For millenia, people of faith have been practicing penitence. Some of the oldest texts in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures talk about it.1 For those of us in liturgical Christian communities,2 the forty days leading up the the celebration of Easter is known as “Lent” or “The Great Lent” and has traditionally been a penitential season. From earliest times, Christian believers have been encouraged to embrace penitential practices such as prayer, fasting, abstinence from meat, self-denial and other ascetic practices. Like many young Christians, I did my best to follow the rules and “give something up” for Lent, mainly out of fear of doing something “wrong.” Even now, many years later, not keeping Lent in the traditional way makes me feel uneasy. At the same time, these feelings have a really positive impact on me — they make me pause to examine my behavior to make sure that whatever I’m doing is done mindfully.
So what about doing penance? What is it? Why should I be doing it? What should I be doing? As usual, I want to go back to the origins of the concept by stripping away all the centuries of accretions that have made it what it is today. Is it, in fact, meaningful, or is it just something we do because we’ve always done it that way? Are we deriving the benefit that came from the original insight, or are we just going through the motions (some of which may be meaningless at best or, even worse, have become contrary to the original purpose)?
The current name, ‘Penitence’ comes from the Roman legal system, where poena was the ‘penalty’ or ‘punishment’ that had to be paid for the commission of a dēlictum or ‘delict’ (a “fault”, “crime” or “offense”). We find the Latin term in our English words “penitence”, “penitentiary”, “penance”, “repentance” and even “subpoena.” There are two ways of looking at penitence that we can take from its original meaning: 1) paying the price or making up for a crime, or 2) making a correction to a pattern of wrong behavior. As an adult, I whole-heartedly choose the latter meaning, while traditional writings and teachings strongly prefer the former. I have some pretty strong feelings about why looking at penitence as a penalty is just wrong from a faith perspective.
I’m not going to get into the topic of sin today, although my intention is to spend several discourses on the subject. I’ll only say here that it’s probably the single most misunderstood topic among Christians, and when people get off-base about the nature of sin and evil, then all of Christian teaching becomes so warped as to be unrecognizable from the perspective of the original insights. What I will say here is that ‘sin’ is the deliberate choice of a lesser good (when a greater good is an option) and that humanity, left to its own devices (born of fear and selfishness), continually flirts with disaster. The human race itself suffers from a fatal flaw that affects all of us to some extent.
So, what about penance? Some believe that “doing penance” is all about being punished for being bad. That’s assuming that we (and by inference God) is operating at the very lowest level of the Kohlberg stages of moral development. Let’s hope that’s not the case. Others approach penance as a sort of pay-back for an unpaid debt that we incurred when we did wrong (or worse — made a mistake)3 That’s a very legalistic approach. Either way, these people see penance as somehow “making up” for something. It’s not. Formal prayers in the Catholic tradition are particularly bad about talking about the “punishment due to sin.” That implies that if you don’t make up for stuff you did, God will make sure you do later on. Ugh. No wonder so many Christians believe in a punishing — rather than a loving — God.
Another misuse of penitence is random self-denial, for all intents and purposes, to check off a box just to say you got it done. That’s like giving up chocolate or TV or booze or sex “for Lent.” Outside of saying they did it, I’m not at all sure what benefit people gain by giving up something they especially like for Lent. Is it payback for sins? Or, is it some sort of asceticism to somehow strengthen one’s moral “muscles”? Even so, shouldn’t self-denial have some purpose outside of itself?
Here’s my take on penitence and penance. I am overawed when I realize that every decision I make throughout my day and throughout my life has cosmic consequences. As a conscious being capable of free decision-making, my choices change the course of history and make the universe a different place. There is no way that I can adequately assess how far-reaching the effects of my decisions may be. Because for the full extent of my life I’m stuck in the forward flow of time, I can never go back and “unmake” a bad decision. Looking forward, toward the future, every decision that I make creates a new future for me. I’m “piloting” the spaceship of my life through mainly uncharted territories with only a variable moral compass to guide me. I must constantly correct my navigation, because I find myself flying off in directions where I don’t want to go for a variety of reasons: I may be headed for disappointment or pain; I may be hurting another or doing damage to a relationship; or, I may be unhappy or watching myself becoming someone I’d rather not be.
