In cinere et cilicio
I have found that little is accomplished by sitting about in the dark feeling guilty. Penance must be more constructive than that. The expiatory side of penance would more likely consist of prayer and inward chant, extended to prayerful reading and to contemplation. It will carry one’s sorry ass to church; and to that participation in the Mass which is a conduit of the divine mercy.
Anyone can go about in cinere et cilicio — in sackcloth and ashes, marks of poverty. They could be a fashion statement; anything can be turned into that. They began as the costume for our Catechumens, given forty days to prepare for Baptism at Easter. Through this time, they could wear their sins, and by extension public sinners could join them — publicly, in that attire. As I understand (from missals and the like) reconciliation occurred on Maundy Thursday. Christ carries, the rest of the way.
We will know that the Church is getting back in gear when we see a few bishops in sackcloth and ashes. Meanwhile, there are our own sins, our own quiet sins, carefully hidden, even from ourselves. The ashes carried out of church on the forehead — the ashes that were blessed at the altar, at the beginning of this morning’s Mass — sustain that tradition, now much less severe.
To my understanding, shame has been adapting to these post-Christian times. Shame today consists of getting caught. Without God, what else could it signify? But God already knows you and I are worms, we cannot impress Him. Sins honestly confessed then absolved are left behind. The world may still think us an embarrassment, but who cares what the world thinks?
For you and me, penance will be joyful. We’ve got off easy, what could we lament? In perfect contrition we come to know ourselves: to know what we are capable of doing, or capable of not doing when action is rightfully demanded. This takes an awkward burden off our backs, a lot of gunk out of our eyes. It is thus a big plus, and the resolution not to sin again is of its nature joyous. We may fail, but will keep trying.
Penance is penance. It is doing the right thing. Doing the right thing makes us feel good.
There is expiation and purgation. They are subtly different, and subtly the same. In the grand cosmic scheme of things, Christ has atoned. We know of Purgatory, though we don’t know much. Here on this Earth we will do what is within our powers, to expiate in positive acts, and purge ourselves of encumberments. The self-denial that threads through Lent, the de-habituation to luxuries and crutches, is not for sin, per se. It is merely good exercise, repeated each year; the divine form of that cute saying of Nietzsche’s (“what does not kill me makes me stronger”). Alas, clever man, he was able to turn a great Lenten truth into a feeble and implausible lie.
It is the building of strength that makes us stronger; the ability to withstand temptation; the wisdom not to hurt but to avoid hurting ourselves. That is the groundwork of Christian virtue, and like exercise in the gym, it is not for public display.
And neither for that matter is the expiation, except to right very public wrongs. Lent is not performed for an Oscar. The acts of charity — the additional acts, required in this season — are to remain invisible to men. And by charity, invisibly, the heart is uplifted.