“Penitence,” wrote Martin Thornton, “becomes a search for the truth of one’s vocation” (The Purple Headed Mountain, Chap. 5). Penitence can take on this character when we accept the possibility, which the biblical revelation insists is fact, that all of God’s creation is an integrated, purposeful, lively unfolding with a unique role for each and every thing, including us. Certainly true penitence begins as Our Lord told Philip: “Follow me” (John 1:43). This becomes adventurous when it grows into a disposition of life: Be Following Him. If we are, in the phrase of English fourteenth-century writer Walter Hilton, to reform into the likeness of Jesus, that journey of holiness begins in finding harmony with our surroundings, as Jesus surely had with His, and goes awry without it.
Perhaps the only valid test here is moral theology: have I committed fewer sins? Sin is separation and paying lip service to the first line of the Nicene Creed is the height of Pride, the basis of all separation. Not only when receiving Communion, reciting the Office, or studying Scripture, but always and everywhere, are we choosing to follow—opening to, and in this sense, “thanking”—God Almighty as He actualizes in our lives? And do we use His creation and His creatures to His greater glory? For the revelation disallows any version of “God is not here and doesn’t much care.”
“Repent and be baptized,” is how Peter exhorted the first Christians (Acts 2:38). But as Paul reminded Titus, our baptism is more than a rite; it is a way of life, a sacramental status before God. Peter perhaps implied, “Choose God and then spend the rest of your life working out the implications of that choice.” Be baptized—just as we say, “be mature” or “be yourself”: our Lord demands we own our status, incorporated into Him “in virtue of his own mercy” (Titus 3:5). Baptism plunges us into Trinitarian reality through the glory of material water, fragrant oil, and audible words. Within such paradox lies enough food for Lenten mystagogy several times over.
To wit: “You will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51). It was Saint Augustine who wrote, “Every visible thing in this world is put under the charge of an angel” (De diversis quaestionibus, 79). This staggering statement is also exemplary ascetical theology, the articulation of spiritual growth: for only through our sense perception is God’s presence available to us. As God called Our Lady by sensible means of Gabriel, we are called by God aided by the angelic host who through the visible and perceivable bring the invisible and incomprehensible beckoning before us, inviting adventure anchored in Christ.
[The above meditation is my contribution for Day 4 of Lent to From Dust to Triumph: Reflections for a Holy Lent published by Nashotah House.]