instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, March 09, 2013

P40X: Lenten Humpweek

We're about halfway from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. Are you about halfway purified?

Likely, not. And I say that, not as a knock against you personally, Dear Reader, but in the statistical sense that few of us ever get fully purified by our Lenten disciplines. For that matter, how many of us ever intend to get fully purified?

It's also true that purity isn't the sort of thing that you get by halves. You know the saying, a spoonful of sewage in a gallon of wine makes a gallon of sewage. The saints are right to be more distraught at their spoonful of sin than we are at our gallon of sins. If they could just overcome their spoonful, they'd be pure, while if we dumped out our gallon, we'd just refill the bucket by nightfall.

At least, we would if we simply dump it out, then carry on with business as usual. Dumping a bucket like this can happen in at least two ways:
  • In my imagination, as when I say to myself, "You know, I really should stop pushing young children into mud puddles. But even if I did, I'd still kick canes out from old men on the street, and pretty soon I'd be right back with the children and the puddles. So why bother? I am what I am, and God will sort it out later." In other words, I imagine what it would be like to abjure my sins, and I figure it would be pretty much like a smoker who quits smoking between the time he runs out of cigarettes and the time he buys a new pack at the store, so I never actually abjure my sins. My imagination doesn't account for the fact that, if I did actually abjure my sins, I would be changed from the person sitting here imagining it, and I just might be changed in a way that would cause me to continue to grow in holiness rather than sink back into the mire.
  • In the confessional, when I make a sincere confession -- so the bucket is truly emptied -- but my purpose of amendment is about as firm as my New Years Day resolve that I will get into shape this year. In other words, it is as a morning cloud, and as the dew that goeth away in the morning. The thought in my head, as I walk out of the church, is, "This time, this time, I shall leave the children, and the puddles, undisturbed." But if I have done no work to uproot the habit of bemudding, then the firm resolve will soon be forgotten, if it has not already been directly overcome by temptation.
Which brings me back to my theme of Lent as an ideal liturgical season for the development of virtuous habits (and the dissolution of vicious habits).

In particular, the virtuous habit -- which we hear all about, and maybe even talk about, and certainly say "Amen" about at Mass, and constantly mention if we pray the Liturgy of the Hours -- of penance.

Though when I say we hear all about the virtue of penance, I don't mean we necessarily realize we are hearing about penance as a virtue, as a habitual disposition of the will "whereby the sinner is disposed to hatred of his sin as an offence against God and to a firm purpose of amendment and satisfaction." I suspect that when we hear the word "penance," we usually think of an Our Father and a Hail Mary after Confession -- and in the context of Lent, we think of giving up chocolate or beer.

But my giving up chocolate or beer [As if - Ed.] as an act of self-denial isn't an act of penance if it isn't associated in any way with hatred of my sins.
N.B. That's hatred of my sins. Not hatred of sin in the abstract, not hatred of the sins of those around me. Hatred of my own, actual, real, concrete, no-kidding sins that I, of my own free will and volition, have as a matter of historical fact committed. The reply I made at 9:43 am on Tuesday, the reply I didn't make at 11:16 am on Tuesday, the choice I made to turn on the TV at 8:31 pm on Wednesday.
So, with three weeks until the Easter Vigil, let me make this suggestion: If you have been giving something up for Lent, if you have been praying, fasting, and giving alms for the last three and a half weeks because that's what Catholics do during Lent, but you have not been growing in the virtue of penance, add "growth in the virtue of penance" to your Lenten commitments. Make a conscious effort to think on your sins, and from that knowledge -- together with the increased knowledge of the all-holy God that you prayer, fasting, and almsgiving has caused -- will come a holy hatred of those sins. As the old Catholic Encyclopedia puts it,
The detestation of sin is a praiseworthy act, and in penance this detestation proceeds from a special motive, i.e., because sin offends God...
Does that sound familiar? Like something from one of those old "Acts of Contrition" you say during Confession?
I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishment, but most of all because I have offended Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love.
It should, because contrition is the primary act of penance. The "Act of Contrition" is a prayer the reciting of which is, if done sincerely, an act of contrition. And the virtue of penance is closely related to the Sacrament of Penance. As the universal Catechism sums up:
The sacrament of Penance is a whole consisting in three actions of the penitent and the priest's absolution. The penitent's acts are repentance, confession or disclosure of sins to the priest, and the intention to make reparation and do works of reparation.
The first and third of those actions are acts of the virtue of penance. By consciously cultivating -- with the help of God's grace -- the virtue of penance, you will make those actions of the Sacrament habitual in your life, so that when you dump out your bucket of sewage by confessing your sins to a priest, it will not fill back up so quickly with sewage, leaving room instead for the new wine of God's graces --

At which point the metaphor breaks down, for reasons of the spoonful-of-sewage paradox mentioned above. But that's a point at which you have been changed, for the better, and are still moving in the right direction: where the holy ones mourn over their spoonfuls, while pouring out for those around them God's pure grace.