If I look deep, I find my inner self hooked up to a drip IV of success. I heard once at a summer retreat that we all look to the three “P”s to wrongly satisfy our inner desires and insecurities: power, prestige or popularity.
It is natural to want good things for ourselves and loved ones. Worldly success cannot be entirely wrong: we are happy when our spouse feels competent at work, we rejoice when our child wins a competition, we are contented when a family member has a successful career, family life or personal feat. Catholics do not believe, as Jehovah’s Witnesses do for example, that the world is condemned and there is no point in investing in it. It is good to pursue education if that is your gift and calling. If God gave you a talent, He wants you to use it and not only will that bless others but it will make you feel good in the meantime. The contestants on Master Chef love cooking and having success in that competition and with the dishes they create give them immense personal satisfaction.
As with anything, what counts is our true intentions and what goes on in our heart. You can use your intelligence to show off what you know or you can see it as one type of talent that will almost surely mean deficiency in other talents that “less intelligent” people might have. You can use your social ability at work to gain popularity and say the right things, or you can be genuinely interested in others and have that warmth and generosity towards every person (even the difficult ones) that can’t be faked. You can use your blog to promote yourself and look really cool or you can use it as a more humble means of communication and expression. You can be dependent on anything in this hunger for success: a shiny career, craftiness, great style, beautiful things/materialism, orthodoxy in the faith, profitable projects, number of people in groups, followers of your blog, etc. Even family size is used to show off in certain circles, when it is the deepest, most intimate thing that should be discussed between couples. Church teaching doesn’t give a number of kids you should have, but again points to the heart, saying “be generous”.
So how much of our effort is commendable and going into making use of God-given talents to bless our lives and those around us? And how much of our effort is just going into the exterior, and not preparing our inner soil for God’s seed of Grace? In the Gospel reading that marks the Lenten season, one of Jesus’s temptations in the desert is to have all the kingdoms in the world, and so also we should be careful not to be hungering for the world, but worshipping and serving only God. Mary didn’t have worldly success. She didn’t “do” anything: blog, publish, start a ministry, have an impressively large and well-dressed family. She did accept quite a lot and she accompanied Jesus, even when He was ridiculed, tortured and died as a criminal and amongst criminals, with “one on his right, the other on his left” (Lk 23:33). She was totally authentic and totally transparent, and focused on her interior life and not on how she looked to others. When things went wrong or not according to her plans, she didn’t despair. Instead, she lovingly integrated them into her heart, keeping them and reflecting on them (Lk 2:19).
“Without neglecting her duties – we see how she hurries to her cousin Elizabeth’s house -, Our Lady maintains a continuous attention to He who is in her interior. In her there grows, towards Him, a love that becomes more intense, more vibrant, more tender each day.” (Translated from Maternidade e Vida by Joao Paulo Pimentel, p. 25)
This Lent I am reflecting once again on the IV I am constantly needing attached to my arm: of others’ approval and shiny worldly success, not only for myself but even for those that I love. This Lent, let’s make serving and worshipping God the focus of our interior life, even in the most unsuccessful situations. This Lent, let’s fast from success.