Some Helpful Thoughts on Spiritual Progress BY REV. EDWARD F. GARESCHE, SJ.
SOME LENTEN SUBSTITUTES
To do penance in one form or another is a necessity to us poor fallen children of Adam. Our Lord quite pointedly informed us so when He said to us through His apostles, "Unless you do penance you shall all likewise perish." We have sinned. Upon sin must follow either punishment or penance. If we wish, therefore, to escape the punishment due our sins, we must atone for them. This is the simple summary of the law of penance. We must afflict ourselves by voluntary self-chastisement for our sins or God's justice will afflict us and cause us to make a much keener, though involuntary, satisfaction for what we have done amiss. It is, then, not from severity but rather out of pity that the Church imposes on us penitential fasts and abstinences. Lest we should forget or omit to make satisfaction for our sins she reminds.us and assists us by making it obligatory upon us under pain of grievous sin to abstain or to fast on certain definite days. She bids us in this way avert beforehand God's severe chastisements which will fall on us for our unatoned sins, in this life and most of all in the fiery ordeal of purgatory.
These official penances of the Church are therefore not a hardship on us, but a singular privilege. They remind us betimes to make atonement, while at the same time they sanctify and consecrate in a particular way our penance. What one does in a private capacity and of his own free will to mortify himself and atone for his sins is meritorious and has efficacy. Yet it is not to be compared with that penance performed out of obedience to the law of the Church and in accordance with her holy regulations. The abstinence on Fridays, therefore, the fasts of Lent, have a particular efficacy to atone for our sins, because they are performed in obedience to the explicit law of the Church and are sanctified beyond the ordinary. It is much better, all other things being equal, to observe the regular fasts of the Church and her prescribed abstinences than, disregarding these, to mortify one's self in private ways of one's own choosing. Obedience gives a special holiness to the Church's fasts—that obedience which is better than sacrifice and which adds to sacrifice a particular merit and efficacy.
We are fortunate, then, if we find ourselves able to fast during Lent. It is a real misfortune on the other hand to have to ask a dispensation. Since we must, in one way or the other, do penance for our sins; and since voluntary penance and in particular penance commanded by the Church is so much more efficacious for the remission of the punishment due them, we are fortunate if we can perform just what is prescribed by our good and holy Mother; unfortunate if we find ourselves obliged to seek exemption. Such special merit and such singular effectiveness for the remission of sin's punishment reside in the prescribed fasts and abstinences of the Church that we suffer a serious loss when we have to be dispensed from them. True, when we are dispensed, our obligation ceases. Still we are encouraged, though we are not bound, to substitute other penances for the fasting which we cannot practice.
To put the thing in other words, the general obligation to do penance presses on all of us. We must all do penance or we shall all likewise perish. The Church, with great kindness and thoughtfulness, says to us: "Fast during Lent and on the days appointed. In this way you shall appease the anger of God and heed the warning of Our Lord to do penance.' Our frail health says to us: "This manner of penance by fasting you cannot do." Then must we say to ourselves: "Penance I must do; to fast I am not able —what substitute, then, shall I offer to God by way of penance for my sins?
Foremost in the ranks of salutary works of penance comes the pious practice of almsgiving. The concupiscence of the eyes, the incessant itching and desire to have more of the goods of this world and to hold on to what we have, is one of the strongest inclinations of our poor human nature. Almsgiving mortifies this harsh and strong concupiscence. When we give, whether out of our abundance or our need, to those more wretched and more needy than ourselves, we lend to the Lord, and at the same time we exercise a salutary act of mortification. It hurts us, to a greater or less degree, according to the size of the gift and the measure of our generosity, to part with what we have. Therefore, almsgiving is a true penance, and many a passage in Holy Writ tells us how pleasing it is in the sight of God. Those who give to the poor lend to the Lord. Those who sacrifice their attachment to possessions and hand them over for the benefit of the missions or for the spread of the Faith propitiate God's justice in a most effective manner. The charity which gives alms to the missions or to the poor is of that charity which covers a multitude of sins. If we have good excuse from the penance of fasting, which one of us can reasonably seek exemption from the penance of giving alms?
