I think one of the worst near occasions for sin for me comes whenever I’m nearing the end of my turn in the confessional. I’ve disclosed my sins (some of them easily, some of them blurted out quickly, as though that lessens their gravity) and then the priest assigns me penance.
Unfortunately, my kneejerk reaction is usually, “That’s it?!?”
When a priest assigns me only a few prayer, or a spot of silent meditation, I feel like I’m getting away with something. Surely he could come up with something a bit more burdensome or unpleasant, so I feel like I’m holding up my end of the bargain?
But, of course, I am getting away with something. That’s what grace is. A priest could tell me to say dozens of Hail Marys, and I’d have done almost nothing to dispel the harm that my sin did to me and to the people around me.
My penance isn’t exchanged for my absolution. It’s a way of saying thank you for the gift of my forgiveness and mending and is about as inadequate as a “That’s very generous” is for the donation of a kidney. Christ has already healed and protected me, through His sacrifice, so penance is a way to say Amen to that extravagant gift, and to ask him to stay with me and keep me from flinching away from his love.
And, to be honest, when I bite back an “Anything else?” in the confessional, flinching is exactly what I’m doing. In that moment, I want to be good by my own efforts, alone more than I just want to be good.
When I think of asking, “What else can I do?” I know there’s an answer that’s already been offered, first to a scribe, and, always, to me: “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength… and love thy neighbour as thyself.” So there’s little reason to turn up my nose at a light penance when I keep struggling to keep to the larger responsibility I’ve been offered. I can just tamp down my impatience again, and add it to the list of things I’d like God’s help with.