Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Penance of Love

"So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love."      

Luke 7:47
Penance is an interesting word, it literally means the desire to be forgiven. Christians talk about it in the context of desiring to be forgiven by God for our many sins against Him and against others. 

But often, Catholics and other Christians use it as a verb as well as a noun. 

Please Note: I unwittingly began writing this post based on a thought that I had in prayer but as I familiarized myself with this topic, I realized that I was putting my little toe in the choppy waters of a pretty extensive and complicated theological battle between Protestants and non-Protestants. Please forgive this amateur's attempt to contribute a small thought to this discussion that involves far more complications than I can read and understand at this moment.

For those who do not know what I am talking about, I will summarize. Basically, the Reformers held that penance is a noun and there is no need for the verb or in other words, sorrow for one's sins is a necessary state of the mind and heart to be forgiven by God, but an act of penance is not required. Catholics hold that both are necessary, that we should act out our feelings of contrition in some way to demonstrate our sorrow for our sins but that we also must feel contrition in our hearts. Leave it to the Catholics to keep the suffering a part of their theology.

This whole difference of ideas hits on the old faith vs. works debate. I won't pretend to know a lot about this. But I will note that I am side-stepping the entire discussion as to whether or not acts of penance are necessary.  Ultimately I go with the idea that our thoughts and our mind and heart are inextricably connected with our actions. They must be bound together. Sometimes one acts without feeling or one feels without acting, but the ideal is that we do both, and that I think is something everyone can agree on. 

A New Idea of Penance

My ideas of penance are a mixture of the normal, the odd and the gruesome - fasting, self-flagellation, penitential self-discipline and wearing sackcloth and ashes. 

Fasting is a standard form of penance and one that all Catholics participate in during the season of Lent. I try to fast whenever I can. I have realized that it really is a powerful form of prayer that allows us to literally empty ourselves so that God can fill us. It is a way to grow closer to God and a very effective way to pray for our intentions and to fight evil.

But Jesus has been showing me something else about showing my sorrow for sin recently.

Every day the sisters at my convent meditate for a half hour on the Gospel reading of the day before we begin morning prayer. I have been very moved by how much more I get from the Gospel reading when I take the time to really think and pray about it, asking God what He has to say to me that day. 

A few weeks ago we read about the woman, traditionally believed to be Mary Magdalene, who goes to Jesus while He is at dinner and bathes His feet in perfumed oil and washes them with her tears. This reading has always stirred my heart. I recognize myself in that woman, someone who, in the face of the Divine presence of Jesus, sees her sins clearly and feels deep sorrow for them.

But when I meditated on this Gospel reading several weeks ago, Jesus' response to the woman snagged on the edges of my consciousness. His response literally means - "her many sins have been forgiven, seeing that she has loved much."

I was confused by this, what exactly did Jesus mean? It seems he is saying that she is forgiven because of her love. I was contemplating this when I noticed the words by the tabernacle in our chapel. 

In every Pauline chapel, the same words translated from Italian can be seen engraved - "Fear not, I am with you. From here I want to enlighten. Atone for sin." These are the words that our founder Blessed James Alberione heard Jesus say to him one day when he was praying before the tabernacle.

Suddenly the last phrase "Atone for sin" and my preconceived ideas of negative penance transformed in my mind.

The woman in the Gospel was forgiven because "she loved much." I realized at that moment that Jesus was telling me that I must show my love for Him and my thankfulness that He has forgiven me by doing my penance in love. 

We can practice aestheticism in our lives by fasting and doing penance "negatively" and these are effective ways to show God our remorse for our sins. But Jesus was showing me what my patron saint Therese of Lisieux knew long ago - that the fast that gets to the heart of who Jesus is and who He calls us to be is the fast of love.

Jesus is calling us to the penance of love.

He is calling us to love even when we do not want to, to love until it hurts, as Mother Teresa would say. He is calling us to love everyone including people who anger or hurt us deeply, people who are selfish, people who hurt those we love, people who have different ideologies than us, people who are our enemies and people who are enemies of God and the things in the world that are good. He is calling us to love in our thoughts, to never assume we know a person's motivations or the workings of their heart. No one is exempt from this fast. In fact, the people who we find it most difficult to love are often the people God is calling us to show love the most.

God is calling us to love others as He loves them in the hope and the knowledge that in seeing our love, God will forgive us for our many sins, those we know and those we do not know, and will love us in return.

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