By Father Joshua J. Whitfield
Special to The Texas Catholic
“What is most contrary to salvation is not sin but habit.” These are the words of Charles Péguy, instigator, poet, soldier, Catholic. And they’re words which, for me, come to mind as we begin our Lent again.
He was talking about those habits which control us, shape us, which although small by themselves, together can define us.
Those habits of language, of diet, habits of thought and heart: swearing slips of the tongue, names taken in vain, out of our mouths before we even think about it; judging strangers, sometimes even friends, almost reflexively; that box of cookies half-gone in just a minute or two.
These are the habits of Christian mediocrity; as I said, small things by themselves, they’re deadly in the aggregate. Luring us into what C. S. Lewis called “smallness and flabbiness” and “contented subhumanity,” it’s why Péguy said bad habits could be as dangerous as sin. Because over time they dull us, making us less than what we’re created to be.
And it’s the reason for our Lenten disciplines. Praying as we do on Ash Wednesday that we may be “armed with weapons of self-restraint,” bettered “with minds made pure,” the purpose of the spiritual and even physical struggles of Lent is to discover and embrace different habits, habits more formed by the “mind of Christ,” as Paul said (cf. 1 Cor. 2:16). Hence the physicality of Lent: bodily fasting, material almsgiving, additional and actual prayer, extra devotions like Stations of the Cross, a Holy Hour, an extra Rosary. The idea is plainly like exercise; akin to going to the gym, the habits of Lent are meant to make us healthier, more fit Christians. Fighting that “flabbiness” Lewis wrote about, they make our souls stronger and more agile, readier to follow Christ and to carry the cross he wants to give us.
They’re habits of discipleship meant to make us “worthy to celebrate devoutly” the Passion of Jesus. That’s what separates Lenten disciplines from mere self-improvement. We struggle to replace our bad habits with good ones, not because we’re trying to achieve salvation or even make ourselves better (although we often do become better people), but because the habits of Lent prepare us to see Christ better, seeing better his suffering and death and what it all really means.
This is the deeper reason of our Lenten work: that by embracing the habits of Lent we come to see Holy Week and Easter better and the death and resurrection of Jesus more clearly. Which, of course, is to see our own death and resurrection more clearly, to see better the work and purpose of salvation, and that it’s salvation meant for us. That is, if we’ll but desire it and yearn for it, struggling for it like it’s something we genuinely love.
It’s why we each should take up the habits of Lent, so we can see Christ more clearly. Because we need to see him more clearly—our beautiful Christ in an ugly world, his love on Good Friday.
Father Joshua J. Whitfield is the pastoral administrator of St. Rita Catholic Church.