Understanding the Virtue of Penance and How to Grow in It

In the readings for sexagesimal Sunday (II Cor 11:19-12:9), St. Paul boasts of his weakness and in so doing glorifies the power of Christ to overcome all human conditions… ultimately death itself.

It’s not often that we, boast of our weakness… ‘would that we might share such stories with each other more frequently to magnify Christ.  But there is one field in which we do still, experience this… The Sacrament of Penance.  There, in the quiet of the confessional, we admit our smallness, weakness, sinfulness… and in that very act of trusting admission we imply (hopefully) that Jesus can forgive us, heal us, and renew us in hope for the future.  

How appropriate during this time of preparation for Lent that we might pause to focus on the sacrament that so marks that holy season.  

Though we usually refer to it as confession, because that’s what we do in the sacrament.  The Church formally calls the sacrament Penance highlighting the virtue that’s at work:

The Catechism of Trent identifies some of the subtleties of the virtue.  It begins with the obvious… that penance is an anguish of soul because we become aware of our sin.

But the fathers then take an interesting turn that is so important, and often forgotten:

“Penance, however, in those who repent, must be preceded by faith without which no man may turn to God.”  Our Anguish is thus always couched in our belief in and encounter with the God who is love itself.  The CCC of St. JPII expresses this faith beautifully referencing St. Clement of Rome: “Let us fix our eyes on Christ’s blood and understand how precious it is to the Father, for, poured out for our salvation, it has brought to the whole world the grace of repentance.”

Picking back up with Trent: “No one can deny that it is a virtue to be sorrowful at the time, in the manner, and to the extent which are required.  To regulate sorrow in this manner belongs to the virtue of penance.  …Some conceive of a sorrow which bears no proportion to their crimes… Others, on the contrary, give themselves to such melancholy and grief, as utterly to abandon all hope of salvation… Penance, therefore, as a virtue, assists us in restraining within the bounds of moderation our sense of sorrow.

The eighteenth century theologian, Cardinal Alfonso Capecelatro describes this virtue in another way pointing out that the happiness of the world is marked by exceptional highs and its sorrows marked by the dejected lows. Secular man oscillates between these with exhausting frequency, “On the other hand, the habitual state of the man who is living according to the mind of Christ is, or should be, one of abiding peace which comes from the moderation of all things and the hope of the life to come; I say peace, not happiness, for happiness is the exclusion of pain and sorrow, wile peace does but lighten them and help us bear them with patience.  Circumscribed by Christian law this peace may be joyous or sad.  And thus there is a Christian joy and a Christian sadness.”

So our confessions should be rooted in this peace… a peace that flows from faith in the merciful God… a peace regulated by the virtue of penance.  

But the Word of God… in this case “Penance” …As Sexagesima Sunday’s Gospel relates (Lk 8:4-15)… It falls on many different types of ground.  The Path: there is no reception of the word, no faith: “Sin doesn’t matter at all… in fact there is no sin.”  or, alternately we go off the rails in the other direction and remain only ever miserable about our transgressions and those of others.  The Rocky Ground: I pay lip service to the virtue of penance… offer a superficial fly by recitation of my sins to get them out there but I leave and go back to the same old same old.  One indicator of this may be the “script” confession… literally the exact same word for word confession each time.  Another indicator of Rocky Ground is the frequent use of euphemisms for certain sins or antiquated language.  Hiding behind euphemisms and legalistic names suggests that there is still a fundamental fear of the sin in question, a lack of faith in God’s love for the penitent.  There’s a degree of sincerity, of reality here, but it withers quickly for lack of roots.  The Thorns: I do believe, I do confess thoroughly and with sincere purpose of amendment… I receive my penance and absolution fruitfully… then I turn on my TV or computer and read angry news, angry blogs, lustful websites and a host of other thorn bushes choke the good experience of penance.  And of course, every now and then the virtue of penance falls on good clear ground and we can bear fruit for real long lasting conversion.  

Brothers and sisters, as we proceed toward the holy season, let’s shine up that primordial Christian practice of boasting in our weakness that we might glorify Christ… let’s do it in our conversations, but let’s also refresh our practice of the virtue of penance …shake it up a bit… try a different examination of conscience… if things have become routine, change them up… Are there thorns around your practice of penance… identify them and radically pull them up this Lent… so that all of us may experience Christian peace through the virtue of penance. 


