Peace in Penance

Peace in Penance

“The time of penance has come, the time to atone for our sins and seek our salvation.”

I like to assign myself copywork appropriate to the liturgical season. I make it beautiful with my calligraphy pens, illuminate it, aand then hang the verses and prayers around the house as visual reminders for us all. I think it’s good to model that copywork is a lifelong skill, to help the children to aspire to making their writing beautiful. And we can all use little prayer reminders.

This morning Anthony was reading what I’d written and misread “penance” as “peace”. And I realized that if you took out the Ns “penance” becomes “peace”. 

I shared the insight with my friend Rebecca, but without the context: “Peace is hidden in penance. Just take out the Ns.” She responded that she couldn’t decide it it was clever or trite. And I realized that, especially as I’d written it out, it did look like something that could be shared as an internet meme, complete with pretty picture background. And that framed in that way, it could indeed seem trite.

And yet to drill beyond the cleverness, there is a real insight there: that the fruit of penance is meant to be peace. Rebecca said that it would annoy in a meme, but as a secret to look for, it’s different.

Peace is a treasure hidden within penance, and perhaps it takes a seven year old who still struggles with sounding out longer words to see it. It’s curious that he’s also currently preparing for his first penance.

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On Saturday afternoon we took the whole family to church to go to confession. One child has been filled with anxiety about the sacrament and requested that insted of being forced to go during that time, I instead make an appointment with the priest for a special time slot. And I’m glad to do that and our pastor is glad to make the time for that because penance shouldn’t be fraught with anxiety, it should be an opportunity to restore peace. Not just a feeling of peace and tranquility that is the absence of anxiety, but the deep peace that is the result of being in right relation with God, the peace that Saint Paul calls “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.” (Philippians 4:7)

“Happy the man whose offense is forgiven,
whose sin is remitted.
O happy the man to whom the Lord
imputes no guilt,
in whose spirit is no guile.” (Psalm 32: 1-2)

Another child felt anxious, but it was enough to say that “I feel anxious too,” and hugs and kisses applied liberally and a hand held while walking to the confessional. I peek through the glass— a big picture window as the confessional doubles as a cry room— and watch my children’s faces as they make their confessions. Their earnest faces, so serious, so trusting. They nod, speak, listen, speak again. This is one place I cannot accompany them. They must go alone, speak to our father who hears in secret and hear the words meant for their ears only.

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Why does confession make us feel so anxious when its end result is peace? Some of it might be performance anxiety, fear of forgetting, fear of saying the wrong thing. But mainly, it’s hard to expose your soul, to put into words your greatest shame, the sins you detest, you want them to not be the things you have done. And yet there they are.

And the penance at the end, so simple, so light. It hardly seems to balance with the weight that has been lifted off my shoulders.

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“The motto was ‘Pax’ but the word was set in a circle of thorns. Pax: Peace, but what a strange peace, made of unremitting toil and effort— seldom with a seen result: subject to constant interruptions, unexpected demands, short sleep at nights, little comfort, sometimes scant food: beset with disappointments and usually misunderstood, yet peace all the same, undeviating, filled with joy and gratitude and love. ‘It is my own peace I give unto you.’ Not, notice, the world’s peace.”

—first paragraph of In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden

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But in this season of Lent when I think of penance, I think less of the sacrament of reconciliation and more of the things I give up and the things I take on. Giving up meat, sugar, snacks. Giving up Facebook, chocolate, rash words, self gratification. Take on spiritual reading, more prayer, acts of service. Spiritual housekeeping. Spring cleaning for the soul.

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“ There’s no law that you can’t adjust your personal penance mid-stream,“ Jennifer Fitz writes in a most excellent article about adjusting one’s penance: What Makes a Good Penance? 3 Tips for Mid-Lent Adjustments.

These are down-to-earth, non-nonsense guidelines for determining whether your chosen penance is realistic or whether you might have over-reached: is it consistent with your state in life, do you have room for more rigor or are you already maxed out, and are you considering real needs of yourself and your family? I especially like what she says about spur of the moment sacrifices and avoiding perfectionism.

“Only the Lent Demon Demands Perfection

It’s tempting to feel that if we don’t have a perfectly-perfect Lent, beginning at 12:00 AM Ash Wednesday, and complete with a properly sober disposition Holy Saturday and homemade bunny muffins on Easter Sunday, we’re failed Christians.  Nah.  Just not.
If you started Lent too lax, you can up your game mid-way.  If you realize you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, you can thank God for such a relatively gentle lesson in humility, then dial back the penances accordingly.  If you screw it up for three days straight, but overall you think your penance was on target, you can repent and get back on the wagon on day four.”

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