Rejoicing in Suffering

Now that I've finished my exams (and all in one week, at that), I'll have a little more time to devote to writing and keeping this thing up-to-date. It seems like I've had a lot of great ideas floating through my head lately, but most of them seem to have been subsumed into the amalgamated blob of studies, which has ruled me for the past 7 days. Thus, something I can write about without much research (and no doubt should, seeing how this is a Catholic blog after all) is Lent; it seems like Christmas just happened! Alas, our great rejoicing has quickly turned into mourning and penance...or has it?

When talking about Lent, it's hard to avoid cliches; almost anything you could think to say has been said before, and probably better by someone else. However, at Mass the other day I caught a line from one of our fifth-year student priests that struck me as original and truly insightful: "The burden of sin is most easily aleviated by charity." What hit me about this perfectly Catholic saying was precisely the way it drew together both penance and charity into one unified effort. Really, it is the perfect 'both/and' for the Lenten season; our penance means nothing if it is not both rooted in and expressed by acts of charity. After all, as this same priest mentioned, it is not by piling up heavy burdens on ourselves that we rid the world of sin, but rather by helping to aleviate the burdens of our fellow men. Charity.

If the goal of Lent is to see the Lord more and more clearly in our daily lives, then this seems to be precisely the way to start. After all, as St. John writes (and Pope Benedict XVI cites), "Deus caritas est ('God is love'), and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him." (1 Jn 4:16) What better way to God than love? And what better model of love than the Son, who is the visible image of the Father and who 'abides' perfectly within his heart? Moreover, the same Son even gives us the exact formula for his own great love: "To lay down one's life for one's friends." (Jn 15:13) Indeed, if all this is true, "the burden of sin is most easily aleviated by charity."

This all comes as no affront to the significance of penance. Instead, it augments the importance of penitential sacrifice, giving it a telos ('end') that is otherwise unrecognizable; the goal of penance is charity, nothing less. No matter what penance we choose to offer during this season of Lent (even the classics of 'no sweets' and 'no TV'), we ought never to forget that the ultimate goal is Christ himself, and bringing about the kingdom that he so passionately desires for us. It's also worth mentioning that if this goal to bring about the removal of sin in our lives and the world is sincere, we should really consider a Lenten penance that will cause us some notable level of sacrifice. We hear from the prophet Joel an admonition to "rend your hearts, not your garments." (2:13) Heart-rending is not pain-free and neither can our penances be; how can something be 'penitential' if there is no sacrifice? Even more, the degree to which we empty ourselves in sacrifice is directly translatable to the level of space we have for God in our freshly rent hearts. The love he pours out to ease the pain diffuses into all our actions, thereby making them acts of charity; the telos is recognized and the burden of sin is most easily aleviated. All of this, though, requires dedicated prayer, for without some significant time in quiet prayer to the Father our penitential hearts become callused, and the sin we hoped to aleviate returns in even greater measure.

"The burden of sin is most easily aleviated by charity," and all things in prayer and Christ-like humility before the Father. Lenten penance entails mourning, but to an infinitely greater degree it requires rejoicing in the fact that, when united to the sufferings of Christ on the Cross, our small efforts really can make a huge difference.