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Posts Tagged ‘Penance’

The PenitentI started this post yesterday, but didn’t manage to finish it — though it would have been more apropos if I had, since Friday is a day of penance for Catholics and other Christians.  Nevertheless, every day is a good day to ask: “Is penance still relevant?”

All right — we need to first establish what penance is not.  Forget about familiar images of shirtless monks flagellating themselves with heavy whips until they are nearly half-dead and bathed in blood (there is a practice of mortification involving a rope, but it is much milder than that).  We Catholics do not hate our bodies, and I cannot emphasize that strongly enough.

Apart from religious reasons, I would argue that penance (prudently undertaken, of course) has tremendous benefits for the human person in general, and for today’s society in particular.

First, it encourages patience.  Without a doubt, we live in an instant gratification society.  We want what we want when we want it.

NYC_subway_riders_with_their_newspapersWe often complain (rightly) that our society is too busy, and that the professional world moves too fast and demands too much of our time and energy.  But what we tend to forget is the reason for this.  Our jobs and culture allow us so little leisure precisely because we are an immediate-satisfaction society.  Satisfaction of this desire demands that our industries, businesses, and other providers be constantly at the grindstone.

A spirit of penance encourages us to delay satisfaction and gratification, to say “no” to ourselves in the moment so as to build discipline and pave the way for greater, deeper rewards.  If 25 people in our society embraced a spirit of penance, imagine what effect that might have on our “go-go,” “get-get” culture.

The second benefit penance has for our society is related to this point.  Like I said, we modern Westerners have the tendency to move way too fast.  When we fast, when we deny ourselves certain legitimate pleasures for a time, or when we impose rigorous disciplines on ourselves, we then give ourselves occasion to grow in gratitude.  We come to realize that all good things are gifts from God, on Whom we depend for our every need.  This realization helps us to slow down and appreciate even the little things in life that we take for granted.

I could go on longer, but enough said for now.  Hopefully, this illustrates how even those aspects of traditional Christian teaching that are counter-intuitive are, in the last analysis, life-giving, and meant only for the good of humankind.

Images from Wikipedia

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Ash Wednesday

Happy Ash Wednesday all!  I had hoped to get to Mass for ashes tonight, but I’m feeling a little under the weather, so I had to lay low.

Having rediscovered my faith in the last several years, I have learned some surprising things about the Lenten Season.  Here are some misconceptions I hope to clear up, for anyone for whom they remain:

1. “Gotta get those ashes…”

Contrary to what some (including myself 12 years ago) suppose, Catholics are not required to go to Mass or receive ashes on Ash Wednesday.

It is a great practice to get into, of course.  But obligatory?  No.

Ash Wednesday does, however, require the faithful to abstain from meat and to observe the Church’s prescribed fast: One regular meal and two smaller ones that, when put together, still do not constitute a full meal.

2. “40 days to go…or is it 47?”

If you try to count the “40 Days” from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, you’ll notice it doesn’t add up.

So you gave up chocolate ice cream for lent?  Good News: You can eat it on any Sunday during the Lenten Season.  Sundays do not count as “Lent days,” because every Sunday is a celebration of the Lord’s victory over death.  As such, it is day of celebration, not mourning/fasting.  So during Lent, we can think of Sundays as “oases” in the desert.

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with sustaining your sacrifice into Sunday.  But if you don’t, you have not broken your Lenten resolution.

Along these lines, let’s proceed to #3…

3. “Gonna go to hell if I don’t give up chocolate…”

Perhaps the most popular misconception is that we have to give something up during Lent.  While it has been the practice in the Church for many centuries to make sustained sacrifices in observance of this part of the Liturgical Year, it is not something that we are obligated to do, strictly speaking.

But to give something up for Lent is a salutary practice, and one the Church strongly recommends.  Had to throw that in there, just in case you thought I might be discouraging the practice.

4. “No steak this Friday, but at least it’s only ’till Easter…”

It’s true that mandatory meatless Fridays are only during Lent, whereas prior to the Second Vatican Council every Friday was a day of abstinence.

Contrary to popular belief, however, Catholics are still asked to perform some act of penance on Fridays throughout the year.  This can entail giving up meat, but it doesn’t have to.

