Lent in Practice: The Spirit of Penance

The idea of penance is all too commonly associated with the external act. This materialistic notion of penance works one of two evils: its entire neglect or its unworthy performance. The superficial are satisfied in the external act of penance; the self-indulgent find it too burdensome to attempt. So penance has lost its prestige and our age has wandered far from its spirit. A confirmation of this, which needs no commentary, is the dictionary definition which declares the word obsolete except as applied to the sacramental penance given by the priest. This is an index of how almost entirely the idea of penance is lost outside the Church, and it would often seem that, even in the minds of the children of the Church, its practice is frequently restricted to this sacred obligation lightly performed. And yet penance is an essential for everlasting life. And why?

Because all true penance is in its nature sacramental: it is an outward sign of inward grace. Its action is two-fold: it is not only a turning away from sin but a re-turning unto God. Indeed the closer union of the soul with God is the primary purpose of penance and it fails of its purpose when it fails in this. Man was made for God; sin frustrated this purpose; the Passion and Death of the Man-God alone was capable of restoring the union severed by sin: of admitting mankind again to the state of grace; only the application of the merits of Jesus Christ to the individual soul enables it to "bring forth fruits worthy of penance." In other words, outside of the state of grace, no act, however good in itself, is efficacious for expiation. This fact shows that penance indicates a state of grace: sorrow for sin and a certain union with Christ, and implies a strong motion towards closer union with Him. This interior and necessary quality of penance cannot be too strongly accentuated. Without it a lifetime spent in good works is waste; with it every simplest thought, word or deed enriches the soul with the infinite treasures of Divine Love and gives immense glory to God: "In this is My Father glorified; that you bring forth very much fruit, and become My disciples." (John 15:8)

Truly, therefore, the external act is but a means to an end, and that end is not the self-satisfaction of having expiated personal sin but the impulse of love to remove all that is obnoxious to the Beloved, that withdraws the soul from His embrace. It is but the body giving effect to the will of the spirit which vivifies and impels it. The external act of penance is good, even necessary, as the tangible and visible expression of the soul's purpose to remove every obstacle that impedes its progress towards God, but lacking the true spirit, it resolves itself into dust.

This interior purpose shines through every penance prescribed by the Church. During the seasons of penance, and most especially during Lent, she urges us to turn aside, not only from sinful pursuits but even from those harmless and legitimate, in order to have more time for God: to enter more fully into the life of Christ; to participate in His Passion as willing disciples and explore the depths of His love. We frustrate this purpose when we compromise with this spirit and find ready excuse for frequenting entertainments, not evil to be sure, but time consuming and fatiguing, leaving less time and taste for prayer, an inability to rise for early Mass, an unreadiness for Holy Communion. The prescription of the marriage ceremony, the counsel to continence has in view the purification and uplifting of the bond of human love. In withdrawal the soul sees in better perspective the divine purposes of matrimony and its holy responsibilities: abstinence cultivates strength in unselfishness and subordinates lust to reason and will. The very mitigations of the law of fast and abstinence in regard of food, prove that the law was not fashioned as an end in itself, but to cultivate temperance and force home the purpose of appetite: to preserve life; and to enforce the spiritual truth that we must come to God empty, if we would be filled.

It thus becomes evident that weakness of body neither excuses nor debars from penance. The spirit of the law is open to all. And in the practical cultivation of this spirit, the letter of the law will acquire new meaning and attraction. Far from wishing to elude it, many will seek to fulfill it in larger measure.

What we will make of Lent in practice depends upon ourselves. The opportunities are large and the grace of God sufficient.

- text from Lent in Practice: The Spirit of Penance, by Father John J Burke, C.S.P.; printed by "The Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle in the State of New York"