Lent is a strange time of year. Not only is winter holding on as best it can with its dying gasps, but Lent always encompasses the month of March, when more people die than at any other time of the year.
When I was growing up in the Church of the 1950's, Lent was presented in its traditional clothing as a time of penance, penitence, and mortification of the flesh. In sixth, seventh and eighth grades, after my dad had retired from the Air Force and we were back in Delaware, I used to love Lenten practices in my new-found permanent parish & school of Our Lady of Fatima, so different from the Catholic chaplaincy in the service. I would visit church in the middle of the school day and make Stations of the Cross by myself or just pray in the dark in the cool, purple-shrouded church interior.
Immediately after Vatican II, Lent was thrown open to all sorts of new interpretations. Mortification of the flesh was considered embarrassingly old-fashioned if not downright reactionary. The Church lightened the required disciplines of fast and abstinence in order that people might freely choose to craft their Lenten observances according to their own consciences and spiritual discernment. Some priests took this as a cue for denigrating the older practices altogether. At a time in which the Resurrection itself was viewed as symbolic rather than real in many teaching circles, what use did anybody have for a time of prayer, almsgiving and fasting?
My Lents in later life are a jumble of the old and new. I am glad to have lived long enough to see the pendulum swing back towards the center in all things liturgical. I am glad that once again our homilists speak of Lent as a three-pronged period of preparation for Easter, with prayer, fasting and the giving of alms once more assuming their traditional places. But I am still a little embarrassed about mortification and penance, and that embarrassment is a fine accompaniment to my habitual laziness and refusal to give myself over completely to the Blessed Trinity in Whom I purport to believe to the point of death. It's like I have a balance in my head to make sure that I obtain X amount of self-imposed gratification every day, regardless of my supposed desire to throw caution to the winds and go wildly Christ-hunting like the bride in the Song of Songs.
I picked up Mary in Our Life by William G. Most and opened randomly to a page, hoping my library angel would guide me to something to still the jumble of Lenten voices in my head. I opened to this:
The right attitude to mortification requires a delicate balance. Various fanatical groups within the Church, both in the past and present, have distorted the balance. In general, they tend to make mortification an end in itself, to be pursued blindly, out of pride in their ability to "take it" and without obedience to proper authority. They forget that mortification is a means to love. They forget that great penances with little love do not have great value (lack of obedience points to pride, not love, as a motive. They forget the law of gradual progress, imposing on everyone without discretion the heroic penances of the saints.
But it is possible to learn something even from those who are in error. For very often such persons err precisely because they have realized some part of the truth so forcefully that they are blinded to all the other elements that should be included. The truth the fanatical groups have seen is that most of us are far from being generous with God. We rightly condemn the errors of fanatics, but we could profitably learn from them the lesson of generosity.
It is well to say that we must take prudent precautions, must follow a good director, must advance gradually, must make all subserve the end of love - these things are all true and must be kept constantly in mind. But we must also remember that although great love can make small penances worth much, we must ask ourselves: Are we sure we have the great love?
If we had as much love as we are apt to imagine, we would probably find some middle position between our tiny, rare mortifications and the excesses we rightly condemn. And we would tend to grow in generosity. How can we hope to attain with only slight effort the high degree of detachment which we ought to have in order to make room in our hearts for great love?
We tend to bargain with God, to ask, "How much do I have to give? I will give this and that, and then I can be free from paying attention to You for the rest of the time." We are like the child who prayed: "O Lord, I give you all that I am and all that I have." He read this out of his prayer book. But then, with the simple perception of a child, he realized what this meant, and he hurriedly added, "-- that is, all except my little white rabbit."