Penance and the Last Judgment
All serious human endeavor demands self-restraint and self-sacrifice. Scientists deny themselves leisure and even food to keep concentrated. Athletes submit themselves to an iron regimen, year after year. Musicians determinedly practice hours each day. In somewhat this same way, those who enter seriously onto a quest for spiritual integrity and for a mature knowledge of and love for God practice self-restraint and self-sacrifice.
The Church's tradition goes back to Jesus' own life and even beyond that into the life of the People of God. Fasting, keeping long silences, refraining from celebrating, attending to communal prayers, avoiding this or that food or drink ? these all come down to us from the People's practice thousands of years ago, certified by Jesus in His own life.
Note about penances that some times and periods call for them and some make them inappropriate. We wisely keep a diet during Lent; we are up to something odd when we resolutely fast during Christmas dinner.
During the Ignatian Exercises, most of us find penances very appropriate when we are praying over sin and disorder and suffering.
About penitential practices themselves: All things considered, we ought to do those things that truly reach into our ordinary way of acting and into our real desiring, so that we are truly enacting our neediness. Putting aside alcohol or caffeine for a time are true penances for the addicted. Getting in a daily fixed time of energetic walking is true penance for the lazy.
We probably should suspect our motivation should we enter onto penances that do us physical harm, or that make us something of a spectacle. What goes on when a person eats like a bulimic? Or when a person crops head hair so that it looks like a punk? Better to keep moderation and privacy in our penances.
Keep in mind that positive practices, doing good things in place of less?good things, make excellent penance. Read an article instead of watching a soap opera. Take time to keep a desk visibly ordered. Make phone calls to friends instead of sitting still gazing into the middle distance.
Carefully interpret the demands made by ordinary life. We can reasonably see them as penances, as freely chosen self-restraint and self-denial. Parents, for example, practice these constantly in order to rear their children. Office workers have to deny themselves continually, giving their attention to the others who need it right now and patiently wading through paperwork and dull figures. We used to talk about "offering it up"; we can still interpret the demands of our life world as true penances.
We tend to think that we can give ourselves to penances for three reasons:
1. First, to make up in our whole selves for the disorders and affronts of our sins before God. This is doing penance for our sins.
2. Second, to take steps to put balance into our acting and desiring, so that we are not led around by mindless habit or culture-determined desire. This means self-restraint and self-discipline.
3. Third, we do penance as a way of praying and asking God for what we want with our whole self, not just with our mind or lips. This enacts our neediness and moves God to succor us.
After preparing the scripture text, and then beginning the prayer time as I always do, I lip?read the text or read it softly aloud. I may find it useful to jot down words or phrases then, and to consider them in turn. Or I may find it more useful to let my fantasy take me into the scene, and contemplate the future events.
And then I consider my own self, and how this applies to me.