The solemn fast of Lent is intended to convert us, to renew us, and to conform us more and more to Jesus Christ. This happens through the three means of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving — which are most powerful when joined with assisting regularly at the Church’s liturgy.
One of my pet peeves with the popular conception of Lent is that it is a time of particular devotion to the Passion. It is not. Passiontide, the last two weeks of Lent, is for that. When we read the Church’s liturgical propers for Lent, we see that penance is what ought to preoccupy us. We focus on Christ, yes, but we focus on the penitential Christ fasting in the desert; we focus on the Divine Physician, who desires to heal us, from whom we beg for mercy as we consider our miseries.
Misery. There is a word we generally would not like to apply to ourselves. “Hello, I’m miserable” is hardly an effective conversation starter. Nonetheless, we are miserable. The Church reminds us of our manifold miseries in the liturgy, by having us confess them in different ways. What’s more, if we were not miserable, we would have no claim on mercy. Mercy (misericordia) is the response to misery (misera). As the Latin cor suggests in the word, mercy is having a heart for the misery (or wretchedness) of another.
The votaries of the new religion, who try to do away with penance and guilt, would bridle at this insistence on wretchedness and misery. They would rather put a buffoonish smiley face on the penitent Magdalene, take away Saint Francis’ skull, and throw Saint Jerome’s stone back in the cave whence it came. Like the bishop who accused traditional Mass devotees of enjoying “blood-letting” (all that talk about a “Holy Sacrifice”!), the adherents of this new religion look at traditionalists as maladjusted mental flagellants morosely preoccupied with sin and guilt.
The truth of the matter is this: when we shuffle guilt off to the side, it is to our own detriment. I am convinced that a good number of mental pathologies are caused by guilt that has never been adequately dealt with, that is to say, confessed and grieved over. Think of the post-abortive woman, for instance. Considering the prevalence of the sin of abortion, how many genuinely wounded women are out there?
On a higher plane, that self-acknowledged guilt we call compunction or sorrow is a tremendous means of holiness.
There can be no better guide of our thoughts, desires, spiritual aspirations, and even emotions, than the inspired words of Holy Scripture. Consider the sentiments that Holy Mother Church puts on our lips in the devotion of the Seven Penitential Psalms. In the Divine Office, we pray one of those, the Miserére (Psalm Fifty), every day during penitential seasons. It is the cry of an afflicted heart aware of its miseries, yet hopeful and eager to be forgiven, to have its spiritual strength renewed, and to do great things for God.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy. And according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my iniquity. Wash me yet more from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my iniquity, and my sin is always before me. To thee only have I sinned, and have done evil before thee: that thou mayst be justified in thy words and mayst overcome when thou art judged.
… Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and strengthen me with a perfect spirit. I will teach the unjust thy ways: and the wicked shall be converted to thee.
… A sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit: a contrite and humbled heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
Psalm Thirty-Seven, another of the Penitential Psalms, utters this cry of pain near its beginning:
For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: I am turned in my anguish, whilst the thorn is fastened.
Yet it ends with a shout of joy:
Many are the scourges of the sinner, but mercy shall encompass him that hopeth in the Lord. Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, ye just, and glory, all ye right of heart.
I said that compunction is a great means of holiness. This is that divine alchemy by which evil is turned into good. Brother Francis said it this way in his book of meditations, Challenge of Faith: “Penitence makes good out of evil: by making our past sins matter for loving God with humility, gratitude, tenderness, holy desires, and firm resolutions for the future.”
In the same vein, Saint Augustine of Hippo, one of history’s great penitents, commented on this passage from Romans: “And we know that to them that love God all things work together unto good: to such as, according to his purpose, are called to be saints” (8:28). Regarding the extension of “all things” which “God makes to work out for the good of them that love Him,” Saint Augustine asks, “Even our sins?” He gives the answer himself: “Yes, even our sins” (etiam peccata).
For his part, Saint Thomas says that it is expedient for us to grieve continually for our sins.
Saint Benedict, in Chapter IV of his Rule, lists seventy-three “Instruments of Good Works.” Number fifty-eight is “To confess one’s past sins to God daily in prayer with sighs and tears, and to amend them for the future.” We know that he followed his own injunction, because Saint Gregory relates of the great monastic patriarch that “it was his custom in prayer mildly to weep.”
I argue that all this is very good psychology. True self-knowledge, which all the great spiritual writers insist on, requires an honest reckoning of our sins. This is a cause of humility, and “humility is truth” as so many books on the subject assure us. At its highest, humility is a realistic assessment of who and what we are before God. The pop-psychology of the sexual revolution tried to do away with sin, to treat feelings of guilt as pathologies to be remedied rather than as a condition to be borne (and a Cross to be carried). True, there are scrupulous souls, whose guilt is disproportionate, neither healthy nor holy. True, too, there are people afflicted with genuine psychological disorders stemming from trauma or other causes. But we cannot allow these cases to set the norm. For all of us, guilt is a necessary consequence of sin. Feelings of guilt ought to lead us to compunction — even to tears. And those tears are a remedy to the soul.
We ought to pray for God’s grace to transform our guilt into gain. It is grace alone that effects this transformation. Saint Paul’s mysterious sting of the flesh, whatever its precise nature, was an infirmity that God allowed to remain in order to perfect His Apostle through grace:
And lest the greatness of the revelations should exalt me, there was given me a sting of my flesh, an angel of Satan, to buffet me. For which thing, thrice I besought the Lord that it might depart from me. And he said to me: My grace is sufficient for thee: for power is made perfect in infirmity. Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. For which cause I please myself in my infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ. For when I am weak, then am I powerful. (2 Cor. 12:7-10)
Those wounds of ours that are self-inflicted, our past sins, even though forgiven, leave some effect in the soul. Following St Paul’s example, we can glory in these infirmities and let the power of Christ dwell in us.
For this transformation to happen, a life of prayer is necessary.
If our Lenten journey is an imitation of Christ in his penance, our Passiontide follows Him on His Way of the Cross. All this leads to a share in the glories of Eastertide. For we are “heirs with Christ: yet so, if we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17). That glory will mark the end of weeping for our sins. Then will our guilt be transformed into unalloyed joy, when the Beatitude is fulfilled that says, “Blessed are ye that weep now: for you shall laugh” (Luke 6:21).
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away. (Apoc. 21:4)