The Heart of Penance

“Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). These words rang out in Galilee when our Lord started his public preaching, and they were heard worldwide on Ash Wednesday. Repentance is a definitive turning away from sin, but it also involves ongoing action. Sin has long-lasting consequences, so penance has to be long-lasting too. In Lent we focus on this action, on “doing penance,” taking on unpleasant practices that express our sorrow for sin and address its consequences. God’s love is our best motivation for doing this, as I’ll explore soon, but first we need to understand better our need for penance.

The internal logic of penance is simple: in sin we turn away from God to a created good, so in penance we try to reduce our over-attachments to created goods. In doing so we make up for past sins and re-order our lives in a way pleasing to God. This starts with the sacrament of penance, which is necessary after serious sin. It is also helpful for dealing with lighter sins (venial sins), but in both cases there is still work to be done even after the penance given by a confessor. Additional penance should not only express our sorrow for sin and increase freedom in our lives, but also give us more time for prayer and enjoying God in our life. In fact, making time for prayer every day is an excellent penitential practice in itself.

Even if we understand the need for penance, the fact remains that penance is distasteful. Our motivation for it depends on how much we desire God. There are a variety of motives we might have, but the primary one should come from our belief in the Gospel. “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” The heart of the Gospel, the good news that Jesus brings, is that He is God and loves us more than any mere human could. When we believe in the Gospel, we believe in Jesus’s saving love for us, and this is our best motivation for penance.

What does the Gospel say? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). This is what the Gospel tells us! It is important, however, to realize that this love is not just for the world in general, but for each of us in particular. Like St. Paul, we need to recognize that God loves us personally and that Jesus had us in mind when he died on the Cross: “I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal 2:20). This is our best motivation for penance. Once we accept the grace of forgiveness, our heart opens up to the greatness of God’s love working in our lives. We see sin in a new light as something that keeps us from knowing Jesus better, who loves us so much.

Penance helps us move from receiving Jesus’s love to showing Him love. How can we have contact with Him here and now? By knowing him in faith and embracing him with the heart. This is only possible by a gift of grace in our mind and heart. Recognizing the gift of living love in our hearts and our new ability to love God in return shows us the highest part of ourselves. God’s love for us shows us our nature as spiritual creatures. Understanding this changes how we see ourselves—our life becomes ordered toward enjoying God himself and the things of God. These are spiritual realities that correspond to our real human dignity. No longer do we want to live for things beneath us, such as the pleasures of the senses or worldly ambition.

If we want to do penance well this Lent, we should pray to know God’s love better. Once our heart tastes the goodness of His love, our penances will be a lighter burden. Our Blessed Mother is our best advocate in this struggle, because she knows the love of God perfectly and wants us to know it as well. Simple petitions from us find ready acceptance by her—“Mary, help me to know the heart of your Son!”

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Dominicana, the Dominican student blog of the Province of St. Joseph, and is reprinted here with kind permission. 

Br. Norbert Keliher, O.P.

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Br. Norbert Keliher entered the Order of Preachers in 2012. He is a graduate of Harvard University, where he studied Latin and Greek. Before entering the order, he spent a year teaching in New York City and a year studying theology at Notre Dame.

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