That morning at Mass, my “bad mood” seemed to have taken over—I felt weak, both physically and emotionally, and even others’ smiles seemed hugely annoying. “God, I need some help,” I prayed. And then I heard these words: “Give up the next thing you want.”
by Becky Arganbright
It was on a Sunday, and I was trying to get everyone ready for Mass. My heart was not in it that day. I thought that I had just woken up in a bad mood — and so I had. But my mood didn’t get better as it normally does. It got worse.
Because of my husband’s weekend work schedule, he’s unable to go to Mass with us and goes on his own, which means that I have to bring the kids to Mass by myself. I’ve been doing this for years, and as the kids have gotten older, the hectic Sundays have actually gotten easier. But for some reason, this particular Sunday I was tired of doing it all by myself.
An Unending, Ever-Building Irritation
I didn’t want to make breakfast for my kids, I didn’t want to find matching shoes. I didn’t want to brush anyone’s hair. I didn’t want to do the “Sunday clothes inspection,” when I have to make sure my kids understand that “dressing nice” doesn’t just stop at wearing socks with our shoes. I simply didn’t want to deal with it that morning. I really just wanted to go back to bed. I was tired, even though I had slept well enough. But we had to go. So with a heavy sigh, I corralled my brood of teenager, tweens and children into the car, trying hard to close my ears to their loud voices.
As soon as pulled up to the church, I had a very strong temptation to skip Mass. For one moment, I was very tempted. A plan already formed in my head that we could go to the evening Mass. I could go home and go back to bed. We could have a late brunch. Maybe then I would feel more up to going to Mass later on, after I was more rested. The very idea lifted my spirits.
I was on the brink of making the suggestion to the kids, to which I was sure they would agree. My feet slowed down a little as I was thinking of what to say to the kids. But just as I was about to open my mouth, another thought popped into my head: What would this say to the kids? That we should just leave Mass when we don’t feel like going? It wasn’t a good message and I knew it. I kept my mouth shut and my spirits came crashing down as I followed the kids into the church.
The moment I sat down, it was as though every irritation that could possibly irritate me did just that. Even things I normally wouldn’t find irritating were overwhelmingly irritating. I couldn’t stand anyone that looked at me, smiled at me, or just looked happy to be there. The usher standing by the door to greet us got a rather cool handshake but he was lucky that I didn’t give him what I really wanted. My kids did the usual song and dance of “can I go to the bathroom/get a drink of water before Mass starts,” and I only gave them a quick nod and a wave of my hand to shoo them away. I was aware that I was looking very grumpy and unmotherly to those around me — I was sure I was being watched by everyone — and that only increased my annoyance.
The music began, praise and worship music that irritated me to no end. I closed my eyes and gave a deep sigh. Tried hard to block out the singing, the happiness, and the kids around me.
And then, to add to my irritation, an elderly couple came and sat by us in the pew. The cheerful woman looked at me and smiled, as though she thought I would be happy to see her or something. I didn’t smile back, but looked pointedly at the empty pew ahead of us. How could she not see that we were already cramped in the pew as it was? And why on earth wouldn’t she want to sit in her own pew?
Yet, she either didn’t get the hint or else just didn’t care, so I shoved myself and the kids down, giving more room between us than what was really needed. I closed my eyes again when I felt a heavy plop on my lap, and knew without looking, that it was my 6-year-old son Henry. Normally, I love having Henry sit on my lap, love that he still wants to sit on my lap, because I know very soon, he will be too big. But with this horrible mood that I in, I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. Yet, I didn’t have the heart to make him get off, so I allowed him to sit on my lap — though I didn’t put my arms around him or hug him close, like I normally do.
A Call to God for Help
I was aware of my bad behavior and how I was coming off to those around me, although part of me really didn’t care what others thought of me. My “bad mood” seemed to have taken me over and I felt weak, both physically and emotionally. I felt exhausted with the effort of just being there. It was then I took a chance and finally called on God, although I was convinced he was too disgusted to hear from me, “God, I need some help.”
And then these words floated into my soul, “Give up the next thing you want.”
What? What did that mean? How could I give up the next thing I wanted when it was something that I couldn’t have? What I wanted was to go home, but I couldn’t. I wanted to go back to bed, but I couldn’t do that either. I wanted to go yell at the old couple to sit in their own pew, but that would be rude. I wanted my kids to space out and give me some room — or better yet — just simply take that empty pew ahead of us, but I couldn’t do that either.
What I wanted was to not be at Mass. I simply was too crabby to listen to a sermon, to pray, to do anything holy. It felt almost like a sacrilege to be there, feeling like I was. I wasn’t sure what these words meant, or how to follow their directions, but they wouldn’t leave me alone.
“Give up the next thing you want” just hung there in my head, like wisps of clouds hanging in the air.
The music director then spoke up and told us what page number to sing our opening hymn. The first thought that came to me was, no way, I am not singing, that’s for sure! But I remembered the words “give up the next thing that you want,” so I grudgingly picked up my hymnal and joined in with the singing.
I thought the singing would annoy me, but surprisingly, my irritation began to fade, just a little. The priest invited us to bow our heads and pray the Apostles’ Creed. Again, a strong resistance came, but I tried to “give up the next thing I wanted,” which basically was running out of the church, screaming and looking like a crazy woman. So I bowed my head and prayed.
Giving Up and Giving In
Throughout the Mass, I continued to follow along as I knew I was supposed to, giving up what I really wanted, which was to follow through with my temptation to leave. Surprisingly to me, the more I gave up, the more peace entered my soul. By the first reading, I was feeling much better. I even was able to give a small smile to the woman next to me, though I still wondered why she would pass up a pew all to herself.
During holy Communion, I had a little time to think about what happened. Had I suffered from a spiritual attack or was this just a bad case of hormones? I would have preferred to blame it on the devil, but in all honesty, I really didn’t know. I can be a moody person.
What drew my attention more than anything were those mysterious words “give up the next thing you want.” To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure what it was that I had “given up” since I didn’t give anything up. I had simply given in.
It was then that it finally got through to me: I had given up my own will.
Without trying to sound “holier than thou,” it was this act of humility of giving up my own will that drove the devil away. In fact, I can’t even take credit for it, as I was inspired by God to do this. I had been so wrapped up in my emotional turmoil, that it never occurred to me to give up and give in to what God wanted. All I wanted was to give up was the practice of being good, the practice of bringing my children to church, the practice of sheer effort of being Christian when I wasn’t feeling Christian. And yet, it was the surrender of my own will that drove the devil away. He had no more power over me once I said no to him and yes to God.
In that moment, I felt safe, protected and most of all, loved. I was a child of God and the devil couldn’t have me. God had seen to that. I belonged to God, no matter how difficult and unlovable I could be. The awareness of how close I had come to falling into the devil’s trap scared me a little, but at the same time, calm assurance that God always was watching over me chased away that fear. God’s love poured over my soul, spreading warmth and healing where cold and pain had once been. Fresh tears came to my eyes as the realization of his great love for a weak and ordinary soul — little old me — took hold of me once again. I belonged to him.
Yes, the devil is always there, ready to jump in when we are weak, or tempt us in some way. But just as much, if not more, God is there ahead of him, ready to claim back what already belongs to him. I bowed my head in grateful thanksgiving and wrapped my arms around Henry to bring him just a little bit closer.