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franciscan - January 1999

© Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 1998

The Practice of Penitence

by John Townroe

‘Each age makes bonfires of the last age's ideals.’ So wrote George Congreve, a Cowley Father, in 1890. Penitence – or the practice of penitence – is one of many Christian ideals that is passing through the fires of doubt and uncertainty. The outcome remains to be seen. If the result is to be refining, a greater effort is needed in the Churches to work towards a fresh understanding of repentance.

I should like to ask every reader of franciscan to reflect on what they were taught about penitence when they were prepared for Confirmation and subsequently. Repentance, self-examination, sorrow for sin, confession in one form or another, forgiveness, self-discipline, resolve to amend: what (we might ask ourselves) was I taught about these things? What did I pick up as I went along? What attitudes were formed in me? Has later experience changed my outlook and my practice? If so, why has it, and can I gain from this any clues for further development?

If it were possible for readers' reactions to be gathered and collated, some useful guide-lines might appear. When I tried to answer the questions, I looked back and re-read the devotional manual I was given at Confirmation. I found lengthy ‘Penitential Devotions.’ But I also found something which I had forgotten. In front of a detailed confession of sins (drawn from The Imitation of Christ) appeared these words: ‘Then say the following, leaving out any parts which are not real to you.’ What liberating advice! Here is at least one good guide-line for the practice of penitence: go for whatever is real to you. Unreality is death to the spirit.
Next, if we begin with what is immediately real to us, we had better not expect to stop there. For penitence is not a fixed state, but a developing attitude. Repentance means a change of mind – metanoia in the Gospels – and it takes time. Most mind-sets require a great deal of shifting. But the process has to begin somewhere, and it does not usually begin with a pure love for God. It generally starts with self-concern.

Self-concern is not the highest motive, but it is real. It is also effective. The point can be seen in the parable of the prodigal son in St Luke's Gospel. The prodigal became worried about himself. He was starving. His first thought was that he was being stupid. He was going hungry in a foreign country when he could go home and find food. This was ‘the most real thing’ to him at that moment, and it spurred him to get going in the right direction.

Stupidity, folly, self-destructiveness as well as sheer wickedness: these are the terms in which the Gospels see sin. To recognise how much we are losing by our folly is not a bad base-line for penitence. The motive may be low on the scale of virtue, but a low motive is not the same as a vicious motive.

However, repentance is on-going and develops by practice. The prodigal takes further steps in the right direction when he names his folly, recognises where he needs to go, and crosses the line from an entirely self-centred concern into a personal relationship with the Father. This is done very simply. It is done by speaking. He spoke to the Father. Similarly, penitence is deepened in everyone when we learn to open our grief to the mysterious Other, and stammer out our confused mixture of sorrow and longing.
Crossing the line from the personal to the interpersonal is of the essence of a deepening penitence. Most of us begin and continue in self-centredness. But by ‘Love unknown’ we are drawn towards the personal Saviour. Self-concern is real, yet how much more blazingly real becomes the love of Christ!

For some people the practice of penitence may become more difficult, not less, as they go on. At first, the moral issues may be stark and obvious, such as Good or Evil, Light or Darkness, Obedience or Deviation. Then the complexities may appear – the grey areas in behaviour, and the mix-ups in the human heart. Confused emotions, paradoxical feelings, doubtful motivations may make it difficult to be as straightforwardly penitent as in the past. This is where people find themselves locked in a hard fight, intellectual as well as moral. They have to keep going and not be discouraged by a disconcerting kind of mental fog where they had expected everything to become clearer. Strenuous thinking is needed, and a ‘pain in the mind’ suffered. Getting through the moral maze is hard, and at the end of it they may be able to offer God only a jumble of materials and say, ‘Lord, have mercy.’

In all these matters we may need the help of someone else who is able to keep us moving in the right direction. This is true also in seeking to discern in ourselves the difference between neurotic and authentic guilt, that is, between seeing sin where there is no sin (usually driven by fear), and a healthy recognition of responsibility for having done what we knew to be wrong.

Another common difficulty can arise at a church service when the congregation may be asked to join in a confession of sins. Some people at that moment honestly cannot find any actual recent sins to confess. Their mind goes blank. Yes, they may have a general sense of falling short. But that is not the same as actual sin, if that means a deliberate turning away from God and his will as they know it. So they become distressed. They feel guilty for not being able to find material to be guilty about!

What are we supposed to do if caught in this predicament? One answer is that we can at least offer to God that general sense of falling short of what might be, which cries out for the divine mercy. But I wonder whether there is another issue here. Has the Church got the balance of expectation right? Should we expect to be committing actual sins more or less all the time? Should we not rather expect to be upheld by the power of grace and the Holy Spirit, so that imperfect though we still are, we are kept from deliberate turning away from God?

The early Church seems to have had a different expectation from ours, and a more hopeful outlook. ‘My grace is sufficient for you’ (2 Corinthians 12.9). True, the Church soon had a nasty shock when it had to face the fact of post-baptismal sin. It was compelled to devise a system of penance to cope with the situation. The balance of expectation inevitably shifted in the process. But I still press the question for today: does the balance need to be readjusted in favour of expecting grace to triumph in our lives? Are the key-notes of the Gospel sounding strongly enough in our personal and corporate practice of penitence?

The major key-notes of the New Testament which should resound in our practice are the victory of God in Christ over sin and death, on the Cross and at the Resurrection; and the consequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit to empower all believers in Christ to resist sin and overcome evil with good.

Therefore, I believe it would be more in keeping with the spirit of the Gospel if, when we are stumped for finding new sins to confess, we were quick to thank God for seeing us through and saving us. Give thanks, carry on, expect Christ to stay with us and hold us on course – why not? And why not provide some expression of this in our liturgies? Could we not be given some opportunity in the penitential section of the liturgy to give thanks for the triumph of God's grace in our weakness? I hope our liturgists will be giving thought to this.

What are the marks of the truly penitent? One mark is an absence of fuss about their failures. They are more interested in what God can create from acknowledged failure. A second is a refusal to be discouraged even by their serious lapses. A third is that they do not go back remorsefully to moan over the past once they have asked for God's forgiveness. ‘Ask . . . and receive.’ A fourth is a liveliness, a spiritedness, because the well-springs of life within them have been released. A fifth is confidence because they have discovered that Christ is reliable whereas they themselves are not. How quickly he raises them up after a fall when they turn to him in penitence! A sixth is the humble awareness of living always under the Divine Mercy. As one person described it, it is ‘knowing that my state is ever and always one that calls for mercy.’ A seventh is looking more at God and the signs of the Kingdom than at themselves. They look up more than down. This gives them an orientation towards the future.

The truly penitent are content to leave it to God to make them whole eventually. They see that their healing is but a tiny part of the New Creation in Christ. Their healing or perfecting will only be complete within the greater Whole, when God shall be all in all and when the Kingdom shall come in fullness. Happy are those who leave it at that! §


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