Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Producing Death

Ash Wednesday  

We’re back in the season of Lent again! So, time to take those three penitential acts, praying, fasting, and giving alms, out of the closet and dust them for use. But these days one rarely hears about the practice of 'doing penance'. Its value is belittled. Its necessity is questioned. Its effectiveness is ignored. Contemporary opinion of the practice is often seen as unnecessary and ludicrous; outdated and old fashioned; even backward and harmful. In a world that preaches instant gratification and excess in pleasures, fasting and mortifications seem like foreign concepts. Many of us can remember the time when Lent was truly a time set aside for mortification: when we tried to cut down on the sweets, the smokes, the drinks, the movies, etc. Has this former concept of mortification and penance become outdated? 

Although we are to be blamed for the present laxity, we can't ignore how our current culture of consumerism and materialism has launched a frontal assault on anything remotely resembling the practice of 'doing penance'. Therefore, it is not Lent with its mortification that is outdated or dead, it is man’s sense of the need of it that has been deadened. The constant bombardment of a materialistic and worldly viewpoint - through the internet, television, the movies, print media, the schools, etc. has done much to confuse and obscure the minds of Catholics, so that the moral conscience of many has been clouded. As Blessed John Paul II declared in his Apostolic Exhortation on Reconciliation and Penance (4), "when the conscience has been weakened the sense of God is also obscured, and as a result . . . the sense of sin is lost". And where there is lost the abiding conviction that we are sinners, there is lost the sense of the need of mortification, and more urgently, the need for salvation. 

The disdain for mortification could be due to the common misunderstanding that these practices were generated by some sick neurotic hatred for the body, by a medieval outlook of the flesh as something corrupted or corruptible, and thus needs to be tamed under the crack of the whip. Of course it doesn't help when these acts of penance are distorted by bad practice. Penances are performed not because the body is evil. This would be the heresy of Manicheism, long condemned by the Church. The body, however, is 'weak and fallen', but not absolutely corrupted as the Calvinists claim, and yet eternally destined to share in the joy of eternal life. 

 If, the reason we practice mortification and penance is not to wage war on evil flesh, then what real purpose does it serve? "The word 'mortification' comes from the Latin words mortem facere, meaning 'to produce death.' A person who is mortified has accomplished a kind of death in himself, death to his selfishness, death to his waywardness, death to his ego, and especially death to all those obstacles separating him from God, and therefore genuine happiness. These barriers include pride, the excessive emphasis on the self or one’s own feelings or ideas; laziness, the tendency to do the minimum; and sensuality, the excessive attachment to bodily pleasures, whether food, or drink, or sex. Mortification is the process of 'putting to death' these lower desires and appetites so that the purified man might live. 

The ultimate strength and effectiveness of all Christian mortification lies, of course, in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary. Uniting themselves to His pain and blood, the saints and those earnestly trying to become saints have always recognised that they had to die to themselves, sometimes in very dramatic and painful ways, in order to gain eternal life. The saints understood that matter and the human body are not evil in themselves, but because of the body’s substantial unity with the soul, it’s often the staging ground for a person’s inordinate desires, thus unruly tendencies needed to be corrected and purified. The world need not be an obstacle to sanctity. Many saints lived in it, came in contact with its allurements, but through a life of prayer and penance, remained detached from its attractions. They lived "in the world", but were not "of the world". 

But mortification and penance need not only be understood as a negation, a subjugation of our inordinate desires. They also served to foster the greatest virtue of all – charity. True love means sacrifice. Fasting and mortifications are small or big sacrifices that we make for Christ in order to imitate Him and His love. There is real power and Grace in doing penance, for ourselves and others. When we offer up a sacrifice on behalf of someone else (living or dead), the graces of that offering really do help that person. It becomes an act of sacrificial love, no matter how small, that participates in the work of Salvation that Christ began on the Cross. 

That the world contains many attractions that are in themselves sinful. But these are not the main snares that most of us have to guard against. For many persons, the main stumbling blocks are often more subtle - things which are in themselves lawful (hence so easy to justify), but which are so attractive and satisfying that it is difficult to seek them in moderation. For example, there is nothing wrong with enjoying food, but how easy it is to over-eat. It is not wrong to drink an alcoholic beverage, but how many get themselves in trouble because of the lack of moderation. It should be clear then, that a good portion of the excesses for which people will have to answer to God, involve things that are good in themselves, but which through lack of self-discipline and moderation, were sought excessively. 

We finally arrive at the meaning of true penance by reflecting on today’s gospel. Jesus is not condemning the penitential acts of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. What is in question is the interior motivation and disposition for these acts. Just like the religious leaders of his time, the notion that many persons have of penance is quite superficial, extending merely to acts of self-denial. The true notion of that virtue must go deeper than that. Every act of penance must have an interior aspect, an inner change of heart, as well as an exterior aspect, changing one’s life in harmony with the change of heart. The interior aspect has to do with sorrow for sin, and with a firm resolve to amend one’s life and offer satisfaction for the sins committed; the exterior aspect has to do with the self-denial, the good works, the sacrifices, which are necessary to overcome one’s selfish tendencies that lead to sin. Penance is therefore a conversion that passes from the heart to deeds and then to the Christian’s whole life. 

 There is within every Christian, then, a raging battle between two opposing forces for the domination of his heart. Within him are the roots of worldliness - rooted in his fallen nature, which make him inclined to accept the standards of the world. There is also in him the grace of Christ, which draws him to stand beneath the standard of Christ - in direct opposition to those of the world. How difficult is victory in this battle we all know; yet we have perfect confidence that the grace of Christ will win out, if we bring self-discipline to bear on the obvious points of weakness, and make frequent and fervent use of the means of grace, especially Prayer, the Sacraments (both the Eucharist and the Penance), and Works of Mercy. Triumph over worldliness and the weaknesses of the flesh will never be accomplished alone. And yet, no amount of penance or effort at self-discipline would suffice to overcome the world without the necessary help of grace. The work sanctification and salvation will be accomplished in the measure that we grow in grace, for in that measure we will share in the strength and triumph of Him Who said: "Take courage, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). And it is He who invites us once again at the beginning of this Lent to “Repent and believe in the Gospel!”

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