Fish, But No Chips Please

The people of God, who go to confession after a major fall, do their penance and rightly feel forgiven. They are at peace with God having been reconciled by confession of their sins to a priest.

If they have done their penance (usually a few prayers, perhaps a Mass or any other good work imposed on them by the confessor), why should they spend forty days doing more penance for their already forgiven sins?

Their sins have been washed away by the grace of God. The eternal punishment due them has been abolished as well if they committed any mortal sins. But, there are leftovers as a result of sin- residues or effects of sin that need to be “scrubbed” out of the soul. Becoming purified of these “dregs,” as St. Thomas Aquinas calls them, is the very part of the essence of “temporal punishment” due to sin.

The sole and principal cause of sin, as St. Thomas would teach us, is the sinner. Consequently, sinners need to rectify themselves back to the way they were morally speaking. There are the bad inclinations, darkness of the mind, weakness of the will, disorientated emotions that need to be cleaned up and redirected in order that all is more or less in balance again. So, from these considerations enters penance.

How do we cleanse ourselves?

Tradition knows three ways to do what are called “satisfactory” acts or reparative acts of one’s person – namely, fasting, praying and almsgiving.

Normally we use the word “satisfaction” after eating a wonderful meal. We become satisfied with a work well done by ourselves or what was done for us gratuitously or in justice. In this present context, “satisfaction” means doing a work, which is somewhat or greatly difficult because sin is the result of a will turned away from God and often turned more toward created things not in harmony with God.

Mortal sin kills the life of grace in the soul by committing intrinsically evil actions like murder, fornication and the like with full knowledge and full consent of the will. Venial sin disposes one to greater sins since it weakens charity and one’s ability to focus on the virtues. It is much like a detour of the spiritual life.  Moreover, it is in some way an offense against the infinite goodness of God, but easily forgiven provided one seeks it either in prayer or in the sacraments.

Lent then looks at the results of both kinds of sinning, grave and light. In this penitential season, we are given countless opportunities to makes an effort to repair the damage one has done to oneself and to the glory of God. Through both mortal and venial sin, one has hurled an ingratitude or insult to the goodness of God; one has done an injustice to the mercy and love of God.

So, everyone needs to make up for this ingratitude to God and strengthen out one’s self for having chosen to go against reason and introduce disorder into one’s mind, will and emotions. Just as we do not know with absolute certitude or relative certitude the degree of grace we possess, which means, we do not know how close we truly are to God. Worse still, we do not know how deep we owe God for insulting him. We also do not know how deep the harm we’ve done to ourselves by sin.  Above all, we cannot fathom either of these realities while living on earth.

If we make no efforts to do satisfactory or penitential acts, then we are more likely to continue sinning again and again. While frequent penance does not nip in the bud all sinning so as to make us impeccable, yet it ordinarily keeps us from mortal sin and diminishes our frequent falls into venial sins.

How does penance work?

If we look at prayer carefully, we see that it leads to intimacy with God. Through prayer, we are in communication with the Lord, which in turns leads to more love and so makes up for disobeying him.  After all, his law and his love are identified in him. In addition, offering the Mass leans on the infinite reparation Jesus himself did for all sins of the world including our sins. With private, liturgical, and mental or contemplative prayer, the theological virtues are exercised sometimes to a greater degree than before.

Prayer of whatever sort is essential in doing reparation not only for what we did against the love and God, but also we receive many healing graces for our souls and bodies. This in part is the reason for the Church to grant indulgences to spur us onto spiritual things. The more we are more consciously united to God, the more our whole being and personality becomes unified.

Reasonable fasting leads to a diminished desire for pleasure of the senses and rectifies the appetite for food and drink and at the same time, gives one a greater hold on oneself. One great benefit is that it intensifies the ability to concentrate on spiritual things. Gluttony and lust, as experience shows, leads one to an excessive and undue love of temporal goods. These vices put to sleep reason and faith in one’s life ignoring our relationship to the future life of God’s judgment, and irrationally making our happiness to exist here and now.

St. Thomas thinks that almsgiving is the hardest act of penance on the self because it implies foregoing material things we are easily and reasonably attached to as well as being avaricious about them. Experience shows and often literature abounds in examples of the inhumanity avarice creates in the human soul. The avaricious person abhors the sense of mercy and compassion towards others and also becomes restless to get more and more.

Dethroning oneself from undue attachment to things, the result of many sins, leads to seeing the image of Christ in people and so disposes one for more graces. The more mercy one has for others, the more mercy one receives from God and so becomes rectified from past sins.

Many of the saints have taught us that every day should be a kind of Lent. We are not to become a kill-joy, but to grow in self-possession and a lessening of disordered self-love – the root of sin itself.

Father Basil Cole, O.P. is currently a Professor of Moral and Spiritual Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Father is also author of Music and Morals, The Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood and coauthor of Christian Totality; Theology of Consecrated Life. A native San Franciscan, Father has been a prior in the Western province of the Dominicans, a parish missionary and retreat master, and invited professor of moral and spiritual theology at the Angelicum in Rome.
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