Lent is here, the penitential season of the Christian church calendar. With the imposition of ashes last Wednesday we began the 40 days of fasting for deeper reflection, confessing one's transgressions -- that which causes us to move backwards instead of towards God, and for seeking God's ongoing forgiveness and pardon. In the past whenever I have heard some variation of the word "penitent" I immediately related it to divinely ordered punishment, meting out justice, and necessary guilt. I can't blame that on my Catholic upbringing. I think in large part such associations with the word penitent comes from a wider cultural and religious imagination. The same imagination that associates Confession with the "big sins" like adultery, stealing, etc. despite the fact that sin, regardless of its details, has one weight on the scale of growing in neighborly and holy love and affection. The weight of sin always tips the scales down. But lately, as I have started practicing the sacrament of Confession my thoughts on penitent and penance are shifting.
During a recent session, (don't worry, I'll spare you the sordid details) I confessed that I was tempted to deny who God says God is; sufficient, able, creator, redeemer, sustainer, a God who loves in covenant and calls us to covenantal love. I confessed that I had stepped back from God and was tempted to step even further back. I confessed that amongst other things my prayer life had been poor, perhaps even nonexistent and that I wasn't sure I cared. My priest responded in many ways, one of which was reminding me of the power of God's word and called me to immerse myself back in that word. For my penance he told me to reflect on Mark 1:40-45, to recall the story of the leper whose ailment had the power to define and overcome him but for whom God's power was greater. My priest invited me to come forthrightly before God and to ask God to meet the needs God knows will move me towards wholeness, those needs that would draw me back to God's self and towards a more life-giving image of my own self.
So I have been dwelling on the Mark passage. It has struck me as such a beautiful thing that my penance has been to reflect on scripture. It puts penance in a completely different light, offering new meaning and purpose. My imagination is expanding as I dwell on the renewed recognition that God does not desire to punish us for our missteps and sin but rather truly wants us to turn away from what keeps us from holy dependence and to turn back towards where there is abundant life, emotional and mental healing and spiritual nourishment. Penance for me over the past week has meant re-immersing myself again and again in conversation with Christ, each time hearing God's invitation more clearly to be the source of my ongoing healing and of my understanding of abundant life. Each time I am recognizing a bit more how I come before God with my own prejudgments of who God is and of what God is capable, not just in my own life but in the world at large. Specific to how God has conversed with me as I reflected on the Mark text, the practice of my penance this past week has shown me another way in which I so easily and subconsciously allow myself to limit God. It's interesting how sometimes the shape of our prayers revel more about our view of God then about that for which we truly long.
So in my act of penance this week, instead of keeping me focused on my sin and trying to "work" my way towards God's forgiveness, which is what we often think penance is, it has instead beautifully opened up to me greater awareness of God's desire for my health and well being. It has also invited me to more emboldened prayer and consequently to risking deeper faith and trust in what is possible for God. I am not by any means thinking I now have a clear understanding of penance. I assume part of the gift is what continues to be revealed in the practice. Yes, penance is a way to make amends for one's sins but it seems also to truly be sacramental, a channel by which God infers grace to us. It is grace that gives me eyes to interpret that scripture passage in such a way that leads to me moving towards God and towards my own well being. It is grace that somehow enables me to sense God's deeper invitation in the midst of my limited imagination. So it seems to me that the benefit of penance can only come about through our partnership with God. Even though God affects the grace we have to come before God and be open to the mystery of what can transpire through seemingly simple acts and practices (like prayerfully reading scripture in my most recent example). I am learning that part of moving towards God is being open and willing to perceive and receive God in ways that stretch both my comfort and my imagination.
I wonder how Lent this year will prove to be truly penitential if I can remember that it is not a time for wearing sackcloth or hairshirts in constant recognition of my failings. But rather appreciate that Lent is an invitation to expose my naked self before God, prayerfully asking God to clothe me in the righteousness of Christ, drawing me inch by inch closer to bearing the image of wholeness and Holiness. If I am honest, given my natural resistance to walking in the way of Christ the process will most likely be a tad bit more uncomfortable than any hairshirt could ever be.