Let Us Do Penance

There is a venerable tradition in the Church, going back at least to the time of Saint Jerome (+420), of referring to Penance as the “second plank.” The sacrament of Penance is here meant, and this explains the capitalization. This is a gripping metaphor, because it is only the shipwrecked man that needs a plank. And such is what sin renders us: spiritually shipwrecked.

The first plank is Baptism, by which the Heavenly Father “hath delivered us from the power of darkness and hath translated us into the kingdom of the Son of his love” (Col. 1:13). Once in that kingdom, we ought to live worthy of our citizenship, and walk worthy of our Christian vocation.

So seriously did the Catholics of the first ages take this, and so severe were the penances prescribed for grave sin in the ancient penitentiaries, that a strange abuse crept into the Church: converts, and even the children of the faithful, sometimes deferred Baptism for unreasonable lengths of time. This abuse, strongly censured by such Fathers as Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine, is, like hypocrisy, a “tribute that vice pays to virtue.” People knew that the baptized are “are dead to sin, but alive unto God, in Christ Jesus our Lord,” (Romans 6:11), and, fearing that they lacked the necessary strength to put off their favorite sins, they deferred Baptism.

The reproach of Nathan and the penance of King David (Paris Psalter, 10th century).

The reproach of Nathan and the penance of King David (Paris Psalter, 10th century).

Lent is a time of penance, a time of spiritual renewal in which grace avails to make us truly dead to sin and alive to God. Pondering the serious nature of our commitment in Baptism will put us in the right frame of mind for penance. Saint Paul tells the Corinthians, after naming whole categories of people excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven, “And such some of you were. But you are washed: but you are sanctified: but you are justified: in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit of our God” (Cor. 6:11).

To the Ephesians, the Apostle says, “Now therefore you are no more strangers and foreigners: but you are fellow citizens with the saints and the domestics of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: in whom all the building, being framed together, groweth up into an holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:21).

This is our great dignity as Christians. But we have all sinned since Baptism. Most of us, I dread to say, mortally. Therefore, we must not only avail ourselves of the sacramental “second plank” of Penance (confession), but we must also undertake acts of penance to acquire the virtue of penitence. To paraphrase Saint Ambrose’s jarring words to Emperor Theodosius: We have imitated King David in his sins; now let us imitate him in his penance.

We might recite daily during Lent, King David’s Penitential Psalms (6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129 and 142). In addition, some bodily mortification is necessary. While sin is in the will, our bodies are accessories to these crimes; they will be punished with them in hell (may God forbid), or rewarded with them in heaven (may God grant it). In mastering the body, mortification strengthens the will, which itself is chastised through the body, hence the Old Testament tradition of referring to fasting as “afflicting one’s spirit.” Salutary bodily penances would include: complete abstinence (no meat all during Lent, Sundays excepted), daily fasting (only one meal a day, with two light collations together not equalling a full meal at other times), abstaining from spirits, tobacco, and the pleasures of the marriage bed; a certain amount of physically demanding work per day, curtailing one’s sleep slightly so as to pray more (this is called “watching” or “keeping vigil”).

Please consult a confessor or spiritual director before undertaking your Lenten penance. It is better to undertake what will be accomplished successfully than to take on too much and lose steam by Mid-Lent Thursday. Prudence and zeal must be made to agree!

Given the complexities of modern life and the devil’s constant and successful war against the family, I propose the radical move of parents arranging their lives in such a way that they spend more time with their children. For some, this will prove penitential. Is it not proper to blame some share of society’s woes on parental neglect? And should not parents practice some penitential vigilance for the benefit of their offspring?