In former times, generations of little Italians (and, no doubt, little boys and girls everywhere) grew up with this simple concept constantly hammered into their heads. The idea was that without self-control one would merely drift through life instead of living, and that life would soon give the boys and girls ample occasions to use the skills thus acquired.
This concept applied, once, to pretty much everything, and to the spiritual life too. And in fact, it is very clear to see how physical and mental discipline is a fundamental component of the spiritual one. We can, today, safely say that when the concept of physical and mental discipline went to the dogs with the non-repressive, softly-softly approach of the last decades, spiritual discipline rapidly followed in its decay.
It is part of the now almost forgotten wisdom of ages past that you need to strenghten your body if you want to strenghten your spirit. This is where penance comes into play. Penance is not only our willed suffering (more or less acute, I must say; very often, not really so acute) for Jesus, so that we may share in His Passion. Penance is, in his daily working, the way we force our body to discipline, so that our spiritual life may more easily bear fruits.
How can I really understand the Passion, if I can’t even stay without chocolate for a month or so? How can I give a tangible value to Jesus’ sacrifice, if in my daily life I cannot even bear to sacrifice meat on a friday? How can I keep Satan out of the most dangerous, darkest corners of my mind if I can’t say “no” even to very small gratifications of my appetite?
Nella vita nulla si ottiene senza sacrificio. In life you can’t obtain anything without sacrifice. This simple truth was planted into the head of countless generations of young Italians, and helped them to go through the challenges of their early life with the right spirit, and through the even bigger challenges of the adult life with a well steeled armour.
The newer generations seem to think differently, and to suffer accordingly. They are taught that in life, nothing will have to be obtained with sacrifice. They don’t learn by rote anymore and as a result many of them can’t even write. They refuse the idea of discipline and serious application and as a result US stipends go in growing numbers to Asian applicants. And they refuse the idea that spiritual progress involves bodily sacrifice and as a result, their spiritual life suffers and decays more and more into a meaningless collage of easy platitudes not requiring any discomfort.
Please compare this with the lesson of this very day, a day under the sign of sufferance, and of discipline to the utmost thinkable degree. Look whether Jesus chose the fuzzy, “let us embrace each other”, “let us clap our hands and celebrate” way. Look whether He – He Who could choose, which we can not! – decided to wash away our sins through a “march for peace”, or a “rock concert redemption celebration” or, instead, through an extremely painful torture followed by one of the most atrocious deaths imaginable (I know of worse ways to execute people of course; but the Romans weren’t savages like, say, the Comanches; nor were they refined bastards like the Chinese).
Discipline is not there anymore, which is why penance is, nowadays, difficult to understand. But penance is not a masochistic exercise in self-punishment. Penance is at the same time offering and training.
It beggars beliefs that people who get up very early in the morning to “hit the gym” at 6:30 or 7:00 am (a praxis, I am told, not so infrequent in the dear U S of A) don’t understand that the very same principles they are applying to their physical health applies to their spiritual one too.
At the same time, it doesn’t surprise that lack of discipline in everything should lead to the explosion of obesity so clearly observed everywhere in the fat and lazy Western societies and more so – obviously – among the younger generations now completely detached from the most elementary concept of……. discipline. Instead, we prefer to fabricate excuses, like inventing improbable and utterly ridiculous “genetic conditions” (what? Were those not there only one or two generations ago? Are those miraculously not present in Italy, France, Spain, Greece, but mysteriously appear among US Americans of Italian, French, Spanish, Irish origin? Are they miraculously present in prevalence among the poor and lazy, but not present among the healthy, active middle-class, those who hit the gym at 7 am?).
Penance and discipline go hand in hand. Penance trains you to discipline, and this discipline will greatly help you in your spiritual growth. Penance is passion at a very, very small level, but it is training to ascend to higher levels of spiritual life.
Penance is gym for the soul.
In life, nothing can be obtained without sacrifice. As this very day clearly shows.
They say that an image can say more than thousand words. This may not always be true, but in some cases I think that these words are very, very near to the mark.
Let us take the film, “The Passion of The Christ”.
This film is not for the faint of heart. Nor is it, I must hasten to add, for the faint of faith. If you subscribe to the “let’s celebrate” mantra so conveniently spread in these godless times, you won’t like this movie. Violent, you will call it. Insensitively focused on cruel details. Graphic in the extreme.
And in fact, this film is a truly shocking experience. Still, I can tell you that no reading of the Gospel, no homily and no personal reflection and prayer ever opened my eyes to the reality of the Passion so much as this shocking film did from the first viewing.
I could never see this movie without crying of sorrow and shame and I tell you, it doesn’t happen to me whilst listening to the homily. The reality is that the sheer violence of this film delivers the goods in a way the best homily could probably – for want of the necessary visual props – never achieve. And in fact it can – I think – easily said that if you found the violence of the film excessive, this is a clear indication that the reality of the Passion was never transmitted to you in all its crudeness in the first place.
This film is not dedicated to the message of Jesus. It doesn’t primarily intend to explain Christianity and, in this sense, it can only indirectly be considered a help to the conversion of non-Christians. What this film does, is to limit itself to the last twelve hours of Jesus’ human existence. This, the film does not by explaining, but by observing. The screenplay closely follows the Gospels and is here and there integrated with elements of Anne Catherine Emmerich’s “The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord” (an unjustly neglected book, since come back to vast popularity). There are no frills, no hollywood-like “enrichments”, no attempts to make the story palatable. It is undiluted, brutal truth.
For this reason, the language has been accurately considered. No English-speaking actors here. The Jews talks in an Aramaic dialect (as they did in reality), and the Romans speak Latin. Astonishingly for the fans of the theory that Catholic churchgoers be too stupid to ever cope with Latin (much less… Aramaic!) you can easily follow the plot at all times through subtitles (just as you would, in church, with a Latin-English missal or booklet; but I suppose this is too much to ask of our liberal geniuses).
I watch this movie again every year during the Holy Week, but I think of it countless times during the year as its highly impressive visual message is a great help in my Rosary meditations. Every time, the violence of the Passion strikes me anew, which again tells me how easy it is to slowly but constantly sanitise the message until the sheer evidence of it is put in front of our eyes again.
To watch this movie is, to me, something akin to going to confession: unpleasant in the very thought, but highly salutary in the end result. I don’t sit joyously in front of the TV screen thinking “how beautiful, I am going to see Jesus being horribly tortured and killed again” in the same way as I – my fault, no doubt – do not manage to joyously run to the confessional, or to proceed to my examination of conscience without a sense of shame, humiliation and sheer inadequacy. Still, the spiritual benefits we can reap from such unpleasant activities can never be underestimated; not in case of the sacrament of course, but also certainly not in the case of such a powerful help to truly understand the Passion as this film undoubtedly is.
In the beautiful world of ours, for most of us this powerful Christian message is only a click away (or click here if you use the US version). Notice how cheap (particularly in the UK) this film has now become.
I suggest that you make the investment now and look at the film during next week.
You won’t like it. But you won’t regret it, either.