As an aid to repentance during Lent, there is no better ingredient than grief
“Oh good grief!”
That’s the lament made famous by the long-suffering Charlie Brown, the star character of the beloved Peanuts comic strip, which I read faithfully as a boy.
Although I always rooted for poor Charlie Brown and admired his noble efforts, as a youngster I was unable to understand his trademark, “Oh good grief!” That didn’t make sense to me. What is so good about grief? I wondered.
I’m a lot older now, and no less a fan of Charlie Brown, and no more a fan of grief than I was when I read Peanuts comics in the newspaper as a boy. But I do believe grief can be a valuable (but admittedly painful and potentially toxic) ingredient in cultivating the repentance that the season of Lent seeks to foster.
Let’s consider linking grief and repentance together, and looking at them through the lens of a poem called “Good Friday” by Christina Georgina Rossetti:
Am I a stone and not a sheep
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath thy cross,
To number drop by drop thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?
Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;
Not so the sun and moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon—
I, only I.
Yet give not o’er,
But seek thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses turn and look once more
And smite a rock.
Sinners like me may be disinclined to open ourselves to grieve over the crucified Christ, because when the price of our sin is placed before us, he is too terrible for us to behold. And so, as Rosetti notes in the first stanza, we make ourselves more like a stone than a sheep, one who does not grieve as the last drop of life is wrung from the crucified Christ.
The poet contrasts in the next two stanzas the hardened sinner with those who did grieve over Christ — the holy women at the foot of the cross, Saint Peter, the good thief, even the sun and moon. Yet the poem ends not with despair or excuse but rather with a hopeful and desperate plea: smite a rock!
And we have to ask, “Why?” What is so good about grief? What is so especially desirable about grief over our sins before the crucified Christ? Why do we resist it so stubbornly? Is it because we love our sin more than we love Christ? Maybe. Is it because grief over sin might be incompatible with the cult of self-esteem so celebrated in our culture? Perhaps.
But I think a deeper and possibly more insidious reason feeds the hardness of heart that keeps us from grieving over Christ crucified for our sins. We resist such good grief because we so despise ourselves as sinners that it is unbearable to us to come face to face with the Lord who loves us to death and beyond. If we could dare admit it, we might confess that we hate ourselves for murdering by our sin the love we have always longed for, and we fear that we can never be certain that we would not murder love again. If anyone believed all that, who could deny that it would be too terrible to face?
So, to spare ourselves the seemingly boundless grief of the free yet costly love we have longed for and rejected, we harden our hearts and seek to live as a stone, “and not a sheep.” Shielding ourselves from such good grief also keeps us from the repentance that would set us free and launch us into the divine heart we were made for. Without a genuine, grief-soaked repentance, we can only play at being sinners, and so only play at being saved. In other words, a diminished Lent can only yield a diminished Easter. What shall we do?
Consider this from a homily preached by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010:
Repentance is a grace; it is a grace that we recognize our sin; it is a grace that we realize the need for renewal, for change, for the transformation of our being. Repentance, the capacity to be penitent, is a gift of grace.
I say that the good grief of Lent is a sign that we have come to know that we are sinners and that we are loved sinners. Loved sinners can see that the most worthy response to the mercy that cost our heavenly Father so much is to repent, that is, to allow him to work within us, to mold us, so that we can be free to come home to him, where already, a banquet is prepared for us.
When I write next, I will speak of the role of agony in Lent. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, SJ, is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both rhetoric and medical ethics.