K. Roland is a cradle Catholic. She and her husband of 31+ years have 3 children and have recently added a son-in-law and a daughter-in-law to their ever-growing family. A former Catholic educator, she co-founded the women’s ministry Encounter Grace in 2018 and is a speaker, writer, mentor, and host of the new podcast, Short Story Longer.