Can you read my mind and know what I am thinking? You probably cannot without my help. Nevertheless, what others think, especially those with whom we live, work, or love, matters to us. Often we pick up a person’s general emotional state from their facial expressions and behavior, but unless we’re Sherlock Holmes, we cannot read into specifics. Without manifesting what we think to another in some way, we cannot teach or learn, make plans, joke, and more importantly, share with those we love the secret affections of our hearts.
To manifest our thoughts to another we make use of signs. We generate signs to stand for something else. The vocal sound “deer” and the black shape of a deer against a yellow sign stand for the animal we think, even though neither is itself the real animal. We use signs constantly, especially in language, but even in what we wear. You are engaging signs by reading this post.
Today is both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday: days with very different spirits but a similar use of signs. If someone gives a loved one flowers or chocolate, especially today, the gifts stand for something more than just a collection of dying plants or delectable theobromine-infused foods to be consumed tomorrow or some other day not obliging us to fasting and abstinence. The gift of flowers or chocolate stands for an affection of the heart—that affection that we also signify by the words: “I love you,” “I want to make you happy,” or “I want to be with you.” If we give someone flowers or chocolate today, but we do not love or care about the recipient of our gift, we intentionally use a sign for something we do not actually think: we lie. This is why, when the sincerity and love of the giver are doubted, a gift of flowers or chocolate is hurtful and offensive. When done sincerely, however, expressing love by giving gifts like this can nourish our love.
Part of what we do during Lent is make signs to God expressing our sorrow for having offended him. Today we are signed with ashes to “acknowledge we are but ashes and shall return to dust,” as one of the prayers for blessing ashes has it. The ashes stand for an affection in the heart. They are a sign of our humility that leads to contrition.
What is contrition? Contrition is sometimes called interior penance. Contrition begins with humility about who we are and how we relate to God, letting go of our earlier thinking and judgments and admitting where we erred. Having given up thinking what we did was good, we are saddened because now we wish we had not chosen to do wrong. Contrition is a voluntary sorrow for what we have done. We wish further to purge away our guilt and restore harmony within ourselves, with God, and with our neighbors.
This interior penance is exteriorized in confessing our sins, especially within the sacramental context, and making satisfaction. That is why in the sacrament we also make an act of contrition and are assigned a penance. When we confess something to an authority—like God—we put ourselves under his judgment. By satisfaction we try to make up for the harm we have done. The Church, drawing from Scripture, typically gives us three main works of satisfaction: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Through prayer we try to restore our order to God and combat pride of life, recognizing that we are wholly reliant upon God. When praying for forgiveness, certain prayers are good, such as the Act of Contrition, the Lord’s Prayer, and the seven penitential psalms, especially 51 (also: 6, 32, 38, 102, 129, and 142). By fasting we combat our bodily desires and reestablish our rule over them: it is a kind of self-training not to destroy them, but to order them for our good. By almsgiving we order ourselves to the community especially by looking after the needy and sharing our resources with them.
As flowers or chocolate signify a lover’s devotion, so ashes signify a sinner’s contrition. We are saddened, but with a view to restoring our relationship with God by the help of his grace and the hard but joyful work of cooperating in our eternal redemption.
Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. (used with permission).