The Beauty of Penance
Sr. Martina Braga OSB
Santa Teresa d'Ávila was a person of great penance. In her room - preserved until today at the Convent of San José, in Spain - we can see how she slept: on a little straw spread on the floor and with a piece of firewood for a pillow. A strong and determined woman, who argued with the Lord himself, Teresa did not spare herself when it came to sacrificing for the love of this same Lord and his brothers.
And yet, contrary to what is currently imagined about Christian asceticism, the life of the great saint is full of picturesque stories that show her solid common sense and her profound mental health. It is said, for example, that someone once donated a cut of good meat to the convent. It was Lent and Sister Cook was saddened:
“What a pity... we here eat so sparingly... it would do us good to have some splendid roast... But we had to receive the gift right now in Lent...”
"Cook it on Sunday," replied Mother Teresa. “Sundays are feast days, even in Lent!”
The obedient cook carefully prepared the meat and served it on a beautiful plate, surrounded by the best vegetables she could harvest in the garden. The simple joy of the Sisters - especially the youngest, whose hard work made them need better food - was enormous and the roast was eaten with gusto, amid big smiles.
What was not, however, the surprise of the Saint when she noticed that some of the older Sisters, making a face of superior disgust at what they considered a serious violation of the conventual discipline, refused to touch the meat, restricting their Sunday lunch to a few vegetables and giving the Superior looks of indignant disapproval.
Mother Teresa sighed, but instead of saying anything to them, she addressed the good cook serenely:
“Sister, this roast is so good that we will serve it once more. And I confess that it gives me pleasure to see that some of the venerable Sisters seem to dislike it... we will eat their part too! Our God is a God of joy, not of sadness.”
“God be praised!” chanted the young Sisters, and that was a memorable Lent Sunday, after which daily penance was fulfilled with even more love and zeal.
Today the practice of Christian penance is largely ignored or severely criticized. It is said to be unnatural, unhealthy, oppressive. We always see in films the figure of a monk who scourges himself or things like that and is the image of the obsessed and mentally disturbed person. Such was the case with Luther, as he himself tells us. Several times his wise superior in the Order of Augustinians ordered him to stop these practices, but he disobeyed, thinking that in this way he would achieve the peace of mind he sought so much.
Obviously, penance may have these characteristics, but this is the fault of the penitent and not of the Church, which advises, like the good Augustinian, something completely different. On the other hand, today's world knows and approves of other types, actually very acute, of penance... Let us think of the sacrifices that a professional sportsman makes, some of which mark his body for life. Or in useless and unhealthy sacrifices often made in search of pleasures. Or in the terrible sacrifices related to drugs and crimes...
What, then, is Christian penance really? The best comparison is perhaps that of two people who love each other. When that love is true, stable and profound, it knows sacrifices well... For those who love each other, however, these are seen as natural and unimportant. Waiting for each other, taking care of each other, being patient with each other's imperfections and needs, changing their own plans, renouncing comforts, providing joys and accepting difficulties for the love of each other, suffering together, being faithful even in disappointments and pains, are just a few examples. How many sacrifices does a good mother make, for example?
Christian penance is just like that: a sacrifice made out of love. One of the hallmarks of the great penitent saints is their profound kindness and radiant joy, as Mother Teresa of Calcutta shows us. Penance is born out of knowing that we are loved by God and of not measuring sacrifices to be closer to Him, to respond to His love and to bring Him to your brothers and sisters.
Penance is not the final goal but it is an essential part of the path to God. Why? There is no penance in Heaven... Penance is only necessary because of human sin. Jesus accepted and suffered death on the Cross, but it was not He who sought the Cross: it is we sinners who crucified him. Paradise, as God desired, has no evil or disease or tragedy or bitterness. It is the rupture of creation with its Creator that brings suffering, more than anything the suffering of the innocent, and yes, also the suffering of nature, if we can say so. Healthy penance, be it material - works of mercy - or spiritual - prayer, fasting - helps to restore this lost harmony.
God obviously does not need our penance. Penance comes from us, as a free and loving impulse, to make room in our lives for this harmony. The words of the Prophet Joel, quoted in Lent, remind us of this: ‘Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God. For he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting in punishment.’
It is not, therefore, a matter of measuring our sin in the balance of sacrifice. This is impossible and it is not what God asks of us. It is just a matter of making a small gesture that humbly opens our hearts to repentance and allows us to participate in the Redemption carried out by Our Lord.
Lenten penance therefore has nothing to do with exaggerated and obsessive sacrifices. These are useless and, deep down, self-centered. The sole purpose of penance is to lead us to God, who is all love and mercy. Penance should help us to turn our hearts to the Good, the Beauty, the Goodness of God and to leave aside our pride and selfishness. It is like a child who, with a kiss and a genuine tear, wins the heart of the parents. Let us listen to the prophet Isaias: ‘Is this the manner of fasting I would choose, a day to afflict oneself? To bow one’s head like a reed, and lie upon sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking off every yoke? Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own flesh?'
