Dicerning a Lenten Pernance
As we are in the early stages of Lent, it's important the our penance is beneficial. We want to spent this time, and our energy, wisely. Our penance cannot simply be a customary routine. We can, and should, do better. For instance, if we give up chocolate for Lent, just because we always give up chocolate for Lent, then we won't get the great benefits of the season and opportunity that Lent provides.
The objective, is not to just persevere through Lent, but to journey through Lent, and beyond Lent, into the Glory of Easter and Pentecost, and emerge armed with increased faith and virtue, a stronger character, greater discipline, and ready to combat and conquer the difficulties and evils of the world.
Perhaps a short illustration may help us get a better picture.
On the first day of a philosophy class, the professor picked up a large jar and filled it to the brim with golf balls. He asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.
Then he took a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar and the pebbles filled the spaces between the golf balls. Once again, he asked if the jar was full. The students all said it was.
Then he poured in some sand and filled the jar to the brim. Once more he asked if the jar was full, and the students responded with a resounding 'yes'.
The professor then poured water into the jar. The students laughed. When the laughter subsided, the professor said, “This jar represents your life. The golf balls are the important things; your faith, family, children, friends, your health, your marriage, and your passions. If everything else was lost and only these remained, you would still have a full life.”
“The pebbles are less important. They represent your job, your house, your car. The sand is everything else; the small stuff. The interesting part of this is: if you put the sand into the jar first, there's no room for the pebbles or the golf balls, and the same goes for life. If you spend all your time and energy focused on the small stuff, you will never have room for things that are really important.”
John the Baptist said, “He must increase; I must decrease.” 1 The objective of Lent is to put the important things into our lives, and to decrease our additions and infatuation with distractions. But, in another sense, we must also increase. We have to focus on becoming better Christians, and more effective apostles. The moral values of our world are in dire shape. What will become of it if we cower in silence?
Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me" 2 Christ must be first in all things: in our faith, in our time, in our marriages, and in our families. All the rest, in comparison to our salvation, and the eternal life of others, is just sand.
Lent is, not only a time of self-examination, it is a time of planning. It is a time where we look at the things that fill our thoughts, our days, and our lives. What is truly important in our lives? What do we put into the jar first? What divides our attention? And how do we proceed?
There are two categories of a proper Lenten penance.
The first category focuses on fortification. Fortification is an additive process chosen to make us stronger. It involves developing desirable characteristics in our individual, communal, and spiritual lives. These are the golf balls of the professor's experiment. Examples of fortification include: increased and more effective prayer; alms given in joy, greater compassion and charity, growing in virtue and holiness, and an enhanced vision and experience of sanctity and holiness.
The second category focuses on mortification. This is a subtractive process. It involves diminishing the importance of the sand in our lives. It is chosen to overcome and remove deficiencies in our character and spiritual life. Mortification focuses on overcoming undesirable characteristics through self-discovery, discipline, and self denial.
So, how do we proceed?
First, chose a mortification penance. Ask yourself the following questions. What sins do I habitually confess? What triggers my sinful behavior? How can I avoid occasions of sin? And, in what ways am I least like Christ? This will require some thought, self-analysis, and planning.
Second, select a fortification element. Chose some desirable characteristic or virtue that you would like to develop to your life. Perhaps you want to be more prayerful. Perhaps you want greater patience. Perhaps you want to be more outgoing, giving, and participate more fully in the community of Christ. Perhaps, you want a greater knowledge of the Catholic faith. Identify the objective and then make a plan.
Aristotle once said: “Every sin comes about because of the lack of a corresponding virtue.” Greed comes about because of a lack of charity. Pride surfaces because of a lack of humility. Envy arises where there is a lack of gratitude. Lust occurs because of a lack of chastity, and so on. So, in planning your mortification , determine and pursue the virtue that is lacking while disciplining your appetites and behaviors.
Once you have discerned your Lenten objectives, what remains is to determine how you can be most successful. In this you will find that working to develop virtues is easier than trying to monitor and restrict undesirable behavior. I'm not diminishing the value of discipline. Discipline is also a virtue. But pursuing positive goals, even developing discipline, is easier psychologically, and therefore more achievable.
Mortification can be like trying not to think of a pink elephant. The more you try; the more the elephant is actually on your mind. Whereas, if you think about developing the virtues you need, then those virtues are on your mind, and you will see every difficulty, not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity.
Keep your eyes on God. Focusing on growing in your faith and, love. Take delight in the Lord's goodness and generosity. By doing so, discipline and a greater obedience will come naturally.
The philosopher, Cicero, once said, “Gratitude is the mother of all virtues”. Thus, when mortification and fortification are used together, with a heart filled with gratitude, you can make progress on overcoming the root causes of your spiritual struggles, live lives of greater holiness, and emerge from Lent with greater courage and joy.