The reason the no-meat rule was changed was that our culture got to a point where giving up meat was no longer a sacrifice.  People could use Friday as an opportunity to enjoy fish fries, seafood buffets, cheese pizzas, etc., thereby eating better on Friday than on any other day of the week.

Obviously, this completely misses the whole point of penance.  The Church, like a loving mother, wanted her children to regain their understanding of this.

I won’t go into the nitty-gritty of such seemingly depressing subjects as penance, sacrifice, etc.  But I will say this: Penance is to be understood as something positive and life-affirming, not as something negative and indicative of an angry, grudge-bearing God.  I actually covered this subject in an August post — I will “reblog” that tomorrow or Friday, for those who are interested.

Anyway, these are some misconceptions that I once not only had, but took for granted.  And I suspect the same is true for a lot of other people.  Hopefully, this post has cleared up a thing or two 🙂

Image from Wikipedia

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RamadanOur Muslim brothers and sisters completed Ramadan, a month-long period of fasting, yesterday.

From what I understand, this is a very strict fast.  Those observing may eat and drink before sunup and after sundown, but at no time in between.  And during this season of longer days, that must have been difficult indeed.

Such discipline and self-denial is vastly admirable, and is one of the traits in pious Muslims that my fellow Christians and I should be open to learning from.

The corresponding observance in Catholicism is, of course, Lent…as well as every Friday, which is designated as a special day of penance (contrary to popular belief, Vatican II did not do away with this — but that’s a subject for another post).

But why should anyone fast?  Isn’t there something puritanical and anti-body about it?  Doesn’t it betray a rather gloomy outlook on life overall?

Some have taken fasting too far, of course.  But a lot of good things have been abused and taken to excess.  Fasting is no more about the aforementioned things than football is about damaging your body and breaking your bones.

I’d like to present three of the main benefits of fasting (speaking from a Catholic perspective):

1. Gratitude. Depriving ourselves of bodily sustenance, as well as other things we have come rightly or wrongly to depend on, makes us aware of our total dependence on our Creator.  And when we look to our Creator with gratitude, we gain a greater appreciation of His goodness, benevolence, and care for us.

Further, gratitude is a safeguard against taking anything we have for granted.  We begin to see that absolutely everything is gift, and we learn to appreciate life as we never appreciated it before.

2. Freedom. Oddly enough, fasting confers freedom on us by making us less dependent on the things of the world for our happiness.  To appreciate the good things life has to offer is good in itself, but we can become too attached to them, and our attachments can take on the character of addiction (albeit usually a mitigated form of it).  Untethered by the bonds that weigh us down, we can walk through life with the lightness and freedom of movement that belongs to the saint.

Saint FrancisThe Franciscan lifestyle demonstrates this most beautifully.  It is no accident that both poverty and joy in creation are chief traits of this Order.

3. Penitence. Here we come to something harder to accept.  Nevertheless, we have to realize that in depriving ourselves of certain legitimate pleasures, we are making reparation for the wrong for which we are personally responsible.  And in Christ, we are able in this way also to make reparation for the sins of the rest of the Body of Christ and of the world.

We have all sinned.  God is infinitely good, loving, and faithful, and we have offended Him.  True, our sins do not affect Him in any way, as they would a creature.  He is God — infinitely perfect and happy in Himself.

But when we sin, we turn away from Him, treating the One Who is infinitely worthy as being not worthy.  And when we do that, we cause serious damage — both to ourselves as individuals and to the rest of the human family (we are all connected in and through God’s providence, after all).

So in that sense, fasting can be seen as a sort of “physical therapy” for recovery from the “injury” of sin.  By a process of painful “exercise,” we can overpower our dominating egos and grow in Christian charity.  And we can, in small ways, begin to repair the damage we have done.

And in that sense, fasting is also a sign of hope.  It’s depressing to think that ultimate reality is either bad or indifferent, and that we are the unfortunate band of helpless creatures lost in the middle of it.  But when we realize that Ultimate Reality is good and that we need to fall back into step with it (or, rather, Him), this changes everything.

I think it’s sad that the spirit of fasting has kind of subsided from the lifestyle of Christians in recent decades — especially since such witness is needed in what is often a culture of excess.  When we see how integral fasting and self-denial are to the devotion of Muslims, we should be inspired to revive our appreciation of this great gem of our tradition.

Image from Wikipedia

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