Topic: Penance

Br. Clement Lepak, OP's picture

Status Viatoris

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Pilgrims on Earth

The beatific vision of God is the goal of life and the perfection of our quest for holiness. The complete and final satisfaction of all our desires and pursuits is to rest in the divine embrace of the Most Holy Trinity. How can we grow closer to this goal and receive a foretaste of heaven while we are pilgrims on this earth? The central way is through the reception of the Blessed Sacrament at Mass. But Our Lord has also provided us a variety of means to sanctify and enrich our lives. Below you will find a short reflection on five ways to grow in holiness and seek God, all granted through His grace.

Making the Sign of the CrossLast Judgment Window, St. Albert's Priory

God, knowing the needs of our human condition as an embodied soul, has provided us physical signs that express and harmonize our interior state. The most prominent and recognizable is the making of the Sign of the Cross with our hand, crossing ourselves with thesignum crucis. The act itself is a prayer. When we combine the intention to worship God with the gesture it becomes a powerful aid to holiness and a defense against evil. It is a public witness to our status as children of God in His new covenant through the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ, His Crucifixion and Resurrection from the dead. It is a sign of the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life. It is worthy of our careful attention and devotion, and can sanctify any place or moment. Saint Dominic was known to fortify himself repeatedly with the sign of the cross whenever he travelled. As we travel through this life we too fortify ourselves by making the sign with reverence and devotion.

 

Adoration

Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament is a chance to spend time with the Lord in preparation for the reception of Eucharist at Mass. Discussion and directions on ways of ‘doing’ adoration abound, but they all rely on one simple fact: you must be there and spend time with the Lord. Imagine a man who tells his wife, “Honey, I love you so much that I’m going to go read a book about you in the other room instead of embracing you.” Absurd! How lamentable! Reading and studying about God is also essential but it doesn’t replace the actual act of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. The positive testimony of those who make adoration a consistent part of their Catholic faith is overwhelming. Put simply, it transforms lives and converts hearts. It strengthens the will to do good; it obliterates vices; it calms the troubled mind and prepares our mind to receive deeper insights when we do sit down to study. Only God knows completely what graces and gifts He has prepared for those who devote themselves to the Eucharist in adoration. It is rest, medicine and light for the pilgrims of earth.

 

Bowing and prostrations

When someone is out walking in the open fields it is natural to stop and gaze into the vast sky above. In the same way, when devotion grows in our hearts we naturally bow before the source of all that is good, the Holy One who offers eternal salvation. Saint Dominic would bow deeply whenever he passed by an image of Christ or a crucifix. He also had the private practice of fully prostrating himself on the ground in prayer, or of falling repeatedly to his knees before God. He also prayed by lifting his hands up above his head or spreading his arms wide in imitation of the cross as he stood at great or short lengths in prayer. This robust, manly saint prayed with his whole body and intellect yoked together in seeking God above all things. He was an ascetic who did not shy away from complete devotion, yet he did not become overly severe and intolerant to those weaker than him. On the contrary, he was known to be full of love, compassion and good humor. Olympic athletes, soldiers and even some musicians go through much more severe and exhausting training; shouldn’t we too express our devotion with appropriate ascetic practices?1

 

 

Acts of Faith, Hope and Charity

Here we have a mainly internal act, but you can lightly tap your hand on the wood of the pew, your desk or bed if it will help you concentrate on making an act of Faith, Hope and Love. An intentional act is an act. Whenever we choose, or will, to do something it is an act of some kind. The most obvious are physical acts, like picking up a book, pouring milk or throwing a ball. But speech and thoughts are also acts. We will and choose what to say and we can choose what to think, although random thoughts will always appear that are of little concern. What we are concerned with is what we actively, intentionally think. The acts of Faith, Hope and Love are thoughts that must be repeated, repeated, repeated. Habits of the will are formed through repetition; whatever you do, say or think again and again, will become habitual to you. You become disposed to a certain way of doing, saying and thinking until it stabilizes as a virtue or vice. Our minds are shaped, colored and molded by the objects we concentrate on or encounter frequently. By choosing to repeatedly give our thoughts over to God through acts of Faith, Hope and Love we dispose ourselves to listen to God and receive the gifts He wants to give us. In the end it is God who gives through grace: but he does not despise our efforts to grow in holiness. You will find numerous ways to formulate these acts of Faith, Hope and Love in any good Catholic prayer book. Here are three simple versions:


Act of Faith: Most Holy Trinity, I believe the truth you have revealed. Increase my faith. Amen.

