And the Idea of Progress

The philosophical foundations of America are built upon the Idea of Progress, which has since given rise to Faith in Progress. This philosophical school, while having some merit, eventually resulted in calling people to change for change sake. This school particularly took a turn in the era when eugenics and evolution theory were on the rise. At the core, it saw nature, including the nature of Man, as a progressive, evolving reality that is moving toward an end they know not what. Rather than accepting the nature of things as being what they are and seeking perfection through the proper fulfillment of their ends, the nature of things has become ever changeable entities that have no definitive end -- which means that all manipulations and alterations are permissible. All changes that bring about desired results must be good, albeit the results desired may not be anchored to a proper end. The Idea and Faith in Progress marks the greatest challenge to Natural Law and the understanding of morality as it relates to Salvation.

Previous to the dominance this school of thought, the end of Man was clearly understood as God and Eternal Life. By disconnecting spiritual and salvific progress from its proper end, change becomes the credo although what has to be changed becomes unclear. And so with change as the nature of all things and the constant of existence, everything must be changed or changing all the time. When reading spiritual masters like St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Francis of Assisi, or St. John of the Cross, repentance and conversion are not linked with a change of being or even change for change sake. Rather, they speak of change with regard to conforming one’s being to its ultimate End, that is, God. In the spiritual life, and especially in Lent, we are not talking about progress for progress sake or change for change sake but change in regard to our ultimate end and progress toward eternal life with God.

Through the Idea of Progress, as the separation from ultimate ends gradually occurred, change was transferred to more immediate ends. In this regard, penance and mortification became trite actions that help correct undesired behaviors. Rather than striking at the roots of Sin, most Catholics now choose actions that are formed by the social engineers of the modern world. And many priests and deacons have fallen prey to this way of thinking. Thus, today we hear preachers proposing as Lenten activities things such as, “be nice to your siblings,” or “say something nice each day to your spouse,” or “work on losing a few pounds by giving up sweets.” These fall into the realm of the social engineering in which the central claim is that the “good can be constructed” rather than the Good being a fixed reality established by God. We must always remember that we do not change ourselves in an attempt to be “better” but are called to conform our beings to the Good, which is God. Everything we say or do, every Lenten practice, must be ordered to conforming our beings to the Divine Will, which is beyond all relative perspectives.

Only by breaking from the errors of the modern world can one truly understand what the word “repent” means. We cannot truly express the regret we have for sins committed until we fully understand the Good we have violated. We cannot truly begin to change or progress in the spiritual life until we understand the Good toward which we are progressing. Lent is more than an opportunity to change… It is an opportunity to conform oneself to the Good.

A Lost Art

What Ever Happened to -- Mortification?

In recent decades, there has been a decided shift in Lenten practices, a shift that has eliminated the time honored connection to mortification. This particular ascetical practice has Biblical roots and has been a part of our Tradition until recent years. Among the practices that fall into this category, fasting has always been one of the most common, but fasting from something that brings about personal discomfort. Yet so many people today have difficulty curtailing their food intake for just two days a year in the spirit of discipline and sacrifice.

As Lent begins, the penitential practices chosen should reflect a level of difficulty and not just mere change of behavior. What makes this shift even more disconcerting are the homilies given in which priests are asking people to take on as penance practices that should already be part of one’s everyday life, such as being nicer to a neighbor or family member. Rather, penance and mortification should not be an endeavor in correcting unpleasant vices but should be acts that mortify errant passions through the cultivation of the virtues of fortitude and temperance. To give up using bad language or fighting with a sibling is not penance in the true sense but a practice that we should always work on. To try to say something nice to someone everyday is not penance or mortification.

To go hungry for a day has intrinsic value in disciplining the self in preparation for eternal life. To say a rosary before the Blessed Sacrament every day while kneeling has intrinsic value in cultivating the passions for virtue. To take on some daily physical challenge with joy and hope has intrinsic value in pursuit of the True, Good, and Beautiful. These practices help a believer to rightly order himself or herself to virtue. As Lent unfolds, may our chosen penitential practices truly reflect the spirit of penance and mortification!


Lent -- Here and in Rome

Lent has started and it seems that many remembered to receive their ashes. As so many priests note, Ash Wednesday is a curious day to say the least. It attracts those who are regular church goers as well as those who almost never come to church.

Lent is about conversion and all the faithful should take the opportunity of these days to grow closer to Christ. As anyone can figure out, the path to salvation is far more than just receiving ashes and palms. The beauty of this season here is the number who attend Mass, both on Sunday and during the week. Hopefully, those who are not practicing, that is, those who only come for ashes and palms, will start coming to Mass each week and maybe someday join the ranks of the daily communicants.

The hope and prayer in all cases is that those who consider themselves Catholic seek a true conversion.

One of the traditions I miss from living in Rome is the Station Churches. For those who have the opportunity, this particular tradition is a powerful way to journey through Lent. The most striking aspect of this time honored practice is the sense of connection to the long tradition that is the Catholic Church. Each day is a pilgrimage within the pilgrimage. The beauty of this pilgrimage is the depth of commitment and faith by all the participants. The hidden beauty is the abundance of Grace that participants receive.