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Ash Wednesday: Thoughts for the Start of Lent

February 22, 2012

Nothing has so filled me with shame and regret

as what I have not done.

     ~ Lionel Trilling

Lent is thought of as a time of giving something up, or as a period in which a series of “don’ts” prevails: we give up something we like or avoid specified behavior for the period of 40 days, with the hope of reforming ourselves.  In the tradition, this approach is considered to be at best a first step to true repentance.  Jeremy Taylor, the 17th century cleric, spoke of two kinds of repentance:

The first is mere sorrow for what is past, an ineffective trouble, producing nothing good. . . To this repentance pardon is nowhere promised in scripture.  But there is a repentance which is called “conversion,” or “amendment of life,” a repentance productive of holy fruits, such as the Baptist and our blessed Savior preached.

Holy sorrow is productive. Jeremy Taylor relied on St. Paul, who noted that the product of holy sorrow is “carefulness and the clearing of the self of indignation, fear, vehement desires, zeal, and revenge.” Repentance is not only a purging of our iniquity; it is also “a sanctification of the whole  person, turning nature into grace, passions into reason, and flesh into spirit.”  (J. Taylor, “Faith and Repentance”).

     Similar contrasts appear in Jewish teachings on repentance.  Teshuva (repentance) is a key concept that includes “repentance rooted in fear” as well as “repentance rooted in love.”  Teshuva rooted in fear is not the highest form of repentance, but the reformation of one’s character through the analysis of sin, remorse and restitution, when combined with the ceasing of the sinful action, is called “repentance rooted in love.”  The highest form of repentance – “full teshuva” – involves refraining from the sin for which one has repented.  Remorse deepens and one’s confession becomes more profound as the steps of teshuva are repeated again and again in one’s life.

     Meister Eckhart in the middle ages also distinguished between two kinds of repentance.  There is the kind of repentance that “draws us downwards into yet greater suffering, plunging us into distress” that is akin to despair.  This is unproductive repentance that is unable to help us find a way  out of our suffering.  The other kind of repentance “is of God” and it “brings spiritual joy that lifts the soul out of her suffering and distress and binds her to God.”  With this second kind of repentance comes humility.  (Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land, p. 131)

     To be fruitful and transformative our practices during Lent must take account of our sinfulness and weakness.  St. Augustine is helpful in this regard: “Imagine yourself . . . in weak health, as is true of all of us, for all of this life of ours is a weakness, and a long life is but a prolonged weakness.” (Sermon 30,2)  And in The Confessions (Book 11, xi, 9) he writes: “O Lord, who have been gracious to all of my iniquities, heal also my weakness . . . By hope we are saved and in patience we await your promises.”  This prayerful acquiescence before God is complemented in the Christian soul by stirrings of love, as noted by Alan Jones in “Passion for Pilgrimage”:

Repentance is for lovers.

It is for the enlarging of the heart.

Ours, then is a struggle

to recover lost octaves of passion.

So that we may be

truer and better lovers.

Let our practices this Lent be in service of a healing reparation and of the Love that calls us.

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Last updated: 11/25/10.