Thursday, March 11, 2010

On Penance and Reparation: What Luther Got Wrong

"Even now," declares the LORD, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning." ---Joel 2:12.

"Love covers a multitude of sins" (1 Pet 4:8)

Growing Into Love-Charity: The goal of penance, the Church teaches, is for us to grow in Christ, from love to yet more love-charity, all the Way to the Beatific Vision.

The teachings of the Church are beautiful here and what follows is a crude summary. When we deliberately sin (and selfishness is almost always involved) we deface the image of God in ourselves; and very often our sin hurts others as well. When by grace we come to realize what we have done, we seek to return to the Father's House. Penance is our turning back to God (Joel 2:12). It sometimes hurts, certainly not because God wishes to harm us, but because healing involves growth, growing pains; and growing often hurts; it's an existential and spiritual fact. Something is dying, and something is being born.

This kind of growing pain becomes efficacious spiritually when we voluntarily accept it. As grace moves upon the soul, we feel great sorrow (pain) for what we have done, or left undone, and seek forgiveness and reparation (1). If, however, we reject God's grace, His call to repentance, we will still very likely suffer but without merit, for sin carries its own penalty as experience teaches us. All normal human beings suffer in some degree, in some ways, especially for misdeeds. There is no escaping it. We reap what we freely sow, for good or ill.

The Good News

But St. Paul teaches us that where sin abounds grace does "much more" abound (Rom 5:20), and God is ever calling us back to be "created anew".

So if I have stolen and by grace come to regret it, I confess my sin and pay it back; or, if that is not possible, at least own up to it and accept the humiliation and penalty as penance; and in doing so I grow in this way to become a better person and heal the damage I have done to my sister or brother. Grace is not merely an extrinsic fact, but an infused healing, the sanctifying power which flows from God and makes us like Him ("partakers of the divine nature") the scriptures and saints teach (2 Pet 1:4; Eph 2:8-10). Good works are the fruit of healing grace and make us like God; they help us to grow into His love; and true love always involves a dying to selfishness, what scripture simply calls dying to "self".

Penance repairs the spiritual and existential harm we do to ourselves and to others when we sin, even as it builds up through grace the whole Mystical Body of Christ. For when we receive "healing grace" it circulates in that one Mystical Body, similar to the way the life force of a vine must circulate to all of its living branches.

Just so, the Church is united to Christ as the branch is to the Vine, Our Lord taught (Jn 15). What affects one of us affects us all.

We as members of the One Body become through grace in effect co-redeemers in Christ, which is why St. Paul could say,

"I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me. (Gal 2:20). Grace for ourselves leads to grace for others, through, with, and by the Cross of Jesus Christ.

St. Paul also wrote,

"May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God. Finally, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen." (Gal 6:14-18)

For Paul, this crucifixion with Christ showed that suffering and peace are not opposites in Christ. It was also the message of that great mystic, St. John of the Cross. In mystical reality they become one.

In Colossians 1:24, the Apostle says of redemptive suffering and this "circulation" of grace,

"Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church". (emphasis added)

Christ continues to suffer in us until the whole People of God are gathered into the Book of Life. What is "lacking" in Christ's afflictions is only His suffering in us, the sufferings of the Church, His Mystical Body, throughout time (Acts 26:14).

This was the same Paul who, conscious of personal sin, wrote,

"We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual... I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it...What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! ." (Rom 7:14-25)

Dying to the Old Man of Sin

For the Apostle, being "crucified with Christ" meant a constant dying of the "old" man of sin (Rom 6) and, though the cross, rising into the "new man" in Christ". He wrote,

"In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace." (Rom 6: 11-14)

Surely this existential-spiritual dying to self and rising into the "new man" in Christ involves the pains of growth. However it is redemptive pain which yields spiritual joy in proportion as sin in us dies. When we suffer we "break with sin," Peter says (1 Pet 4:1-3) "until Christ is formed in [us]".

Carrying Our Cross

Thus we "take up" and carry our own redemptive cross (i.e., His Cross which is redemptive in us), as Jesus said we must (Lk 9:23; Matthew 10:38; 16:24, etc), and grow in Him, learning to "walk as he walked" (1 Jn 2:6), united to His cross for the redemption of the world.

Birth Pangs

"My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you..." (Gal. 4:19)

These "birth pangs" are the blessed birth pains of spiritual growth in Christ for ourselves and others. Suffering, when offered for others, the Cross teaches, is love itself. How many sick people can enter into this love and make their plight the most precious gift! Suffering in this way mysteriously becomes spiritual joy in our deepest soul, even when we are not conscious of personal sin but only the effects of Original Sin.

Greater Love Has No Man...Suffering as Prayer

Abandonment to God's will in special acts of spiritual love, the fathers teach, can also become a penance for other imperfections---or they can be done for other persons, because the offering of suffering for others is one of the highest forms of prayer; all of this shows a heart expanded by grace; it dilates the "eyes of our understanding," (Ephesians 1:18) and renews hearts born in the newness of Love. Loving an "enemy" is hardly easy, but what fruits of grace will be born when we do. When we suffer in Christ for others (see above Col 1:24) we most resemble the Master. This is why he said "greater love has no man than to lay down His life for his friends".

Prayer and Purgatory

Prayer for others, the fathers teach, being an act of self-denying love, is always an acceptable penance available to all. Fasting, and whatever extra penance we may choose, it seems to me, cannot be understood apart from the true understanding of penance as love and the deepening of conversion. "Love covers a multitude of [our own] sins" (1 Pet 4:8).

Christ was, in addition to the historical victim of brutal, beguiled men, the Lamb of God (Jn 1:29; Isa 53) whose acceptance of this brutality, of the Cross, was both atonement and teaching, God's taking our judgment on Himself so that we might go free, utterly forgiven. No wonder we are to forgive and love others, beyond selfishness!

"For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again." (John 10:14-18)

So it is all of a piece. Sometimes saints take on extraordinary penances, in an overflowing of love, though this is certainly not required of us ordinary Christians. It is enough for us to accept the inevitable sufferings that come our way in this world, the popes have taught. If we wish to do more it is good to consult one's Confessor about the desire and leave all decisions to him; obedience is a wonderful act of love and meritorious self-denial.

"...we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit" ---St. Paul, 2 Cor 3:18


Purgatory, which is to come for most of us, involves suffering as all purgation must. But St. Catherine of Genoa teaches that this is not because God enjoys seeing any in pain---far from it!--- but because the fire of God's love, leads us closer and closer to the Beatific Vision. How can this not show us what we failed to receive by our own choices in this life? In Purgatory, the saints teach, we are at once sorrowful and overjoyed: sorrowful as the last vestiges of self-deception fall from our eyes, and joyful beyond expression because we are there certain in the knowledge that holiness is now about to become complete in us. So Martin Luther got it (good works) all sadly wrong. There is nothing hurtful in Love.

End Note:

(1) With God our sin is forgiven completely upon a sincere confession, but the effects of sin remain and must be spiritually repaired for the sake of one's spiritual growth and justice as determined by one's Confessor, and, if need be, by the law.

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