Positive Penance

Positive Penance 1: Reading of the post.

Here I would like to describe the context and ideas I presented at the retreat day yesterday on Positive Penance: Preparation for Lent.

It occurred to me that many of us have in the past, and perhaps still do, view penance as being a self inflicted punishment for sins committed, a bit like Dobby, before he became a free elf: I would call him a penitent elf:

Positive Penance 2: Reading of the post.

I have felt very dissatisfied with this underlying perspective of penance when I heard it in church, or listening to people. This albeit subconscious understanding of it seemed to me to lead to anger, resentment or self loathing and not to spiritual consolation. Dobby is not expressing sorrow and a heartfelt desire to do and be more in the scene above. When I was studying the Spiritual Exercises, it was skimmed over uncomfortably and pointed out that it was of the time. Again, it left me feeling frustrated and with a sense of there being so much more to it than all of this. So, I chose to study the Tenth Addition of the Exercises on Penance and to write my theory paper in the second year of my course on what I had learned. The retreat I led yesterday is the fruit of that work.

The Catholic Church gives the reasons for making Lenten observances in the Catechism:

…in contrast to those who had once provoked God during forty years in the desert, Christ reveals Himself as God’s servant, totally obedient to the Divine will.

Catechism of the Catholic  Church; (539)

By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.

Catechism of the Catholic Church; (540)

And has drawn the traditional Lenten practices of fasting, alms-giving and prayer from scripture:

15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; 16 for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 And the world and its desire[a] are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.

1 John 2:15-17

Where fasting is a means to acting against the desire of the flesh; alms-giving a means to act again the desire of the eyes, and prayer to act against the pride in riches. To act against spiritual desolation is the principle of “agere contra”, which is also described in the Spiritual Exercises, and there is no contradiction with what I am presenting: I am looking for the more in it.

Ignatius describes three powers of the soul that we employ in our spiritual lives: the first memory and imagination together, the second the understanding and thirdly, the will, where the latter is the heart, rather than our modern day interpretation of mind over matter. Have you ever felt:

I know what I should do here, but I just don’t have the heart to do it.

I believe that to be the difference, and meaning of the will in this context, what it is that is in the heart to do, even if it does not seem to make much sense.

On the imagination, I have frequently heard it questioned, or where other people have questioned what another means when they talk about God speaking to them. The conversation between the inquisitor and Joan of Arc sums it up for me:

“You say God speaks to you, but it’s only your imagination.” These are the words spoken by the inquisitor to Joan of Arc during her trial for heresy.

“How else would God speak to me, if not through my imagination?” Joan replied.

and of course, there is the idea Ignatius describes in the Three Kinds of Humility, which I wrote about before.

Ignatius gives reasons for doing penance:

The principal reason for performing exterior penance is to secure three effects:

(i) To make satisfaction for past sins;

(ii) To overcome oneself, that is, to make our sensual nature obey reason, and to bring all of our lower faculties into greater subjection to the higher;

(iii) To obtain some grace or gift that one earnestly desires. Thus it may be that one wants a deep sorrow for sin, or tears, either because of his sins or because of the pains and sufferings of Christ our Lord; or he may want the solution of some doubt that is in his mind

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans Louis J. Puhl

In another translation of The Spiritual Exercises, by Michael Ivens, he uses the word reparation, rather than satisfaction. The sense of this latter word is more, because it goes beyond punishment, beyond evening the score, to making it right. I gave an example from my own experience.

I can be a bit work obsessed and years ago I was marking some coursework on a Sunday afternoon – I shiver in horror at the thought of doing that now – and my younger child had an invitation to a birthday party. I was trying to get the work finished by three thirty to get her to the party on time at four. She came through several times asking if it was time to go yet; she must have been around six or seven. I finished marking the last piece at three thirty and asked her to bring the invitation with the address on it and we would go, but to my horror and grief I saw that the party finished at four, not started. We would get there in time for the end. I was immediately distraught as the neglect I had shown my own child overwhelmed me; it broke my heart and I started to cry. It was a third power of the soul response. I told her I was sorry, I asked her to forgive me and I offered her to choose something else we could do instead. So we went out for pizza. My penance showed her the sincerity of my remorse and the intensity of my desire to make it right with her, to repair the damage I had done to our relationship with my negligence. I could have been angry and resentful that she had inconvenienced me with a party invitation when I had so much work to do; I could have beaten myself up with self loathing for being a bad mother; but to express my deep and sincere sorrow, to ask for forgiveness and to do what was in my power to do to repair the situation, was the more loving response. And with her generosity of heart, she forgave me and allowed me to make it right with her, to the extent that she had forgotten all about it until I reminded her recently when I was preparing for this retreat.

Door to Capely Coed, St Beunos.
Positive Penance 3: Reading of the post.

On the second reason Ignatius gives, Gerard W. Hughes sums it up beautifully in God in All Things:

Self denial is life giving and a doorway to freedom when it is understood in terms of denying our superficial desires the right to dominate our lives and determine our actions. The self that we are asked to deny is, in fact, the false self, the self of superficial desires which has the power to frustrate and dominate our true self, which is drawing us into the life and love of God. This true self must never be denied.

Gerard W. Hughes, God in All Things

The first sentence of this quote was a complete revelation to me when I first read it. It caused a paradigm shift in my understanding and experience of lent, and is the basis of my dissatisfaction thereafter, with the perspectives I described at the beginning. In The Immortal Diamond, Richard Rohr gives an insight into what is meant by the false and true self:

Positive Penance 4: Reading of the post.

