The More We Renounce Ourselves…

In recent posts we saw how 'Penance Must Precede Peace'; and argued for 'Reclaiming the Practice of Penance as Virtue'. This reflection will consider the individual's response to the 'call to do penance': the battle of 'me' with 'my self'. As we observe the exaltation of the 'self', promoted with reckless abandon in every aspect of our culture we need to take a serious look to see whether we've been lulled into complacency. The best method I know to keep us on the right path spiritually is to 'do penance'.

Our goal here is to promote the value of 'doing penance' and to suggest a way to begin the process. Those who would even consider this already know that penance is not something new, but a reclaiming of something that is ancient, proven and truly radical. This is the penance done in secret that Jesus spoke of when he said, 'wash your face and smile so no one knows that you are fasting'. [cf. Mt. 6:16-18] What the penitent does our heavenly Father sees.

Let's briefly review three issues: (1) Obtaining the desire to do penance; (2) Focusing on a particular behavior or attitude to amend; (3) Choosing a suitable penance to perform.

The first consideration for the individual is obtaining the desire to 'do penance'; which is itself a gift from the Holy Spirit. Doing penance is not a natural inclination. I confess it's simply not for me to know how this desire breaks to the surface. To think or utter, 'Lord, give me the spirit of penance', signals the process is already underway. So we should give thanks for the desire itself. All Franciscans have a duty to somehow cultivate this desire and regard it as an indispensable virtue. We will desire penance more as we discern its value.

The value of this 'gift of penance' becomes obvious when we consider the following scriptural passage. As you read, keep in mind the 'Prologue' to our Rule regarding those who 'do' and 'do not' do penance.

"What human nature does is quite plain. It shows itself in immoral, filthy, and indecent actions; in worship of idols and witchcraft. People become enemies and they fight; they become jealous, angry, and ambitious. They separate into parties and groups; they are envious, get drunk, have orgies, and do other things like these. I warn you now as I have before: those who do these things will not possess the Kingdom of God.

"But the Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control…And those who belong to Christ Jesus have put to death their human nature with all its passions and desires. The Spirit has given us life; he must also control our lives." [Galatians 5: 19-25]

"The more we renounce ourselves, the more we walk by the Spirit", says the Catechism [cf. CCC 736]. That is the understanding that St. Francis preached. Regarding those who do penance, he said: 'The spirit of the Lord will rest upon them, and he will make his home and dwelling among them'.

[If you've read this far, rejoice: you've been called to do penance!]

The second consideration is to ask, 'What specific behavior or attitude needs reforming?' While the scriptural passage above speaks to 'human nature', this needs to be owned by each of us, concretely. The point is that each of us, as individuals, ought to assess what behavior or trait has us crawling on our belly when we should be standing upright. A good spiritual director or valued confidant would be helpful. Again, here we're not considering the repentance of 'humanity', 'human nature', or 'the flesh'; but rather oneself and one's own individual behavior.

A useful indicator of where to apply 'the practice of penance' concretely, is where we experience the opposite of the 'fruits' mentioned above: for instance, feelings of bitterness instead of love; despair instead of joy; or anxiety vs. peace. These are red flags that shout for scrutiny and action.

Also keep in mind; these previously mentioned 'nine fruits of the Holy Spirit' (love, joy, peace, etc.) are inseparable. It's no accident that when we experience a lack of 'self control', for example, that all of the other 'fruits' dissipate. This realization helps to strip away some of the most insidious self-deceptions: (i.e., the feeling of being 'in love' with someone, without 'joy or peace': or regarding myself as 'humble' with others, when I lack 'patience'). The insight of St. Francis in his Salutation of the Virtues is just as valid here: "Whoever possesses one and does not offend the others possesses all, and whoever offends one does not possess any and offends all."

The third matter is choosing a suitable penance to counter the malady. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are ancient and unquestionable weapons for spiritual combat. Consider adapting and expanding them generically to get into the real issues you face. 'Fasting' implies sacrifice. It could mean denying oneself of anything that is licit and pleasing but somehow detracts from one's relation with God. A good example might be turning off media and turning on prayer and spending time with those in need. Find out whether it is harder to give up meat or your favorite TV show (and ask, 'why'?). Be open and creative: seek specific results of changed behaviors and attitudes.

Here's sage advice: if your 'penance' makes you irritable or cranky with others…stop and realize…'there's no fruit here'. Don't give up: just pray for guidance and either adapt or try again.

Lastly, I purposefully left out a different dimension of 'penance'. Our liturgical forms or penance as a people ; (i.e. Ash Wednesday and Lent; Fridays as a day of penance; fasting for justice; etc.). This has social significance in fostering repentance, instilling justice, and creating unity for the 'People of God' as a whole. I'll take up the communal aspects of penance in a future post.

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