This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 24 March 2011.
A pure heart create for me, O God, put a steadfast spirit within me. — Ps. 51:12
“…May God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen. The words of forgiveness poured over me like water. The trace of the cross, the sign of my salvation, lingered in the air above me.
I walked down the hall to the dim and still chapel to complete this sacramental encounter. Kneeling, I found the psalm in my breviary that was prescribed as my penance and began to pray. Suddenly I broke into quiet laughter.
“Truly sons are a gift from the Lord” read the psalm. Truly, both of my sons are — but there are times when a reminder is in order, and this might have been one of them.
St. Gregory of Nazianzen called the sacrament of penance, “a laborious baptism.” The words of absolution spoken by my confessor were not in response to my generic opening statement, “I have sinned;” I’m human, that probably goes without saying. Absolution came only after I had brought my contrite heart to see what, specifically, I had done, after I had faced my confessor and spoken aloud the ways in which I had failed, after I had lamented how I offended God and resolved to mend my sinful ways.
It’s not a trivial undertaking — even without the penance assigned. We are asked to confess our sins in particular, so that the penance assigned can be proper, the prescription appropriate to the wound. Absolution does not wait on my making satisfaction, on doing my penance — I am forgiven the moment the formula is spoken. The satisfaction I am to make is not demanded by God as payment, but desired by God for my healing.
I find that I, too, desire this outward sign of the inward labor that brought me to seek God’s mercy. Assigned penances are a sign of God’s steadfast spirit within me. That spirit makes me just a bit more prudent and attentive. I can’t tell you how many times that line from Psalm 127 has run through my head a nanosecond before my patience with my kids might otherwise have evaporated. (I’ll also ruefully admit on many occasions the reminder materializes a few seconds too late.)
My penance reminds me, too, that sin is serious business, that God’s mercy was not gained without cost — what I have access to in confession is not cheap grace. Costly grace, as theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, goes beyond a wiping away of our sins and instead demands discipleship — a spirit willing to pick up the cross and follow Christ.
My penance is not an undoing of what was done, but an act of hope. Hope for continued healing, hope that I might always have the joy of God’s help, hope that I might draw on God’s steadfast spirit within, pick up my cross and follow. I hope you, too, might consider seeking this grace.
Father, he who knew no sin was made sin for us, to save us and restore us to your friendship. Look upon our contrite heart and afflicted spirit and heal our troubled conscience, so that in the joy and strength of the Holy Spirit we may proclaim your praise and glory before all the nations.
— Prayer after Psalm 51, Liturgy of the Hours, Friday of Week I