I wrote here a few months ago about strategizing to be more charitable in certain difficult relationships in my life. This exercise came with some tough realizations about my approach to loving. I realized that I often approached charity as though there were some kind of credit system. “Look, I spent time listening to your problems yesterday, so today that means you need to leave me alone.” Or, “I went out of my way to be kind to you earlier this week. Doesn’t that mean I get a free pass now?” To use another analogy, I was looking at relationships as though they were on a weekly (or even monthly) chore chart. Plan a dinner: check. Catch up on problems: check. Friendship confirmed, time to check out for a few weeks.
I came to realize how ridiculous this approach was when I thought about what it would be like if I tried to do the same thing with my prayer requirements for the Third Order. You can’t just sit down and say the entire week’s worth of Evening Prayers on Sunday to get them out of the way! It wouldn’t make any sense; the purpose of prayer according to the Rule is to help the Dominican “pray always,” and by having certain set times for prayer, we remember the importance of praying throughout the day.
In the same way, looking at love through the lens of building up credits is completely misguided. It leads you down a path that culminates in the lie that you can earn love through specific actions, and that you can cash in your “credits” for complacency in your relationship. It adds to our tendency to simply get people “off our backs” or “out of the way.” But people–as complicated and messy as this might make our lives–are not tasks. If we aren’t doing our best to be present to a person in the moments that we have with them, we’ve lost. It doesn’t really matter, at the moment I blow someone off, how nice I was to them the day before. Wouldn’t it be terrible, for example, if the day after a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner your partner was completely rude to you? Would the dinner the night before lessen the pain of being hurt by them the next day?
And the same goes for God. Religion is not a gym where you put in your hours and get a certain amount of payoff. It doesn’t make sense to say, “Well, I went to two holy hours last week so I won’t go to one this week.” There may be limits on your time this week because of the extra time you spent at church the previous week–fine, that is totally valid in my opinion. But it’s not that you got the holy hour “out of the way early.” The time you spend loving God today is going to be unique. The present moment is all we can give God, as I have written about before.
The Ash Wednesday liturgy contains my favorite scripture verses from the prophet Joel: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart.” That phrase “even now” has meant different things to me over the years… “even now” when you are struggling in your faith, “even now” when you keep falling into sin. Today the “even now” meant “even now,” when you are feeling a time of stability, of growth, of renewal… do not forget to rely always on Me.