One day, in prayer, the Lord brought my attention to an interesting word… penance. To be honest, I wasn’t really excited about that. Penance was not something I wanted to dwell too much on. I wanted to talk about other things… pretty things… consoling things. But God had something else in mind.
When I heard that word, the first thing that came to mind was the penance we receive in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Sometimes a Hail Mary or an Our Father, kind of as an afterthought… not something I have spent much time praying on.
As I thought about it, I realized that the word had kind of a negative implication for me; there was a punitive connotation in my mind… this is not something I get to do, but something I have to do because I sinned. I’ve often heard the term used in other punitive settings, like when a priest is found to have committed grave acts and is removed from ministry and “assigned to a life of prayer and penance.”
I think that in my mind, I had connected penance with punishment. No wonder I didn’t even want to think about it. But God insisted, so I knew He had something for my good in mind.
I sat to pray, and in my mind, I heard an echo coming at once from Fatima and Lourdes: “Penance, penance, penance!” Such an urgent call from Heaven…
The angel and Our Lady were echoing the Word spoken back in Galilee… repent!
The word repent in this passage was translated from the Greek word metanoia. Interestingly, this word does not have any negative connotations for me; I like the word metanoia. I immediately understand it to mean a change of direction that begins in and flows from the heart.
Ok… maybe this penance thing is not what I thought it was. I had thought about it as something that came from outside, but God is calling us to have a change of heart.
To internalize this call to penance, we have to understand the WHY. “Because of hope in Divine Mercy”… Everything always begins and ends with God. It is His Mercy that makes us worthy of His Love. It is His Love that makes us dare to hope and want to change our lives.
“The intention to change one’s life.” That’s it, isn’t it? Are we willing to give up the sin we know, the sin we like? Are we willing to take the steps necessary to walk in the light? This begins with a change of heart, but it must overflow to action, to change… metanoia.
I love the word effort in the quote above… with sweat and tears. This is how we walk in the Way of the Cross. But every journey begins with one step. The penance we are given in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is meant to help us pivot to a new direction and take that first step. To let the sorrow of our contrition be the fuel that propels us to fulfill the promise we made in the Act of Contrition… “to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.
It is like our little boat comes to rest on a shore after being tossed out of route in a storm. It is repaired, restocked, and turned around… pointed in the right direction. Nothing will happen if it remains onshore. It needs a push… a little shove, a concrete external action, and then we can continue to row. We are going in the right direction, but the journey is long, and we grow tired. The undercurrent below threatens to pull us away from God. We cannot continue on our own.
“Penance, penance, penance!”; A clarion call from above...
One of the expressions of penance is prayer; the Mass is the highest form of prayer. Living from Eucharist to Eucharist, we find the strength to stay firm in our intent. It is in the Eucharist that we find the strength to remain in a state of grace.
A life of prayer and penance… doesn’t sound like a punishment to me. Funny how things always work out… I wanted to pray about pretty things, and it turned out penance is more beautiful than I could ever see.