A Lent without penance

As a birthday gift my wife received a subscription to The Word Among Us, which is “a Catholic devotional magazine based on the daily Mass readings”.

As we rode to work together, she read the readings and meditation for today, Ash Wednesday. The meditation offered the analogy of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly: “If only we could enter a magical chrysalis and emerge six weeks later as a reflection of God’s beauty and grace!”

“Of course,” they caution, “we know it’s not magic. It’s a combination of God’s grace and our effort. … So here are some things we can try to do this season so that we can find our lives changed come Easter Sunday. ”

The suggestions include prayerfully considering “what you want to become”; finding a “chrysalis”, i.e. time set aside each day for prayer; and “living your new life”, which means to “[r]earrange your priorities as if you already were that butterfly”.

Notice anything about this?

How about no mention of penance or sin? That’s right, an Ash Wednesday meditation having nothing to do with repentance, fasting, or self-denial, whatsoever. Something similar happened the last time I attended Ash Wednesday Mass: The homily managed to ignore the topics of sin and repentance entirely.

At times like this I am tempted to despair; tempted to say, with Hilary White, “Welcome to NuChurch“. I try to believe that the Church hasn’t gone off the rails since Vatican II. I have reminded myself, and others, that the Church has not changed any doctrines to accommodate the demands of secular culture. But I sometimes wonder, what’s the use in having the infallible fullness of the Gospel if half of it is never preached?

In case anyone really doesn’t know what Lent is for, it is defined in the Catechism as “the primary penitential season in the Church’s liturgical year, reflecting the forty days Jesus spent in the desert in fasting and prayer.”  Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary.

Further, “The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year … are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).” Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1438.


2 thoughts on “A Lent without penance

  1. I don’t know if your meditation mentioned that within the cocoon, the caterpillar actually breaks down so that it’s no longer a caterpillar, but, urrrmmmm, butterfly liquid… This puts it better: http://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/monarch/ChrysalisDevelopmentLPB.html
    This breaking down to be remade seems fairly penitential to me. Enzymes actually begin to digest the caterpillar’s tissue. Makes hair shirts and self-flagellations look timid! It also says that Caterpillars even begin to fast before they cocoon!
    It’s tragic that many believe and teach children that caterpillars just grow wings to become butterflies, when the scientific facts are so much more impressive, and naturally a better life metaphor. If only caterpillars prayed and gave alms…


  2. Ignatius:

    It actually did mention that all of its organs get re-made. And I agree with you that it’s not a bad metaphor for repentance and renewal.

    Still, I don’t think it gets that point across. It expresses everything in terms of “letting go” of things (like the old heart and lungs) and “growing” new things (like wings). The impression one receives is of a natural process, one which we need only “allow” to occur, by placing ourselves in a “chrysalis” and “letting go” and thinking of the ways in which we would like to “change”.

    It fails to convey that the state in which we find ourselves, in which we are in need of “change”, is our own fault due to our sinfulness, and that the way to renewal is through sorrow for sins, self-denial, and resolving to do good and avoid evil — all performed of course in the context of prayer, which is one thing that the meditation gets right.

    Also it gives the impression that the ways in which God will help you to change are entirely up to you, as opposed to you being required to reform your life in accord with the objective standards of the Gospel.

    Someone who is well catechized in the faith may well get something good out of it. But if this is the level of catechesis that most people get nowadays — which I believe is the case based on my family’s experience — then I don’t see how anyone could possibly imbibe the concepts of penance, self-denial and resolving to avoid future sin from this meditation. It’s no wonder that so many people have lost the awareness of sin and the requirement of obedience.


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