As the Catholic Church celebrates the season of Lent, it is good for the faithful to understand what the true meaning of this liturgical season is.
Many Catholics may rightfully associate the season of Lent with repentance and doing penance for our sins. This is all too appropriate for the season leading up to Easter, which celebrates Christ’s final victory over the forces of sin and death. But what precisely does repenting of our sins include?
In the responsorial psalm for Ash Wednesday – taken from the fifty-first Psalm – it is written, “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of Your compassion blot out my transgressions” (Psalm 51:3). Yet, later on in the same Psalm, one reads, “Behold, you desire true sincerity; and secretly you teach me wisdom” (Psalm 51:8). What can be inferred from these two verses is that God, in His infinite mercy, is willing to forgive us of our sins, yet, as creatures with free will, we must willingly chose to accept and cooperate with God’s mercy, and God, through His revelation, tells us all that we must know in order to do so. Thus, two things are necessary to overcome sin: God’s free initiative in extending His grace and mercy to us and our sincere desire to be forgiven and repent of our sins.
With this in mind, there are two spiritual and moral tendencies that must be avoided in order for true repentance to take place. The first is the sin of presumption, and the other the sin of despair. Presumption is when a person believes that God automatically forgives his or sins, simply because the person desires forgiveness, and that one does not need to actually say or do anything to repent of his sins. It is, in a word, a willingness to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness without the accompanying desire to repent.
God’s mercy cannot bring about true spiritual renewal unless we are willing to cooperate with God. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes how presumption – which it defines as a state in which the soul “hopes for salvation without doing anything to deserve it, or for pardon from his sins without repenting of them” – is born of a sense of pride.
The latter sin – despair – is a spiritual state in which one believes that his or her sins are so large that God is either incapable of forgiving or unwilling to forgive them, or that these sins exceed his or her own ability to overcome. Ironically, despair itself is an obstacle against the repentance of sin, since if one believes that his sin is too great to be forgiven, he will not seek forgiveness.
In a word, a despair is an obstacle to seeking God’s forgiveness – which one in a state of despair thinks is impossible – just as presumption is an obstacle to conversion or repentance – which one in a state or presumption believes is unnecessary or superfluous. Again referencing the Catholic Encyclopedia, presumption can be seen as a sin against the virtue of hope by way of excess, whereas despair can be seen as a sin against the virtue of hope by way of defect.
When one looks to Church history, one can see concise and profound words against both despair and presumption in the works of St. Cyprian, the early Christian saint and bishop of the town of Carthage in North Africa. In the year A.D. 250, the Roman emperor Decius began a persecution of Christians. The Christian communities of North Africa were hit the worst. Within St. Cyprian’s diocese, as well as in many of the surrounding dioceses, a large number of Christians fell from the faith under the pressure of persecution. Many wondered whether such people should be readmitted into the Church and, if so, what sort of penance corresponded with their sin.
During the period of the persecution, it was common for those Christians who had apostatized to go to people known as “confessors” – namely, people who had been arrested for refusing to reject the Christian faith but who had not been martyred – and confess their sins to them, and in return the confessors would pray on their behalf. It was believed that one could obtain forgiveness for the sin of apostasy through the intercession of the confessors. Unfortunately, many confessors began to abuse their status within the community and began to proclaim forgiveness for sins for large sums of people at once, often without any, or at least with no substantial, penance to go along with the absolution. Thus, many who still had the sin of apostasy on their soul went on to resume their previous life in the Church, including the reception of communion.
St. Cyprian, in his work On the Lapsed, in which he deals with the systemic issue of apostasy among certain segments of the faithful in the North African Church, warns against these penitents’ behavior as a form of sacrilege, claiming that the penitents sinned more by receiving communion in a state of sin than when they had initially fallen into a state of apostasy. Moreover, commenting on the words of the confessors to the lapsed, which provided a false state of spiritual comfort, he wrote:
They think that to be peace which some truck with deceiving words. That is not peace but war, nor is he joined with the Church who is separated from the Gospel. Why do they call an injury a kindness? Why do they refer to impiety by the term “piety”? Why do they interrupt the lamentation of penance and communicate with those who ought to weep continually and entreat their Lord?
