Repentance & Penitence
Penitence is not about punishment. It’s about repentance. To repent is to turn around and go back to God. Sin is separation from God, so repentance is about making a different choice – a choice to turn back to God.
It may be helpful to do as the ancient Christians did, and think about this not so much in terms of particular attitudes of sin, but rather in their opposing virtues. Then we can cultivate practices or healing actions that enable those virtues to help us turn around yet again.
• Humility vs Pride
o Humility is not humiliation, not about being a doormat. Instead, humility is about coming to have a true picture of ourselves, about acknowledging what truly is. It helps us sort out what is and is not ours. We all have gifts as well as characteristics that aren’t so helpful. With God’s help, we can look equally at everything, and be healed and ready to use our gifts for the good of all.
• Kindness vs Envy
o Envy stems from the belief that if only we have what someone else has, we’ll be complete. It puts us in competition with other people, and separates us from them, all the while in pursuit of something that can’t complete us anyway. Kindness, on the other hand, is unselfish movement toward relationship.
• Mindfulness vs Gluttony
o Gluttony is ultimately about using something for the avoidance of feelings, particularly feelings of emptiness. Like envy, it seeks fulfillment from things that cannot fulfill. The practice of mindfulness, or presence to what is before us in the moment, leads us out of fantasies and addictions, and into the reality of God’s presence with us.
• Hospitality vs Lust
o Lust is usually understood as something sexual, but it is really a seeking after one’s own gratification without regard for another. It can take many forms. Its opposing virtue, hospitality, makes space for another on the basis of their need, not mine. It is, like all the virtues, ordered toward relationship rather than separation.
• Patience vs Anger
o Anger is a reaction to pain or hurt. In situations of danger or injustice it can be a good thing. It becomes a problem when we assume something about a situation that may not actually be true, and react to it angrily in order to push away our own pain. Its opposite virtue, patience, teaches us to approach a situation deliberately and slowly, checking out our own perceptions and emotions deciding how to react.
• Generosity vs Greed
o Greed stems from the fear that there is not enough whatever – love? food? money? attention? – and that it is up to us to gather it up and hoard it in the mistaken belief that it will shield us from uncertainty or calamity. Generosity, on the other hand, is an attitude of trust in God’s providence that frees us to give ourselves and what we hold –which is all from God anyway – away without fear.
• Diligence vs Sloth
o Sloth, sometimes called by the name acedia, is a sickness of the spirit that can render us unable to take purposive action. It is akin to despair, a kind of deep-down boredom with life that can become quite bleak. Its opposing virtue, diligence, is simply the practice of doing the next right thing, whatever that is. The ancient Christians prescribed manual labor as a remedy for sloth, because it has a beginning and an end, and involves the whole body in needed work. There’s always something that needs doing. Diligence calls us in the direction of paying attention to what is around us, and tending to it as we are able.
We tend to think that changed attitudes precede changed behaviors, but in fact the opposite is more usually the case. We grow into new attitudes by practicing new behaviors even when our feelings don’t always match. (Feelings are important information and must, if we are to be healthy, be acknowledged and examined. But our feelings ought never to be our only guide to action.) Repentance is an ongoing practice that occurs daily, or even minute by minute in some situations. If accompanied by prayer – even just a little prayer like, “God, help me!” or “Guide me!” – it can become a habit. Keep in mind that perfection is a process, never a destination.
God is the destination.
Here is a prayer you might choose to pray daily, alone or with others, as you journey.
Accept our repentance, O God, for the wrongs we have done:
• for our blindness to human need and suffering
• our indifference to injustice and cruelty
• for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us
• for our waste and pollution of your creation
• for our lack of concern for those who come after us
As you pray this, stop to ponder how each section may manifest itself in your life today. You may find that you are good at paying attention to and taking action around some of the things on the list. Take a moment to thank God for giving you those good impulses, and ask God for continuing guidance.
If you notice something lacking, try to think of one thing you might practice today that would be a turning-around or repentant action. Perhaps you could turn around some indifference by writing a letter to a legislator about an injustice that needs addressing. Or counter waste and pollution by turning off the water while you brush your teeth. As you pray, ask God to help you become aware of what to look for, and to guide your actions in response.
So act, good Jesus,
that in my relationships with whatever neighbor
and in all I do for the furthering of God’s glory,
I form myself on Your pattern:
that I be a genuine reflection of your moderation, gentleness, humility, patience, graciousness and tireless zeal,
in a word, of all Your virtues;
and in order to write them in my soul,
live eternally in me.
–Jean-Pierre Médaille SJ