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Joyful Life of Penance


A while ago, I was making phone calls, trying to nail down a retreat master for our yearly retreat. When I told Brother Isaac of the Capuchin Friars of the Renewal who we were--the Confraternity of Penitents--he remarked wryly, "Sounds like a fun group."

I laughed and told him that we are a "fun group." He chuckled knowingly because the CFR's are a penitential religious order, and he knows first hand the joys of a penitential life.

Once a priest told our minister (president)  that he does not "like" the word "penance." After our minister  spoke to him about the Confraternity of Penitents, he admitted that he "needed to do some of that Penance thing a little more often." 

When one of our members shared with another good Catholic woman about the CFP, the woman commented, " People of Pain-- that is what you Catholics like." She totally misunderstood!

Let's face it. Penance has gotten a bad name in recent years. Like that good Catholic woman, people associate penance with pain, and people nowadays do whatever they can to avoid pain. Penance, to most people, means "giving up" things, and most folks don't want to give up too many. But penance is about receiving, not about giving up. It's about gain, not pain. In penance, a divine trade off takes place, a bartering with the Holy Spirit. We give God certain things and He gives us other things.


Several years ago our oldest son had to have a pneumothorax repaired. This is a weak place in the lung which can collapse and cause pain and difficulty breathing. James had two bouts with a collapsed lung before the surgeon decided that an operation was necessary. So one fine day, when James was perfectly healthy, he was admitted to the hospital for an operation which the surgeon described as "roughing up" the lung to cause the weak spot to toughen up and heal over. When James woke from the operation, he was in excruciating pain. When he was well, he drew a picture of the surgeon as a torturer. In the same way, penitents may have to endure some pain as they repair weaknesses in their own spiritual lives. But once they are repaired, the weaknesses no longer cause them pain or endanger the spiritual life. The catchy saying "No pain, no gain" was never more true than in the spiritual life.


Only kleptomaniacs and petty thieves would dream of walking into a store, choosing some items, and walking out without paying for them. Yet in the spiritual department, many folks believe that they are entitled to spiritual gifts without payment for them. They figure that Jesus paid the price by His sacrificial death, and that they ought to be free now to take what they want. Or, even better, that God ought to give them whatever they want just because they want it.

Such folks are sadly mistaken. Jesus' death bought us eternal life. But it never bought us the deep, intimate union with God that every soul was made to achieve. We have to "buy" that ourselves.

Consider money. Money is of no value unless it's spent. You can't eat or wear money or build a shelter with it. Yet everyone is busily amassing money. Only misers hoard it. The rest spend their money because only by spending does one obtain what money can buy.

How do folks get money? Some inherit it, others get it from parents, guardians, or spouses, but most people get money by earning it. Most of those who earn their money work pretty hard to get it. And while many of them complain about work related conditions (the work is too difficult, the hours too long, the boss too unsympathetic, and so on), most folks don't question the concept. Work. Get paid. Spend. The pattern has been in place since Adam and Eve were booted out of the Garden of Eden.

Until very recent times, Catholics understood that spiritual works "bought" spiritual favors. In modern times, the idea of buying spiritual favors became unpalatable. Modern Catholics are like spoiled children who think that Daddy ought to give them wonderful things out of the goodness of His Heart, without their working for them. After all, if Daddy doesn't want to do that, why did He have kids?


This "entitlement mentality" is what has made the concept of penance odious to so many. If God isn't going to give spiritual goodies to me out of the goodness of His Heart, then I don't want them. I'm sure not going to work for them when He, by a whim of His Will, could grant them to me. What kind of a God is He to deny me something He can readily give?

The error comes in the deduction. Could God make all of us spiritual giants in an instant? The immediate answer seems to be, 'Of course. He's God. He can do anything He wants." Yes, God can do anything He wants, but He can't do something to us unless WE want it. God made our souls in His image and likeness. That means He has given us the ability to choose freely, an ability He possesses. God always chooses rightly, not because there are never evil choices before him, but because He wills to choose what is good, always. God gave us the ability to choose rightly, too, when He created our first parents. But in order for our nature to be truly like His, we had to have the freedom of choosing, which meant the freedom to choose anything. Not every choice is good.

