The Benefits of Penance

Author: Apostleship of Prayer


Penance and all the words which express the various ways of practicing it, humiliation, self-denial, mortification, are among the hard sayings of the Gospel which few can endure. Its evils, as most people view it, are better known than its benefits. It is not commonly regarded as essential to religion. Not even all who deem an interior spirit of penance necessary for salvation approve of. its external observances of watching, fasting, abstinence, which, howsoever suited to other times, are not considered to be in keeping with the ideas and ways of our modern life. They are associated with the fanaticism of the Pharisees, the disorders of the Montanists, the excesses of the Flagellants, the delusions of every form of a false mysticism. Even a St. Jerome, we are told, would, if living in our day, mitigate the rigor of his penances and choose some other means of acquiring sanctity. The leniency of the ecclesiastical authorities in dispensing from prescribed abstinences and fasts is misconstrued into an admission on the part of the Church that penance, in its external practice at least, is not now and perhaps never was, so very necessary for a Christian life. At most it is a virtue of necessity, never to be practiced voluntarily, but only under compulsion.

Now, it commonly happens that those who reject the hard sayings of the Gospel delude themselves with foolish theories instead. So they let their imaginations run on the hardships and abuses of a practice which, when properly regulated, is altogether salutary and reasonable. In vain they strive to frame a religion for our present state, which excludes penance, exterior as well as interior, from its essential requisites. A virtue it surely is, to some extent a virtue of necessity, it is true, but one which has strong incentives and rewards for its voluntary exercise. It is really a part of the virtue of justice, disposing us to make good or repair the injury we have done to God by sin, by bewailing its malice, suffering its penalties and taking every effective measure to avoid it in future. Surely religion, which is man's union with God, must include among its requisites the virtue which restores that union when severed, and at the same time, to effect this union is not the least of the benefits of penance. Instead, therefore, of regarding penance as a virtue of necessity, it were wiser and more grateful on our part to deem it a boon of God's mercy and not to be content with suffering the penalties we cannot avoid, but to impose on ourselves others of our own choice, or at least to accept voluntarily what proper authority may prescribe for us.

We cannot avoid our share in the evils of the sin of Adam and Eve. As a result of that sin want and sorrow and tears, sickness, infirmity and death are our lot and our inheritance. Whether men read Scripture as a divine revelation or as an outworn fable, the stern fact is there, that cursed is the earth in our work, that with labor and toil we eat thereof all the days of our life, that thorns and thistles are brought forth to us, and that we eat the herbs of the earth. Strive as we may to evade the curse, cunningly and successfully as we may seem to master the forces of nature so as to make every creature contribute to said at Mass during Lent, "it ennobles our minds, and gives us strength and rewards." To continue in the language used at other times in Lent, penance is ordained" to gladden us with a holy earnestness, so that as earthly attractions grow dim, things heavenly may grow clearer." It is not surprising, therefore, to read in the prayer at Mass on Ash-Wednesday the petition that we may enter with due dispositions this worshipful and solemn Fast.

It is truly a worshipful and solemn institution in the Church, the fast of Lent and the fasts and abstinences at other seasons also, prescribed as they are with the motive of making us imitate Christ in His fast in the desert for forty days, of inciting us to the practice of voluntary penance after the heroic models of the Saints who, like St. Aloysius little needed their severe penances for their own sins, of making us eager to obtain the mastery of ourselves, the contempt for material conveniences and pleasures, the high estimate of spiritual joy and of heavenly prospects, which alone can support us in the trials that come upon us in this life. Hence, no matter how the Church may accommodate its laws to our weakness and necessities, no matter how unable we may be to comply with her laws of fasting and of abstinence, we should never lose the spirit of penance, but pray for the strength and courage to practice it, in order to experience its benefits.

Taken from "The Messenger", Volume I, Fifth Series, 1902, published by the Apostleship of Prayer.

Copyright (c) 1997 EWTN Online Services.