Last week, I encouraged us to view Lent as a forty-day stay in a really good rehabilitation center for our souls – one with the best doctor in existence. I said the first step was to spend time with an examination of conscience to localize symptoms – sources of disharmony or pain in our interior lives caused by sin. As indicated last week, sin involves our passions having become dominated by vice. When this happens, our souls are not able to function the way God made them to function, which makes it difficult for us to do the most important thing God made us to do – love Him and love others as an expression of our love of Him for having loved us into existence. Being contrite for our sins gives us the disposition needed for playing the role the Divine Physician asks us to play in the care He provides. Primarily, that role is to seek forgiveness, which can be scary because it involves feeling vulnerable. However, the less reservedly we ask for that forgiveness, the more we can release to Jesus for the perfect transformation He wants to actualize in us. That actualization comes through the medicinal effects of Christ’s death and Resurrection undergone on our behalf.
Given that Lenten transformation is a matter of healing for our souls, the proper aim of penance is to aid in that process of repair. Penance provides this aid by weakening the grip vice has on our passions through exercise of virtue. This is helpful because when our passions are dominated by vice, they have a tendency to obscure our vision. We are less likely to seek forgiveness for sins we have trouble seeing. And since we usually struggle with more than one type of sin, I recommend building a comprehensive penitential plan. The first step in creating this plan is to explore the different aspects of our lives in which we may be dominated by any of the Seven Deadly Vices of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. The next step is to create penances 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 us more resistant to vice, better disposing us to act well and to notice more easily when we do not.
The Church classifies Lenten penance by way of the three categories of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. As an example of penance for the category of prayer, consider the vice of envy. Let’s say I struggle with envy toward 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 kindness, an ability to delight in the person’s good. For fasting, you may want to try a diversified approach I like meant to exercise multiple virtues. 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 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. 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. Almsgiving has classically been seen as any material favor done to assist the needy prompted by the virtue of charity. Perhaps consider donating money you save due to your Lenten penance to some deserving charity.
The treatment plans here in Lenten Spiritual Rehab may pinch at times. When they do, let us try our best to stick with the program, mindful of the spectacular party the Divine Physician has planned for when our stay is finished. In a special way, this time is really meant to make us better partiers – free to love in the way God made us to love, full of Easter joy.
~ Br. Andy Opsahl, O.P.