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Story

By Eric A. Clayton

The mandolin is smaller than the guitar.

This fact, to anyone who has seen both a mandolin and a guitar, is obvious. And yet, for reasons that likely betray my level of mandolin-playing prowess, my instructor reminds me of this fact with some degree of frequency.

“The mandolin is smaller than the guitar, Eric,” he’ll say. “Your hand is more likely to get cramped.” Or, “Your fingers are more likely to trip over each other.” Or, “You can extend your finger further — just play slower and you’ll see.”

It might not surprise you to learn that I have not yet received any formal invitations to join a folk band.

I have an excellent mandolin instructor — patient, good-humored, wise. At the end of a muddled tune, my fingers still all tangled up on the instrument’s neck, he stopped me, pointed to a handful of notes on the page.

“Here,” he said. “This is where you made the mistake.”

“One of them,” I muttered.

“No,” he insisted. “You tripped over one note here.” He pointed to the songbook with his pencil. “You allowed that mistake to throw you off the rest of the song. You never recovered. But you do know the song — it’s just this one section that trips you up.”

I thought about that, nodded.

I played through the song a few more times. My instructor nodded toward the clock — the lesson was ending. I played the song once more, tripping over the final few notes in my haphazard attempt to get it all in before the buzzer.

I scoffed at myself — you know, that noise that begins in the back of your throat and ends with a look of self-loathing.

“And that,” my instructor quickly interjected. “We’re going towork on that, too.”

I didn’t begin taking mandolin lessons in order to receive spiritual instruction. But that day, in that lesson, my mandolin became a stand-in for the spiritual life. How often do we allow one misstep to ruin our day? We glimpse something of our own shortcomings and throw in the towel.

There’s no sense in continuing on, we tell ourselves. I’ve already failed. Indeed, I wonder how many of us already feel this way in our Lenten journey. Have we already succumbed to disappointment in our prayer, fasting and almsgiving?

Here’s the thing that my mandolin instructor unknowingly pointed to: We give up on ourselves too easily and too often. My teacher wasn’t upset or disappointed. In fact, he was in the process of encouraging me when I scoffed at my own work. He was in the process of reminding me that I had made great progress but was still learning — as we all are.

We give up on ourselves too easily and too often. But God never does. Rather, God encourages us to go slower, to be more patient with ourselves and others. God reminds us that getting tripped up along the way is simply part of the journey, part of learning, part of growing.

And God never scoffs at us. God simply beholds us, delighting in the music we make.

This reflection is part of the award-winning weekly email series, “Now Discern This.” If you’d like to get reflections like this one directly in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here.

a person smiling for the cameraEric A. Clayton is the award-winning author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith and My Life with the Jedi: The Spirituality of Star Wars, an exploration of Star Wars through the lens of Ignatian spirituality (Loyola Press). He is the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America MagazineNational Catholic ReporterU.S. Catholic, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, IgnatianSpirituality.com and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, Small Wonders Magazine and more.  Sign up for his Substack “Story Scraps” here. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat.