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Physical Penance in the Post-Modern Age

The life of a Christian is a life of constant conversion, of constant turning toward God and away from all that distracts us from our final End in Him.  This is the essential meaning of the word “penance” as a summary of the positive path we walk toward God in this earthly life. 


As sons and daughters of the Incarnate Christ, in following Our Lord, we engage all of our faculties: flesh and bone as well as soul and spirit.  The Confraternity Rule offers a balanced guide to committing every aspect of our lives in a wholesome way towards the perfection our Lord counsels (Mt 5:48).[1]  Under spiritual direction we follow disciplines of sacramental life, prayer, fasting, ongoing education, and simplicity of life that help keep us growing and maturing in our life in Christ. 


Today the very words “penance” and “penitence” conjure up images of self-flagellation, hair shirts, and sleeping on the floor -- practices all but abandoned in the last Century as neurotic, hysterical, theatrical, and even harmful.  Distortions such as the bizarre caricature in The Da Vinci Code, titillate imaginations already so alienated from Christian culture and practice that they seize upon any absurdity as if it were factual.  The affluent First World recoils in disgust at the idea of mere temperance, never mind personal, physical penance. 


C. S. Lewis observed in The Screwtape Letters that the Enemy is eager to warn us against the very thing we need most: sumptuous ages label self-denial as poor self-esteem; sexually licentious times decry modesty as prudery; cultures of brutality disparage compassion as sentimentality.  In a time when the need for penance is obvious to all but those who need it most, it is widely rejected, even by well meaning Christians as primitive, archaic, self-defeating.  Many – perhaps most – Americans would consider even the mild ascetical demands of the Confraternity Rule to be excessive.  We all know of Religious communities whose ascetical practices appear to be less demanding in some ways than ours.  Yet at times, for some among our number, even additional physical penances beyond our Rule may be salutary.  Under spiritual direction, each Penitent will identify the path upon which the Lord is guiding him. 


There is no single right answer to the question of whether extraordinary mortifications assist us in our journey towards God or whether such practices might be inadvisable.  What may be salutary, normative, profitable, and fruitful for one person may be insufficient, excessive or harmful, for another person in a different state or time of life.  This is not a one-size-fits-all proposition and requires careful discernment. 


The Carthusian fathers to this day wear the cilicium (hair shirt) at all times (except when bathing).  Certain Carmelites and Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity routinely take the discipline under the provisions of their rule of life.  The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal sleep on the floor.  So “extraordinary” mortifications are not necessarily useless holdovers from a more primitive age. 


Conventional wisdom prescribes that the charism for such mortifications attaches only to institutes of consecrated or apostolic life that require them under their Rule.[2]  That maxim may be in serious need of re-examination.


Under the caveat that such practices not damage the body, which we honor as a gift of God’s creation, it is reasonable to believe that some people, in some circumstances at some times in their lives, do receive the charism to accept such mortifications as wholesome and profitable both to their own souls and for the building up of the Church.  The motivation must be tested and found to be fully oriented towards the purposes of God and the good of the Penitent as seen in the broad perspective of time and eternity.  In former centuries, when such things were more prevalent and better understood, it might have been reasonable for people in ordinary life to use a flagellum [aka, discipline] from time to time or to don a hair shirt without permission of a spiritual director.  This is no longer realistic.  Physical penance has become a novelty.  Psychological and spiritual disorders are better understood.  General catechesis in the use of extraordinary mortifications has all but vanished.  Hence, the impulse must be astutely scrutinized.  This has become a subspecialty of spiritual direction, and one that is hard to come by. 


When the subject of physical mortification arises in spiritual direction, experienced directors assert that the key to granting permission for them lies in the docility of the person who is drawn to them.  Any sign of willfulness is a disqualifier.  A director may grant permission for a person to decide on his own what penances to undertake, or (more likely) may tell him not to take this path at all, or may advise him to wait, or may advise a trial period with frequent checks to see where this is taking him.  Obedience is paramount, for obedience is a greater thing than any extraordinary ascetical practice and will be decisive in rendering the exercise fruitful.


Any ascetical method that is novel, rare, or employs instruments entails the very real spiritual risks of self-will, scrupulosity, spiritual vanity, pride in one’s own efforts, the substitution of ascetical disciplines for authentic conversion, and making of one’s spiritual life a self-choreographed art form rather than allowing oneself to be formed by the master Potter. 


Although, in truth, rotating the tires or scrubbing the kitchen floor will often be a more effective penance than the more glamorous extraordinary mortifications, nevertheless, among those who have a zeal to heal a broken world and to foster the growth of the Kingdom, those who have discerned with a responsible spiritual director that this is an authentic charism for them, and who observe appropriate caution, the extraordinary mortifications could well be used more widely than they are today to the benefit of individual souls, of the Church, and of the world.


Since most people do not have even a regular confessor, much less a spiritual director, a basic rule might be that the ordinary penitential practices (fasting on Fridays and Wednesdays, abstaining from meat on certain days, springing out of bed the moment the alarm-clock rings, praying the penitential Psalms with outstretched arms [in private, of course]) do not require consent of a spiritual director or confessor unless, for example, one fasts to an unhealthful weight.  If a person feels drawn to penances requiring instruments, then direction is critical. 


A person who does not have a confessor or director to guide them in these things is not ready for them.  If the call is strong, he should pray that the Lord will send a guide who will be responsive to his desire.  Meanwhile, he should offer up the desire for penance as penance, and the Father will receive it with joy.


Karen Sadock

Memorial of St. Fidelis of Sigmaringen

April 24, 2007 

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