By Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.
On the front cover of TIME magazine, April 8, 1966, there appeared in large bold type three words: “Is God Dead?” The question referred, among other things, to the apparent lack of any impact that religion seemed to have on the lives of so many people today.
When this issue of THE ROSARY, LIGHT AND LIFE reaches you, Lent will already be well under way. Has this season made any difference in your mode of living? With all the mitigation of the Lenten mortifications in recent years, and the apparent lack of impact on the lives of so many Catholics, one might be tempted to ask: “Is Lent Dead?”
Many of us can remember the time when Lent was truly a time set aside for mortification: when we tried to cut down on the sweets, the smokes, the drinks, the movies, etc. And before the advent of television, giving up the movies was for some no small sacrifice. Has this former concept of mortification and penance become outdated?
It is not Lent with its mortification that is outdated or dead, it is man’s sense of the need of it that has been deadened. The constant bombardment of a materialistic and worldly viewpoint – through the TV, the movies, the newspapers and magazines, the schools, etc. has done much to confuse and obscure the minds of Catholics, so that the moral conscience of many has been clouded. As Pope John Paul II declared in his Apostolic Exhortation on Penance and Reconciliation (4), “when the conscience has been weakened the sense of God is also obscured, and as a result the sense of sin is lost.” And where there is lost the abiding conviction that we are sinners, there is lost the sense of the need of mortification. Let us examine briefly how this subtle deadening of our sense of sin and of the need of mortification can come about.
St. John wrote in his first Epistle (2:25), “love not the world, nor the things of which are in the world. If any man love the world, the charity of the Father is not in him.” What is this “world” which we are forbidden to love?
The first book of the Bible tells us that the world and all the goods it contains are God’s creatures, and that everything God made is good. So the fault lies not in the world, but in man, who because of his wounded nature easily becomes overly attached to the world’s goods and pleasures, and seeks them excessively. The world need not be an obstacle to sanctity. Many saints lived in it, came in contact with its allurements, but through a life of prayer and self-discipline, remained detached from its attractions. They lived “in the world,” but were not of the world. They were not contaminated by the spirit of the world, because they were so filled with the spirit of Christ. These two things are mutually exclusive of each other, so that the more one grows in the heart of man, the more the other is excluded.
Each of us, as the result of the three-fold concupiscence of our fallen nature (avarice, lust, pride), has deeply rooted in him the “seeds of worldliness.” In the measure that these seeds and inclinations grow and dominate us, in that measure they block the growth of grace; while on the contrary, as grace grows, this deep inclination to seek excessively the world’s pleasures is gradually diminished.
We must be aware of the battle that is necessary to insure this growth. As we have already stated, as one comes under the influence of the “world” with its false maxims and attractions, his spiritual perception tends to be dulled. If there is not a constant struggle to live our life according to the spirit of Christ, it is being shaped by an environment that is hostile to Christ. Living in a materialistic culture, and constantly being bombarded with its ideas, unless there is a conscious effort to seek the guiding norms of the Gospel, we slowly and imperceptibly tend to accept the world’s evaluation of things.
That the world contains many attractions that are in themselves sinful (if deliberately sought) few will deny. But these are not the main snares that most of us have to guard against. For many persons, the main stumbling blocks are things which are in themselves lawful (hence so easy to justify), but which are so attractive and satisfying that it is difficult to seek them in moderation.
A few examples will clarify what we mean: There is nothing wrong with enjoying food, but how easy it is to over-eat. It is not wrong to drink an alcoholic beverage, but how many get themselves in trouble because of the lack of moderation. It is not wrong to watch television – it can be very educational and wholesomely entertaining, – but because of the general content of a good portion of its programs, and of its ability to captivate the mind and monopolize our time, and because of its accessibility, it can and does pose some real problems. It is not wrong to play cards, even with a little money on the table; but how easy it is to get involved over one’s head. There is nothing wrong with wanting nice clothes, or enjoying nice things of various sorts; but how easy it is to be extravagant with the resources that God has entrusted to our care, and unmindful of others in want, etc. As St. Paul warns, there are many things that are lawful, but which are not expedient. (I Cor. 10:22)
It should be clear then, that a good portion of the excesses for which people will have to answer to God. involve things that are good in themselves, but which through lack of self-discipline and moderation, were sought excessively. The more satisfying a good thing is, the more difficult it is to use or seek it with moderation; and therefore the greater the need of occasional self-denial.
As we know from our own experience, our mind cannot fully attend to two things at the same time. In the measure that our attention is absorbed by one thing, to that extent it is incapable of giving full attention to something else. In a similar way, our heart cannot fully cling to two diverse things at the same time. In the measure that man’s heart is held captive by created goods (lawful though they may be), in that measure he is incapable of serving and giving his heart to the Creator of those goods, that is, of “loving God with our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole mind,” as we have been commanded to do. (Mt. 22:37) We cannot serve both God and mammon. (Mt. 6:24)
As Fr. Van Zeller puts it, “it isn’t strictly the extent to which a man is in water that cause’s drowning; it is the extent to which water is in him.” So it is not how much a person (through the duties of his life) is surrounded by the distractions and allurements of the world that causes his downfall, but how much these dominate his heart.