 

Act of Hope: Father in Heaven, I hope in your great mercy. Grant me the gifts of the Holy Spirit as I look forward to eternal life through Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

Act of Charity: O God, I love you above all things. Through your Love I love myself and my neighbor. Amen.

 

May the daily repetition of the Acts of Faith, Hope and Charity bring you much joy and consolation as you progress in holiness.


The Most Holy Name of Jesus

Finally, the word that has sustained men and women, monks and nuns, saints and sinners-who-are-becoming-saints, in every place, through all ages: the Name above every other name. The Most Holy Name of Jesus, be praised! Love the Name of Jesus. Let it be in your minds, on your lips and in your heart. The Most Holy Name of Jesus is the sure defense; it is light, joy and truth. At the Name of Jesus every knee should bend. May the Name of Jesus guide us. Whatever names or words we bend our minds and our wills to becomes our focus, to which our soul is continually drawn. All other names lead to false ways, despair and are man-made idols: “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened" (Romans 1:21). With God’s help we can scrutinize our life and be free of what is false, what holds us back from more consistent and dedicated worship; we can become more free to express the charity that is building in our lives through God’s free gift.

 

But rejoice you who honor the Most Holy Name! For by freely accepting Christ, it is the Good Shepherd who becomes our Lord and Master. We are drawn ever more into the loving depths of the Most Holy Trinity when we proclaim Jesus Christ is LORD. All the goods of the earth and of our earthly life are allowable when properly ordered to God. For the pilgrim on this earth the Most Holy Name of Jesus is found most fully in the reception of the Eucharist at Mass, a foretaste of the eternal Feast and beatific vision in heaven. Acts, signs and devotions assist us in leading a sacramental life. We have received from the Church established by Our Lord Jesus Christ the sacraments and a host of sacramentals, blessings and practices that flow from and must return to the Eucharist. Sanctification comes through grace, and the Blessed Body and Precious Blood consecrated on the altar by a priest is the central mystery and privilege of the Christian.

 

Finally, as social beings directed to God in community, it is an act of justice for the faithful to witness to the Gospel for the salvation of souls in public as well as at home. This is done whenever we make the sign of the cross or pray before a meal in a restaurant; when we truly say a blessing out loud when speaking to others; or when a religious friar, monk or sister wears the habit of their Order in daily life so that the non-converted may wonder about the holy calling, and the faithful be encouraged by those who seek God in the consecrated life. None of the above is done to draw attention to ourselves but solely to give to society what is due through justice. This justice must come from the heart, not simply legislation. But it is ultimately a matter of giving God what is due through proper worship, through acts of what is rightly called the "virtue of religion," a sure means to holiness. 

 

The Peace of the Risen Lord be with you!

 

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1 Prostrations are good for your back, blood circulation, reduce headaches, clear the mind for studies and relieve insomnia, but that’s just a bonus. Or is it? Maybe God created us so that physical and mental devotion would lead to some degree of physical and mental health. Perhaps what’s good for the soul redounds to the body in this life even as it will in the beatific vision to the glorified body.

Br. Andrew Dominic Yang, O.P.'s picture

Me, the Prodigal Son

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The parable of the Prodigal Son features a character I can identify with. Saint Maximus the Confessor writes, “Again, he told of how that Father, who is goodness itself, was moved with pity for his profligate son who returned and made amends by repentance; how he embraced him, dressed him once more in the fine garments that befitted his own dignity, and did not reproach him for any of his sins.”

In Luke 15, Christ reminds us of the life-changing love the Father has for us. Reflecting upon my own life, I realize how easy it is to lose sight of this love, especially when we don’t keep vigilant on Christ’s desert path. At times this path appears lined with enormous billboards of temptation. Whereas my journey forward seems lonely and narrow, these temptations can practically seem lit up with the neon of the Las Vegas Strip. Sometimes, I can lose track of how far I’ve already walked –  how much progress I’ve already made. Like Lot’s wife in the Book of Genesis, I feel like turning around to catch a glimpse of the life I’ve left behind.

Indeed, Christ’s words in the Gospel are confirmed by the wealth of my personal experience with sin. First, we learn that disobedience to the will of God inevitably leads to sin and death. This is precisely what the Prodigal Son encounters in the Parable. Departing his true home for the world’s deceptive promises of happiness, and seemingly emboldened by his father’s mercy, the disobedient son enjoys the “good life” for probably quite some time. But where does that lead him? He has to face the consequences sooner or later, and he finds his soul just as sullied as his body is by mud. Confronted by his own misery, he starts the long “walk of shame” all the way home.

