[...] Let me ramble a wee bit today about Penitence.
There is still this stupid myth Penitence is about whipping your back or extreme fasting. Modern men in Western societies have grown in too comfortable settings. Comfort permeates everything. The mere idea of doing corporal penitence is met with utter repugnance by today’s man. In fact, there is a need (within limits) to practice some form of penitence.
However the key issue is not this. We tend to forget, or at least overlook, the mechanics of sin. We often go to Confession with some remorse, with some bad feeling, having known we have violated the rules, the Commandments given to us by God Himself. In fact, that suffering is good in itself. Modern man decries suffering but it took no less than a God to descend into us and to teach us from the Cross a lesson about suffering. Given the enormity of the suffering of a crucifixion, it is reasonable to ponder that suffering must be a very important thing when no less than a God accepted this as the ultimate lesson He gave us. Again, the internal suffering we have after having sinned is a very good thing in itself and is normally the first step towards repentance.
Yet the crime is not the same if I killed a nasty hooligan during a fight or premeditatedly killed the Queen. While both would be very grievous crimes, the latter would be even worse on account of the importance, dignity and royalty of the Queen. Now, do we bring to our minds often enough that every sin we commit is against God Himself? Talking about Importance, Dignity and Royalty … wow! The distance between the Creator and the creature is infinite. And the Creator is, in Himself, Infinite. As the severity of crime depends upon the victim, and not the perpetrator, therefore every mortal sin we commit is an infinite offence we inflict upon the most delightful of Beings: the Holy Trinity. I will go back to this Trinitarian approach afterwards, but please allow me to carry on for the time being.
Now every offence, every transgression deserves a punishment. Somehow we must expiate our crimes, our sins. Otherwise the Divine Justice will fall upon us after earthly life and we know from the Catechism that the lightest of penances in Purgatory is worse than the hardest suffering of this world. That is supposing the issue ends up nicely, because if we talk about Hell there are no words to describe the situation of a soul in such a state. Expiation is closely related to the word atonement. The more you expiate, the more you atone before God. […] If I harm you, but afterwards I not only beg your forgiveness, but also help you, do something good for you, even if this means a sacrifice for me, I am not only expiating my sin, but your logical wrath against me would diminish, wouldn’t it?
And this is precisely the hard core of Penitence. The willingness to expiate for our sins and, in turn, to atone for them. Protestants are grossly misled when they confide everything to Our Lord in the Cross. It is not only St Paul who clearly specifies that Faith without works is nothing, but also they fail to appreciate that erasing our sins, as if they were an infinite offence (Original Sin and each one of the mortal sins committed by every single human being throughout history by itself, gee!) would require an Infinite Reparation. Who could provide this Reparation to God other than God Himself? You have here the absolute need of Christ and His Redemption. Yet if the person does not do anything of his own to repair, he cannot join the Ultimate Reparation. Luther mistakenly said: “esto peccator et pecca fortiter, sed fortius fide”. That is to say, “if you are going to be a sinner, sin strongly, but believe even stronger”. On the contrary Catholics state, and common sense proclaims “no pain, no gain”. Avoid as much sin as possible, do penitence, perform good deeds and good works. If you are a sinner, Faith by itself will not save you and, in any case, try to minimize your sin(s) as much as possible. And if you commit a sin, there is no way you will erase it simply through pure Faith. No expiation (no atonement), no Heaven.
Ultimately our spiritual life relies in identifying ourselves with Christ our Saviour. If Our Lord did atone and did expiate for our sins (He had none of his own crop), we must imitate Him. If Our Lord followed the steps of St John the Baptist and did penance, we must do the same. If Our Lord practiced the Works of Mercy, and he was often exhausted because of it, we should emulate Him. If Our Lord lived humbly and in poverty (not in misery), we should live a humble and poor life too, even if we are the wealthiest people on earth.
Now, let’s be practical. Certain “charisms”, as they label them nowadays, are called to live a life of corporal penitence. In Western tradition it has been the case of Franciscans monks, specially Capuchins, and Clarise nuns. We should abstain and fast, at least, on the days prescribed by the Holy Mother Church that, to be honest, are not that many. We should not live a worldly life, but take only the things we need from the world to fulfill our duties of state. This means it is good for us not to give our senses and our bodies all they claim. A proper order means our bodies are oriented towards our souls, and not vice versa. While our bodies deserve respect, they suffer the consequences of Original Sin. Restraining them is important. Suffice is to say that, from this point of view, every time we avoid a sin, particularly if it is a sin we have previously committed or, worse, a sin which has becomes a habit, we are already doing expiation. Aye, God, Who sees everything, will not fail to reward us 10,000 % in Heaven -so the Bible goes- for every time we deviate from sin. Avoiding occasions of sin is probably the most practical way to expiate.
I have digressed and would like to concentrate on certain practical issues. Let me focus on our duties of state. We have different states. Let’s consider yours: as a husband, as a father, as a prisoner. For the time being they are your duties of state. You might think otherwise wrongly that there is not much you can do as a father or as a husband. St Thomas More was imprisoned in the Tower of London as a consequence of iniquity, and he had already showed heroic virtues prior to his imprisonment. From the letters he wrote I can grasp that his example as husband and father was even greater from within his cell than outside. His book “The Agony of Christ”, written when he was already waiting to be executed, shows an unbelievable mettle (or courage). Even the letters he wrote to Rupert, his son-in-law, and some of Rupert’s writings about the conversations with him, reveal a man who offered every single sacrifice for his family and for England, when we consider that he was the legitimate Lord Chancellor and that the King had acted unjustly and tyrannically in removing him from power. His duties of state meant he should dedicate himself to his family and England. While you have the duty to be a patriot (patriotism is a virtue linked to the 4th Commandment), you do not have the Lord Chancellor’s duties of state. Yet you have the duty towards [Y] and all your children. Every time, which I reckon are many these days, you implore blessings and protection from Heaven upon them, every time you do a sacrifice for them (you have nice food and you abstain from it, for example, for them), you are not only doing things for them as father and husband, but you are expiating for the many times you did fail in your duty of state.
You also have duties of state as a prisoner. And sometimes you must be very weary of them. After all, we are only human. You may have an officer who is not a kind person, and who treats you below standards. And you may reply to him, even justly and within reason, with wrath, even if just an internal one. But if you do it with kindness, you will gain even more graces. And so on, and so forth. Look for specific examples where you can practise your duty of state (obedience, compliance, cleanliness, making good use of your time, etc.) as a prisoner. Again, in doing so, you will practise Penitence. Even in accepting your current fate. All this will also reduce your Purgatory.
It seems to me that this unjust affair falling upon you is going to build up a mansion in Heaven for both [Y] (who is suffering tremendously as well) and you. A very beautiful and comfortable mansion of great proportions. All these sufferings, all these trials, are nothing compared with the Glory you are called to.
Rafael Castela Santos