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BEFORE THE CROSS | Cooperating with God’s grace enables us to respond correctly

Lent helps us build the discipline necessary to meet great moments as Mary did

How long does it take you to recover from a shock, get your heart settled and make the right response?

Sixty seconds. That’s how long it took Mary. Read the account of the Annunciation, which we celebrate this week (March 25). Between Gabriel’s greeting, which came as a shock to Mary, and her definitive response — “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.” — 60 seconds pass. That’s amazing.

That kind of gracious response takes discipline. (How often do we find ourselves, hours later, thinking: “I should have said/done this”?) And that’s what these middle weeks of Lent are for — building up the discipline that’s necessary to meet great moments with the right response.

Listen and respond. Fundamentally that’s the discipline we’re working on. We hear from prophets this week — Daniel, Moses, Jeremiah, Hosea — who called Israel back to it. Starting with small things, but eventually coming out in big ways, Israel had stopped listening to the Lord.

When a man leaves the priesthood, that’s usually the pattern. Most of the time he’s stopped praying and receiving spiritual direction. He becomes unfaithful in small things, seemingly insignificant things that no one can see. But the small things add up. Eventually they turn into something big that people can see. The infidelity comes crashing down on him, just as it did for Israel.

Sooner or later we all face a moment of truth. It might be a temptation to infidelity in marriage. It might be a child or a grandchild or a co-worker who asks us: “You don’t really believe this or that Church teaching, do you?” It might simply be a person who cuts us off in traffic. How do we respond? In that moment our discipline, or lack of discipline, shows itself.

Major League Baseball teams start the regular season this week. They’ll find out whether the daily disciplines of the offseason and spring training have prepared them to win. College basketball teams are in the middle of their tournaments right now. They face moments of truth and find out who’s built up the daily disciplines needed to win. The beginning of one season and the end of another: Both help us to think of Lent and its call to grow in spiritual discipline.

With Israel and with Mary and with us, God’s grace always comes first. We can never try hard enough on our own. The question is whether we’re in the habit of cooperating with God’s grace or not.

After a lifetime of study and writing, St. Thomas Aquinas had a vision of Jesus. Jesus said: “You have written well of me, Thomas. What would you ask of me in return?” Thomas responded immediately: “Nothing but you, Lord.” His daily discipline was to focus on the Lord. All his study and writing came out of that. It prepared him for the moment of truth.

Daily cooperation with God’s grace — listening and responding in the small things — prepares us to meet the big moments of life with the right response. Conversely, daily failure to cooperate with God’s grace prepares us for a big fall. How are we doing in these middle weeks of Lent?

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