Lent Brings Us Out of Spiritual Winter and Into a Spring of Grace
COMMENTARY: To everything there is a season, and in this season we address our stark spirit devoid of the window dressing.
The world without grace seems old. Though the 19th and 20th century exalted and almost worshipped progress, such devotion too often produced the horrors of the 20th century, in addition to positive benefits for society. Technological progress, powerful though it may be, cannot lead to progress in the human spirit. Only salvation and grace can do this.
Without a moral progress from the love of God in Christ and the Holy Spirit, the human race will experience the same kind of spring that nature experiences: a continuous rising, only to die in winter again.
As we wind down the last days of this penitential season, it’s a good time for some reflection on the previous weeks.
The word “Lent” comes from Old English and means “Spring.” This season has been connected by the Church to the preparation of each person to celebrate a spiritual and joyful Easter. The placing of Lent is, of course, determined by Passover, when Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead, but the Jews used to look on this time of the year as the actual time of the creation of the world. Nature seems to die in winter. But it comes alive in spring.
The same is true of the moral world of the human spirit. In this season, then, it is most fitting to celebrate the death of the old world of sin and the preparation for the new world of grace. It is not for nothing that grace makes man a new creation, because it consists of God giving us his own divine eternal life without prior merit on our part.
The Church encourages Catholics to look deep within their souls and see when the spiritual winter of the discontented soul may have taken place during the past year. This discontent is characterized by a coldness and hardness of heart toward God and neighbor. This paralysis of spirit is much like the paralysis of nature encased in ice. Hardness of heart is caused by the lack of grace.
To everything there is a season, and in this season we address our stark spirit devoid of the window dressing. This helps us to evaluate and see clearly who we personally are and to do an honest moral appraisal of those places in the secret recesses of our souls where we have failed to live the generous and happy life of grace throughout the rest of the year.
Though in baptism a Christian receives sanctifying grace which is our healing from sin, there are three major areas where one can still experience hardness of heart. Each of these must be addressed in Lent. They are respectively: “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). They are the three principal places where charity can be corrupted by our egoism and our desire to dominate others that is the prime result of the Original Sin. They involve inordinate pleasure at physical experiences like sex, food, drugs and drink (lust of the flesh); inordinate pleasure at money (lust of the eyes) and the power and security it can bring by domination over others and enjoyment at calling all the shots in a person’s life at the expense of the freedom and rights of others (the pride of life).
During Lent there are three practices recommended as penances that address these three issues: fasting, almsgiving and prayer. Fasting confronts inordinate pleasure in food and sexuality. Almsgiving opposes the inordinate desire for riches and the seeming security they can bring. Prayer defeats the inordinate desire to be noticed and esteemed in pride.
The bottom line of each of these weaknesses is that they eat away at charity because of their common characteristic in leading a person to possessiveness, domination and manipulation. They are the foundation of hardness of heart. The Lenten cry is: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your heart” (Hebrews 3:15; Psalm 95 1-2).
Christ addresses each of these lusts in the Gospel passage used on Ash Wednesday as a kickoff for Lent. The penances for them were common at his time, but he gives them an important shift in interpretation because of their relationship to hardness of heart. The inner inability to live a generous and grace-filled life toward others cannot be resolved if all one does is to perform the penances recommended by the Old Testament, and enshrined in the New Testament for that matter, from mere external formalism.
As T.S. Eliot says in the play Murder in the Cathedral: “The last temptation is the final treason: to do the right thing for the wrong reason.” Exterior religious practices must be accompanied by a right intention in the heart. The only sufficient right intention is the love of God.
In Lent, Catholics are asked to address what has perhaps become an inattention to the interior cultivation of the right intention of love of God since the last celebration of Easter. This can lead to dark recesses in which pride, envy and anger and other lusts can corrupt the heart and affect both our experience of the love of God in ourselves in prayer and our treatment of other people.
It is precisely this interior inattention that can lead a person to a lukewarm spiritual life, the great enemy of devotion. This can easily lead further and further away from the practice of the presence of God, which alone can ensure a warm and loving heart and so bring about a new spiritual springtime.
In spring, the sun grows higher in the sky, warmth returns to what has seemed a dead earth, and haltingly life begins to return to nature. Ice melts. It is not for nothing that Dante placed ice in the pit of hell that held the betrayers. Not only did they not love God or self, but they hated those who loved them. Theirs was not just a disordered love for the good, such as sexual lust, which has some warmth, even though extremely flawed. They experienced hatred for those who loved them. They are encased in ice and devour each other.
The Lenten observances of Catholics must set them free from all of that. Under the continuous influence of grace, coupled with these Lenten observances, they must address the hidden faults they have perhaps ignored. This is not out of a misplaced sense of scrupulosity.
It is, rather, an awareness of guilt that is healthy and should lead to repentance. This repentance is not just a general repentance. By being aware of individual temptations each day to manipulate and dominate others, the Catholic can bring them in confession — to Christ — to ask for healing and strength to deal with these weaknesses and overcome them, with God’s help.
In addition to the three traditional penances that the Church recommends according to the age and health of the person, the Church also requires a Catholic to confess during Eastertide, which begins in Lent. This is to encourage Catholics to address the winter of their spirits caused by their egotism that prevents them from loving God with an undivided heart.
When Catholics do this, they can finally experience a permanent spiritual springtime of their renewed humanity. This may lead to renewal of the face of the earth. This would be a permanent spiritual springtime!
“Send forth your spirit, and they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.”
is a mission preacher and
adjunct professor at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.