From the beginning of Christmas until the end of the Easter season, Catholics commemorate Jesus’ life in the liturgy. At Lent we enter a period of waiting, marked by daily penance, for Holy Week. Doing penance (i.e., fasting) prepares us to unite ourselves to Jesus in his passion and death on the cross, and if we are diligent each day, we get the sense that time is narrowing down to this sacrificial, redemptive end.
St. Matthew writes in the Gospel that “narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few” (Mt 7:14). This teaching can be understood as referring to Christianity in general, but it can also be taken to mean something more specific. Another word for penance is mortification, the active restricting or restraining of our physical senses to exclude whatever might distract us from spiritually advancing. To restrict also means to narrow, and the saints remind us that the few who find the narrow gate are blessed indeed.
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St. Teresa of Ávila, the Doctor of the Church who devised the Catholic science of mental prayer, wrote, “those in prayer nearly always have their eyes closed; and it is an excellent custom for many reasons, because it is doing oneself violence in order to turn one’s eyes away from the things of the earth.” “Doing oneself violence” refers to the practice of mortification that a Christian suffers, often acting it out upon his or her own body — foregoing a certain food, waking up earlier, sleeping without a pillow, etc. — for penitential purposes. (Note: We are not talking about mortification to the point of physical harm — simply restricting or restraining ourselves from certain pleasures or commodities.)
In a way, the physical nature of praying with our eyes closed mirrors this approach of physical mortification. Naturally during prayer, we are inclined to close our eyes, narrowing our gaze until we shut out everything else. Here we can see St. Matthew’s “gate” as our faculty of sight; by shutting down that faculty, we enter on the way that leads to God.
There’s no question of how often Christians are expected to guard our eyes — to restrict or narrow our gaze — given that we are called to pray ceaselessly. One could almost describe a religious contemplative or mystic like St. Teresa as having gone through life with her eyes closed when we consider how practiced she was at mortifying herself.
But the average Christian out in the world can’t afford to literally restrict her sight to such a degree when she is often on the move, trying to maintain her productivity. It’s a blessing, therefore, that our senses aren’t only designed for experiencing the external world; we also have internal ones. Those include the imagination, memory and reason. To free the internal senses for godly contemplation, then, one grace for which we might pray during Lent is to focus on the present moment. There isn’t anything wrong, per se, with maintaining a busy life; many saints were very busy — like St. Teresa of Calcutta or the pope saints — but they were highly practiced at keeping their focus on the present moment where the truth is always to be found, the truth that God is here with us right now.
Yet, even by living in the present moment, we cannot know God as he is, but only as much as he allows. This may be the greatest suffering of this lifetime, the natural mortification built into our existence. For, as St. John of the Cross says: “The senses can’t be capable of knowing God as God is. Neither can we smell a perfume as his perfume.” The idea of missing out on knowing the true scent of God’s perfume, which exceeds even the best scents we experience in this world, is one that fills the soul with holy longing.
St. John of the Cross also writes: “If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.” He’s telling us that we may walk by a higher vision: the light of our internal senses. When we close our eyes to pray, we are shutting out the darkness of the experiential past and coming into the intellectual light, to receive God’s grace.
Some Catholics never progress beyond mediocrity in their spiritual lives, even ones who are otherwise devout in their frequent Mass attendance and regular confessions. In his classic book, “The Theology of Christian Perfection,” Dominican Father Antonio Marin proposes that the main problem lies in their inability to restrain themselves and mortify their bodies outside of the sacraments. He explains that these Catholics are addicted to distraction and therefore degenerate without any good object. The “good object” to which he’s referring is simply holiness that can be gained through prayer, as we close our eyes and unite our hearts sweetly to God — as much as he allows.