|Quit whining and offer it up!|
If you ever saw the family dog whimpering in fright at a thunderstorm and told her to offer it up, you might be a Catholic homeschooler. If your Uncle told you that he was too tired to push you on the swing and you told him to offer it up, you might be a Catholic homeschooler. The Catholic homeschoolers know what I mean. That phrase that often sounded suspiciously like parent-speak for, “I don’t want to hear your whining. Keep it to yourself,” was handed out like candy for any and all hardships, grievances and complaints. Did you hate doing the dishes? Offer it up. Were you hungry an hour after lunch? Offer it up. Schoolwork getting you down? Offer it up. I think my Mom could have written a book on the subject. The Offer-it-up Lexicon: From Abrasions to Zucchini.
For the uninitiated, what does this strange phrase mean? Well, there was the kid understanding of it, which ranged from “If I offer it up to Jesus He’ll take me to Heaven,” to “You don’t understand me and you never listen!” Never having been the parent myself, I can only guess at what they meant by it, but I suspect there were levels of meaning even for them. The basic idea, as I came to understand it as a child, was that by offering our sufferings to Jesus we could obtain graces from Him, either for ourselves or for our beloved parents, (or anyone else we chose to benefit.)
What always intrigued me, however, were the mechanics of “offering it up.” It was not really covered in great detail in the Baltimore Catechism (yes, I am a product of that system.) I remember getting the vague notion that we would give our prayers and sacrifices to God, He would like them and give us graces in return. As you can easily see, that was only about two and a half very fine shades of gray away from believing that we could earn grace. It is even closer to the belief that the harder, tougher, less pleasant or less comfortable way is always automatically the morally superior way. In other words, I was not far off believing (not in so many words) that God expected us to be as miserable as possible in this life, and that the greater the degree of misery you could subject yourself to, the greater the reward would be.
I’m not sure when it was that I really started digging into that belief. It was inevitable that I should. I dug through everything else I was handed in order to figure out what I believed and why I believed it. It was only a matter of time before I had to take a look at that idea of meritorious suffering. I think it probably started when I went to Selection for the second time. I was old enough and mature enough to have started forming (or reforming) close relationships with people, and I was getting to the point in my career where suffering was about to occur. I remember in Airborne school, without any thought or deliberation, I found myself frantically offering up all the fear (I am terrified of heights) for the people I loved. It was the only way I could handle it, with the thought that somehow my hanging through it was doing someone else some good.
Over the years since then I have been blessed with plenty more things to offer up, and have put much more thought into how it works.
The first thing, obviously, was to get rid of the subconscious notion that we “trade” our sufferings for His favor. That’s the first thing, of course, but not an easy thing. As I said, it wasn’t a logical thought out conclusion, it was a subconscious attitude. To state the idea in plain English is all the refutation it requires, but the subconscious is a much tougher nut to crack. The problem with this attitude is that it tends to portray God as something of a cosmic ogre. Anything you really desire must therefore be bad, or “Not-God’s-Will-For-You.” Some people take this to such an extreme that for them there is only one real sin: the sin of enjoying things. Jokes, parties, alcohol, deserts, movies, secular songs, anything that isn’t obviously and explicitly religious are at best concessions to the weakness of our fleshly nature. Maybe they might not be technically a sin, but wouldn’t it be better if we gave them up instead?
Whether or not it might be better to exercise restraint is a question to be decided on its own merits, but the idea that the good things of earth are a concession to the weakness of our nature is something else entirely. It overlooks the fact that God Himself created that physical nature with its physical needs, not as a limitation to be overcome, but specifically as the mode by which we are supposed to encounter Him. Not only that, but apart from sin our lives would have been not less pleasurable, but infinitely more pleasurable. (Witness the wedding feast at Cana and the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.) God gave us pleasures galore, we are the ones who have abused them. God did not invent suffering!
So any discussion of “offering-it-up” must begin with the fact that suffering was never God’s will for us. It is the result of sin. Offering it up is our response to something that is unnatural, which should not have been in the first place.
Of course our ability to recognize that suffering can be anything other than something to avoid if possible, or endure if not, is itself a gift. It is only possible to us because of the redemptive work of God Himself, whereby He acts to restore our nature and the nature of the entire created universe. God’s work comes first, ours is a response to that work and a participation in it. Based on this I can recognize three modes in which “offering-it-up” is such a response, but it would take too long to go into all of them. So another time.