Here we find ourselves on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. It is a season we rightly associate with penance. However, let us remember that the true aim of Lenten penance is transformation of our souls through conversion of our hearts anew to Jesus Christ. Pope Paul VI described Lenten penance as something that should trigger a transformation of mentality in us, a change in our way of evaluating ourselves. A key goal of Lent is to submit as much as we can to the perfect transformation Christ wants to perform in us through His death and Resurrection. In practical terms, how do we go about approaching penance in a way that can help us cooperate with the grace God is making available for this conversion of our hearts? I recommend building a comprehensive penitential plan based on evaluation of how dominated we are by the Seven Deadly Vices of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. This suggestion should be no surprise given that typically we need transformation in more than one area of sin. Evaluating where we stand in regard to these vices can help us create penitential practices tailor-made for helping us grow in the corresponding Seven Heavenly Virtues of chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. Virtues are like muscles that make it easier for us to remain free of vice, which better disposes us for the transformation that awaits through God’s grace. Now, the Church classifies Lenten penance by way of the three categories of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Below are insights on how we can incorporate those categories into a comprehensive penitential plan for Lent that is virtue-based.
Receiving the sacraments of confession and the Eucharist more often should be the foundation of any penitential plan. In addition to them, however, try to think of creative ways for prayer to help you grow in specific virtues where vice tends to dominate you. For example, consider the vice of envy. Do you struggle with feelings of sorrow or resentment at the good fortune of a particular family member, friend, or coworker? Through time spent each week praying for that person’s intentions, God can begin to transform that envy into an ability to delight in the person’s good.
Fasting seems to be the first thing most people think of regarding Lent. Usually Christians choose one thing to fast from entirely for the season. This is a time-tested approach that can certainly be effective. However, as part of your comprehensive penitential plan, you may want to try a diversified approach I like that is designed to exercise multiple virtue muscles. By a diversified approach, I mean choosing a combination of enjoyments from which to fast on pre-specified numbers of days each week. For example, let’s say you tend to eat too much of a certain type of food. Under this alternative approach, you could determine a number of days each week to fast from that food, a number that would feel genuinely austere to you. The next step would be to explore other aspects of excessive consumption in your life. Do you find yourself addicted to Facebook? If so, select a number of days each week to also fast from Facebook, at least enough days to feel the sting of its absence. Perhaps you spend too much time listening to political talk radio, which enflames you in a way that causes you to be dominated by wrath. If so, reduce your consumption of talk radio using the method described above, and do likewise with other aspects of vice you would like to target through the fasting portion of your penitential plan. You may be wondering, how austere is austere enough? The answer is to base the rigor of your penitential austerity on an honest assessment of your own spiritual maturity. Offering discomfort as a gift to God is profoundly important to Lenten penitential transformation. This is because crucial to Christ’s suffering on the cross is the fact that its redemptive effect on human nature transformed suffering, something rooted in sin, into a source of His grace. To let ourselves off easy in regard to Lenten fasting is to be stingy with ourselves. God does not need our fasting. We need our fasting for the grace he generously gifts us through it. By the same token, being too ambitious with Lenten penance can lead us to lose sight of its ultimate purpose. When this happens, fasting can become a vain exercise. We can also start to compensate for the discomfort involved by displaying it for others or allowing our penance to become mortification for those around us. Ultimately, follow your conscience as honestly as possible when determining the rigor of your fasting.
Given that almsgiving is any material favor done to assist the needy, prompted by the virtue of charity, it should be easy to see that almsgiving is a penance that overcomes the vice of greed.
The Ultimate Aim of Lent
I cannot stress enough the importance of conversion of our hearts anew to Jesus during Lent. We should come out of Lent as better people. Ultimately, Lent is meant to prepare us to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection. We as Christians were baptized into both His death and Resurrection, a transformation that will enable every Christian who perseveres in this life to enjoy perfect happiness with Him for eternity in the next.