My “course corrections” involve, first of all, ascetic practices that help to keep in check my self-centered fear. My program of recovery calls it “contrary action” — setting aside my fearful reluctance and doing exactly those things I least want to do because I am convinced that my instincts are misaligned with my destiny. My way just won’t get me there. I recognize that I need to keep in check what the Course in Miracles4 calls the “ego” — a little fearful thought that I might not get what I want. Contradicting my ego helps me to appreciate how it lies to me and tries to keep me from growing. If I’m honest about it, the ego that I constantly fight against ultimately wants me dead. So I get up early; I meditate nearly every morning; I say morning and evening prayers; I work out at the gym two or three times a week. I do my cardio routine after every workout. I watch my diet very carefully: no red meat, no simple sugars, strictly limited carbs. I speak up when I don’t feel like it. I write even when it’s inconvenient. I also go barefoot nearly all the time in all kinds of weather — I don’t have to dislike every ascetic practice — because it keeps me spiritually grounded (and feels amazing).
But penitence is more than just asceticism. Penitence is about making life corrections. I practice the 12 steps that have been adopted by many drug and alcohol recovery programs, because, according to the experts whom I trust the most, addiction is fundamentally a spiritual disease. Steps 4-12 define penance for me. In simplest terms, it means taking personal inventory on a regular basis and when I’m wrong, promptly admitting it, connecting my missteps to deeper character defects in my personality and asking God to remove them from me, making amends whenever it would not injure me or another, and bringing my spiritual mindfulness into all my dealings, day in and day out. This is a constant cycle for me, very similar to the cycle of continuous quality improvement: plan, do, check, act.5 This can’t be a seasonal thing; in its essence, it’s a lifelong process.
What about Lent, then? Since penitential course-correction is a part of my every-day living, why do I need a penitential season? In 12-step recovery, you often hear about people taking a whole-life inventory and sharing their faults and failings with another (steps 4 and 5) again and again. We talk about “peeling the onion,” because every time we review the entire course of our lives, new insights arise that deepen our experience and give us more understanding — making us better able to make good choices going forward. Lent should be a time for deepening mindfulness: looking at our life goals and making adjustments to our ascetic practices so that we can be better aligned with them. Human lives tend to be garbage collectors of all sorts of detritus we’ve generated by our missteps, our selfishness, our cowardice, or just plain laziness. It’s time to take out the garbage. In plain terms, “we have sinned in thought, word, and deed; in what we have done and what we have failed to do.”6 Lent is the time when I take my eyes off the road ahead, just for a brief moment, and glance over to the GPS to see if I’m still on track for my destination and make the necessary corrections before I get too far afield.
Yes, I still feel some pangs of guilt because I’m not “giving something up for Lent.” Instead, I’m focusing my energies on a penitence that produces a course correction — no matter how slight — in my life’s trajectory. It’s part of the price I gladly pay for being a conscious, committed adult, free to go beyond the letter to the spirit of the law and of the Lenten season.
To my readers (both of you!): I have divided my posts up into three major categories: “Discourses”, “Commentaries” and “Reflections.” Each of these is a different kind of post: what I call a “Discourse” is my way of discussing a particular topic; a “Commentary” will be my comments on a particular quoted passage that I want to go deeper into; and, finally, a “Reflection” is what happens when I’m just thinking about how something (an event, a topic, or something I read) affects me personally. I’ve indicated these major categories of postings by putting an asterisk (*) in the category name. Here’s another “Reflection.” Enjoy!
2Literally ‘people’s work’ — meaning a community’s regular cycle of celebrations that are tracked on a separate “liturgical calendar” (which may or may not coincide with the calendar year) and involve modes of celebration that the community prescribes for itself. Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter are four major seasons in the Christian liturgical calendar.
3Sadly, some people still equate making a mistake (inadvertently doing something that violates some law, rule, or principle) with “sin.” Sin, by definition, is deliberate, a mistake is certainly inadvertent.
4A Course in Miracles (also referred to as ACIM or the Course) is a book written and edited by Helen Schucman, with portions transcribed and edited by William Thetford, containing a self-study curriculum of spiritual transformation.
5Ascribed to W. Edwards Deming, but really traceable back to the scientific method, as developed from the work of Francis Bacon (Novum Organum, 1620). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PDCA.
6From the prayer known as the Confiteor: “quia pecavi nimis cogitatione, verbo, opere et omissione.”