Lent is a time to attain peace of heart, not to lose it. Yet it is a common experience for people to make big Lenten resolutions, fail to keep them, and give in to discouragement. We are sinners, and most of us provide daily evidence of this fact, but this is no reason to lose our interior peace. As Jacques Philippe has succinctly put it, “all the reasons that cause us to lose our sense of peace are bad reasons,” and that includes our own sinfulness (Searching for and Maintaining Peace, 13).
Ash Wednesday is certainly a memento mori, “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It serves as a reminder of our fallen state. Ashes are the product of fire, which is a powerful asset when kept in check, but devastating when it gets out of control. This is similar to how our passions work. On their own they are good and help us in our pursuit of the good. In excess, however, they inhibit our attainment of the good and consume everything in their path.
The ashes imposed on us externally can remind us of the lasting internal effects of all the times our passions have burned out of control. But far from helping matters, excessive dejection over past sins is itself a passion that can burn out of control. As Jacques Philippe notes:
The sadness and the discouragement that we feel regarding our failures and our faults are rarely pure… They are in good part mixed with pride. We are not sad and discouraged so much because God was offended, but because the ideal image that we have of ourselves has been brutally shaken. (Searching for and Maintaining Peace, 58)
Instead of focusing on ourselves, we ought to direct our attention to God, who can bring good out of everything, even our sins. As a forest can gain new life from the destroying effects of fire, even our wretchedness can prove to be fertile soil for growing in humility and trust in God.
The key is to let nothing rob us of our peace. This peace is not a false sense of security that ignores the gravity and repugnance of sin, nor does it rule out strenuous effort and the need to manifest our contrition by external works of penance. Ultimately, our peace is Christ himself. He it is who “lifts the needy from the ash heap” (Ps 113:7).