In true penance, therefore, there is no sign of hypocrisy, as the story of St. Teresa shows us. It is the Lord Himself who teaches us: ‘When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to others to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.’
In this sense, it is easy to understand that the first and most valuable penance recommended by the Church is not that which we ourselves seek but that which we simply accept from the hands of God, when we cannot avoid it. What is the use of spending days on bread and water, if we remain in our laziness, selfishness and pride instead of practicing patience, righteousness, kindness and fidelity to the inevitable duties of everyday life? The primary meaning of penance is to recognize that we are sinners and that we need conversion. When we renounce small tastes and whims and healthily sacrifice our self-will, we make space in us for God and for others, we train our hearts in the practice of love and mercy and we recover the mental sanity of humility, which shows us that our self-sufiency is poor and ridiculous...
The Church recommends penance to us in general, and establishes minimum rules such as fasting and abstinence, but it does not go beyond that. The specific form of penance is up to our conscience and derives from our solid self-knowledge. For a person who talks a lot, penance can be moderating her desire to be the center of attention. For another, too timid, penance may take the form of an effort to participate more naturally in social life. People who know and love us can also help us with timely advice, so that we don't focus our efforts on useless or impossible things. Above all, it is necessary to keep in mind that everything that, in one way or another, makes us focus more on ourselves, in a proud and isolated way, can no longer be true Christian penance.
In this sense, it is clear that penance can never be seen as a kind of competition with ourselves. Quantity, time and even success do not matter at all. On the contrary, failure is, in itself, often the best penance. What matters is the sincerity of intention and of our love. Psalm 51 tells us: ‘For you do not desire sacrifice or I would give it; a burnt offering you would not accept. My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn.’
Yet not only its ultimate goal - God's love - justifies penance. In itsmethod too, must good measure, which is also a sign of God's joy, be present. The great masters of Christian spirituality - like St. Francis de Sales - have lively and often amusing words about it. Let us look at some examples of their practical and very human recommendations:
- penance must be reasonable and realistic. Can a family mother commit herself to maintaining great silence? Or a person who works hard to sleep and eat minimally?
- penance should not be sentimental. Are we truthful and responsible if we decide to always say yes in any situation and to anyone?
- penance must be truthful and simple. Isn't it better to pray earnestly for fifteen minutes a day than to be on your knees for hours on end, asleep?
- penance must be concrete. Isn't a small gesture which corrects a real defect worthier than big dreams of heroic holiness?
- penance must be ours and not of others. Do we not always have the tendency to impose on others, out of vanity, jealousy or laziness, a part of our sacrifices? Or of wanting, with our supposed 'good example', to correct them instead of correcting ourselves?
- penance must always be subordinated to Christian values. The greatest sacrifice, if it leaves aside kindness, forgiveness, respect, prudence, freedom, humility, ceases to be a Christian attitude to become a mere product of our own human ideas. As Saint Paul tells us: ‘If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.’
All of these considerations run the risk, however, of making us dilute the value of penance. How many of us Christians today spend our lives without giving much importance to the practice of penance or reducing it to our Lent, just as an uncomfortable way of following pre-established customs. Penance - also called mortification - corresponds to a fundamental element of our Christian faith, as stated above. Without it, without this concrete and humble effort to leave our own comfort in order to draw closer to God and our brothers and sisters, Christian virtues are simply impossible.
It is necessary to understand and live the true balance of the saints. They remind us that this is only possible in a personal relationship with God. He created us, knows us, sees us and calls us. It is not about understanding an idea, or a philosophy, or a theory, or an energy. God is a Person, with whom we can and must relate personally, intimately, heart to heart. For this reason, before everything else, Christian life - and with it true penance - is grounded and nourished by prayer.
The time of Lent is a reminder, a special time of grace and, therefore, of joy and peace. Most of all, it is a time of hope, it is a precious opportunity to return to God, like the prodigal son, firm in our repentance but sure that He welcomes us with open arms and waits for us at the road. Penance is the first step, it is to let go of our attachment to our pride, it is to get up and set out on our way.
Let us listen to what the Holy Father tells us: ‘Ashes are thus a reminder of the direction of our existence: a passage from dust to life. We are dust, earth, clay, but if we allow ourselves to be shaped by the hands of God, we become something wondrous. More often than not, though, especially at times of difficulty and loneliness, we only see our dust! But the Lord encourages us: in his eyes, our littleness is of infinite value. So let us take heart: we were born to be loved; we were born to be children of God.’
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