“Conversion is never once and for all but is a process, an interior journey through the whole of life.” – Pope Benedict XVI
I was thanking a friend at church for praying for my son, Collin, to find a job. Our prayers were recently rewarded. She answered, “Oh, praying is easy, it’s the penance that is hard.” I had not thought about it like that, but she was right. It costs us nothing to come before the throne of Christ begging except the humbling of our hearts knowing that there is nothing we can do on our own and faith that our prayers are heard and our sins forgiven.
“Repent your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of God is near.” (Matthew 4:17)
But penance, that is another story. I have had so many say to me, that penance is unnecessary since God forgives freely. This is true. His forgiveness is free. It flows from a heart so in love with us, He desperately wants above all to take our sins and cleanse of our impurities that we may draw close to our Beloved. But penance is not paying God back for our forgiveness. Penance is the humble heart before an all deserving God, a heart that knows sin is incompatible with the glory of God and that no one can stand before the throne of God with sin on their soul. Penance is the sincere desire to give up the sin and avoid all that lures us away from the grace of salvation, born in a heart broken and contrite. The desire for forgiveness is empty without the desire to sin no more. It would be like a husband who continually cheats on his wife and offers little more than empty apologies and broken promises. There is a difference between being sorry that we are caught in a sin and sorry because of the deep fracturing of our relationship to God because of it. The more we open our hearts to God, the more we desire to do penance if for no other reason than to draw closer to the forgiving and loving heart of Christ.
“Therefore, produce fruit consistent with repentance.” (Luke 3:8)
“I preached the need to repent and turn to God and to do works giving evidence to repentance.” (Acts 26:20)
Lent is a beautiful season for introspection and deep soul searching. It is a time to truly reflect that we were made of dust and to dust we will return. It is a chance to ponder the limit to our days on earth and God’s purpose for our creation. Only by surrendering the hollow activities that fill our time, can we truly give our undivided attention to our Beloved. It is the graceful dance of love, where when we waltz too far away our Beloved, He comes to us with open arms to take us back. Penance is our reentering the dance.
“and man has no advantage over the beast; but all is vanity. Both go back to the same place; both were made from dust and to the dust they both return.” (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20)
“Lord, let me know my end, the number of my days, that I may learn how frail I am.” (Psalm 39:5)
Christ did not say, to “Follow me,” for us to sit out the dance. To follow is to move with him. It is not a ‘one time, stand up and say a prayer, then sit down or go elsewhere’ deal. We are truly called to follow his footsteps. To not join in the dance is our terrible loss. St. Theresa of Avila was once allowed to see and feel the place in hell she would have occupied if not for the salvation of Christ. As bad as it looked to her, it was not as horrible as the hopeless anguish it caused her soul. Yet, she counted the vision as mercy saying,
“How could I possibly take any pleasure in those things which led me directly to so dreadful a place? Blessed forever be Thou, O my God! and, oh, how manifest is it that Thou didst love me much more than I did love Thee! How often, O Lord, didst Thou save me from that fearful prison! and how I used to get back to it contrary to Thy will.” *
“Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance. For you were grieved as God willed, so that you didn’t experience any loss from us. For godly grief produces a repentance not to be regretted and leading to salvation.“ (2 Corinthians 7:8-10)
Like the proverbial frog in the pot, our spiral out of grace is comprised of the compromises to sin we make each day, till we reach that point of hopeless anguish. But all is not lost, as God’s mercies are new each day. He comes knocking at our door, looking to see, if you would like to dance?
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him and he with me.” (Revelations 3:20)
- “The life of St. Teresa of Jesus of the order of Our Lady of Carmel”, 1916
by Saint Teresa of Avila, Reverend Benedict Zimmerman O. C. D.