A Journey To Joy
By Emma Cazabonne
Some of us might think, Here is another Lent, and many weeks without our favorite eggs and bacon.
I would like to propose to you a more dynamic and positive outlook on Lent. Great Lent is an adventure, a fabulous journey. We are together on this journey and we have a great companion, the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-31).
You heard this parable during the Divine Liturgy a few weeks ago. It speaks volumes on the love of the Father and teaches us about ourselves. The prodigal son is our own self, with our sinfulness and rebellion. During Matins, we pray:
“The divine treasure that once you gave me, Father, I have sinfully wasted. I have departed from You and lived as the Prodigal, O Compassionate Father… But now I return to You and cry with tears: I fall down before Your lovingkindness, accept me now also as I return.”
With the Prodigal, we acknowledge the goodness of the Father, aware of all the wealth He has given us: our lives, the beauty of nature, our families and friends, and His Salvation.
Honest with ourselves, we also admit the waste we have made of these treasures. The prodigal son went to a far country, and there spent all that he had. A far country: it is the unique definition of our human condition that we must assume and make ours as we begin our journey. We constantly run away from the source of our Father’s goodness as if we had somewhere more important to go.
Far from Him, far from our true Home, we are in exile. There, enslaved to a multiplicity of needs that keep us at a superficial level, we suffer. We feel the hunger for the only important thing and cry with tears: “I am wasted with hunger…and in exile from Your presence, O Christ supreme in loving kindness.”
The Lenten journey—from these bitter tears to tears of joy in the company and union of the Father—can become our own journey if we consider how far we have brought ourselves from the life God intends for us, and then deeply long and desire to return to our true home. This is the spirit of penthos, of compunction.
Originally, the term compunction (English for the Greek word penthos) was a medical term indicating attacks of physical pain. Used on the spiritual level, it signifies pain of the spirit, a suffering due to the actual existence of sin and as a result of our desire for God.
Gregory of Nyssa has a great definition: “Penthos is a sorrowful disposition of the soul, caused by the privation of something desirable”; that is, the privation of salvation.
This mourning is neither sadness nor worldly grief, but a godly grief caused by the awareness of having fled away from God, and by the desire to return to Him.
John Climacus highlights purity of heart as an effect of compunction. In The Ladder (7, 9: p.114) he writes: “Keep a firm hold of the blessed joy-grief of holy compunction, and do not stop working at it until it raises you high above the things of this world and presents you pure to Christ.” John has invented here a new Greek word to express joy-grief, sometimes also translated as joyful sorrow. He entitled this step of The Ladder dedicated to compunction, On mourning which causes joy.
Beatitude is another effect. Whereas one of the passions is sadness, compunction ends in beatitude: “He who is clothed in blessed and grace-given mourning as in a wedding garment knows the spiritual laughter of the soul”. (The Ladder 7, 40, p.118). It leads to deep joy, because it leads back to union with God.
The primary effect of compunction is stimulation: it arouses us from our torpor and complacency, and leads us to take positive steps. Pierced by the realization that despite all our sinfulness, we are loved by God, we are drawn to conversion. Then we desire to respond more fully to the love of God that we have experienced. It is the first phase of the process of conversion. It is an energizing force that stimulates us to make great changes in our life. It is the beginning of love. It is not the end of spiritual life, but its very beginning.
At the end of the parable, the prodigal, having been through all the steps of this journey, is back home, joyfully reunited to His Father.
John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent by Colm Luibheid and Norman Russell. 1982, Paulist Press. ISBN-13: 9780809123308. Available from amazon.com.