I have a new article up at NewEvangelizers.com.
We have now left the penitential season of Lent. For many of us, as soon as this time ended, we dropped our Lenten sacrifices like a bad habit. In some sense, this is right and proper since we are not celebrating Easter joy.
But the question remains: how much have we changed and drawn closer to God?
The end or purpose of our penitential practices is to detach ourselves from our sins and our worldly desires so that we can become more single-hearted in our devotion to God. The reason why many of us give up chocolate for Lent is not because there is something inherently evil about chocolate or the enjoyment of its sweetness. But we deny ourselves so that we can become more self possessed and not as beholden to our appetites and desires.
We also take on more devotional practices like the rosary and the Stations of the Cross during this season partly because we are sacrificing our time to show our devotion to the Lord. All of this is good and proper. But the addition of more penances and prayers is not the end or purpose of penance. In other words, God is not interested in having us do more simply for the sake of doing more.
In his novel The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevski has the buffoonish character Fyodor upbraid the inhabitant of a nearby monastery. He tells them that they are foolish because they think they are saving their souls by living in self-imposed poverty. And while Fyodor is no sage, his words have a point.
It is very important that we begin by understanding that there is nothing we can do to make God love us more than He does at this very moment. The Pelagian heresy held that we could earn our way to heaven by our devotion. St. Augustine was adamant that this was a contradiction to the Gospel. If I could earn my own way to salvation, then I would not need a Savior.
Some of my students ask if I think I am good enough to enter Heaven when I die. I tell them in no uncertain terms that I am not good enough. This fact is not a statement of despair, but of simple fact. The Lord’s gift of salvation is one that I will never earn. I feel the same way about my relationship with my wife. I don’t know why she chose to marry a bum like me, but I’m just grateful that she did. I will never be good enough, but I will spend the rest of my life doing my best to be worthy of her.
And that is essentially the end or purpose of penance. Ultimately, it is about our relationship to the Lord. It is not a cold , calculous, like some kind of spiritual economy. On the sitcom The Good Place, they describe an afterlife where you are punished or rewarded based on some kind of ethical point system. This is completely contrary to how Christianity teaches judgment will occur, though this may be how many Christians believe it will go. God is not our Spiritual Accountant. He is our Father.
Actions and works do matter. In the story of the final judgment in Matthew 25, those that are sent to hell are the ones who do not take care of the needs of the poor. Our penitential actions matter as well. But all these actions of penance and charity must be done from a good heart, a good soul. St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13 “If I speak with human and angelic tongues but do not have love, then I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal… and if I give over my body to be burned so that I may boast, it profits me nothing.” Paul is not saying that speaking well and dying a martyr are bad things. He himself did both. What he is saying is that they are expressions of a holy heart.
This brings us back to penance. Returning to The Brothers Karamazov, there is a dying elder in that same monastery. Like the buffoonish Fyodor, he speaks of penance. There is a strange harmony between the vulgar attack from Fyodor and the wise dying words of the elder. The dying sage reminds the monks that they do penance in the monastery and mortify their lives not because they are spiritually strong.
They do it because they are spiritually weak.