However, he does not yet know the depth of the Father’s mercy; he believes his Father would never accept him after all he’s done. If he’s anything like me, the son prefers anything else to having to face his father. But he’s short on cash, and out of options. After a sound beating, perhaps his father will allow him to work as a servant.

But what is the Father’s response? Since his son’s departure, he has not slept well. He has sent emissaries to search for him. He has scoured the horizon daily, waiting for the shadow of his son to appear. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. The shame of the son is covered by the overwhelming love of the Father.

In “The Problem of Pain,” C.S. Lewis says that “if God were proud He would hardly have us on such terms: but He is not proud, He stoops to conquer, He will have us even though we have shown that we prefer everything else to Him, and come to Him because there is 'nothing better' now to be had.” Jesus did not give us this parable to tell us about those sinners over there, yonder. This is a story about you and me — that Our Heavenly Father will accept us even when we’ve hit rock bottom. He waits for us in the confessional. All we can do is repent; meanwhile, God supplies the grace to cover our sins and inject life into the soul.

Now, having come face to face with the Father’s mercy, we surely feel that deep desire to return something to the Lord. What could possibly suffice? In Psalm 101, the Psalmist finds himself in a similar position of inadequacy.

“We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader, no holocaust, sacrifice, oblation, or incense, no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you. But with contrite heart and humble spirit, let us be received; as though it were holocausts of rams and bullocks, or thousands of fat lambs, so let our sacrifice be in your presence today as we follow you unreservedly; for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame.”

What could I possibly offer to the Lord to repay Him? After going through the possibilities among my material possessions, I am struck once again by the realization that I must daily offer Him my life, inadequate as it might be. It’s not a fair trade for Him, but it’s an exchange that Christ makes perfect.  

I pray for the Lord’s mercy as we approach the final days of Lent. Through the intercession of our Holy Father Dominic, may the Lord continue to mold us into holy preachers, intent only on the salvation of souls.

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Br. Michael James Rivera, O.P.'s picture

Where is Your Heart?

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The Lord said to Moses, "Go down at once to your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, for they have become depraved. They have soon turned aside from the way I pointed out to them, making for themselves a molten calf and worshiping it, sacrificing to it and crying out..." (Exodus 32:7-14)

This past week I was struck in a particular way by Fr. Augustine's reflection on the above passage. In his homily he spoke of two ways in which we as human beings fall into the sin of idolatry. The first way is rooted in our failure to recognize God's presence in our lives. More than a simple lack of thankfulness for God's mercy, this act often results in our forgetting the fact that our very existence is a gift from God. When we do so, we can become proud and supplant God's image with our own.

Admittedly this is not what we usually think of when we hear the word idolatry. Golden calves and graven images are what usually come to mind. Yet we must remember that making ourselves into gods is just as dangerous as worshiping idols made of silver and gold.

This, of course, is the other way in which we can practice idolatry. It is based on our tendency to turn all of our attention to worldly things. Nowadays these things are not usually molten calves that we bow down before in worship. They are often the trivial things we give all our free time and energy to, like television or surfing the web. Instead of focusing our minds and hearts on the Lord, we turn away from the path God has set before us. 

As I reflected on all these things at adoration that evening, it sparked a question: Where is my heart?

I am a little embarrassed to admit it, but at this point during Lent I would have to say that my heart is in my stomach. I'm hungry all the time, and constantly snacking between meals. My cravings have become almost insatiable, so much so that even foods I don't like call out to me, tempting me to indulge. Unfortunately this seems to be a perennial problem. Throughout my life I have struggled with the discipline of fasting, especially during Lent.

While I used to get upset about this, I'm starting to see it as a helpful thing. My obsession with food and eating is a reminder that my heart is not yet in the right place. My greater concern needs to be the kingdom of God, not my next meal. I have no doubt that the remaining weeks of Lent will be difficult. Self-control often is, especially when you are anxious about other things. But at least now I recognize the problem, and can turn to God and ask for help.

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Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

Penance and Hope

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This is a reflection given at vespers at St. Albert's Priory. It is for the second week of Lent, a time when our practices of penance begin to wane. Although the virtue that is typically associated with lenten penances is temperance, this is a meditation on the connection between our acts of penance and the virtue of hope. When we practice penance for the sake of the kingdom of God, we do not merely grow in the virtue of temperance, which orders our desires for bodily pleasures according to right reason. We also practice the virtue of hope, hope for a world to come, and hope for the life of glory that surpasses what we could ever enjoy in this life through our bodily senses. The hidden secret to this season of mortification is the hope that springs from the promise of Jesus Christ.

Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

Penance and Happiness

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Flagellants

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.


Notes:

  1. 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.
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