Looking at history we can say that those who practiced penance were often the most selfless and self-sacrificing persons. From the prophets of the Old Testament to the Apostles, to the saints and religious orders throughout Church history, asceticism remained has a mainstay of Christian life. It is an act of selfless giving of oneself to other.
Purpose of Penance
The end goal of asceticism is love. Asceticism enables love to fully mature in the human person. The very call of Christian life is love. To love means to make a total gift of self to another. That is to ‘will the good of the other’. But one cannot give what one does not have. Therefore, it is necessary to first possess oneself, in order to fully give oneself away. Here, self-mastery is required. And this self-mastery is only possible by way of asceticism, which is denying the inordinate desires of the flesh through self-denial, penance and mortification. Hence, asceticism is necessary to love and therefore, to be a Christian.
This does not mean that the body in itself is ‘bad’. Humans are created in the image and likeness of God, and is therefore inherently good in nature. But the effects of Original Sin and the germ of subsequent sins inclines the humans to evil. It is this inclination to self-love every human person is called to wage war on in this life. Thus, every Christian is called to practice asceticism in order for love, that is, to make a gift of self. It is to this end that penance and mortification must lead each one of us. Thus, resulting in the elevation of the body and the person to its ultimate end in God, Who is Love itself.
Call to Penance
The call to penance and conversion is a call right through the immemorial history of human kind. Indeed, it has been the constant appeal of Marian apparitions throughout history, especially during the past hundred years or so. Here, penance and mortification are not see only as having a sanctifying effect on the individual, but also on the Church as a whole. The more a person’s life is patterned after the life of our Redeemer – Who’s greatest work entailed the greatest sacrifice – the more that person will make up what is lacking in the body of Christ, says St. Paul.
Primacy of Interior Mortification
While exterior penance can be an important compliment to one’s spiritual progress, they are nonetheless of a secondary rank to interior mortifications, where we deny our will, our attachments, our preferences, our appetites, our ego, our desires for comfort, etc. These interior mortifications are considered by the saints to be the most meritorious, since they directly cut at the root of self-will and self-love. In penance love and humility must be present, as well as obedience and docility to the Divine will. Ultimately, exterior mortification should lead us inward toward interior mortification.
Penance: when too weak or ill
The saints remind us that penance should never interfere with one’s ability to perform one’s duties in life. They consider weakness and illness in itself as a great treasure in religious life. Therefore, let no one get discouraged if physical illness prevents a person from doing more. It is in illness that rapid progress can be made in the spiritual life. In this sense, external penances should only be regarded as an interim measure for when we are healthy, keeping the flesh at bay until we become ill again, and the abundance of grace open to us.
Obedience: The Greatest Vow
Among the vows of a religious obedience is considered by the saints to be the greatest. For it is on obedience that the other two vows depend and are brought to perfection. Obedience is the principle means of mortification, which is infused into the daily life of the religious. It is not through great works, but through the ordinary life of obedience that best serves to expiate for sin, to merit grace for souls, and ultimately to love the other most profoundly.
Obedience is of great value, that one act of disobedience caused the greatest angel in heaven to be cast into hell along with one-third of all the angels. By a further act of disobedience, humankind’s relationship with God was forever wounded. All this happened through a single act of the will. Thus, when we deny our will out of obedience to God and His representatives, we in some way make reparation for the greatest tragedy that has ever befallen both the material and spiritual world alike. For it is through religious life – that is; being subjected to a superior and a rule of life – that souls are given the clearest possible means by which the advance in virtue and become perfect. By offering no resistance of the will, the action of grace is able to form a soul with the least possible hindrance, and in this way, all its faculties will be strengthened because it no longer relies on its own reasoning and self-will, but submits to an authority outside of itself, namely, the representative appointed by God and the rules of the community.
Penance and Importance of Remaining Hidden
The saints were always very careful to hide their penances from the world as much as possible, including their own conferrer’s. A hidden sacrifice, according to the saints, is most pleasing in the eyes of God, and defence against pride and vainglory. Any instance that would draw the praises of others was to be severely shunned, for true humility demands a deep and lasting desire to be regarded as nothing, as ordinary. The more gifts and graces one receive, the more humble one must become, always recalling to how poorly one has used such gifts without any merit of one’s own. For without humility, everything we do in religious life will be in vain, including every prayer, every sacrifice.
Dimensions of Prayer Life
“Doing penance” for Francis refers to transformation in all these dimensions of one’s life. A transformation of life is a grace – God’s action in us. But we have to allow God to act in us, and that is the purpose of a serious and authentic life of prayer. First, there has to be some conscious letting go in our lives. Letting go of those things which give us our social identity, which shape who we want to be in the eyes of others. Second, as this letting go happens, we begin to relate to others and reality in new ways. We digest these experiences in Prayer, that is, seeing in God’s light, and this in turn lead us to further letting go of elements in our former identity. Third, as this purification intensifies, we also begin to see God in a new light. We undergo a Faith transformation and come to a new way of knowing, a contemplative awareness. This is the stage of illumination. And fourth, as this contemplative awareness of God deepens within us, we become more and more one with God-in-us. We discover new aspects of our life which need transformation and new directions to grow into the image and likeness of Christ. The life of Penance is an ongoing process of transformation through continuous contemplative prayer, leading to a closer union with God-within-us. This is the stage of unification.
Penance and Prayer
To avoid stagnation in penance, it must be constantly enkindled by silent contemplative prayer in which the process of letting go and resulting in transformation of behaviour and lifestyle is continually at work. More than vocal prayer, a prayer of contemplative silence must be focused in order to have an inner experience of God’s presence in and with us that urges us to change and act differently.
The inner experience of God’s presence makes us sensitive to His presence in everything. Hence, we will respond to this presence with reverence, respect, service – in one word, with love.
Contemplation and Action
Francis always viewed the following of Christ in an evangelical life-style as the only way towards union with God, which is tightly and permanently linked with a deep contemplative union. But the words action and contemplation have become classic Christian terminology for the two polarities of our lives. Spiritual maturity, however, is the ability to integrate the two into one life stance – to be service -oriented contemplatives. This integration happens slowly and by practice. It means that we learn to live constantly in the presence of God, allowing his Spirit to activate our life from within. Thus, action and contemplation live through one another, and neither of them can exist healthily by themselves.
Conclusion: Francis’ Teaching on Prayer, Poverty and Penance
Praying according to Francis, means: first, earnestly desiring and longing for the Spirit of God; and second, leaving Him (God) free to act within oneself. Which means that one must constantly made free of all those desires and attitudes in us that arise from our own egocentric spirit, our tendencies to assert and protect ourselves. That is letting go of our wilfulness and surrendering our self with its will to God, which is the highest form of poverty for Francis. Francis indicates that the quest for the Spirit of God is an adventure requiring first of all ‘a pure heart’. Because the person with a ‘pure heart’ is aware of one’s own poverty; turning that person humbly towards the Lord for fulfilment. That person cannot remain closed within oneself, as that person is wholly turned towards God – lives with an abiding spirit of adoration, in a contemplative stance, even in the midst of action, in Love. Thus prayer, poverty and penance lead a person to a complete self-giving-gift to others and ultimately to God, Who is Love – for love.