Yes, God is able to make us saints. But He won't do it unless we will it. That allows our freedom of choice to be truly free. "Well," you might say, "I want God to make me a saint. So go ahead and do it, Lord."

Oh, but do we really mean that? Really? What is a saint? A saint is someone who lives in heaven with God and we are all, indeed, called to be saints. How does one go from earth to heaven? By doing always God's Will. One can no more expect to have done his own will all his life, and then go heaven and do God's Will, than he can expect a wire twisted into one shape to suddenly become another shape without twisting it again.


"Let's do the TWIST!" Chubby Checker sang out in 1959 and 1960. The Twist was a dance done by an individual who twisted his whole body back and forth, up and down, to an upbeat song of the same name. You could sit and watch the Twist, but then you weren't "twisting." No one would emerge from the shadows and force you to dance the Twist. You either danced it of your own free will or you didn't. Some "twisted" in more spectacular fashion than others. Each person displayed his own idiosyncrasies. At the end of the dance, the "twisters" were generally breathless and, if they danced well, a little muscle sore. Those who "twisted" often and vigorously got a good physical workout and could actually tone up.

Penance is like the Twist. Our life experiences are the music and the beat which God provides. But we have to get into the mix and "twist." If we "twist" long enough and with enough vigor, our spiritual selves shape up.

As with any dance craze, the Twist was fun to do. A dancer could really get into the dance and make it his or her own. I used to do the Twist, and I don't ever recall seeing anyone do it with a grouchy face. You just had to grin when you were "twisting" even if you were getting plumb tuckered out. That's because the music and the dance and the company around you were exhilarating. And when you were done "twisting," you sure felt tired, but a good tired. You felt stronger, more alert, pepped up. You had a physical workout and you didn't even mind it!

Doing penance is like doing the Twist. If it's not fun, you're not doing it right. As we allow the music of our life's circumstances to echo around us, we "twist" to the beating Will of God in them. To do penance is to choose to enter the dance. To do penance in a particular way is to make the dance your own. All religious Orders which follow a Rule of Life do penance. That is, they have their members follow a specific plan for "twisting" their wills into conformity with God's Will.


Every Order has a Rule and every Rule differs from every other Rule in the ways in which it requires the members to "twist" their wills back to God's Will. The "twisting" of our wills to follow the Rule is our spiritual coin. We exchange these for spiritual favors from God, and get a bargain in the deal. Penance's gaining of spiritual favors is similar to booking a three month, all expense paid vacation in the Caribbean for the price of a banana. There is no comparison between the little penances we do and the great spiritual favors God wishes to grant us in exchange. Whatever Rule you are considering, look at what is asked of you and then consider whether living that Rule will gain you what you are looking for. The Confraternity of Penitents Rule is uniquely different from many other Rules, some of which are based on the same original penitential Rule of 1221. Information on the uniqueness of the CFP Rule is on this link.

There is no way that a person can follow a penitential Rule of Life and avoid growing in sanctity. The growth is commensurate with the penitent's embracing of the Rule with abandon, obedience, and joy. But even if the Rule is embraced half heartedly, the living of that Rule is going to bring about changes in the penitent's spiritual life.

The spiritual coin of penance can go a long way. The penances--those difficult life changes--can be offered up by the penitent as prayers of the body and the will for others. So while the penitent is getting stronger spiritually, the merit of the penances can be offered as prayers for others living or dead. It's not often that a coin can buy two things at the same time, but the coin of penance can.


