Another Lenten season is upon us. Many of us have spent recent weeks trying to discern penances to offer for the next 40 days. Some of us may still be trying to figure out what to do exactly, but ether way, the key to understanding Lent or any other practice that is required of us from the Church, is through the lens of charity.
Penances on their own are of little use to us spiritually if they are not connected with love, that is, love of God and love of our neighbor. Oftentimes, we can run the risk of using penances in a manner that seems more like self-help rather than a desire to grow in holiness. We give up chocolate because we want to lose weight instead of fostering the virtue of temperance. We do not see the connection between our offering up chocolate as a sacrifice and supernatural realities.
The practice of imposing penances on ourselves at various times of the year is meant to help us discipline our lower nature—our bodies—in order to become more attuned to the spiritual. It is to demonstrate to us that supernatural goods are higher than the material goods of this life, even chocolate or coffee or beer. The starting place for this discipline is not in sheer will, but in the love of God. It is in seeking union with God:
“For the soul who aspires to union with God, penance is not only a means of subjecting the flesh to the spirit, but also a means of being assimilated to Christ Crucified, in order to reproduce and prolong His Passion in its own body. “Love makes equality and similitude” (J.C. AS I, 4, 4): he who truly loves has a spontaneous desire to share in the sufferings fo the loved one; it is the same with real lovers of the Crucified. St. Mary Magdalen dei Pazzi exclaims, “It is not fitting to be a delicate member of a Head crowned with thorns and crucified, nor the unmortified bride of a suffering Spouse.” It is an honor for a wife to be able to share in the entire life of her spouse. For a soul consecrated to God, it is an honor to be able to share, even in a small way, in the Passion of Christ; such a souls glories in it. “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world (Gal 6:14).”Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalene, O.C.D., Divine Intimacy, 264.
Our penances are an opportunity for greater union with Christ on the Cross. It is through this union in love that our penances become transformative for our own spiritual lives and for the sanctification of others. This understanding of why we seek to offer our Lenten penances can help strengthen us in difficult moments of temptation by offering them in love united to Christ.
Sufferings and mortifications are also an opportunity to offer sacrifices for the salvation of souls. Redemptive suffering is a powerful form of love that seeks the holiness and conversion of others. Offering up a penance during Lent for a loved one, the poor souls in purgatory, the poor, the afflicted, the priesthood, the unborn, or any other intention is an opportunity to participate in Christ’s salvific work here on earth:
“There is another motive which has urged the saints to generous corporal mortification. Nothing is lacking in the Passion of Christ; He Himself said on the Cross, “all is consummated” (Jn 19, 30). All was accomplished in Him, our Head, but it must now be accomplished in us, His members. Jesus wills to continue His Passion in us so that we may be associated with Him in the work of redemption; He wills to make us His collaborators in the most sublime of His works, the salvation of souls. Jesus, who could have accomplished His work alone, willed to need us in order to apply the infinite merits of His Passion to many souls.”Ibid, 265.
The saints understood that their mortifications and works of penance were meant to be offered to Christ for the salvation of others. Our sufferings can be used by Christ to bring about the conversion of others or provide necessary grace to help them progress in holiness. It is an opportunity to enter into the self-emptying love of the Cross. If we are struggling with a particular penance we have committed to during this Lenten season, the temptation and struggle to maintain that practice can be united for the sake of another. In this way, our yoke becomes light because our actions are transformed by love. It’s no longer pure drudgery when we are animated by the love of God and love of others.
In fact, suffering cannot be endured simply for it’s own sake or purely material motives. It is useless if it is not offered for Christ and with Christ:
“Suffering has a supernatural value only when it is borne with Christ and for Christ. It is Jesus who sanctifies suffering; apart from Him it is worth nothing and is of no use. But if it is embraced for love of Him it becomes precious coin, capable of redeeming and sanctifying souls; it becomes a continuation of the Passion.”Ibid.
As we make our way to the foot of the Cross throughout this Lenten season, let us focus on offering our penances united to Christ in love and for the salvation of souls. In the process, we will discover that we are being transformed in charity through the grace of the Holy Spirit and will be able to enter into Holy Week with a truly generous heart.