My work is on penance, specifically the virtue of penance, and in particular looking at the time period of 1955-1975 in the United States. Since beginning this work, I've come to see ways in which my own experience of Catholicism has been missing some important pieces (ha ha, like penance!). There are many acts of the virtue of penance, including (but not limited to) examination of conscience, partaking of the sacrament, almsgiving, fasting, prayer, spiritual and corporal works of mercy. One other important act of penance is the offering up of involuntary mortifications.
In the first half of the 20th century, these involuntary sufferings were often profound, resulting from things like the Great Depression or World War II. The waves of Catholic immigrants to the U.S. were usually poor and it took a lot of hard work for them to survive. Living near NYC, I recently went to Ellis Island and saw a video that really brought that tough journey by boat alive for me as I imagined G-Grandma Anna's trip.
In my current life of convenience, it was hard to imagine ever undergoing such challenges. But on the other hand, convenience can detract from continual conversion. As I said, my experience of Catholicism was basically devoid of the concept "offer it up," that is, offering up suffering, sickness, and inconvenience as prayer for others in need or as penance for one's sins. Since I've discovered this concept, my life has become much happier.
Now, of course, I don't undergo the kind of suffering that comes with a month of boat-travel or having a husband away in the Navy during a world war or being penniless and somehow trying to feed a family. But I do have occasional suffering in the form of mild sickness, and I have lots of little inconveniences associated with being a full-time mom and trying to write a dissertation. In our era, I think the usual conclusion when there is such an inconvenience is to try to fix that convenience, rather than offering it up. Take the ancient refrigerator we inherited with this house. After a couple of years of being annoyed with its randomly freezing items in the fridge, not having enough space for produce, not having an icemaker, and having broken shelves and drawers, I decided to rid myself of this inconvenience and rallied up support for getting a new refrigerator.
Said refrigerator is a stainless steel French-door bottom freezer with room in the doors for milk and huge produce drawers. Great. Perfect. Inconvenience solved and (whew!) no chance of having to offer that up again! Likewise, I recently became convinced that an iPad would solve all of my problems. For example, I'd like to read in bed in a dark room (baby's in the room with me, asleep). I'd also like to read online sources for my research on a separate screen from the one on which I'm taking notes or writing. And I'd like to have a way on the first floor (my computer is in my office on the third floor) to look up recipes or zip codes or even check my email during the day. I've got a nice life, with all the necessities covered and a much more comfortable lifestyle than any of my ancestors, mind you. And yet for some reason, I became obsessed with this idea of an iPad to make my life just a little bit easier. Despite the fact that I recently learned from a friend of mine that iPads actually do NOT do your laundry for you, I think I may have one under the tree five days from now.
IPad aside, when I reflect on that earlier time period of Catholicism compared with Catholicism today, it strikes me that they simply had more involuntary mortification in the form of inconveniences and that offering it up was a major coping mechanism for surviving these discomforts. They had more practice with such suffering and hence became better at it. I'm not trying to romanticize it, of course, because I'm sure if they'd had a choice most if not all would have chosen to live more comfortably, as their descendants have chosen (nor am I asking God for such difficulties to come my way). Nonetheless, my point is that it seems convenience can detract from conversion. Even the word convenience has agreement and harmony as its etymology, where as the word conversion comes from a sense of turning upside down in dramatic change.
In no way to I mean to minimize the suffering that we now undergo. People still lose spouses to sickness, suffer from chronic illnesses, undergo natural disasters like hurricanes or tornadoes, become unemployed and so on. We who are parents of young children also endure the normal more minor challenges of lack of sleep, kids damaging or destroying possessions, etc. But these entirely sanctifiable situations more often become lost on us today because offering up suffering is not second-nature to us the way it was to our ancestors. We are more likely to complain and to seek ways of eliminating such inconveniences when instead we can use them in a penitential sense, for our good and the good of others. Moreover, we seem to have an attitude wherein we expect life to be free of such inconveniences, which, of course, it's not.
So, when we have a new refrigerator or a new iPad and they make life a little easier, this is a good reason to give thanks to God! But when we suffer inconveniences (did I mention the new leak under the kitchen sink due to installing a water line to the new refrigerator's ice maker?), this also is a good opportunity to grow closer to God by acknowledging them and offering them as prayer. This may not make life more comfortable or easier, but it does make life a little happier, in the beatitude-final end sort of way.