I perceive the movement of penance as a deconstruction of the false self, and a reconstruction of the true self, when we focus our attention on God. I visualise it in the artistic composition of The Ecstasy of St. Francis, a great penitent of the third order of humility, by Caravaggio, by all accounts, a renowned sinner. The downward movement represents the deconstruction of the false self, and the upward movement, the reconstruction, focused on God, that draws us nearer to our true self.

The Ecstasy of St. Francis, Caravaggio
Positive Penance 5: Reading of the post.

The third reason Ignatius gives for doing penance is not to be understood as a bargaining with God, but more as a pleading; it is the means of expressing the sincerity, depth and intensity of our desire for the grace for which we are asking. In the party incident with my youngest, my tears and offer of a treat of her choosing, were expressing the profundity of my remorse, and my sincerity and the depth of my desire for her forgiveness, and to make the relationship right again.

From the end of the presentation at this point, retreatants were invited to do the One Man and His Dog reflective exercise. I have made the worksheet from an exercise described by Gerard W. Hughes in God in All Things. The shepherd represents God, the dog alert and focused on the shepherd represents the soul and the sheep represent our scattered desires. The idea of the exercise at this point is to name our desires, without any judgement or resolution, just to notice what they are.

One Man and His Dog: my worksheet inspired by an exercise described in God in All Things, Gerad W. Hughes
Positive Penance 6: Reading of the post.

Then we spent some time in prayer with an imaginative contemplation, using the Ignatian structure of preparation, prayer and review; and then in paired sharing. After lunch, laying down some context for the afternoon continued in a second, shorter presentation.

Ignatius separates penance into interior and exterior:

Interior penance consists in sorrow for one’s sins and a firm purpose not to commit them or any others. Exterior penance is the fruit of the first kind.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans Louis J. Puhl

And I suggest that the movement can be in either direction: I can feel remorse and sorrow (interior) as I did with my daughter, and that initiates an external response: or, with my reason I can recognise that I am not the person God is calling me to be in an aspect of my life: for example, I was a coffee addict at one point drinking five of six cups a day. I recognised that it led me to be dismissive of children in school and irritable and impatient, because I needed a cup of coffee. I decided I needed to give up coffee one year (exterior) because it was driving my behaviour in a way that took me away from who I was called to be. Now I mostly limit it to one a day, with the occasional two cup day as a special treat. I am unable to drink three cups because it makes me feel sick. It is a long time since I dismissed someone, or delayed doing something because I needed coffee. So, the exterior penance, the action or behaviour, sinks deeper until the internal desire falls into line. It is effectively being the change you want to make.

On The Nature of Penance, I have summed it up in the diagram:

Positive Penance 7: Reading of the post.

Living modestly between the extremes of harm and superfluous is described by Ignatius as temperance and is more of a general lifestyle recommendation. Penance is something that should not cause harm if practiced in the short term. As a scientist I am aware that the body has mechanisms to deal with mild, short term disruptions to its needs in terms of food, sleep and pain, but should any of these become extreme or chronic then deeper health problems ensue. Ignatius suggests that we do a little more, and adjust until we find the right level for us. Ignatius himself practiced extreme penances and had to be nursed back to health, and it may be this reason that the tenth addition is dealt with as being of its time, and a little uncomfortably. In my opinion, what he has written in the Exercises is the fruit of his experiences and radically moderates the extreme practices of his time, and also demonstrates principles that are still relevant to us today.

After this point, we again spent some time in prayer, with another imaginative contemplation, which took off from where the morning one left off. Again, the structure of preparation, prayer and review was followed, and then by paired sharing. The One Man and his Dog reflection was brought back into play. The purpose of the dog (soul) is to be attentive to God, and to gather up all of the scattered sheep (desires) in an ordered arrangement and have them moving in the direction God desires them to go. Then there was a personal reflection on My Unruly Sheep:

Positive Penance 8: Reading of this post.

Retreatants were asked to pick up one or more of the little characters above and to try to name any pertinent disordered desires that might have come to the surface during the day. They were encouraged to ponder how this desire may be getting in the way of their deeper personal relationship with God, and to resolve to amend it during lent by making a decision on an action they could take, an exterior penance, that would help them draw closer to God. At least one person left the retreat, after the group sharing and closing prayer, having identified a habit to give up for lent that would open up the time and space for more spiritual reading, contemplation and prayer. It is consistent with the purpose of the retreat day and with what Ignatius has to say about our choice of penance:

Now since God our Lord knows our nature infinitely better, when we make changes of this kind, He often grants each one the grace to understand what is suitable for him.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.

On a personal level, I was extremely tired after the day and being used to teaching teenagers all day, I was not expecting that. It was a blissful, contented tiredness, replete with God’s pleasure and joy. I am as yet unaware of all the graces I received myself, and I am grateful for the graces received by those who came, some of which were evident. I look forward to noticing the fruit these seeds bear in the future.

So , here is a question for you:

What personal penance are you planning for the forthcoming lent?

If you have not thought about it, or decided yet, maybe you could try, with prayer, the One Man and His Dog exercise, and then contemplate your Unruly Sheep. Something relevant to you and your relationship with God may very well surface. I wish you a fruitful and holy season of lent.

2 thoughts on “Positive Penance”

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