A kinder gentler look at the Parable of the Vineyard Laborers

This kinder gentler look brought to you by the Fathers of the Church…

Yesterday, Septuagesima Sunday, our brothers and sisters worshipping in the extraordinary form meditated on two powerhouse readings.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians (I Cor 9-10) about crossfit training for our souls: Those who would win the race need to train by disciplined self-denial.  In the Gospel (Mt. 20) our Lord instructs us with the parable of the vineyard workers being paid.  

So much has been said about both of these classic selections.  Analysis usually (at least in my experience) devolves into a rah rah encouragement (Paul)… and questions of fairness in the case of the Gospel reading.  For a different look…to keep my own eyes of faith fresh… I decided to consult the Fathers of the Church in the Cataena Aurea, particularly about the Gospel parable.  Here’s just a very few highlights from their approach:

St. Gregory the Great considers the several hours at which the workers were called to labor in the vineyard.  He identifies each hour as a series of Old Testament covenants!  I never would’ve thought of that!  …which may be why I’m not a patristic scholar… In this reading, the vineyard owner isn’t just calling workers off the streets to employ them, but because he has a lively concern for the salvation of all! 

Origen and St. John Chrysostom make an interesting observation: “The market place [from whence the workers are called] is anywhere that is outside the Catholic Church.”  “For in the world men live by buying and selling: and by defrauding each other to sustain their own lives.”  The market… the rat race of life without the Gospel… is always marked first and foremost by self-concern at best… and at worst self-centeredness.  Working in the Vineyard, it’s true, there will be a day’s wage for the workers, but the lion share of benefits accrue to the owner.  In other words: God desires to give us what we need, that we might work first and foremost for his glory and praise!  

Is this itself a slavish setup?  Certainly not.  When we live for others it lightens the load of our personal sadnesses and contextualizes the whole of life… gives it meaning.  Often enough, I find myself lamenting the administrative side of church life… but at the very least there is almost always kindness among colleagues… From what my people tell me, this isn’t always the case in the world.  

As a side note, I recently heard an interview (I think it’s a replay actually) between Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post and jazz great Winton Marsalis.  Over the course of an illuminating conversation, Marsalis laments the completely commodity-based culture that has developed around us, in which everything that art produces needs to be sell-able.  Consider having a listen HERE.

My favorite reading of this Gospel though comes, again, from Origen: 

He did not call the laborers of the third hour to a whole day’s work: whatever they were able to do he reserved to his own judgement to reward accordingly.  For they could do an amount of work equal to that done by those who had worked from the early morning, were they willing, in the shorter space of time, and not sparing their toil, to put forth a greater effort to the work at hand.

We always assume that the latecomers were lazy, but maybe the Lord knew they would work harder than the others.  Alternately, perhaps he called them knowing they would offer 100% of what they were able.  It reminds me of St. Philip Neri who “asks not our all, but only what we can spare him.” (cf Hymn: St. Philip and His School, by Faber).  In either case, the point is this: God knows how much each can work and what that person’s labor merits… NOT us.

A final thought… Some propose that God loves the first laborers more because they put in a whole day’s work, signing on with him from the beginning.  The later laborers may have made it into his good graces, but this is reckoned as some pure kindness on God’s part, keeping them in second-class status.  But consider the words of St. John Chrysostom:

Therefore God in rendering reward to all the saints (i.e. early workers) appears as just: but in giving to the Gentiles (i.e. late workers) He is seen as merciful, as the Apostle says ‘but the gentiles are to glorify God for his mercy.’  …Boundless mercy has not regard to order.

Our Lord’s justice and his mercy are equally beautiful gifts of his.  Who are we to try to make one look better than the other?

As I read these words this morning… these brilliant observations by the Fathers… I smiled.  Often we think of the ancient Church as a stoic cheerless time.  While they were certainly tough as nails compared to us, our ancestors in the faith were also deeply passionate and positive offering theological reflections full of color and nuance.  As we approach Lent, might we think the same about the Holy Season itself??

