As a convert I think it’s highly likely that I just don’t “get” penance in the Catholic sense. Whatever the priest tells me to do as a penance in confession, I do. I don’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent. If the American Bishops decide that we should return to meatless Fridays all year round, I’ll do that, too.
But so far as I’m concerned, penance is an adjunct to conversion, not the cause of it. What I mean is that penance comes about almost naturally from a changed life, and a changed life is the inevitable result of genuine conversion from the heart. Is it a more signatory penance to eat a grilled cheese sandwich rather than a roast beef sandwich on Fridays or to give up your friends who cannot accept your stands on moral issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage?
I can tell you from personal experience that losing the people you love because they will not accept you as your conversion to Christ has made you is enduring and genuine grief. It hurts all the way through and the pain does not stop in a day or an hour or even, perhaps, a lifetime. The grilled cheese sandwich, on the other hand, does not even sting. It is, at most, a discipline.
If the bishops decide that such discipline is necessary and useful, I not only will follow it, I will trust that they know what they are doing and that it is, indeed, salutary. But it seems to me that such penances are only really effective if they lead to a deeper and more absolute conversion of the heart.
Jesus doesn’t just ask that we follow the rules, although He never abrogated following the rules. He asks that we live a life-giving Gospel of light, love and fidelity, and that we live it to the death, if need be.
Christians today must decide who they will follow. Will they follow the ever-expanding nihilism of the larger culture, or will they follow Christ? This is no longer a hypothetical for most Christians. It is the pressing reality of their walk of faith. It can cut to the core of who you are. It asks you to follow Jesus even if your friends turn on you and become your enemies for doing so. It asks you to stay the course of true discipleship no matter where it leads you or what it costs.
It is my theory that following Jesus in this hostile world will send you enough penance to scour you clean if you can just accept it. The trouble is that these conversion-caused penances are painful almost beyond enduring. Everyone wants to run away from them. I certainly did and I certainly have. We all would like to slide by and live out a discipleship without cost.
But the devil will always make you choose. Those who do not follow Christ will turn on you and attack you and refuse to accept you. They will rip and tear at the fabric of friendships that have withstood decades, all in the name of pushing you to choose either them or Christ.
I’ve tried to find a way out of it, but I no longer believe there is one. You must, ultimately, decide who you will follow. And you must pay the penance that choosing Christ exacts of you.
To the extent that meatless Fridays prepares us for the greater penances we must pay for choosing Christ in this increasingly pagan world, it is a wonderful discipline. But if we do it mindlessly and resentfully, it will not build the strength in us that we will need to stand for Jesus in the coming days. Discipline of this type is always a practice for the real penances of life that can not be avoided and which, if we try to shoulder them alone, will break us.
On the other hand, if we are willing to accept the love and help God offers us in the face of the deep hurt of lost friendships, the pain and the isolation will make us stronger, more committed Christians. In time, it may allow God to fashion us into someone He can actually use to play a small part in His redemptive work in this world.
Click here throughout the Year of Faith, as the Catholic Channel at Patheos.com invites Catholics of every age and stripe to share what they are gleaning and carrying away from this gift of timely focus.