We have now left the penitential season of Lent. For many of us, as soon as this time ended, we dropped our Lenten sacrifices like a bad habit. In some sense, this is right and proper since we are not celebrating Easter joy.
But the question remains: how much have we changed and drawn closer to God?
The end or purpose of our penitential practices is to detach ourselves from our sins and our worldly desires so that we can become more single-hearted in our devotion to God. The reason why many of us give up chocolate for Lent is not because there is something inherently evil about chocolate or the enjoyment of its sweetness. But we deny ourselves so that we can become more self possessed and not as beholden to our appetites and desires.
We also take on more devotional practices like the rosary and the Stations of the Cross during this season partly because we are sacrificing our time to show our devotion to the Lord. All of this is good and proper. But the addition of more penances and prayers is not the end or purpose of penance. In other words, God is not interested in having us do more simply for the sake of doing more.
In his novel The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevski has the buffoonish character Fyodor upbraid the inhabitant of a nearby monastery. He tells them that they are foolish because they think they are saving their souls by living in self-imposed poverty. And while Fyodor is no sage, his words have a point.
It is very important that we begin by understanding that there is nothing we can do to make God love us more than He does at this very moment. The Pelagian heresy held that we could earn our way to heaven by our devotion. St. Augustine was adamant that this was a contradiction to the Gospel. If I could earn my own way to salvation, then I would not need a Savior.
Some of my students ask if I think I am good enough to enter Heaven when I die. I tell them in no uncertain terms that I am not good enough. This fact is not a statement of despair, but of simple fact. The Lord’s gift of salvation is one that I will never earn. I feel the same way about my relationship with my wife. I don’t know why she chose to marry a bum like me, but I’m just grateful that she did. I will never be good enough, but I will spend the rest of my life doing my best to be worthy of her.
And that is essentially the end or purpose of penance. Ultimately, it is about our relationship to the Lord. It is not a cold , calculous, like some kind of spiritual economy. On the sitcom The Good Place, they describe an afterlife where you are punished or rewarded based on some kind of ethical point system. This is completely contrary to how Christianity teaches judgment will occur, though this may be how many Christians believe it will go. God is not our Spiritual Accountant. He is our Father.
Actions and works do matter. In the story of the final judgment in Matthew 25, those that are sent to hell are the ones who do not take care of the needs of the poor. Our penitential actions matter as well. But all these actions of penance and charity must be done from a good heart, a good soul. St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13 “If I speak with human and angelic tongues but do not have love, then I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal… and if I give over my body to be burned so that I may boast, it profits me nothing.” Paul is not saying that speaking well and dying a martyr are bad things. He himself did both. What he is saying is that they are expressions of a holy heart.
This brings us back to penance. Returning to The Brothers Karamazov, there is a dying elder in that same monastery. Like the buffoonish Fyodor, he speaks of penance. There is a strange harmony between the vulgar attack from Fyodor and the wise dying words of the elder. The dying sage reminds the monks that they do penance in the monastery and mortify their lives not because they are spiritually strong.
They do it because they are spiritually weak.
There is a real danger of falling into spiritual pride when we look upon the penitential and spiritual practices we accumulate over a lifetime. Together, my wife and I spend about an hour in prayer every day. To my shame, there are times when I feel some kind of underserved self-satisfaction at how much time I give the Lord. I have to constantly remind myself that I give so much time to God in prayer because I desperately need it.
It would be very odd for someone to boast about their medical treatment. “I have to take 3 pills at regimented times of the day and then I have to do IV infusions at 8 hours apart.” If someone were to say this to brag, we would find it very strange, And yet there are many of us, myself included, who think of the amount of spiritual and penitential activity we perform and brag to others (or at least pat ourselves on the back internally). Yet this spiritual self-satisfaction should be as strange as the one who boasts of their medical therapies. Both are simply expressions of the lengths they need to go through to be made whole.
If you can be as close to God without heavy penitential practices, that is a good thing, not a bad thing. I think of the very un-ascetic holy people like GK Chesterton who feasted on life (as well as many hearty meals) while maintaining an incredibly strong spiritual closeness to God. Some are scandalized by lack of penance. In Matthew 9, John the Baptist’s followers, who regularly fasted, condescendingly ask Jesus why His disciples do not fast. Christ said, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn when the bridegroom is with them?” (Matt 9:15) Jesus is pointing to the fact that the purpose of penance is not the penance itself, but closeness to Him.
Most of us need penance because we are weak and we need spiritually therapeutic aid that pennance gives. But we should never lose sight of the real and true goal of penance.
In his book Prayer for Beginners, Dr. Peter Kreeft makes clear that penance is simply the means to growing spiritually. It is not the end. Now that we are in the Easter Season, let us fully embrace the end of penance.
Copyright WL Grayson 2020