I once heard a priest ask his congregation, "What are you doing this Lent to make your self miserable?" He was half-joking, but I think that he said this because he really did dread Lent. And certainly I can identify somewhat with his sentiment. After all, the penitential aspect of Lent is not entirely "fun." On the other hand, is it really supposed to make us feel "miserable"? Should we measure the value of a penance by how much we hate it, by how terrible it makes us feel? Is that what Lent is truly about?
Hardly. Rather, Lent is—in the end—really all about happiness, not misery and sadness. But—you may be wondering—how can this be? Isn't penance, which we are especially supposed to focus on during Lent, all about self-denial, giving up things we enjoy, and doing those good things—like giving to the poor—that can feel so unnatural and are just down-right difficult to do? How can this be all about happiness?
Well, it all depends upon what we mean by "happiness," and, consequently, how we are supposed to attain it. Thus, the million-dollar question is....what is happiness anyway? And how can we become happy? Of course, these are not new questions, and certainly not trivial ones. In fact, our whole life depends upon them, precisely because happiness is the one thing that we all seek, in every single thing that we do, in every choice and act that we make. We all want to be happy.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle recognized this when he posed the same questions in his well-known work, Nichomachean Ethics, in the 4th century B.C. He reasoned that the one thing sought in every human act is happiness. He first describes happiness rather generally as that ultimate goal "for the sake of which" all things are done. It is the ultimate "telos" (τέλος), the end, the goal, the purpose of human life and activity. And, in fact, he goes on to define happiness as a type of activity itself: "happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with perfect virtue" (Nich. Eth. I, 13). Contrary to many modern notions of happiness, he dismissed the idea that happiness could be merely a feeling; nor did he think that happiness is simply a passive state or condition of the human being. Instead, it is the perfection of the human being, a perfection fulfilled in the excellent activity of the highest powers of man. To be happy, then, we must act virtuously, we must live well: for that is what happiness is.
Now, it may seem odd, at first glance, to dwell much on what a pagan Greek philosopher had to say long before Christianity even existed, when discussing the true meaning of the Christian season of Lent. However, I point out Aristotle because I think he was onto something in his view of happiness which is relevant not only to the season of Lent, but also to the whole gamut of moral questions and problems that are discussed today. But not only for this reason is Aristotle worth noting here. He is also noteworthy because what sacred Scripture and Christian tradition have to say about happiness elevates what he had already discovered about it using the natural light of human reason. Faith and reason are in harmony here, and point in the same direction, although faith surpasses and transcends what reason can only begin to discover on its own.
For Aristotle, happiness consisted in an activity of the soul in accord with perfect virtue; and the perfect, or highest virtue, was that of contemplation (Greek "theoria", θεωρία), to know deeply and penetratively the highest, most divine truths about reality. Aristotle, of course, did not believe in the Christian God, nor did he have any concept of a personal God at all. But Aristotle's idea takes on new dimensions when seen in light of the Christian faith, such as Jesus' prayer to the Father in John 17: "This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent." The goal of human life, for Jesus, was knowing God. This "knowing" of God doesn't simply mean having God as an acquaintance, much less a mere understanding of great truths about God. Rather, it is a "knowing" which consists in intimate union with God; what Scripture often describes as "seeing" the "face" of God (1 Jn 3:2; Rev 22:4; cf. Ex. 33:11-23).1 The Catholic Tradition has called this the "Beatific Vision", or simply "Beatitude": the direct vision of God-in-Himself, knowing Him as he truly is, a union made possible by love or charity.
"That's great," you may be thinking, "but what does all of this have to do with Lenten penance?" The answer is: everything. Lenten penance is about happiness because it is all about preparing us to engage in that highest activity of the human soul which alone can make us happy: seeing God. How? By removing obstacles that obscure our spiritual vision, and by exercising the "ocular muscles" of our soul. Of course, this process is not always fun, much like going on a diet or exercising are not always fun. But we do penance and physical exercising for analogous reasons: because we know that the outcome will lead us to spiritual or physical health, respectively.
That physical exercise leads to physical health is obvious. But how does penance lead to spiritual health, namely, the vision of God? In three ways: (1) Almsgiving helps us see God in our neighbor, by loving those in need who are created in His image and likeness. (2) Fasting helps us to pay attention to our spiritual vision and hunger rather than their mere physical counterparts. By giving up certain attractive foods or other goods, we admit that there are even greater goods that we ought to seek, and train our souls to put the first things first. And (3) prayer puts us into direct communication with God Himself, the knowledge of whom is our happiness. Put another way, each of the traditional forms of penance attempts to respond to God's grace and overcome sin by restoring harmony in three different relations—with our neighbor, within ourselves, and with God.
So if Aristotle was indeed onto something when he thought of happiness as a perfect and perfecting activity of the human being—and if the Christian Tradition goes even further and says that the greatest "activity" is that of knowing God face-to-face, then Christian penance is all about training us to respond to God's grace, restore harmony within ourselves, with others, and with God, all of which prepare us to see God. It may, indeed, make us feel "miserable" for a short while; but that's not the point, nor should we measure the value of our penance by how awful we feel. Rather, we should endeavor to pursue those forms of penance which help us attune our spiritual vision toward God, rather than the fleeting pleasures of this life. For our happiness, our eternal life, is in knowing Him, and his Son, Jesus Christ, by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. This Lent, then, may we keep our "eyes" on this goal, this purpose, this "telos" of our works of penance, that we might do them with genuine love and devotion, fueled by that divine hope that one day, indeed, we may see God face-to-face, and know Him as he truly is.
- It should be noted that both the Hebrew and Greek words meaning "to know", yada (יָדַע) and oida (οἰδα), have as their most basic and primitive meaning, "to see." The greek term οἰδα, in fact, is technically the perfect form of εἰδον (I saw) and thus literally meant, "I have seen," but came to used for the present form, "I know," since to have seen something is to know it. Thus "seeing" and "knowing", even in the Bible, are almost interchangeable. To "know" God is to have "seen" Him as he is, "face-to-face," which of course does not happen for us until heaven.