For most of my life I experienced Lent as a dreary annual punishment. Over the past few years, however, I have come to view Lent in a better way. As I started seeing sin more clearly as something by which I brought disharmony and pain to my own soul, I began to experience Lent as a time that could help me feel better. Having created our souls, God designed them to work in a certain way to stay healthy. You might say sin is deviation from God’s spiritual health plan for our lives. Its effects can build up over the year, necessitating a period of focused treatment. Now I approach Lent as though I am checking my soul into a really good rehabilitation center for forty days – one with supportive staff, high-quality nutrition, and the best doctor in existence.
To experience Lent in this way it helps to understand a little bit about how sin works against the design of our souls. God designed the human soul to have an intellect with a will and to be capable of different passions – joy, sadness, courage, fear, and attraction to various pleasures, among other passions. Our passions are appropriate at different levels for different situations in order for us to will things well. And while willing things well involves enjoying things in this world, it means enjoying them in a way that that does not shackle us from being able to do the most important thing we were made to do, which is love God and love others as an expression of our love of God for having loved us into existence. Now, just as poor physical health is often connected to some sort of inflammation, sin is a symptom of our passions having become inflamed. Consider the example of someone like me who enjoys receiving praise. Attraction to that pleasure would be an example of a passion of my soul in action, a passion that is perfectly healthy, so long as it stays within a healthy boundary. But now let us imagine this passion becomes inflamed to a point of excess. And my positive self-image has come to rely on that excessive enjoyment. Before I know it, I have become dominated by the vice of pride. Next, suppose someone else enters the picture with whom I may have to share praise. Assuming I feel threatened by this, how much do you want to bet this will inflame my passion of fear, likely causing me to direct wrath and envy toward that person – two more vices on top of the pride? With all of those vices keeping my passions inflamed, my soul is going to have a hard time functioning the way God made it to function. That malfunction will make it more difficult for me to do the most important thing God made me to do – love Him and love others as an expression of my love of God. This is how sin causes disharmony and often pain in our souls, and it usually develops in a gradual way. In many cases, we do not notice it until it creates problems too unhealthy to ignore.
The good news is that, as stated earlier, Lent is like a rehabilitation center for our souls, one where the best doctor in existence oversees our treatment personally. Like any good doctor, God asks us to be active participants in the care He provides. And one of the most important roles we play happens at the beginning when we describe what ails us. Naming these symptoms involves an examination of conscience and genuine remorse for any sinfulness we find. Admittedly, confronting our own sinfulness and naming it can seem scary. If you feel this way, try to think of the process as being similar to the way you might describe your physical health to the smartest, most caring doctor imaginable. The truth is you will be talking to someone infinitely greater – the merciful God who loved you into existence. He is certainly capable of healing us in any way He chooses and without our doing anything, but as the norm he made us to play a role in our care. The more accurately we describe to Him our symptoms, the more thorough a healing we should expect. Next Sunday we will explore more specifically how the healing process works. Our treatment plan may involve discomfort at times, but if we stick with the program we have hope of coming out of Lent restored more closely to the perfectly free, happy human beings God made us to be.
~ Br. Andy Opsahl, O.P.