Penthos: The Lenten Journey To Joy – part 1

Prodigal SonPenthos:
The Lenten Journey To Joy



O Lamb of God,

Who take away the sins of all,

Take from me the heavy yoke of sin,

And in Your compassion

Grant me tears of compunction.

From the Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete


Some of us might think: here we go again, another Lent is on us, and many weeks without our favorite eggs and bacon, all that we like and just can’t live without.

            Today, I would like to propose you a more dynamic and positive outlook on Lent. Great Lent is actually an adventure, a fabulous journey. All of us Orthodox Christians are together on this journey, and we have a great companion: the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-31).

            You heard this parable during the Divine Liturgy a few weeks ago. It speaks volumes on the love of the Father, so much so that some people don’t call it the prodigal son, but the prodigal father!

            It also teaches us about ourselves. As the story begins, we know that the prodigal son is none other than our own selves, 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 loving-kindness, accept me now also as I return”.

 “The divine treasure that once you gave me…”: with the Prodigal, we acknowledge the goodness of the Father, and we are aware of all the wealth He has given us: our lives, the beauty of nature, our families and friends, and His Salvation.

            If we are honest with ourselves, we also have to 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 turn and depart from our Father, we run away from the source of His goodness as if we had somewhere more important to go.

            Far from our Father, far from our true Home, we are in exile. There, we are enslaved and we suffer. We are enslaved to a multiplicity of needs, many being roused in us by our consumerism society (just as the prodigal wanted to consume the husks of the pigs). We are torn between all these needs, which keep us at the superficial level, and we suffer, because deep under these needs, we feel the hunger for the only important thing:

“I am wasted with hunger… and in exile from Your presence, O Christ supreme in loving-kindness. Take pity on me as I now return, and save me as I sing the praises of Your love for mankind”.

            In exile, enslaved and in pain, we cry with tears, with the prodigal and with the psalmist: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept at the memory of Zion…On the poplars there we had hung up our harps… How could we sing a song on alien soil?” This Psalm 136 was written by a nation in exile, dominated in a foreign land, weeping bitterly for the life which then stood afar off.

            So did the prodigal weep from his own exile, pondering on the goodness of his Father’s love.

            The whole 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 stand in examination of our lives, see 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, is a medical term, indicating attacks of physical pain (compunctio= cum-pungere, to puncture with). Then it was also used on the spiritual level, to signify pain of the spirit, a suffering due to the actual existence of sin and as a result of our desire for God. It is associated with the notions of conversion and penitence.

That is exactly what the prodigal son experienced.

Gregory of Nyssa has a great definition: “Penthos is a sorrowful disposition of the soul, caused by the privation of something desirable” (that is to say, the privation of salvation.)

Note that this mourning has nothing to do with mere sadness. It is neither sadness nor worldly grief, but a godly grief, a grief caused by the awareness of having fled away from God, and by the desire to return to Him.

part 2 will be posted on Wed 3/9


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