(This is Neil) The following excerpt is from Merton’s short article, “Ash Wednesday,” which appeared in Worship in 1959. (If I remember correctly, it was later reprinted in Seasons of Celebration .)
It is necessary that at the beginning of this fast, the Lord should show Himself to us in His mercy. The purpose of Lent is not so much expiation, to satisfy the divine justice, as a preparation to rejoice in His love. And this preparation consists in receiving the gift of His mercy—a gift which we receive in so far as we open our hearts to it, casting out what cannot remain in the same room with mercy.
Now one of the things we must cast out first of all is fear. Fear narrows the little entrance of our heart. It shrinks up our capacity to love. It freezes up our power to give ourselves. If we were terrified of God as a terrible judge, we would not confidently await His mercy, or approach Him trustfully in prayer. Our peace, our joy in Lent are a guarantee of grace.
And in laying upon us the light cross of ashes, the Church desires to take off our shoulders all other heavy burdens—the crushing load of worry and guilt, the dead weight of our own self-love. We should not take upon ourselves a “burden” of penance and stagger into Lent as if we were Atlas, carrying the whole world on his shoulders.
Perhaps there is small likelihood of our doing so. But in any case, penance is conceived by the Church less as a burden than as a liberation. It is only a burden to those who take it up unwillingly. Love makes it light and happy. And that is another reason why Ash Wednesday is filled with the lightness of love.
In some monastic communities, monks go up to receive the ashes barefoot. Going barefoot is a joyous thing. It is good to feel the floor of the earth under your feet. It is good when the whole church is silent, filled with the hush of men walking without shoes. One wonders why we wear such things as shoes anyway. Prayer is so much more meaningful without them. It would be good to take them off in church all the time. But perhaps this might appear quixotic to those who have forgotten such very elementary satisfactions. Someone might catch cold at the mere thought of it—so let’s return to the liturgy.
Nowhere will we find more tender expressions of the divine mercy than on this day. His mercy is kind. He looks upon us “according to the multitude of Thy tender mercies.” In the introit we sing: “Thou hast mercy upon all (Misereris omnium), O Lord, and hatest none of the things which Thou hast made, overlooking the sins of men for the sake of repentance and sparing them, because Thou art the Lord our God.”
How good are these words of Wisdom in a time when on all sides the Lord is thought by men to be a God who hates. Those who deny Him say they do so because evil in the world could be the work only of a God that hated the world.
But even those who profess to love Him regard Him too often as a furious Father, who seeks only to punish and to revenge Himself for the evil that is done “against Him” — One who cannot abide the slightest contradiction but will immediately mark it down for retribution, and will not let a farthing of the debt go unpaid.
This is not the God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who Himself “hides” our sins (dissimulans peccata) and gets them out of sight, like a mother making quick and efficient repairs on the soiled face of a child just before entering a house where he ought to appear clean. The blessing of the ashes knows Him only as the “God who desires not the death of the sinner,” “who is moved by humiliation and appeased by satisfaction.” He is everywhere shown to us as “plenteous in mercy—multum misericors”
And from the infinite treasure of His mercies He draws forth the gift of compunction. This is a sorrow without servile fear, which is all the more deep and tender as it receives pardon from the tranquil, calm love of the merciful Lord: a love which the liturgy calls, in two untranslatable words, serenissima pietas. The God of Ash Wednesday is like a calm sea of mercy, and in Him there is no anger.