The Old Testament prophets unceasingly called the faithful to weighty (often public) penance. Continuing in the New Testament, we have St. John the Baptist, and Jesus himself, continuing this battle cry. The Saints in heaven practiced regular acts of penance while here on earth, some giving their very lives. The Church today still teaches that penance is an essential factor in our faith life (we hear a lot about it during the penitential seasons, but then it often goes unmentioned during the rest of the year, except after a sacramental confession).
Do we, as modern Christians, take penance seriously, and do we make the effort to embrace our responsibility of offering frequent acts of reparation to our God?
The Evaded Virtue
My husband picked up an obscure old book at a yard sale many years ago, and I just randomly selected it from our religious bookshelf recently, not even intending to read it. (I was using it to prop up my iPad on the treadmill so I could watch a movie while I got my exercise. I accidentally carried the book back upstairs, still folded up in my tablet case, and decided to peruse the contents.) I suspiciously opened the book, ready to return it quickly to its hiding place in the basement, should I be vexed by its contents. It was one of those times when I had to humbly accept that God often sends me tidbits of truth in his bold and undeniable fashion. (Because he knows I can usually only handle one tidbit at a time!)
The book is a series of essays by Dom Hubert van Zeller, O.S.B., titled, We Die Standing Up. The very first essay (on page 13) is about penance. Fr. Zeller refers to penance as “the evaded virtue…, so conspicuously lacking in the milk-and-barley-water Christianity of today.” (A milk-and-barley-water diet was an old medical “treatment,” often prescribed for those unable to tolerate solid foods.) And keep in mind that Fr. Zeller’s book was first printed in 1949, so acts of penance had already lost their luster in the eyes of the faithful by that point in time.
Two bold statements in this book of essays caught my eye right away. The first: “There is a whole catalogue of evils which can be cast out only by prayer and fasting, (but the fasting is often overlooked). Some might say, ‘Will it do if I give up the sugar in my coffee?’” And then came this challenging zinger: “There is no escaping it: where there is sin, there has to be sorrow for sin. Effective sorrow, not mere sentiment.”
Taking Penance Public
Fr. Zeller reminds us that there have been many entreaties for public penance in “our own time,” by way of various crises, and by direct pleas from the Pope and Our Blessed Mother. As I rested in my recliner, reading this tiny book that came to me unbidden, I was amazed by these timely words, “God uses natural means to bring about His supernatural plan, and it looks very much as if the world has been asking for punishment.” It’s not absurd to think of God punishing the world, “He’s done it before, with much the same sword. Threats of war, famine, social and economic collapse,” natural disasters, deadly plagues, and closed churches. These trials will often bring the world temporarily to its knees.
Penance is not limited to a particular liturgical season. It is also not limited to inside of our churches, or in our homes. As a matter of fact, Fr. Zeller urges public penance. “If we listen, he says, ‘we will hear the refrain repeated time and time again…, but we do not listen. We are still dancing on the shore with our backs to the waves.’”
It is time to take formidable action, but what can we, as individuals or families do? Begin by “listening;” turn around, face the mighty waves crashing upon the shore, the waves of abortion, the breakdown of the family, the loss of society’s moral conscience, so-called Christian politicians supporting laws atrocious to God’s commands and designs, shocking sinfulness and hate and lack of Christian charity on every front. God will use His sword of punishment, if we do not unsheathe our weapons now—our mighty swords of penance!
For those of us needing a refresher course in penance, I provide the following for your assistance as you arm yourself for battle. Penance is a three-pronged weapon, forged of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. These three elements express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “efforts at reconciliation with one’s neighbor, tears of repentance, and the practice of charity… ‘covers a multitude of sins’ (James 5:20). Conversion is accomplished in daily life by…concern for the poor, the exercise and defense of justice and right, the admission of faults…, fraternal correction, examination of conscience, (joyful) acceptance of suffering, and endurance of persecution for the sake of righteousness. Taking up one’s cross each day and following Jesus is the surest way of penance.” (CCC, paragraphs 1434-1435)
Our armor and our weapons are now laid out before us. The raging sea of our culture grows stronger in its destructive power. Let us muster all the courage, fortitude, and charity within our souls and take up our position of penitence as mighty warriors of the Truth, before it is too late.