On Penance and Prayer

My mother had a friend ask how prayers given in confession could be considered penance. I wrote this up and figured it might do good to have it floating around in space. A thought-starter if nothing else.


When we think of penance, we often first think of “something I don’t like.” We’ve been conditioned to believe that penance, for it to be penance, must be something we don’t like. For those with a philosophical background, this is the legacy of (an arguably degenerate) Kantian Ethics, a predominant secular ethical theory of the last centuries.

In truth, penance is first and foremost about the restoration of justice, the making up of some wrong. This need not be an unpleasant experience. In fact, the heart which is truly formed in the Good will find the restoration of justice to be a delightful experience. This is the experience of absentmindedly bumping someone in the hallway and, in penance, helping them pick up the things they dropped – one, if he is good, does so joyfully even as he apologizes in sorrow.

Penance can be, secondarily, painful because it involves the reorienting of our self away from a sin to which we are attached. If we steal a book, returning it is penance. The restoration of justice entailed in the act should be a pleasant experience, but for the thief habituated (attached) to fulfilling his desires indiscriminately it will be painful. For one who is attached to any sin, the detachment will be painful. Those who have gone through this effort (the Saints and holy men and women of the Church) will affirm the sweetness of it – though usually only after the fact and a time of great pain.

The penances we are given after confession must be understood in this context. Often we are given prayers. These need not be painful or unpleasant, especially for those making good regular confessions. Each prayer is an offer for one to move deeper into conversion to Christ, to participate in Christ and the Church’s restoration of eschatological justice, justice involving not just the here and now but all things.

While it is imprudent to do so without guidance from a Spiritual Director, one may take on more “unpleasant” penances for a variety of integrated reasons – detachment from sin, reparation for sin, union with Christ. These, though, to be truly perfect, must be experienced as sweet. The Saints who took on such penances did not complain of them and were not repulsed by them. They had achieved a sanctity which allowed whatever was distasteful in these penances to be overshadowed by the great sweetness of seeking out God through them. Again, such actions, under ordinary circumstances, should not be taken on save under Spiritual Direction.

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About Tomas

Catholic. Texan. Philistine. Teacher.
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