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Into the Crypt: Ash Wednesday and True Repentance

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LORD I have fasted, I have prayed,
And sackcloth has my girdle been ;
To purge my soul I have essayed
With hunger blank and vigil keen ;
O God of mercy! Why am I
Still haunted by the self I fly?”
Sackcloth is a girdle good, Oh, bind it round thee still
Fasting, it is angels’ food,
And Jesus loved the night air chill
Yet think not prayer and fast were given,
To make one step ‘twixt earth and heaven.
Lyra Apostolica.

Repentance is our theme for Ash Wednesday.

We often think of repentance like an aspirin. It’s something we only partake in when we absolutely need to.

If we fall into mortal sin, we repent. Otherwise we store the bottle of repentance way in the back of the medicine cabinet and forget that it’s there.

And it’s horrid tasting medicine, too. So we only take it when we absolutely have to.

In From the Abbey’s metaphor for the lay spiritual life, true repentance means visiting the Crypt of our “Inner Abbey.”

The Crypt of an abbey is where the saints and heroes of a religious order are laid to rest.

So repentance really means taking a journey deep into our hearts.

We visit to crypt to remind us of who we are called to be. We aim to imitate the holiness, the goodness, and most of all the faith of those we honor there.

But the cold silence of the crypt also reminds us how far we have yet to go.

Ash-Wednesday is, from its nature, the gloomiest and coldest day of the Church year. Good-Friday is thrilled through and through with love and holy hope, but Ash-Wednesday brings us face to face with ourselves, and “self-knowledge is knowledge of sin.” We have turned from the world, and gone down resolutely into the crypt that lies below the cheerful structure of our everyday lives. We know that it is well to be there, but we have not yet learned to love its silence and solemnity. We see our sins, we dread their punishment, we feel the chill of the place.

But true repentance is a good and healthy thing for us to participate in on a regular basis. That’s why the Church in Her wisdom asks us to examine our conscience every night. The season of Lent, and especially the practice of Ash Wednesday, reminds us that repentance needs to play a more active role in our quest for holiness.

It would be perhaps a wise thing to spend a small part of Ash-Wednesday, but only a small part, in thinking of our sins, simply and solely of our sins, our failures, our shame. And calling all our imagination to help us, to think what it would be if, at the end of our life’s Lent, there were to come no Good-Friday and no Easter. If we were just sinners, and we had no Christ. That thought might make us see more truly the sinfulness of sin. It might wring out more gratitude and penitence from us, and make us more glad to be Christians, even though stumbling, and back- sliding, and dull-minded Christians. For that, perhaps, we all are, in our own eyes and in God’s, whatever our fellows may think of us. But disheartened Christians let us never be. Not with the Cross and the open grave before us.

Repentance is not the same thing as regret. To regret our sins, our failings and our weaknesses means simply to experience sorrow over them. Repentance is where our sorrow meets hope. Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross and His Resurrection tell us that our sin doesn’t dead-end in remorse. Instead we have the grace to change our hearts – to change the direction of our lives. That’s what repentance – the Greek word is metanoia – really means. Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel!

For no matter how lost our year may seem to us, there will be something in it that Infinite Love will gather up and treasure. And the life within us springs up and grows we know not how. One year will not perfect us, nor two, nor three. But year after year, Lent after Lent, each one a step beyond the other, may bring us to where the perfect life joins this. Therefore let us keep the fast with hope.

This Lent, let us welcome true repentance into our hearts. What is true repentance?

Metanoia is

  • grounded in our desire to love God with our whole hearts, minds and souls
  • the recognition that we don’t love God with our entire being
  • seeking the next step in loving God more completely
  • opening our hearts to grace and to the Holy Spirit to lead and strengthen us in conversion
  • growing in virtue and goodness to become more Christlike so we can participate in His divine life

Reflection Questions

  1. Why do you struggle to visit your inner Crypt, to face yourself for who you really are and who God is calling you to be?
  2. What is your next step in loving God more completely?
  3. Rather than measuring our spiritual progress by “success” of an individual Lenten experience, we should look at the accumulation of grace of our Lenten efforts. What progress have you made in your years of Lent?

Quotations taken from A Rosary for Lent by Miriam Coles Harris. This book is in the public domain.


Also published on Medium.

1 Comment

  1. james hansen on February 14, 2018 at 11:17 am

    My college roommate when he became Catholic used to love to send this message for today:”Go and make an ash of yourself.” But isn’t that what we do today show ourselves sinners? You are dust and to dust you shall return. Go believe the Gospel. Kant’s 1st question (of the 3 in Critique of Pure Reason) is scary, “Who am I?” Ironically, question 3 “What does God want of me?” wasn’t what he wanted & he left the church,

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