The notion that many persons have of penance is quite superficial, extending merely to acts of self-denial. These are part of Christian penance, but the true notion of that virtue must go deeper than that.
Pope John Paul II, in his “Apostolic Exhortation on Reconciliation and Penance” pointed out that the concept of penance is complex, for it involves an inner change of heart, and an exterior “changing of one’s life in harmony with the change of heart.” (4)
The INTERIOR ASPECT has to do with sorrow for sin, and with a firm resolve to amend one’s life and offer satisfaction for the sins committed; the EXTERIOR ASPECT has to do with the self-denial, the good works, the sacrifices – made in correcting one’s faults and in expiation for them, and seen as a necessary means of overcoming the selfish tendencies that lead us to sin. The need of this exterior discipline is clear if we recall the weakness of human nature due to original sin, for “the flesh lusts against the spirit, and the spirit against me flesh; the two are directly opposed.” (Gal. 5:17) As Pope John Paul II explained:
“Doing penance is something authentic and effective only if it is translated into deeds and acts of penance. In this sense penance means, in the Christian theological and spiritual vocabulary, asceticism, that is to say, the concrete daily effort of a person, supported by grace, to lose his or her own life for Christ as the only means of gaining it (Mt. 16:25) an effort to overcome in oneself what is of the flesh in order that what is spiritual may prevail; a continual effort to rise from the things of here below to the things where Christ is (Col. 3:1). Penance is therefore a conversion that passes from the heart to deeds and then to the Christian’s whole life.” (ibid.)
This is in accord with the notion of penance the Mother of God asked of the three young children at Fatima. As Sr. Lucia explained, the penance our Lady asked includes not only individual personal sacrifices and self denial, but also and especially the sacrifices and effort involved in keeping God’s commandments, and in fulfilling the God-given duties of one’s state in life.
After Pope John XXIII issued his Apostolic Constitution “Paenitentiam Agere,” officially proclaiming the second Ecumenical Vatican Council, he urged the faithful to make a worthy spiritual preparation for that great event by means of“prayer and voluntary mortification.” (2)
Pope John stressed both the interior and the exterior aspects of penance mentioned above. Speaking of interior repentance, he said:
“Our first need is for internal repentance; the detestation of sin, and the determination to make amends for it. This is the repentance shown by those who make a good Confession, take part in the Eucharistic Sacrifice and receive Holy Communion. The faithful should be specially encouraged to do this for external acts of penance are quite obviously useless unless accompanied by a clear conscience and the detestation of sin”(28).
As to outward acts of penance, the Holy Father continued:
“But the faithful must also be encouraged to do outward acts of penance, both to keep their bodies under the strict control of reason and faith, and to make amends for their own and other people’s sins. St. Paul was caught up to the third heaven – he reached to summit of holiness – and yet he had no hesitation in saying of himself: ‘I chastise my body and bring it into subjection.’(29).
“. External penance includes particularly the acceptance from God in a spirit of resignation and trust all of life’s sorrows and hardships, and of everything that involves inconvenience and annoyance in the conscientious performance of the obligations of our daily life and work and the practice of Christian virtue (30).
“. But besides bearing in a Christian spirit the inescapable annoyances and sufferings of this life, the faithful ought also to take the initiative in doing voluntary acts of penance and offering them to God” (31).
There is within every Christian, then, a battle between two opposing forces for the domination of his heart. Within him are the roots of worldliness – rooted in his fallen nature, which make him inclined to accept the MAXIMS OF THE WORLD, which unduly exalt pleasure, comfort, riches, independence, renown, power, etc., and to fix his heart on them to the neglect of God and the detriment of his soul. There is also in him the grace of Christ, which brings with it at least a minimum of knowledge and acceptance of the MAXIMS OF CHRIST – in direct opposition to those of the world. Unfortunately, man possesses these divine gifts imperfectly, and understands them obscurely. The grace of baptism, which brings a sharing in the life of Christ, does not suppress the roots of worldliness, yet it goes give the power to struggle against them. Hence the conflict within us between the spirit of the world and the spirit of Christ.
How difficult is victory in this battle we all know; yet there is room for perfect confidence that the grace of Christ will win out, if we but do what we can, namely: 1) bring self-discipline to bear on the obvious points of weakness, and 2) make frequent and fervent use of the means of grace, especially prayer, the sacraments, and works of mercy. These means of grace are as indispensable as the self-discipline, for triumph over worldliness and the weaknesses of the flesh will never be accomplished alone. It will be accomplished in the measure that we grow in grace, for in that measure we will share in the strength and triumph of Him who said: “Take courage, I have overcome the world.” (Jn. 16:33)