BUT WHAT DOES THAT MEAN IN PRACTICE?
Ash Wednesday is Feb. 18th.
The season of lent is something so regular in its advent that it is easy to lose the proper sense of what we should be doing differently, and why this season is so important for our lives as Catholics.
Indeed, so scheduled and habitual are the events of modern life, that it is easy to let the season of Lent go by without ever making those changes necessary in our daily schedule, without which it is impossible to gather and taste the spiritual fruits of the season.
Lent is a Season for Good Works
First, let’s enumerates many good works that can be done during Lent, which though salutary each in a different manner, do not comprise the essential act that we should be engaged in, frequently, during this season.
Thus, first, there is the lenten resolution, which, even when I was a child, was still quite commonly practiced among Catholics — a sort of Catholic version of the New Years resolution, but us much more Christian.
While, yes, it is a good thing to resolve at the start of lent, to undertake some work of charity or devotion, to sanctify this holy season. That is not the essence of Lent.
Thus, it is a good and holy thing to resolve to go to Daily Mass, receive the Sacraments more frequently, give alms to the poor in the third world, purchase a book about spiritual things, and read some of it, or attend devotional exercises such as the Stations of the Cross, while not neglecting to keep Friday’s meatless, these things while they should never be omitted, are not precisely what Lent is about.
Preparation for Holy Week and Easter is only the Secondary purpose of Lent
Now frequently we hear that the purpose of Lent is to prepare us to celebrate worthily the Sacred Feasts of Holy Week and Easter. This too, while true, is only a secondary purpose behind Lent.
True, Lent is a liturgical season, which originated to prepare converts to the Faith, for Baptism on Easter, in the early centuries of the Church.
But Lent, as a liturgical season, is not directed principally to preparing the individual or the local Catholic Community to celebrate liturgical ceremonies worthily. Rather, it has a higher purpose, just as the ceremonies do not exists for themselves, but for a higher purpose.
There is a certain sort of error, which has quietly creeped into the Catholic world in the last century, which conceives Catholic life to consist essentially in liturgical celebrations. So widespread is this error, that you find Catholic laity reading out loud the entire rite of the Mass in Latin or in the vernacular, when the priest is absent, going so far as to say the priest’s parts; while thinking that on Sundays when there is no Mass in their area, that it would be a sin or fault or imperfection to omit the similitude of the liturgical celebration, so essential they believe that is to Catholic life.
Without a doubt the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is essential to the life of every Catholic and to the entire church. But the liturgical ritual’s enactment is not the center of life. Its what that ceremony represents, which is the center of our life: the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ, through which, and without which, we cannot be saved and receive grace.
And hence the scope or role of the liturgical functions is not to be an end in themselves, but to be instruments and occasions for us to do those acts which are essential to Christian life: the practice of the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity; the contemplation of God and of Heavenly things, and the consideration of the present state of our souls in the light of God.
The Primary Purpose of Lent
Lent, essentially, is for this: to be an occasion in which we consider profoundly and anew, the state of our souls in the light of God, and in considering this, weighing the immense travesty of our sins against the dire and extreme eternal punishment, which we most certainly merited for them.
This most sober of considerations is what Lent is about. Without that consideration and that done frequently in this holy Season, we miss the whole importance of Lent.
Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell: these are the 4 Last Things, and these should be the objects of our frequent consideration, in Church, and out of Church.
The Saints made the consideration of the state of their soul in the light of God their habitual, daily reflection and habit of mind. It was for this reason that the Saints did so many things which startle the mind and stir the soul of whomsoever hears or reads of them.
Essential Practices for Lent
We will soon enter into the season of Lent. It will therefore, be very useful for us, now to consider its essential practice, ordering all the other customary practices of Lent towards this one essential thing: our own repentance.
The mere consideration that we have sinned, is necessary, but this is not the only step we need to take.
We need to examine the causes of our sinfulness: in which things or places are have we most sinned: with whom, about what things, during which activities.
A wise Catholic who actually wants to save his soul, does not take likely the consideration of such things. This is so, because he is a prudent Christian who realizes that unless he corrects a minor spiritual problem, it can easily grow into a greater one.
