Rorate Caeli

Guest Op-Ed: Penance for the sake of Heaven -- Reflections for Ash Wednesday

By Veronica A. Arntz

Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of the season of Lent. The Church, in the wisdom of the old liturgical calendar, gave us the past few Sundays to prepare ourselves for this season of fasting, prayer, and penance. Lent is the time of the liturgical year in which we pause and recognize our weak human nature, our inclination to sin, and our mortality. Some will look at our rigorous sacrifices and fasting as foolishness, given how our society is wont to pursue instant gratification. What is it that motivates our penances? Perhaps reflecting on that question will help us to choose penances that will deepen our spiritual lives and our love for God.

In Question 12 of the Prima Pars of his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas considers the knowability of God; in other words, how does man know God, both in this life and in the next, when he is able to see His Divine essence? In Article 6, Thomas asks whether some will see the Divine essence more perfectly than others will. He argues in the affirmative, stating that it is based on the intellect’s greater capacity that will allow some to behold the vision of God more perfectly. The object—the vision of God—will remain the same, since God does not change, but the more perfectly an intellect shares in the light of glory, the more perfectly He will be seen. Thomas explains:

The intellect which has more of the light of glory will see God the more perfectly; and he will have a fuller participation of the light of glory who has more charity; because where there is the greater charity, there is the more desire; and desire in a certain degree makes the one desiring apt and prepared to receive the object desired. Hence he who possesses the more charity, will see God the more perfectly and will be more beatified (ST, I, Q. 12, a. 6, corpus).

The light of glory is grace from God that allows the created intellect to see God as He is in the Beatific Vision. While grace is always a free gift from God, we can prepare ourselves to receive it through acts of faith, hope, and charity. Moreover, as Thomas indicates here, we will be more capable of receiving the Divine essence in Heaven if we are living in charity while here on earth. Moreover, the greater our charity, the more we will desire Heaven and the vision of God. This desire will make us more capable of receiving the vision of God when our time on earth is finished.
This beautiful reflection by Thomas should not cause us concern or anxiety. Indeed, we see the same sentiments expressed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, which was the epistle for Quinquagesima Sunday: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1, RSV-CE).

If we do not have charity, we are nothing, because Christ Himself expressed perfect charity when he suffered, died, and rose again—all while we were yet sinners (Rom 5:8). And, as we are called to imitate Christ in everything that we do, we too are called to this perfect charity, although we cannot attain it while on earth due to our fallen human nature and sin. Thus, our actions are of greater merit in the eyes of Christ when we do works with charity, works such as penance and fasting.

Through our penances in Lent, we can deepen our charity for Christ and for others by uniting ourselves with His suffering on the Cross. In such a way, we can recognize our weakness, knowing that He suffered and died for us, but we can also ask for His grace to persevere in our penances and sacrifices throughout Lent. This is why it is essential to choose good penances that will allow us to increase in holiness; we must pray carefully and choose wisely, perhaps through the guidance of a spiritual director.

As stated above, the world will look on our penances as foolishness. Why would we willingly give up coffee for 40 days? Why would we choose to say extra prayers or read a spiritual work by a great saint rather than watch a movie? But, as St. Paul reminds us:

Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Cor 1:22-25).

In this letter, Paul is addressing the Corinthians, who have fallen into deep sin and have forgotten the message of the Gospel. He is here reminding them that, as Christians, we belong to Christ crucified, Who is foolish to the Gentiles. The Gentiles cannot understand why someone would follow a religion in which the Leader was crucified, for that was the worst possible punishment given by the Romans. To the world, such a death is folly: But, because Christians know that He rose from the dead, and that they will also enter into His Resurrection, His death is wiser than anything the world can offer. In other words, through the death of Christ, we can gain eternal life, even if this looks foolish to the world. Through entering into His suffering this Lent, we can prepare ourselves for the joy of the Beatific Vision, and the Resurrection
As such, it is good to recall the words of St. John Chrysostom, “Ubi caritas gaudet, ibi est festivitas”—“Where love rejoices, there is festivity.” Citing this phrase is not meant to negate the penance that comes with Lent. Rather, it is to remind us of the purpose of our fasting—the reason for our faith. We do not enter into the suffering of Lent simply because we like it, for the sake of suffering, or even so that people can see our acts of piety like the Pharisees. The reason that we take up penances during Lent is for the glory of Heaven.

If we rejoice in our sufferings, which we take up in charity, then we will rejoice in the festivity of Heaven, the eternal banquet. Our charity will be greater, which means that we will have a greater capacity for enjoying the Beatific Vision. All of this comes through the grace of God; we must simply ask for His grace to do our penances with joy and charity.
Let us be inspired to choose wise penances this Lent, ones that will challenge but not discourage us, ones that will allow us to enter into the suffering of Christ and will deepen our charity for Him and for others. And one day, God willing, we will see God face to face in the Beatific Vision, and we will rejoice with all the angels and saints, marveling at the glory and truly awesome power of God.