Repent, repent, repent!
Fr Aleksander Radecki
Proposing repentance as the theme of our reflection I do not mean the sacrament of reconciliation (penance) but the virtue of penance. However, all things show that we, believers, need to consult the Dictionary of Foreign Words, in particular the entry 'penance.' The very sound of the word evokes horror and the worst possible associations.
Repentance? At the beginning of our proud age? It means some return to the Middle Ages. What for and for whom should repentance serve?
Let us try to deepen this Lenten theme.
In the early ages repentance was thought to be a compensatory virtue (make satisfaction to God for the injustice of sins) and it was strictly related to justice; today we perceive penance with reference to love. An expression of the attitude of penance in the Old Testament was the liturgy of penance (often called fast), which was to be an external expression of people's conversion. It was celebrated in special situations (drought, hunger, plague, war, destruction of a city or the temple) or on special days (the Day of Atonement, the destruction of the Temple). The course of the liturgy, celebrated by priests, looked differently and among other things it included strict fast, taking off and tearing the garments, putting on sackcloth, cutting hair, cutting the skin, laying on the bare ground, throwing dust over the head, offering sacrifices. An essential element of the liturgy was also 'cry before Yahweh', strengthened by blowing the trumpets. People confessed their sins, sang penitential litanies, listened to prophets' or priests' sermons. The liturgy ended with a song of thanksgiving sung by the whole community.
The Old Testament gave us a rich treasury of lamentations that is psalms of penitence, which became the prayer of believers of all times. These are especially Psalms 6, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143.
The prophets were great realists when they called to radical change of life and they demanded conversion of the hearts and not only the external attitude. Isaiah clearly showed why God did not accept repentance and prayers of his fellow countrymen, 'Look, you do business on your fastdays, you oppress all your workmen; look, you quarrel and squabble when you fast and strike the poor man with your fist. Fasting like yours today will never make your voice heard on high. Is that the sort of fast that pleases me, a truly penitential day for men? Hanging your head like a reed, lying down a sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call fasting, a day acceptable to Yahweh? Is not this the sort of fast that pleases me - it is the Lord Yahweh who speaks - to break unjust fetters and undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke, to share your bread with the hungry, and shelter the homeless poor, to clothe the man you see to be naked and not turn from your own kin? (58:3-7). And it is worth reading in Isaiah about the promises that God gives to the men of true penance and about the extraordinary fruits of inner righteousness of the converted man.
The words of the prophet Joel summarise the teaching on repentance, 'Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn, turn to Yahweh your God again, for he is all tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness, and ready to relent' (2:13). This challenge remains valid today although we should also be reminded of external practices, which are unfortunately commonly rejected.
The process of man's conversion must happen every day and the way towards this task shows, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the following practices: the Eucharist, reading Sacred Scripture, praying the Liturgy of the Hours, 'Our Father' and all sincere acts of worship and devotion. Then we should mention: gestures of reconciliation, concern for the poor, the exercise and defense of justice and right by the admission of faults to one's brethren, fraternal correction, revision of life, examination of conscience, spiritual direction, acceptance of suffering, endurance of persecution for the sake of righteousness. In turn the external signs of penance and conversion can be: fast, prayer and almsgiving; Baptism or martyrdom they cite as means of obtaining forgiveness of sins: effort at reconciliation with one's neighbour, tears of repentance, concern for the salvation of one's neighbour, the intercession of the saints, and the practice of charity. Days of penance encourage believers to 'spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works)' (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1435-1438).
Essence of penance
According to Marek Chmielewski (Lexicon of Catholic Spirituality) penance is a constant interior attitude of man, meaning moral and religious approach to sin. This moral ability makes man feel spiritual pain because of evil and insult to God.
Therefore, the essence of penance is conversion that assumes making satisfaction for sins to God and your neighbour. This virtue contains communal and individual dimensions: the whole community of the Church is called to penance, especially in the appropriate times and forms: Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord, penitential practices (1438), but also every Christian should assume this attitude in his personal life.
'Practical Biblical Dictionary' (edited by Anton Grabner-Haider) focuses on conversion (Greek metanoia) as God's grace that enables man to do acts of penance and as people's obligation. Both the teachings of the prophets and the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church 'do not aim first at outward works, 'sackcloth and ashes,' fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false' (1430). 'Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one's life, with hope in God's mercy and trust in the help of his grace. This conversion of heart is accompanied by a salutary pain and sadness which the Fathers called animi cruciatus (affliction of spirit) and compunctio cordis (repentance of heart' (1431).
Penance lets us preserve a proper attitude towards the earthy things, protects us from excessive consumerism and desires to use others; therefore, it has irreplaceable therapeutic-educational value. Because of this penance should be at the foundation of spiritual formation of Christians but also should be the programme and summery of the whole Christian life. Will there be brave and mature parents, teachers and educators to realise this programme for children and young people? Will we muster our courage to lay down requirements even when other people do not demand them from us?
Therefore, the fruit of penance is a simple, beautiful, calm life that is free from any addiction and can be sacrifice for God and people. And how can this be done when the problem is so gigantic and the consequences of the original sin are evident at every step? The simplest way is to begin with yourself, and to do it in a concrete way just now.