“Do you do penance?” a lady from the parish asked me as we left Mass. The question calls forth hair shirts, fasting and scourges, the shadow of a religious life imbued with mortification.As novices we become aware of our life, even of our sins, and we also live as penitents. But penance does not arise from and is not aimed at pain.
There is a penance related to sin itself: it is the situation created around and within us by our sins: anxieties, bitterness, rigidity, damaged relationships, renunciations, lost opportunities, offended dignity or health.If I have failed in a friend’s reliance on me, I will have to endure his hesitation to trust me again and that flash, however brief and hidden, of doubt in his eyes at my words. God does not add anything to punish us, he does not add a wrong from Him to the wrong we have done. Here we can experience the truth of our choices.
There is a penance linked to contrition: it does not matter how much and how many times we part ourselves from Him, when we choose the way home, God run towards us to embrace us again and renew our relationship; however, the wounds and fractures we have caused to ourselves and to our brothers and sisters and of which we are now aware remain. Repentance is industrious, it calls us to take care, to repair, to apologize, to return what we have stolen “four times as much”, even if the brothen is not willing to believe in our repentance and to forgive us. Here we can experience our responsibility.
There is a penance in order to walk in the opposite direction from what distances us from ourselves, from our brethren and from God; this commitment is called ascesis or, ignatianly, agere contra. It takes patience and perseverance to heal those habits that pollute our time and our relationships. The distinctive trait of this penance is not the pride in what we are able to impose on ourselves but the joy of living more fully. Here at the novitiate, the alarm goes off early so that we can pray before diving into the flow of the day. If I cannot get up, I do not have to give up fruit for lunch: I have to get up, every day, at the sound of the alarm clock. Here we can experience our freedom.
There is suffering for the evil of the world that those who set out on the path of the Lord experience more acutely.It is the suffering of the mother for the child who is losing their life, of the friend for a withering friend, of God, our Father and Brother, for us when we refuse His gifts: life, love, reason, freedom… In the face of evil our heart does not remain indifferent, sometimes it calls to action, even to sacrifice, sometimes it calls to closeness, patience, witness. Here we can experience the Cross and compassion.
We are always called to conversion and renewal; love, not pain, saves.