Almsgiving has also this excellent quality among others, that the efficacy of the penance grows greater in proportion as we have less of this world's goods. Those who are well-to-do may indeed perform efficacious penance by giving large sums to charity or the missions. But those who have less can do as great penance by giving less, because the penance of their almsgiving is greater in proportion as they have less to give. The poor widow of the Gospel who dropped into the box of offerings her whole living, even all she had, did more penance and merited more praise from Our Lord than the rich men who cast in great offerings from their abundance. So that if we have much to give we must give much to make our almsgiving a penance, but if we have less to offer we may do great penance by offering our little. Take serious thought, then, and see what you can do by way of penance through almsgiving. The poor and the missions will gratefully receive what you offer, and the prayers of the poor and of the missionaries will also help to obtain the remission of God's punishments for your sins.
Besides almsgiving there are many other good works which have about them the savor of sacrifice and therefore form efficacious substitutes for the Lenten fasting which our weak health may forbid. There is, for example, the teaching of catechism. We shall never forget the scene which met our eyes on a memorable occasion when we were going through a Catholic settlement deep in the slums of one of our great cities. In a huge dingy room a half-dozen Catholic teachers of catechism, each surrounded by a noisy class, were trying to keep order and at the same time to put into the minds and the hearts of their young charges the knowledge and love of our holy Faith. We went from one group to the other, and finally paused at the most ragged, noisy, and boisterous of them all, a crowd of boys from the slums, unwashed, ill-dressed, and most vociferous, who were thronging about a patient, sweet-faced girl who, with consummate equanimity, was reading them their lesson in such pauses of the noise as gave her a chance to make herself heard at all. "How did you get into this work?" we asked, when the turmoil had a little subsided. The young teacher smiled. "Why, Father," said she, "it happened in this way. Last Lent I said to my confessor, 'Father, I cannot fast, and so I must ask a dispensation. Will you suggest to me some good works that I may do in place of fasting? But, please, oh, please, do not ask me to teach catechism! That is the very thing of things that I cannot bear to do.' I imagined that the Father smiled to himself, for there was a queer note in his voice when he answered : *My child, to teach catechism is the very thing that I shall suggest to you for your penance, since you dislike it so much. Let us make a bargain. Do you go to the settlement and offer to teach catechism there just for the time of Lent to the worst and most unruly class that they can give you. Only persevere until Easter time, and I guarantee that you will like it so well by then that you will keep it up of your own accord.' So I came down here," she continued, "and took this class, and I have been at it ever since." "Did the Father's prediction come true, and do you like it*?" we inquired. "I have gotten to love it," she said, "and I would not give it up for anything in the world. These are such lovely boys, so affectionate and responsive." We looked about on that unruly throng and marveled at the power of Christian charity. Yet she was wise enough, this young teacher of catechism, to be able to know the warm hearts under these tattered coats. She loved the work in spite of its difficulties and unpleasantness. And so might you, dear reader, if you did penance by teaching catechism, grow to love the work so much that you would continue in it and become one of those who will shine like stars for all eternity because they have instructed many unto justice.
The giving of one's leisure time during Lent to good works instead of to amusements is likewise a very efficacious means of penance. To those who love entertainment—and their number is many in this age of multiplied amusements—merely to refrain from their usual recreations is a true and salutary penance. When the time so saved is given to good works, to sewing for the poor or for the missions, to visiting the sick, to helping to the spread of Catholic literature, even to reading and the study of serious and worthy things, the result is not an unworthy substi-ute for fasting. Any violence that we do to our less noble inclinations, any effort we make in behalf of our better selves and to subdue what is less gracious and worthy in us is fit to be offered up to God in union with the sufferings of Christ to take the place of the fasting which we find ourselves unable to endure.
So it should not be difficult for us, even though we are unhappily not able to keep the strict fast of Lent, to find efficacious substitutes in the penance of multiplied good works. Besides their efficacy for obtaining the remission of our sins and averting Grod's judgments and just anger, these substitutes for fasting will bring many positive graces and holy satisfactions into our lives. Sin is the cause of all unhappiness and selfishness, the source of most misery. In proportion as we mortify the less noble elements of our nature our better selves expand and develop, and the lineaments of Christ show themselves in the countenance of our souls. If, subduing what is evil in us and mortifying our baser part, we keep Christ faithful company through the sad days of Lent, we shall go with Him to a glorious Easter. No one drinks so deep of the joy of the Resurrection or has so large a part in the spiritual consolations of Christ risen as he who has faithfully and with great love kept company with Christ in His penances and sorrows.