The Catholic Church is essentially synonymous with the Roman Catholic Church in most Western media. Indeed, Roman Catholicism is the largest kind of “Catholicism” in the world today—and carries a similarly sized weight in the history of the Church. But as important as Western Christianity is, it’s important to check in with the other half of our Catholic Church—Eastern Catholicism.
This is most useful during Lent, as both lungs of the Church breathe together during a penitential season, but they breathe with different patterns.
Penance has been a staple of Christianity from the beginning, brought over from Judaism. But over the thousands of years since our beginning, various Christian communities have reflected upon this essential practice in divergent ways.
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In the West, penance has been associated with Romans 8:13:
For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
Penance is often viewed as part of that “putting to death the deeds of the body.” This enters our English language as “mortification,” from the Latin word mortificare, meaning “to put to death.”
There’s a potential misunderstanding in these words that’s all too easy for us non-Greek (and increasingly non-Latin) speaking Westerners to make. When St. Paul speaks of “the body” and “the flesh” in this passage, he is referring to something beyond our literal flesh and body. He means our sinful flesh—our sinful, fallen actions and attitudes.
This is important to know because death has no moderation. Shooting the enemy once may be enough to kill him; but shooting him ten times will not make him less dead. And this, indeed, is a good metaphor because we must put to death our sins with maximum prejudice. There can be no quarter for evil; we must fight sin until it is completely, totally overcome. And this is the essence of mortification. We are dead to sinful flesh—crucified to it, the most excessive death of all.
But this isn’t the complete story. Many Westerners take this mortification to mean every aspect of our lives, when it is meant only for sin. The rest of our lives are governed by another principle, called in English “asceticism.” This comes from the Greek word askesis, meaning “exercise”—the same root we get the word “athletic” from.
This is a key focus in Eastern Christianity. While in the West asceticism has often been overlooked as just part of mortification, the East places a heavy focus on the ascetical life as a separate part of spirituality aimed not at overcoming sin but at growing in virtue. The Scriptural inspiration for this is 1 Corinthians 9:24-25:
Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.
We humans are a tangled collection of desires, passions, emotions, and appetites. Some of these are sinful, and they must be put to death. But most of these are good. We have desires for justice, food, friendship, sex—all the beautiful things of our humanity that make up the spice of life. But they are mixed up and out of order. We want food more than we want God; we want sex more than we want love. We need to train our passions and appetites—and asceticism is this training.
The metaphor of athletic training avoids the excess we may encounter if we just treat all of this like mortification. Athletes train intelligently. Training is never just for training’s sake but for a better performance in the game. A runner doesn’t spend all day working on her arms, nor a quarterback spend all day on his legs. And every athlete is careful not to overtrain. They spend much of their time promoting recovery through ice baths, stretches, nutritious foods, and well-timed rests. If they get injured, they treat that part with even more delicacy with braces, therapy, and medicine.
So it goes with penance. We don’t throw ourselves into suffering with some superficial Catholic machismo; we discipline ourselves with a purpose. Working out harder is not always better. You could be working out the wrong muscle groups, or pushing your body to injury, or tiring yourself out the day before a big game.
Penance should be chosen thoughtfully, with an eye on the ultimate goal of growing in life in Christ. It should never get in the way of our duties in our vocation, our call to prayer, and our fight against pride and vainglory. Sometimes that means giving room for comfort measures in light of a spiritual injury; or giving yourself a space to rest and relax; or relaxing penitential efforts to give energy for efforts of a different kind.
But the metaphor of athleticism also avoids the laxity so common in the West. No athlete became great by slacking off. Taking a sport seriously means breaking a sweat. Muscles should ache regularly and often—true, not with the pain of injury, but at least with the pain of effort. And the higher the level you wish to compete at, the harder you must train.
Our penitential life is the same. Working out implies work—and working out something as important as our salvation should inspire real effort. I know by my ever-growing midriff that I could stand to work out more; do we look at our spiritual lives with the same honest eye?
This season of Lent is the perfect time to take an honest look at our ascetical progress. The Church, both East and West, gives us these 40 days before the “big game” of Easter Sunday to prepare. Our task is first to put to death our deeds of sin; but we must also grow in goodness. That growth, we know, is a result of grace—and so we avoid excesses that lead to pride and other injury. But we also know God asks us to respond to that grace—and this takes our sincere effort. Let’s run so as to win.