Whenever I hear someone say, “Offer it up,” I remember Sally. Sally had a fondness for sweets, but they weren’t good for her. Every time she spied me sneaking a cookie or candy bar, she would stare intently at me, hoping I would feel guilty and share. “Offer it up,” I would tell her, enjoying my little joke. The basset hound’s baleful expression wouldn’t change, but she would wiggle the little white tip of her tail. Even if she didn’t understand the humor or get the treat, she was happy that at least I acknowledged her presence and her desire.
“Offer it up.” What a catchphrase! In one swoop it speaks of generations of Catholic culture—handed down from mother to child, teacher to student and, according to what I hear from some of my friends, an occasional clueless confessor to penitent. I suppose some people who told me to “offer it up” when I was young sincerely wanted me to learn about a penitential spirit and patient endurance. But I think the intention of most was usually to dismiss, to say, “Quit complaining! Get on with your life!” The expression was used so frequently and casually that it turned into a code, getting hearty laughs when spoken in the right company.
What is the “it” that we “offer up”? Back when we were children, the “it” our mothers meant was the small stuff we whined about: having to share, having to do chores, having to watch over our younger brothers and sisters. These were big “its” in those days. If we obeyed our mothers and offered up these things, we stopped complaining and performed the tasks with a light heart—or at least pretended to do so. And Mother was happy.
The scope of “it” broadened as we went through school. The sisters who taught me said we should be offering up our small acts of penance, like kneeling without fidgeting during Stations of the Cross in Lent and the grueling Sorrowful Mother novena, which we attended each Friday afternoon as a student body. Maybe we were physically uncomfortable (no pads on those kneelers), but we were quiet, and we were building character. And Sister was happy.
That was about as far as I got in the theological development of “offering it up.” I had heard—and used—the expression so often by the time I got to high school that it took on the nature of a joke. If I were dateless for Homecoming, I would roll my eyes and (in my misery) quip to friends and family that I supposed I would just have to “offer it up.” Dealing with crabby customers during my part-time job was another thing to offer up (loudly), as was chauffeuring my younger sisters so I could earn the use of the family car. By fine-tuning my application of the phrase, I acquired a clever, socially acceptable way of making sure people knew I was being inconvenienced, disappointed or reluctantly making adjustments to my plans. And that made me happy.
Years later, when I was old enough to be implementing my mother’s offer-it-up strategies with my own children, I learned the expression could have dark undertones. Occasionally I would hear about someone who was trapped in a marriage to a raging, chronic alcoholic or drug addict and who was being advised by a confessor to “offer it up.” And presumably, because another marriage was “saved,” Father was happy.
I noticed, however, that the “its” kept getting bigger as my life went on. I listened sympathetically to friends who were faced with an unplanned pregnancy, a job loss, destruction of a home by fire, the death of a child, abandonment by a spouse, chronic illness, physical injury or mental anguish. I stopped saying, “offer it up.”
Why? I realized that whether “it” appears low on the scale as small stuff, or at the other end of the scale as life- or soul-threatening, the problem with our traditional and reflexive “offer-it-up” approach is the implication that if you offer something up, the mere act of offering will make it disappear. And if the trouble doesn’t quite disappear, at the very least the misery accompanying it will evaporate. Sally, the basset hound, was my teacher here. She knew the truth. “It” does not go away.
But doesn’t something happen to the “it” when you offer it up? I believe so. I further believe that our teachers, parents, religion instructors and priests failed us by not helping us connect the dots. They taught us to focus only on the giving end of the offering. What about the receiving end, God’s end?
Every offering is either accepted or rejected, ignored or admired, used or misused. An offering “up” is not made to make our mothers happy, our teachers agreeable, our priests secure or ourselves content. When we look at it this way, we can see that the “its” should include all things—large and small. The “its” offered should be happy things or events as well as difficult ones. The surprise check that arrives in the mail, the chocolate cake a friend spontaneously shares, the early holiday morning quiet when you are suddenly aware there is no highway noise—these are “its” that should be offered, too. Then we are returning to God all the “its” that make up the whole of life.
The deep, unsolvable mystery is that the meaning of our offering is unknown to us at the moment we make it, and we probably won’t know the meaning until after we die. It could be important for the sanctification of our own souls. It could be significant because others take note and then consider their own offerings. There are ways beyond our imaginings that God, though he does not need what we offer, could indeed use “it.” But our intention is critical. If we “offer it up” in the proper spirit, God acknowledges our presence and our desire to serve him. Then we can be joyful with genuine simplicity, like Sally.