Penance is a sacrament. It is also a way of life.
At its heart, penance is turning away from sin and turning towards God. It is decisively accomplished at Baptism. It is accomplished again when our mortal sins are forgiven in Confession and our venial sins are forgiven through Confession or the Holy Eucharist.
Sin and temptations are pervasive in our lives. Our conversion must be ongoing. We must struggle vigilantly against those tendencies in our hearts which would place our comfort, our sensuality and our pride above our love for God. If we want to put the love of God at the centre of our lives, there is no question about what we must do -- we must engage in some form of self-denial.
Self-denial gets bad press these days. It is portrayed as negative and life-denying. It is seen as repressive, a vestige of evil forces left over from the Dark Ages. Now we are in the Age of Aquarius where gaiety and spontaneity prevail. No more self-denial. We can shop until we drop.
In fact, self-denial would be life-denying if this world were the only world and if we were not so frequently drawn to sin. Unfortunately, the wholeness of creation has been shattered. The wholeness of my life has been broken by my deliberate acts against the Father's love.
Nothing I can do will make things right again. My own little acts of self-mortification will certainly not put Humpty Dumpty together again. Only God's mercy can save. Only Christ's free act of sacrifice on the cross holds hope for salvation. It is by linking my own acts of sacrifice to the cross of Jesus that Christ's sacrifice can atone for my sins.
The Catholic Church has, from its beginning, recommended fasting, prayer and works of mercy as forms of penance which can help one draw closer to the Lord. However, in recent centuries, the church's call to repentance fell into legalism. Now that legalism is gone we need to hear again the call to pray, fast and give alms.
The penitential life described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church can help lead us to fullness of life. It can orient our penance toward loving God. Penance means the affirmation of life, not its denial. The Catechism stresses that the externals of penance are secondary. They are important in that they are a sign of conversion of heart. If one does undergo a conversion of heart, this conversion will show itself in prayer, fasting and works of mercy.
These external actions themselves have an effect: "Every sincere act of worship or devotion revives the spirit of conversion and repentance within us" (no. 1437). Inner conversion and acts of penance have a spiritual effect, leading one to be ever more closely conformed to the heart of Jesus Christ.
The point of self-denial is not to say that food, sex and other material things are bad. Quite the contrary. Those things are good. It is just that our desire for and use of them can easily become disordered by sin and temptation. In the heavenly kingdom, material things will be cleansed from any taint of sin and we will see them in their full goodness.
However, in this world, our material desires can easily lead us on a downward spiral away from God. For example, our longing for material possessions can lead to consumerism. Consumerism can blind us to the needs of others and lead to the creation of structures of domination and social injustice. Our denial of our sin of consumerism and our rationalizations have fostered a communal hard-heartedness. To be freed from the shackles of this sin, we need admission of guilt, radical "turning-around" of the orientation of our society and attempts to make up for past wrongs. Integral to this whole process are acts of penance.
Moral theologian Germain Grisez describes the basic forms of penance this way: "Sin alienates the sinner from God, upsets the order of the self and damages human community; but prayer draws one nearer to God, fasting imposes order on oneself and almsgiving expresses love of neighbor which forms community."
Grisez then goes on to argue that "prayer, both personal and liturgical, is the best sort of penance. Best of all is the sacrifice of the Mass. Other penitential works are effective only insofar as they express conversion of heart, and conversion of heart begins and is maintained only in prayer" (Living a Christian Life, pp. 192, 193).
Penance, then, is not life-denying and soul-destroying. Rather, it is a reorientation of ourselves to the life that really matters -- eternal life in Christ Jesus. Penance: We can't live without it.
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