What Cyprian is saying is that those who commit the sin of presumption believe themselves righteous when they are not. They cannot achieve the fullness of holiness, the fullness of piety, or the spiritual peace that comes from being actively involved in a relationship with God. Thus, we end up in a paradox: through presumption, we think we will obtain forgiveness of sins solely due to our wanting it, and we thus believe we are given the strength to act piously, but since we remain in a state of sin, our attempts at piety are in fact impious. Those in such a state think they have received the peace of the Lord, but in fact, they have not. We think we have obtained the benefits of penance without actually making any penance. This leads Cyprian to speak harshly towards the corrupt confessors: why do they see their cheap grace, their quick, easy, and “ready-made” means of forgiveness, which is injurious to the souls of the faithful, as though it were an act of kindness and mercy granted upon those steeped in sin?
Cyprian demands true conversion among the lapsed and penances that correspond to the sin. It is for this reason that Cyprian goes on to say, “Let no man betray himself; let no man deceive himself. The Lord alone can have mercy. He alone can grant pardon for sins which were committed against Him.” Humans cannot, as Cyprian wrote, “remit or forego what has been committed against the Lord” by doing that which is just as bad as or even worse than the initial sin itself – that is to say, acting as if we had no sin and carrying on cannot counteract the effects of sin. Thus, he concluded, “The Lord must be implored; the Lord must be placated by our own satisfaction[.]” To think one can obtain forgiveness of sins without first making recourse to God’s mercy “is to have provoked His wrath.”
Thus, Cyprian admonishes his audience, “Let us turn to the Lord with our whole mind, and, expressing repentance for our sin with true grief, let us implore God’s mercy. Let the soul prostrate itself before Him; let sorrow give satisfaction to Him; let our every hope rest upon Him.” We must truly feel sorrow for our sins, and yet Cyprian also says that those who are truly repentant of their sins should trust that God can and will forgive them.
But do you, brethren, who are inclined towards fear of the Lord…repenting and grieving over your sins, recognize the very serious crime of your conscience, open the eyes of your hearts to an understanding of your shortcomings, neither despairing of the mercy of the Lord nor yet already laying claim to pardon. As God by reason of His affection as Father is always indulgent and good, so by reason of His majesty as judge He is to be feared. … If anyone performs prayer with his whole heart, if He groans with genuine lamentations and tears of repentance, if by continuous just works he turns to the Lord to the forgiveness of sins, such can receive His mercy, who has offered His mercy with these words: “When you turn and lament, then you shall be saved and shall know where you have been” [Isaiah 30:15]; and again: “I desire not the death of the dying,” [Ezekiel 30:11], says the Lord in the Lord’s own words: “Turn,” He says, “to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, patient and rich in mercy…” [Joel 2:13]. He can grant mercy; He can turn aside His judgment.
God is always willing to forgive us our sins. Yet there needs to be a sense of receptiveness to God’s mercy, there needs to be cooperation with God’s mercy, in order for God’s mercy to bear any fruit. We should not, as Cyprian said, be “seduced by false promises” from those who claim to offer quick and easy forms of repentance, for true repentance requires true conversion, a radical sense of breaking off from one’s sin and turning toward God.
Scripture frequently uses the image of “dying to one’s sinful self” to express the idea of separation from sin. St. Peter, for example, writes, “He bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). St. Paul says that in our baptism, we “were buried with Him … into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). We must completely reject our sins and wholeheartedly turn to God, and only in this can our sins be forgiven.
Cyprian writes that those who believe otherwise “believe men against God.” Yet we should never doubt God’s ability to forgive our sins. The first epistle of St. John summarizes this balance concisely: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
Cole DeSantis is an M.A. candidate in theology at Providence College, a Catholic college run by priests of the Dominican Order in the Diocese of Providence. His theological interests include Church history, the liturgy, moral theology, Christology, and the problem of evil.