Saturday, March 24, 2012

II. Destroying the Golden Calf

In the previous article,
Refashioning the Golden Calf, we spoke of the human tendency to get so attached to the “things of the world” that we prefer them to God and His will. In order to break us of these “inordinate attachments to creatures”, the Church has always recommended asceticism or penance as an excellent and in fact necessary remedy. For those of us who have perhaps not made use of this remedy, the penitential season of Lent provides us with an excellent opportunity to begin to do so. What follows is a short guide on the practice of penance.

Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical
Paenitemini, begins with the first of the two main types of penance: “[The Church] insists first of all that the virtue of penitence be exercised in persevering faithfulness to the duties of one's state in life, in the acceptance of the difficulties arising from one's work and from human coexistence, in a patient bearing of the trials of earthly life and of the utter insecurity which pervades it” (Chapter III).

Of course, this is easier said than done. Depending on the particular trial or suffering and upon the mood or disposition of the individual, it can be extremely difficult and even seemingly impossible. The Christian, must in fact, “battle” and “fight” to respond with patience and joy rather than anger and frustration. As with any battle, there are a number of different “tactics” or “strategies” that will lead to greater or lesser degrees of success depending on the particular person and situation.

The most common, and the one that almost immediately comes to the minds of most Catholics, is the practice of “offering it up”, usually for a specific person or intention. By doing so, our crosses become easier to bear, knowing that a greater
good is coming from our pain and that our suffering is of benefit not only to others, but also to ourselves. By repeating the words, “Lord, I offer this up”, this constant refrain can bring peace and consolation in the midst of suffering.

Another great help is the devotional reading of Sacred Scripture. There are many passages I find myself returning to again and again in times of trial, which always seem to strengthen my will and help me “take heart” (Matthew 14:27). Some I find particularly helpful are Sirach 2, Isaiah 55:8-11, Job 1:21, 2:10, 38-42:7, John 16:16-23, Philippians 4:4-7, 11-13, and Hebrews 12, among others. Besides Scripture, the lives and writings of the Saints are an enormous help and source of consolation, as are other spiritual writings.

We Christians have another powerful weapon in our arsenal – the
mind. In times of trial, we can apply what the sources of faith have taught us to those situations. So when we find ourselves naturally asking, “Lord, why did you let this happen?”, our faith and our experiences provide the ready answers: “He is teaching me patience, trust, and surrender”; “Something similar happened a few years ago, and so much good came out of it, such as …”; “If God were here, He would say, ‘Don’t worry – I know what I’m doing’”; “Well, like the Lord said to Job …” or “as St. Paul said, …”; etc. We can also use the power of our imaginations. I have a friend who uses some clever meditations when subjected to the many little annoyances in life. When he worked at a call center and things would get busy, he used to think of Christ’s Passion and imagine every ring as though it was a lash on his own back, so that he truly felt a connection to Christ and that he was sharing in His Passion. It is also helpful to call to mind the wrong we have done and the pain we have caused others. This makes us want to accept the suffering we are receiving because we know it to be just and proper.

Finally, we should follow the advice of St. Paul, who said, “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances” (1Thessalonians 5:16-18). We must resist the temptation to mope and complain and instead turn to God in prayer, pouring out our souls to him in deep anguish and bitter weeping (1Samuel 1:10, 15). But when we do, “the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep [our] hearts and [our] minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). And we should be
thankful for our trials, as Judith advised (Judith 8:25-27). My best friend’s father is in the habit of saying, “Thank you, Jesus”, anytime things do not go his way. My friend tells the funny story about how he was helping his father dislodge a hornet’s nest from the ceiling of his garage, and how when the nest came crashing down and a swarm of hornets attacked him, he flailed his arms at them in a mad panic and kept repeating, “Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!” This, rather than cussing and swearing, should become our automatic reaction to such things as well.

Secondly, “apart from the renunciation imposed by the burdens of everyday life,” continues Paul VI, “the Church, however, invites all Christians without distinction to respond to the divine precept of penitence by some voluntary act.” Paul VI goes on to mention fasting as an example. The beauty of fasting is that it can be “tailor-made”. If we are not up to the more rigorous bread-and-water fast, we can do a “traditional” fast (one full meal and two small meals that together do not equal a full meal), or even a “partial fast” whereby we skip one of our meals or fast for part of the day.

Besides fasting, there is also “abstinence”, which includes the periodic renouncing of any good thing we enjoy, not just meat. This is a common during Lent, where Catholics – even many who do not attend church regularly – ask themselves the question, “What am I going to give up for Lent?” This can be anything we enjoy – meat, snacks, coffee, alcohol, television, music, sex, certain hobbies, etc. We should remember two things here: (1) we should abstain from that we tend to get “inordinately attached” to; (2) the greater the sacrifice, the greater the merit. A friend of mine had a very special intention earlier this year, and although he was a huge Green Bay Packers fan, he chose to
sacrifice watching or listening to the Super Bowl for that intention! We are still waiting to see if that prayer will be answered as he wishes, but if it is granted, this will no doubt be the one thing that made the most difference.

However, penance does not consist merely in the
negative – what one gives up, but also the positive – ­­what one does in addition. Penance can mean praying more, or performing certain works of charity. Since every Christian should be involved in at least some work of charity, Lent would be a good time to commit to something, such as visiting or taking Communion to the elderly or the sick, or volunteering once a month in a soup kitchen or food bank, or preparing the parish’s next pancake breakfast. The sky is the limit when it comes to ways one can serve.

Finally, we must speak about the penances of the Saints and how that applies to us. We sometimes hear stories of Saints who slept naked on bare boards, took ice cold baths, prayed all night instead of sleep, wore hairshirts or cilices which irritated the skin, and used “the discipline” (self-flagellation). Contrary to popular belief, these are not “archaic” practices that the Church has “suppressed” (see Paenitentiam Agere, paragraph 32). The Little Flower’s theology of “doing little things with great love” has been twisted, isolated from our Tradition and interpreted in ways contrary to it, and used as a cop-out to avoid doing penance. On the contrary, these practices remain good and holy and win for those who practice them a great deal of merit. However, there are grave dangers to excessive penances, which is why the Saints told their spiritual directors everything they were doing by way of penance and always submitted to their directors when they would order them to stop doing certain penances. Only some will be called to practice “the discipline”, for instance (we now know that Pope John Paul II practiced it), and this must be carefully discerned.

This has been a short primer on penance. Hopefully, as you put these principles into practice this Lent, you will destroy the “golden calves” in your lives.


  1. You are doing good work with your writings on penance and the Theology of the Body. May God bless you and may His grace strengthen and uphold you such that you persevere in the faith and the full practice of charity.

    I have noticed in the past how St. Therese's Little Way is frequently severed from her time as a Carmelite nun. Likewise with other saints who wrote eloquently about humility and love, whether St. Therese of Avila or St. Bernard, we cherish their words but their austerities we shun.

    Please pray for me, although I am anonymous, because I am much in need of the gifts of prayer, penance, silence and charity.

  2. Be assured of my prayers! And please pray for me as well - I dare say I am more in need of those things you mentioned than you are yourself.

    And thanks for your excellent comments.