Penance during Lent: we must aim at integrity

Penance during Lent:  we must aim at integrity

To do what is right and just is more pleasing to the Lord than sacrifices” (Prov 21:3)

 “To do penance is to bewail the evil we have done, and to do no evil to bewail”—Pope Gregory the Great

Lent, as many of us know, is from an old English word “lencten” which means “spring time”. The phenomenon of spring—new branches as shoots, budding flowers and leaves—fits beautifully well with the new life we derive from the Paschal Mystery or the Passion, Death and Resurrection of the Master, that the season of Lent starts to highlight. 

But in practical terms Lent is almost always synonymous for Catholics with doing penance. Jesus’ fasting for forty days and nights in the desert  that the Gospel of Matthew (4:1-11) speaks of has sparked an “imitatio Christi (imitation of Christ)” response from the Latin Church since the seventh century. She has also institutionalized a forty-day (actually the count is 46, if we begin with Ash Wednesday and include Holy [or Black] Saturday) penitential journey that aims at joining the Savior in the wilderness of the heart. Hitting the exact number is not as important as celebrating its exact significance. 

It is so easy to simply sail along the penitential waters using the paddles of abstinence (avoiding meat on Fridays basically) and fasting (one full meal? half meals?) together with the oars of prayer and acts of charity (almsgiving). It is more challenging to take the boat of integrity. But that is what Lent or the “spring time” of the life of the spirit must aim at. Or spring becomes fake news and we revert to winter, even in the thick of spiritual summer, that is, eventually celebrating Easter season, still deeply ensconced in our tombs.

An author named Home once wrote: “A man of integrity will never listen to a plea against conscience.” To me it is easy to see why. A person of integrity’s external acts or words emerge from his or her inner core. Core, by the way, is rooted in the Latin ‘cor’ which means ‘heart’. Heart which follows what is good and avoids evil as dictated by moral norms is what conscience consists of.  Unfortunately, there is a side B to this. A heart which follows only its own perceptions, some of which may not be according to moral norms, cannot be said to characterize a person of integrity.  What are moral norms? Basically they are standards of judgment and behavior. The Church tells us that these ultimately come from God and are revealed in our human nature and by God’s Word, written (Bible) and elucidated more by Church teaching. Conscience needs to be formed and oriented to right and wrong by being immersed in these norms. Often we can detect if someone has a formed conscience or not. How?

I’m not interested in presenting a research paper exploring Scriptural teaching on integrity. Neither is a reader of the CBCP monitor, I suppose. Suffice it for us to check on the book of Sirach and Luke’s Gospel for our purpose. The reason, to me, is clear. They provide simple tests. They do not necessarily always apply to all people at all times. But they always apply to our dear ‘self’ (a basic rule of thumb for a fruitful spiritual exercise is to be the first to be subjected to the tests).

The first test is speech. Sirach compares the way we communicate with the sieve being shaken (Sir 27:4-7). If it is unwashed, husks will appear; similarly if a person has no integrity, it will show in speech being contaminated or laced with verbal ‘husks’. A person who always thoughtfully utters words that are helpful, kind, respectful and compassionate shows himself/herself a person of integrity. On the other hand, when a person habitually curses and puts down other people to let steam off is like a sieve with husks. His or her inner core is unwashed. “When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear; so do a man’s faults when he speaks” (Sir 27:7).

The second test is the qualify of one’s behavior or acts. A hero does heroic acts; a coward avoids them, for example. Jesus teaches us, according to Luke 6:39-45, that for us his followers to be persons of integrity, the good that we choose in our heart must be seen in good acts or good conduct. He echoes Sirach, and makes the point clearer and emphatic. “A good man produces goodness from the good in his heart; an evil man produces evil out of his store of evil. Each man speaks from his heart’s abundance” (Lk 6:45). 

It is a constant temptation to think of someone else and try to measure that person’s integrity. This is why we need to heed the Master’s warning: “Why look at the speck in your brother’s eye when you miss the plank in your own?…Hypocrite, remove the plank from your own eye first, then you will see clearly enough to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Lk 6:41-42). Remember the story of the man who told a priest that he avoids the Church because it is “full of hypocrites” (another variation: “the most hypocritical institution”)? His reply: “Don’t worry about it. There’s always room for one more.”

When we tend to judge others as lacking in integrity, let us make sure to clear our own backyard first. Or, as a Michael Jackson song once suggested, we do very well when we start looking at the “Man in Mirror”

“I’m starting with the man in the mirror/ I’m asking him to change his ways/ And no message could have been any clearer/ If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change.”