March 2003 – On Penance

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

March 2003

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the good Lord give you Peace.

We cannot journey far into the spirituality of Saint Francis before encountering the experience of conversion and the radical significance it has for our lives.

The word “penance” commonly connotes external acts of mortification such as fasting, vigils and abstinence from certain pleasurable things in almost all modern languages. This is not, however, the principle meaning of the term, in either its Biblical or Franciscan context. It is merely a derivative, restricted, and secondary meaning.

Even in the opening lines of his Testament, we discover that, for the poverello, the life of penance to which he was devoted meant conversion from a life centered on the personal ‘I’ to a life completely under the will and sovereign lordship of God. The Greek term metanoia (penance) indicates a constant yet developing idea. It is a progressive and deliberate turning to God…to love Him who is Good, while fleeing that which is evil.

The Disciples of Christ should preach the kingdom of God
and penance. This is what I wish, this is what I seek,
this is what I long to do with all my heart. (Francis of Assisi)

Heirs of (this) great movement of evangelical life, which the poenitentes de Assisio embraced, learn to live your vocation…as brothers and sisters of penance with an enlightened sense of conversion and of continuous renewal. (Pope John Paul II)

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Recall the closing words of the Gospel at the Feast of the Epiphany: “They returned home by another way.” These words are spoken not only of the Magi but also of us. This is because the relationship between cause and effect doesn’t change. The illusion and the dependency on that illusion, which led us to sin in the past, will do so again in the future. That which has bound us to patterns of anger or despair in the past will do so again in the future. And that which has gripped us with fear and useless anxiety in the past will do so again in the future.

The Lord has led us by a great light. He has led us by the great light of faith on a journey of hope. At the end of that journey, He revealed Himself as love. But much as we would like to think that our possession of these great wonders is permanent, it is not. It is subject to our fickle nature. It is subject to the frailty of our wounded will. But most of all, it is subject to the toxic environment of offenses not forgiven. Forgiveness is the path of peace. This journey begins with asking for God’s forgiveness for our long history of breaking His heart, and it continues by asking others to forgive us our trespasses, just as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.
The journey back from sin takes wisdom and courage: the wisdom to know how and when to act in mercy and love, and the courage to overcome the fear and inertia that impedes our progress.

The secret of peace is in faithfully embracing a life of prayer and charity, reconciliation and penance, in a humble and hope-filled way. Doing so, we may at times appear odd or naive to those around us, but we are strengthened by the wisdom explained by Saint Paul: “The message of the Cross is complete absurdity to those headed for ruin but, to us who are experiencing salvation, it is the power of God.” (1Cor. 1:18-20)

Jesus spoke of forgiveness from the cross. Peace is a word we readily associate with forgiveness, and one that we also relate to Saint Francis. His insight into the meaning of peace, tied as it is to penance, did not come to him in a single dazzling moment. It was the fruit of much effort and perseverance.

Fruit comes from tiny seeds. There is perhaps no greater reminder of that fact than the Franciscan Prayer of Peace. In it, we find the insight to ask that in order to be an effective instrument of the Lord’s peace, we need the grace, the fortitude and the humility to sow tiny seeds of love where there is hatred, of pardon where there is injury, of faith where there is doubt, of hope where there is despair, of light where there is darkness, and of joy where there is sadness.

The plan of Saint Francis is not heroic. His days of dreaming about the glory of knighthood over, he is content to be the hand from which a tiny seed is sown. Our job is to sow. It is the Lord’s to grow. By the same token, Saint Francis recognizes that peace does not occur spontaneously, without cause. It is the fruit of deliberate effort to courageously stand up to the demons of hatred, injury, doubt, despair and sadness that would snuff out the life of the fledging plant…to confess our inclination to be duped by them, and to pray for the grace to chose the modest and simple way of working in the fields of the Lord.

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Peace is for us, as it was for Saint Francis, the fruit of a continuous conversion process. So it should not be surprising that he called his first disciples the Brothers and Sisters of Penance. Happily, we have ways of securing this wisdom and courage for our own continuous conversion. The sacramental life of the church is rich in such means, one of which is the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. Saint Ambrose speaks of two conversion experiences that are framed by the church: “the waters of Baptism and the tears of repentance.” Both are graces afforded to us by a God who so loves us that he wants us free from the consequences of sin. The first sacrament recognizes our need to make a conscious decision to follow Christ. The second recognizes our weakness and tendency to stray from the path that He leads.

Effectively, choosing to go home by a different way means accepting in joy that conversion is about new life. Jesus came into the world, says John, in order that we might have life in all fullness and abundance – life without limitation and without restraint. As Thomas Merton wrote: “In Christ we see man as he is intended to be: a child of God, capable of growth in God, for whom maturity is the fullness of the stature and the likeness of God in Christ. In the mere recital of the Biblical revelation, a realization that life is a knot which, in Christ, has been completely untied…We are created anew in the incarnation of the Word…The possibilities of life and fulfillment which had been closed in Adam…can become ours again simply because we are men, now that Christ has become man.”

There is a catch, however. In the exercise of our innate free will, we have the option of accepting or rejecting the new life that Christ offers us. And our acceptance of God’s gift of Himself to us in Christ means acceptance of the Holy Spirit by whom Christ is born in us, lives in us, grows in us. Again I quote Thomas Merton: “For the Spirit teaches us that if we are born with Christ, and die with Christ, we are co-heirs with him in the Great Joy of His victory over death. It is His meekness that has inherited the earth.”

In the end, opting freely for a new life in Christ is about conversion. And, in the end, conversion is also about letting go…about letting go of the illusion of control…letting go of guilt about the past…letting go of fear about the future…and letting go of obsessions and illusions about the present. In the end, conversion is about going home, albeit by following a road less traveled…unfamiliar…riddled with light and shadows…letting go in the manner that Jesus let go of what He could have clung to, in order to lead us home by another way.

This letting go is for a purpose. It is about freedom…the freedom to be who we really are. When asked by Moses to describe the Almighty, God said: Tell them to call me I AM who AM. Through the Incarnation, I AM is both human and divine. Carl Jung was once asked by one of his followers, who had just read John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, “What has your pilgrimage really been?” The aging Jung answered: “My journey consisted in climbing down ten thousand ladders so that now at the end of my life I can extend the hand of friendship to this little clod of earth that I am.”

I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries,
and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. (Book of Ezekiel)

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May the Lord grant you courage, wisdom and perseverance, that you may turn your face from all temptation! May the Light of His Love fill your heart, leaving no room for the darkness of sin! May He reward your sincere efforts to follow His Way with His Holy Peace!



1. Raffaele Pazzelli, St. Francis and the Third Order.