So "doing penance" is really a joy, especially if done with others. All groups doing penance ought to be joyful groups. That's because each penitent is focused on God Who is Love and on the neighbor who is God's love enfleshed, even if imperfectly. The penitent isn't focused on the hamburger he's not eating but on the God to Whom he is progressing. She's not begrudging the time spent in prayer but rather anticipating the time spent in eternity in the Presence of God. He's not complaining about clothes relinquished but rather rejoicing over the white robes of salvation awaiting those who dance in the courts of the Lamb. 

We can get even more specific. In the CFP's way of penitential (converted) life, the following joys are immediately evident:

* We use solid shades of neutral colors and blue for all our clothing (clothing switch done in the Third Year of Novice Formation). So all our clothes match! And our closet is not crowded. Joy in getting dressed. Just grab something and put it on.

* We eat only two meals per day with, perhaps, a bite to eat at a third meal (done in Second Novice Year of formation). Do you realize how much time you spend eating? When you eat less, you have more time for other things plus there are less dishes to wash. And you might lose some extra pounds without having to diet. Joy again!

* We have a specific prayer schedule (established in our First Novice Year of formation). How many times have you wanted to find time to pray and just can't seem to do it? Well, if you embrace our Rule, now you have to pray every day and at certain times. Joy in achieving that goal of frequent prayer and joy in the peace you'll experience.

* The Liturgy of the Hours is the highest prayer of the Church after the Mass, but it's  not easy to learn. Joy in that you WILL learn how to pray this prayer during First Year Novice Formation.

* Do you often feel like a loner in the spiritual life? Who can you share your faith with at work and maybe even at home? Joy in that, in the CFP, all the members are living the same Rule of Life and so you have LOTS of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to share with, and not one will think you are weird, fanatical, or a bit looney.

* Did you ever want to get out there and do something for someone but don't know what? Well, in the CFP, you will embrace a spiritual or corporal work of mercy of your choice. We have ideas that you can joyfully implement. You won't feel that your charity is lacking any longer.

* Do you think you really should know what the Catholic Church teaches but don't have time to find out? Well, in CFP Formation, you will read the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church over three years. Then you'll KNOW  your faith. Joy in becoming a competent Catholic.

These are just a few of the immediate joys of living the CFP Rule of Life. You will find your own. 


The saints all recognized the joys of penance. Here are just a few of their many thoughts on the joys of a life of penance (conversion):

In the beginning there is a struggle and a lot of work for those who come near to God. But after that, there is indescribable joy. It is just like building a fire; at first it's smoky and your eyes water, but later you get the desired result. Thus we ought to light the divine fire in ourselves with tears and effort. --St. Syncletica

We should never allow even one thought of sadness to enter the soul. Have we not within us Him who is the joy of heaven! Believe me when I say that an obedient religious is a happy religious. -- St. Therese Couderc

There are difficulties, sufferings, and worries. . . . But one beautiful day it will be all over, and we will find ourselves all united in heaven with the Blessed Trinity, with Mary most holy, with our dear ones and with the Sisters who have gone before us. This is our joy and our comfort. Courage! --Venerable Thecla Merlo

The heart is rich when it is content, and it is always content when its desires are fixed on God. Nothing can bring greater happiness than doing God's will for the love of God.-- Blessed Br. Miguel Febres Cordero, FSC

Those whom the Holy Spirit calls to live lives of penance, by following a penitential Rule of Life, will do God's Will and thus experience His joy only if they walk on the path to which He beckons. The path of penance may twist at times. It may take sharp turns, lead into steep upgrades or down into seemingly bottomless valleys. The path of penance might wind through dry wastelands, it may bridge frightening chasms or wend through black, impenetrable forests that seem alive with frightening, invisible beasts. If the penitent follows that "light to his path," walking in the light of He Who is Light, he will find joy in the persistent glow of that Light, feeble as it may sometimes seem. Indeed, the Light is always present in some degree for those who look for it. That Light of Christ will bring the penitent safely home to the eternal shores of peace and love where all is joy forever. Who in his right mind would not desire that?

Madeline Pecora Nugent

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