Thursday, March 10, 2011

What is penance and why do it?

After the big production that is Ash Wednesday, believe it or not, Lent continues today. Each year I am aware of the incongruency between reading the Gospel for Ash Wednesday, in which Jesus teaches us not to pray, fast, or give alms in manner that can be seen, and then coming forward and having a big, black cross, or, like Deacon Greg, a smudge, smeared across my forehead. As you awoke up this morning, slightly hungrier than usual from your fasting, and looked at the faded ashes on your forehead, how did Lent look to you? I hope the prospect of seeking to draw closer to Christ over these weeks still looks attractive. I think it is necessary to point out that Lent is very straightforwardly a penitential season. Having been corrupted not only by Philosophy, but by what is often termed linguistic philosophy, and more specifically by Wittgenstein, I always find it useful to define terms. One of the reasons I find the writings of both Don Giussani and the Holy Father, both as pope and prior to stepping into the shoes of the fisherman, is that both go to great pains to define terms.

A good example of this is that just before Lent I re-posted something I originally put up on my parish’s RCIA blog, There really is something about Mary. My post sparked a comment about seeing the Blessed Mother as an archetype. I responded by saying that to see Mary as an archetype is to reduce her. The subsequent discussion highlighted the fact that both Hans Urs Von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger refer to Our Lady as an archetype, or at least employ the term archetype, in their writings. Hence, I was forced to clarify by pointing out that the word archetype has two distinct meanings, one that I would say simply refers to the term in its original, or received, sense and another that indicates a reference to a specific aspect of the psycho-philosophy of Jung. In short, I accept the latter and reject the former because to see Mary as a Jungian archetype, in my opinion, reduces her because it de-historicizes her.

With that background I want to look at what the word penance means in the ordinary sense, that is, how does the dictionary define it? According to Merriam-Webster, penance is "an act of self-abasement, mortification, or devotion performed to show sorrow or repentance for sin." While this definition helps narrow down what we mean by "penance," it doesn’t define the term clearly. On a Christian view, we can certainly eliminate self-abasement from our definition of penance. This leaves us with penance as acts of mortification and devotion. I believe that here we are on quite solid ground.

To mortify simply means to kill. Through mortification we seek, with God’s help, to die to ourselves, to put all our selfish, death-dealing, tendencies to death. It cannot be pointed out too often that the paradox of dying to self in order truly live constitutes the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. The purpose of Lent is to bring us face-to-face both with this reality in general and, more particularly, with what needs to die in you so that you can live.


In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in answer to the question what is the sacrament by which we are reconciled to God and the church called, we are told that it is called both the sacrament of conversion and penance (par. 1423). It is called "the sacrament of conversion because it makes sacramentally present Jesus’ call to conversion": "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand…" (CCC par. 1423; Matt. 3:2). The Catechism goes on to say we also refer to it as "the sacrament of Penance, since it consecrates the Christian sinner's personal and ecclesial steps" towards being converted, that is, changed (ibid). These changes make us more like Christ, who is "the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15). I would only note that the word Christian implies sinner, albeit a redeemed one in the process of being sanctified!

Contrition differs from and comes prior to penance. To be contrite is to be sorry. To be sorry means to recognize the wrong I have done, to see the harm it causes me as well as others, and to see the damage my sin inflicts on the church's communion. Being contrite about something I have said, done, or failed to do entails a commitment on my part to do everything in my power to avoid doing it again, which is not enough. To be penitent means being willing to make those changes in my life that will enable me, with God’s help, as the Act of Contrition indicates, to overcome whatever sinful tendencies I discover in myself by examining my conscience.

I want to double-back and focus on the phrase, "with God’s help." We need God’s help in order to realize our potential, for image to become likeness. Our likeness to God is forfeited through sin, whereas the imago dei, the divine image we bear in the very core our being, is ineradicable and is what makes conversion always and everywhere a possibility. In his book, Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster notes that St. Paul uses the word "righteousness" in his Letter to the Romans thirty-five times. In every instance, Foster goes on to point out, the apostle is emphatic that righteousness "is unattained and unattainable through human effort."

If we do not become righteous through our own efforts, then why bother with these disciplines at all? In the same vein as Kushiner’s succinct summary of why we practice the spiritual disciplines (i.e., as ways to overcome our ego, thus opening us up to God’s grace), Foster insists "God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace." Being wary of analogies, I nonetheless suggest that a good way to think about our practice of the spiritual disciplines is tuning into God’s frequency. Foster, dealing with the matter more directly, writes, "The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us."

As we begin our Lenten journey, let’s not lose sight of our goal and remember that penance leads to conversion, conversion leads to gratitude, and gratitude leads to joy. It is never too early in Lent to note that we celebrate our joy in all its fullness at Easter.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

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