The other day, I changed my toddler’s foul and ghastly diaper. It was not a good time for her or for me, but I feel safe in asserting I got the worse end of the deal.
Usually, when she needs a change, she shrieks and runs away, forcing me to chase her, catch her, and pin her down. Why? Because she’s a silly little baby and doesn’t know anything, except that mothers have crazy ideas sometimes. At the same time, she unquestioningly expects me to love, care for, and protect her.
As the mother of ten, I’ve come to accept that babies do not want their poop removed. I don’t know why, but I accept it. But this time, she went too far. She stopped running and gave me permission to change her diaper — “But,” she said, “You has to say ‘sowwy,’ Mama.”
The nerve of her! The unmitigated, outrageous … extremely familiar nerve.
Not only did I have to deal with her stinky poop and her uncooperative bottom, she unjustly blamed me for the mutual ordeal of cleaning her up. I had to admit, as I did the dirty work, that I’d cherished that same ludicrous, ungrateful resentment in my heart, but toward God.
A short time ago, I found myself in need of confession. My mother trained me well, so I did my darndest to have perfect contrition for my sin as soon as I could. But then? I immediately slipped into a foolish lifelong frame of mind, wherein I can’t logistically get to confession right away, but the whole time I’m waiting, I’m mad at God.
Why? Because I knew I wasn’t in a state of grace, and couldn’t receive Communion, and also wasn’t friends with God. And I wanted to be friends. I wanted things to be like old times, but there was this barrier up. Yeah, yeah, I know I’m the one who put it up. The poop, as it were, was all mine. It didn’t make any sense, but I had made a mess, and I was also resentful of having to go through the process of letting God clean it up.
I was resentful that it took any time at all. I wanted to be able to pray without thinking, “Oh. But . . . that sin. And it’s four more days until I can get to confession.” So, like a curly-headed little toddler, I was mad, and snarled and growled and made things difficult while He chased me.
I used to torment myself, when I wasn’t in a state of grace, with the idea that my soul was dead. (This may be accurate, but it’s not psychologically helpful, especially if it’s logistically difficult to get to confession. Dead people don’t hustle.)
Then I would try to tease out the difference between being able to receive sanctifying grace and actual grace. I interrogated a priest about just how much contact I could reasonably expect to maintain with an alienated God. Can I pray? Can I pray for other people? Can I pray for myself? Does it make any sense to go to God and ask Him to help me come back to Him? I can’t earn indulgences, fine, but can I say a “Hail Mary” if an ambulance races by, or just skip it? Will God listen to my prayers, but only sarcastically? Do they get put into stasis and then become efficacious after I’m absolved? Or what?
It wasn’t just a matter of getting wound up in a tangle of rules. I really needed to know just exactly what footing I was on with God.
Or did I?
This time around, I decided things were going to be different. I made as good an act of contrition as I could manage. I told God about my plan for getting to confession. And then . . . I just carried on as normal. I said my morning prayers and grace before meals; I thanked Him for favors and groused at Him for difficulties. I didn’t dwell on the details.
Why? Because God is still God and He still loves me. What else is there to say or do? I don’t know all the theological ins and outs of my exact relationship with God during this in-between time, but I know He still loves me, and that is enough to think on for the rest of my life.
The other night, I was having a mild panic attack in the middle of the night (over a completely unrelated topic), and I dealt with it this way: I breathed in while thinking, “I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” and then breathed out while thinking, “But I place my trust in Jesus.” I accepted my ignorance and my uncertainty, and I reclaimed my knowledge of the one true thing that will always be true, which is Jesus Himself.
It got me through that one bad night. But there has not been a single second in my life when that is not an appropriate prayer. Our entire lives are a grey area, really. By definition, this fallen world is too dark to let us see clearly where we stand, who we are, and how much God loves us. But we can deliberately place our trust in Him, and it is not possible to overestimate how much He cares for us, how much He wants us to be with Him.
Yes, the specific rules about sin and confession and contrition and prayer are important. Yes, I needed to make that act of contrition and get to confession as soon as possible. I’m grateful that theologians have worked through the intricacies of these matters, so I can follow the obligations that are designed to help me grow in holiness. But it seems less important, these days, to demand a precise accounting from God Himself about what our relationship is at every moment.
He has already answered that question. I see the answer every time I see a crucifix. I don’t know what will happen next, but I place my trust in Him.