A humble Catholic too, realizes that, in the reconsideration of ones past sins, one can often find that one’s past confessions were much too superficial, and that in failing to remove one’s self from the occasions of those sins, that the vice which bore their deadly fruit has grown deeper still in one’s soul.
Let’s consider, therefore, the motives we should have in examining our conscience during Lent. I do not mean “examining one’s conscience” in the perfunctory and quick manner in which we are accustomed, rightly, to do prior to receiving the Sacrament of Penance.
I mean this in the sense of the habit of meditation we should have to do this, whenever we do this, but especially throughout every day of the season of Lent.
Just as one’s house will soon be filthy as a pig sty, if one does not regularly clean every corner of it; so the soul gathers moral filth through very tiny and unnoticed daily sins.
These grow the vices in our soul; and when these vices are strong enough they give birth to the evil fruit of mortal sin. And since one mortal sin, unrepented of, is sufficient to lose eternal life, and merit the everlasting and unimaginably excruciating fires of Hell, the prudent Catholic will not take lightly the importance of cleaning the house of his soul.
The first difficulty in this work that we find is that venial sins, each of them, reduce quite unnoticeably the ability of our souls to recognize sin and its effects.
Thus, unless we have a strong habit of examining our soul, when it comes time to think of our sinfulness, we cannot find anything to convict ourselves of!
If this is the case, with yourself; then you have found the first thing to confess and the first thing you must investigate with prayer and meditation: the fact that you do not recognize yourself to have sinned.
As the Psalms say, even the holiest of men sins seven times a day. If you are not a Saint, you surely sin more than 7 times a day; if you are a Saint you will already be convinced that you sin much more than this.
However, to counter super-scrupulosity, which is the spiritual disease of those who are convinced that certain things are sins, and that they have committed these quite frequently, even though their real sins are much greater, and by this too anxious of self-accusations they omit the consideration of their vices of pride or despair in the power of God’s grace to forgive them in the Sacrament of Penance; nevertheless for the majority of us, we have not this fault, we just don’t see our sins; we do not suffer from a preoccupation of believing we have sinned when we have not; we suffer from the opposite spiritual fault, of considering we have not sinned, when we have!
One rule of thumb is, that if you do not consider you have committed any sins in the last year, you probably have the habit of committing many mortal sins: its just that since the effect of sin is the darkening of the mind, you have been so blinded by your sins that you can’t see it.
Lent is a prosperous spiritual time to seek the cure of such a blindness. And one must seek it, to escape from the dire punishment of Hell which would surely engulf such a blinded soul!
Practical Remedies to Cure one’s own Impenitence
There are some practical remedies to obtain this cure, which need to be mentioned, because they are never preached.
The first is that for most of us, a direct attack upon this blindness does not convince of anything. Even a very moving sermon, has little or no effect beyond recognizing that it was such.
The actual change of heart, which is the goal of repentance evades the sinner.
A direct attack upon this spiritual insensitivity to sin does not work, because one can only recognize sin, inasmuch as one opens one’s mind to the ability to see it and fear it.
Spiritual blindness is accompanied by a lack of fear of sin; a certain habit of easily excusing major sins, as if they were light faults; and venial sins and imperfections. There is a certain distortion of judgment in the soul, which has resulted by ignoring the immortality of sin for so long. And it is, admittedly, a very evil consequence of sin, to free one’s self from.
And to be absolutely frank, its is very rare that a single confession will be sufficient. Just as those with cancer are not cured by taking just one pill, but often have to endure very painful procedures and months and years of treatment; so this kind of insensitivity to sin requires a long and protracted treatment.
The key to progressing against this awful spiritual disability, is to take tiny steps towards weakening and conquering this disability.
Regaining one’s ability to see one’s own sins, is not some mysterious spiritual practice. It begins with the recognition of one sin which our conscience still can see is a sin. Perhaps, however, we only think it is an imperfection or venial sin; but if we consider its causes or nature or occasion, it certain, in a soul which does not consider itself to be a great sinner, that he has overlooked something which conceals the fact that he is in reality a great sinner.
