The Holy Season of Lent

Condensed from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Guéranger OSB

III. Practices During Lent

During these forty days of penance, which seem so long to our poor nature, we shall not be deprived of the company of our Jesus. We are going to spend forty days in fasting and abstinence; Jesus, who is innocence itself, goes through the same penance to cheer us on by His own example. We are going to think over our past sins, and bewail them in bitter grief; Jesus suffers for them and weeps over them in the silence of the desert, as though He Himself had committed them.

Thus does our Savior go before us on the holy path of Lent. He has borne all its fatigues and hardships, so that we, when called upon to tread the narrow way of our Lenten penance, might have His example wherewith to silence the excuses, and sophisms, and repugnances, of self-love and pride. The lesson is here too plainly given not to be understood; the law of doing penance for sin is here too clearly shown, and we cannot plead ignorance – let us honestly accept the teaching and practice it.

Now penance consists in contrition of the soul and mortification of the body; these two parts are essential to it. The soul has willed the sin; the body has frequently cooperated in its commission. Moreover, man is composed of both soul and body; both, then should pay homage to their Creator. The body is to share with the soul either the delights of Heaven or the torments of Hell; there cannot, therefore, be any thorough Christian life, or any earnest penance, where the body does not take part, in both, with the soul.

But it is the soul which gives reality to penance. The soul must be resolved to give up every sin; she must heartily grieve over those she has committed; she must hate sin; she must shun the occasions of sin. The sacred Scriptures have a word for this inward disposition, which has been adopted by the Christian world, and which admirably expresses the state of the soul that has turned away from her sins: this word is conversion. The Christian should, therefore, during Lent, study to excite himself to this repentance of heart, and look upon it as the essential foundation of all his Lenten exercises. Nevertheless, he must remember that this spiritual penance would be a mere delusion, were he not to practice mortification of the body. Let him study the example given him by his Savior, who grieves, indeed, and weeps over our sins; but He also expiates them by His bodily sufferings. Hence it is that the Church, the infallible interpreter of her Divine Master's will, tells us that the repentance of our heart will not be accepted by God, unless it is accompanied by fasting and abstinence.

How great, then, is the illusion of those Christians, who forget their past sins, or compare themselves with others whose lives they take to have been worse than their own; and thus satisfied with themselves, can see no harm or danger in the easy life they intend to pass for the rest of their days! As soon as Lent approaches, they must get all manner of dispensations. As the idea never enters their minds of supplying for the penances prescribed by the Church by other penitential exercises, such persons as these gradually lose the Christian spirit.

The Church sees this frightful decay of supernatural energy; but she cherishes what is still left, by making her Lenten observances easier, century after century. With the hope of maintaining that little, and of seeing it strengthen and increase in some better future, she leaves to the justice of God her children who hearken not to her when she teaches them how they might, even now, propitiate His anger.

Is it not sad to hear people giving such a reason as this for their not fasting – because they feel it? Surely, they forget that the very aim of fasting is to make these bodies of sin (Rom. 6, 6) suffer and feel. These very persons, who persuade themselves that they have not strength enough to bear the fasting of Lent, even in its present mitigated form, think nothing of going through incomparably greater fatigues for the sake of temporal gains or worldly enjoyments. They forget that the observance of Lent is an essential mark of Catholicity; and when the Protestants undertook to "reform" the Church in the sixteenth century, one of their chief grievances was that she insisted on her children mortifying themselves by fasting and abstinence!

Let, then, the true children of the Church courageously observe the Lenten practices of penance. But they must be accompanied by those two other eminently good works, to which God so frequently urges us in the Scripture: prayer and almsdeeds. Just as under the term fasting the Church comprises all kinds of mortification; so under the word prayer she includes all those exercises of piety whereby the soul communicates with her God. Daily attendance at Mass, spiritual reading, meditation upon the Passion, hearing sermons, and, above all, approaching the Sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist – these are the chief means whereby the faithful should offer to God the homage of prayer, during this holy season.

Almsdeeds comprise all the works of mercy to our neighbor, and are unanimously recommended by the holy doctors of the Church, as being the necessary complement of fasting and prayer during Lent. God has made it a law, to which He has graciously bound Himself, that charity towards our fellow-creatures, with the intention of pleasing our Creator, shall be rewarded as though it were done to Himself. Hence it is that almsdeeds are not merely acts of human kindness, but are raised to the dignity of acts of religion, which have God for their direct object, and have the power of appeasing His divine justice. How thoroughly Christian is it that, during these days of penance and charity, the life of the poor man should be made more comfortable, in proportion as that of the rich shares in the hardships and privations of his suffering brethren throughout the world!

There is one more means whereby we are to secure to ourselves the great graces of Lent: it is the spirit of retirement and separation from the world. Our ordinary life, such as it is during the rest of the year, should all be made to pay tribute to the holy season of penance; otherwise, the salutary impression produced on us by the holy ceremony of Ash Wednesday will soon be effaced. The Christian ought, therefore, to forbid himself, during Lent, all the vain amusements and entertainments of the world he lives in. (Of course, sinful and dangerous amusements are always to be avoided – not just during Lent.) If, instead, he throws himself amidst such dangers during the present holy season of penance and recollection, he offers an insult to his baptismal character, and must needs cease to believe that he has sins to atone for, and a God to propitiate.

The world has thrown off all those external indications of mourning and penance, which we read of as being so religiously observed in the ages of faith; but there is one thing which can never change – God's justice, and man's obligation to appease that justice. The world may rebel as much as it will against the sentence, but the sentence is irrevocable: "Unless you do penance, you shall all perish" (Luke 13, 3). It is God's own word. It is true that few now-a-days give ear to it; but for that very reason many are lost.

Let us only courageously tread the way of penance, and the light will gradually beam upon us. If we are now far off from our God by the sins that are upon us, this holy season will be to us a purgation, and will give us that purity which will enable us to see our Lord in the glory of His victory over death. If, on the contrary, we are already living a life of grace, our Lent will give us a clearer view of Him who is our light; and if we acknowledged Him as our God when we saw Him as the Babe of Bethlehem, our soul's eye will not fail to recognize Him in the divine Penitent of the desert, or in the bleeding Victim of Calvary.