Doing Penance is a Privilege

In reading a meditation I was taken by the phrase 'doing penance is a privilege'. The more I pondered it the more fascinated I became with the deep spiritual insight of such a simple pronouncement. Encarta Dictionary defines 'privilege' as follows: 1. restricted right or benefit – an advantage, right or benefit that is not available to everyone, 2: rights and advantages enjoyed by elite – the rights and advantages enjoyed by a relatively small group of people.

Before reflecting on the privilege involved let me recap what we mean by 'doing penance'. One way to think of 'doing penance' is to give up something that is 'licit and pleasing'; a mortification of sorts. By saying 'no' to that which is both 'licit and pleasing' we learn to reign in our natural desires and build the fortitude to say 'no' to that which offends God. (To give up something that is sinful (repentance) is related, but not what we are talking about in this instance.)

Penance is a simple virtue that quickly attacks the root of behaviors and attitudes that distance us from God. All too often it is overlade with exaggerated notions of harshness and rigor. Let me give a simple and concrete example of the practice of penance in action. Each morning I head to 7am mass. Daily mass is not obligatory and sleeping a little later would be pleasing and licit. Attending weekday mass is not penance, yet rising early to go is. Furthermore, as I approach the church I spy a newsstand with copies of the morning paper. Now if I stop to read the headlines (again something licit and pleasing) I find that it distracts me from the upcoming liturgy. Therefore I try to avoid viewing the headlines and save the newspaper for later reading. This may sound trite but this is the heart of what 'doing penance' involves.

There's nothing harsh or medieval in this sort of practice. Yet it represents small but meaningful actions taken in my life that help me to form a 'spirit of detachment' from the world, and move closer to God. More than likely, if I am attuned, I discover that this is prompted by the Holy Spirit and it is the common and ordinary way in which the Spirit helps us to grow. Any penance (even the most 'soft' version) immediately makes us aware of God, often because of some distraction that is impeding our relationship with Him.

So let's return to the insight that 'doing penance is a privilege'. Actually, all of us are called to 'do penance', not just an elite few. This has always been made clear by the Church and no one can claim that penance isn't part of their spiritual path. Even so, it is a privilege in that it is highly salutary for our own sanctification; more so when we go beyond penance as Christian duty (i.e. Lenten regulations) and move to penance as a voluntary act undertaken for love of God.

All prayer is directed to God and we normally think of it as rising from our heart, mind or spirit. Yet 'doing penance' is a true form of prayer which moves through the body and as such it gives glory to God. Penance (as mortification) is not directed to punishing an evil body, rather it is directed to properly aligning ourselves towards God. This particular form of prayer seeks God through the body, and it must be given weight and recognition as substantial prayer in the same manner as forms of prayer involving heart, mind or spirit.

No matter what our spiritual disposition, all of us share some movement toward contemplation and meditation. Likewise all of us have a true need to be penitents in some manner and fashion, simply because we have bodies which share in our eternal destiny. Our body is destined to be glorified, not abandoned; therefore it needs to share in the journey of faith.

I suspect that those who seek God often 'over-think' their prayer life and sell short the role of penance as a form of prayer. I invite any reader to incorporate penance as a form of prayer and test for themselves the results. It won't take long to realize that 'doing penance is a privilege'.


Lee Strong said...

Great post. It got me thinking - and your morning mass thoughts opened my eyes a bit. Yes, penance as a privilege.

Thanks for sharing this.

Jenny said...

This is great... I was just reading about Josemaria Escriva's teaching that a penance of our own choosing isn't really a penance at all, but that the ones we don't choose, little hardships that crop up in daily life, those are the really efficacious opportunities to show Him our love.