Fausto Gomez OP
Lent is the journey of conversion through penance to the celebration of the great mystery of our faith. Pope Francis tells us that Lent is “a favorable time to prepare to celebrate with renewed hearts the great mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.”
The word “lent”, we are told, derives from an old English word “Lenten,” which means springtime. On the other hand, the Latin word “Lente” means going slowly. Based on this double etymology, “Lent signals the onset of spring and invites us to slow down our pace, to gather our thoughts, as it were, to take stock of our lives, to begin once again, to put things in their proper perspective” (Richard McBrien).
The journey of Lent is a pilgrimage of continuing conversion, through the virtue of penance and penances, towards a renewed life in Easter.
CONVERSION AND PENANCE
True conversion is a dynamic and ongoing process of change and renewal. To be converted means to renounce sin, and to return to God and to fellow human beings (cf. Mk 1:14-15). Conversion means “to die to death [sins] and to live to life [God’s grace and love]” (St. Augustine, Confessions).
Conversion through penance. Penance is a virtue, that is, a success in self-realization, a good operative habit that disposes us firmly to repentance, to do acts of penance, to penances – to deeper conversion. Penance is a strong personal disposition that leads us to fight selfishness, sins, and practice un-selfing. Penance is closely linked to the theological virtues: Faith is the soul of penance; hope, its dynamic force, and charity, its form (W. Kasper). Charity gives life and value to penance and to all other virtues. The ultimate goal of penance is “that we should love God and commit ourselves completely to him” (St. Paul VI).
Penance is mainly interior penance or repentance, a firm disposition of the soul to change our lives following Christ. Interior penance inclines us to do external penances. The classical penances are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These penances help us re-establish and fortify our relationships with God through prayer, with ourselves through fasting, and with others through mercy – through almsgiving and forgiving.
St. John XXIII wrote in his diary that “There are two paths to paradise: innocence and penance.” We have lost our innocence, so the path open to us is penance. In a radical sense, penance and penances ought to lead us to do better what we ought to do as human beings and as Christians. The basic penance is greater fidelity to our vocation and mission. “If you just are what you ought to be, you will set the whole world on fire” (St. Catherine of Siena).
PRAYER, FASTING AND ALMGIVING
The classical three traditional forms of penance are thenprayer, fasting and almsgiving. To these, Jesus invites his followers (cf. Mt 6:1-6, 16-18). The Fathers of the Church (from first to eighth centuries), pre-eminent representatives of Christian Tradition, speak powerfully of and recommend imperatively the three classical expressions of penance. A second century writer preached in a homily: “Blessed is the man found perfect in these three ways. ‘Prayer is good with fasting and thanksgiving’. For he who on the day of the last judgment will reward good works and almsgiving, today also listens favorably to prayers which come from good deeds” (St. Cyprian).
St. Peter Chrysologus (406-450) writes: “Prayer, mercy and fasting constitute one thing only, and they fertilize reciprocally. Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting… So, if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petitions to be heard, hear the petitions of others” … “He who does not fast for the poor fools God. Give to the poor and you give to yourself.”
For the Fathers of the Church, prayer is presented as directed to fasting and fasting to almsgiving. Prayer connects us with God and opens our heart to others, especially the needy and poor. St. Cyprian (200-250) speaks of fruitful and fruitless prayer. The African Bishop writes: “Prayer with no good works is not effective. Prayer is good with fasting and almsgiving.”
Fasting is symbol of detachment, renunciation, sacrifices, the cross. Fasting properly done is a good means to put order and harmony in our life: the body under spirit and the spirit under God; the passions under the will and the will subordinated and faithful to God’s will. As Jesus taught us, there is a time to fast, and a time not to fast (cf. Mt 9:14-15). We say yes to fasting as a very convenient means that may help us eradicate sin, strengthen virtues and become closer to God and to neighbors, particularly the poor. Yes, then, to fast moderately: not too much nor too little. Jesus fasted for forty days in the desert (Mt 4:2; Lk 4:2). We imitate him and accompany him to the cross through our Lenten fast.
On our pilgrimage of faith, hope and love to happiness, fasting must be accompanied by almsgiving, a visible expression of mercy. Fasting without almsgiving is insufficient as John Chrysostom, Ambrose and Augustine tell us. St. Augustine: “Let us by our prayers add wings of piety to our alms, deeds and fasting so that they may fly more readily to God.”
In his admirable commentary On the Our Father, St. Cyprian states that prayers not accompanied with good deeds are ineffectual or not efficacious before God, for as the Lord says, they are like fruitless trees (cf. Mt 7:19). Words are made fertile in good works. God heard the prayers of Tobit (cf. Tob 12:8-9) and the prayers of Cornelius because they prayed constantly and practiced much almsgiving simultaneously (cf. Acts 10:4).” St Augustine: “If we wish our prayers to be heard by the Lord, we ought to commend them with good works and alms.”
In our second column, we shall reflect on penance and mercy as almsgiving and forgiving, and on the Sacrament of Reconciliation.