More to come…

Notes from Retreat

Dear Friends,

Yesterday I escaped… or thought I had escaped…  It’s time for my yearly retreat.  A week away from parish cares and woes to run to the arms of Jesus.  I’m staying at an Inn on the Chesapeake rising early to pray, taking cold walks along the water and trying to make my heart a little like the landscape: still very much alive, but scraped of all excess!

Why am I posting here?  Partially because I think/reflect best in dialogue… but also because of a great moment.  Yesterday I’d checked in to the inn.  I was so thrilled to be away from everything and everyone… also a little pre-cold (tired, stuffed up, achy). Stepping out of my room to get something warm to drink, I darn near crashed into a couple I had married two years ago!  It was a pleasant surprise but I can’t deny one thought was: “Can’t I ever get away from you people!”  Then the Lord stepped in.  He gently reminded me that the best way to run into his arms is not to run away from our people but to love them.  It’s true, every now and then we do need to take a break from working for each other… but we never take a break from loving each other.

So… Posted below, my homily (more or less) from yesterday (6th Sunday of OT).  My body is at rest on the Eastern Shore, but my heart is still on the clock for you!

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time
“What should I do?”

Throughout the month of February we’ve been meditating on questions related to: What are my goals for Lent (begins March 6)?  What needs to be purged if I’m going to be closer to Christ?  What do I need to magnify in my life?

This past Sunday (OF Calendar: 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time – EF Calendar Septuagesima Sunday) the Church proposed to us some more wonderful objects for our reflection.

In the Ordinary Form we heard a strong admonition from Jeremiah (17:5), “Cursed is the one who trusts in man…” And indeed, self-reliance will only get us so far in life.  In fact, isn’t this precisely what got us in trouble in the beginning?  Satan tempted Adam and Eve to break God’s command, and seize knowledge to themselves precisely so that they might become “like gods.”  Where do we go from here?  The readings direct us.  We are presented with the Beatitudes according to Luke.  It’s telling, really… 

You see, the Commandments tell us largely what not to do.  They are negative proscriptions… good, but negative.  They are also the highest fruits of human reason.  We didn’t need tablets from Sinai to tell us that lying isn’t good for human flourishing, nor murder, nor adultery, nor disrespecting our parents, etc.  Human societies across the world enshrined such truths in law long before and long after Moses climbed the heights.  Nonetheless, it’s great to have a divine confirmation… AND to know that there is a connection between Truths arrived at by reason, and divinity.  All that said, “Cursed be the one who trusts in man…”. The Commandments aren’t enough.  It’s not enough to say “no” to certain things, we must also have a “yes.”  And this shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, had the Commandments been enough to save us, Jesus wouldn’t have had a reason to come among us.

If the Commandments tell us what not to do, the beatitudes answer the question, “What must I do to have eternal life?”  Of course it’s the same question asked by the rich young man in Mt 19.  Jesus sums up everything for him, “Obey the commandments, give all you have to the poor and follow me.”  The Beatitudes are further explication of what it means to “follow” him.  Unlike the commandments, the Beatitudes are not self-evident.  Be meek?  Be humble?  Mourn?  Human reasoning flies from such realities!  And yet… If we can just trust Divine Revelation and try these out… what do we find?  

Meekness, humility, poverty… this is simply who we are.  Even the wealthiest/most powerful among us are one bad stock crash… one bad news cycle away from poverty.  Didn’t we see this in DC just recently?  Educated, well-employed federal workers, the very icon of the stable middle class, waited in food pantry lines during government shutdown.  Our wealth is ultimately an illusion… a pleasant circumstance that exists for some time for some people… but naturally, in our being, we are -all of us- poor.  Embrace that reality and learn to love it!  It’s healthier than the fantasy of wealth or power.  Another angle on this?  Wealth and power are exhausting.  The sheer energy it takes to “rely on man,” and ascend the ladder of high society is a process that usually leads to folks running on empty… or worse, stepping on others to keep their ascent going.  How many cultural Catholics I’ve met in our well-to-do suburbs who live this way and hide their exhaustion… or medicate it with alcohol, pornography… or flee from it and from their family responsibilities.  There’s an easier solution, and Christ gives it to us by his Revelation: Blessed are the meek…the poor… those who mourn… etc. 

As we roll on toward Lent, brothers and sisters, it seems two great questions are the ones we’ve been considering.  “Lord what must I do?” “Lord how can I rely on you and not solely on my own reason?