I won’t speak about the fact that it is already a mortal sin of pride to consider that you are not a sinner: because such a declaration for such a soul is usually too much to understand. Pride is a very spiritual sin, and one who has lost the sense of morality, has lost the sense of what is spiritual.
However, at the start it is always useful to consider and recognize intellectually that this is true; even if affectively and effectively we do not understand how this can be the case, because of our blindness.
How to dispose one’s self to the great Grace of Repentance
So, uprooting spiritual blindness begins with considering the one thing we can still see as a sin or imperfection. This is the first step, because the very nature of spiritual progress is an re-capacitation of the power of the mind to consider spiritual things. And like dominoes which when aligned properly, cause the next one to fall, when they themselves are toppled, so sins, when recognized and repented of, are the occasion to open our minds to the recognition of other sins.
In each step of the process, the recognition of one sin is the work of the conscience in its present state. But this recognition cannot enable us to make the second step, which is repenting of the sin, because this second step is the work of prayer, devout and persistent to obtain the grace to repent of it. And this can only be obtained by humble supplication.
All kinds of fasts, prayers, liturgies, meditations, pilgrimages, spiritual readings, alms, etc., are not going to assist your soul, if you do not use them as accompaniments to the work of earnestly begging for the grace of repentance, and disposing yourself to it by acts of self humiliation before God, in private, in the recesses of your heart and mind, wherein you declare, decide and resolve, that God is God, and that you are just a poor sinner, who in no manner deserves anything but judgment and damnation!
Humility is the key here: how often a sinner might struggle to overcome one vice all his life, but fail to do so, simply because he never got down on his knees in private, and admitted to God and to himself that he was incapable of virtue by himself, and that he could only be virtuous and good, by the gift of God, earnestly begging Him for it on such an occasion!
This humble prayer and devout, secret supplication for grace, is the key step and the essential prerequisite for repentance, though, it can in fact be done in the secret of one’s heart, even in public places, while driving, or traveling, or even during other occupations, when the soul is properly disposed and God in His Mercy bestows the actual grace for it to occur.
During this essential step of humble recognition, a sorrow is engendered in the soul, along with a fear and realization of the danger of damnation, that the heart and mind turns vivaciously towards God and stirs it to ardently appeal for grace.
During such times it sometimes happens that this movement is responsive to grace sufficiently to receive the gift of tears, and during such a gracious movement, the dispositions of the soul can be cleansed and purged from years and years of distorted affections; leaving the heart with a new and healthy sense of sin and its gravity, and a new and healthy vivacity for things spiritual and heavenly.
The Proper Place and Role of Self-mortification
Essential to preparing the soul for such a humble recognition is the practice of mortification.
Mortification consists corporally with fasting from beverages and food, abstaining from meat and rich foods; use of cold showers, and the endurance of sensations which are painful or sacrificial.
Mortification of the body does not work, when such activities are undertaken by a spirit of self-sufficiency, a kind of presumption that without God one can work his own repentance, or that in doing such things, one proves that he is not a sinner or is some sort of spiritual giant or athlete.
Such a spirit makes such corporal mortifications, more sinful!
Rather such practices should be undertaken only with the motivation to humble oneself, detach oneself from such a spirit of self sufficiency, and open the door of the spiritual world to the virtue of humility.
This desire to seek spiritual enlightenment, to leave aside one’s pride, to change one’s life at its root, to gain a sense of spiritual things and to loose one’s carnal view of things, should be the motivation of spiritual mortifications, which are very helpful to dispose our souls to the grace of repentance: such as all those customary acts of Lent, which were mentioned at the beginning of this essay, asnot being the principal purpose of Lent.
Repentance is the principal purpose of Lent, and all other things must be ordered to that. But repentance has as its goal the reuniting of the soul with God and the resumption of the path toward perfection in the pursuit of eternal salvation. Lent thus finds it glory, not in preparing us for liturgical celebrations in time, but in being an occasion to return to the quest for eternal salvation in eternity.