There was a time when the concept of penance was widely understood but society has changed
Lent is approaching and soon the same journalists who ring me up to inquire after New Year Resolutions will be asking what I am giving up for Lent. As usual it will be everything except fizzy water to drink: no alcohol, tea, coffee, cola or fruit juice.
The only unpredictable aspect of the two questions which almost invariably follow is the order in which they will be presented. How much weight do I expect to lose? What will I do with the money saved? Patiently I explain that it is not about the scales or the purse but about penance – a glass of cold H2O on a freezing winter’s morning when all around are gulping cappuccinos and espressos is penance.
There was a time when the concept of penance was widely understood even if the practice of it was in decline but that was also the time when biblical literacy was prevalent and there was some corresponding understanding of the concepts of sin, judgment and offending Infinite Goodness.
Yet it is not only the religious climate which has changed. The notion of endurance, patience, fortitude and restraint as being virtues in their own right to be sought and tested has also disappeared, sunk by a tide of materialism and the quest for an instant solution to everything.
The generations which were growing up in the 50s and 60s and even the early 70s had no choice but to make a virtue of patience because nothing was instant. There were no emails or texts to enable you to communicate a thought there and then. Instead you made time to write a letter which would take a day or two to arrive and you then waited for the answer which likewise had to be penned, posted and transported. Even faxes did not exist.
Nor could you simply phone anyone from anywhere. You had to wait until you were home or could find a public telephone box.
A secretary making a single mistake would find herself re-typing the whole document, there not being so much as self-correcting typewriters let alone computers to alter anything at the tap of a key. There were no credit cards to take the waiting out of wanting: you saved up. Divorce was difficult and an unwanted pregnancy meant nine months of endurance followed by difficult decisions.
Material goods were in limited supply and even during the prosperity of the 60s care and restraint were still taken for granted. There was little waste: sheets were patched, socks were darned and so were stockings and jerseys. School uniform was bought much too big and worn until it was much too small. The ubiquity of the washing machine was still a speck on the horizon and cleaning was sufficiently expensive for children to be told to make their clothes last a term during which spills and stains were sponged off. Taking everything off and dropping it all in the wash basket at the end of the day was unheard of.
Today speed is everything. Quickie divorces; lunchtime abortions; lose a stone in a fortnight; nothing works faster than Anadin; buy now, pay later. Even celebrity is instant, the product of TV reality shows rather than a lifetime’s hard slog. It is unsurprising that against this background the value once placed on voluntary self-deprivation has disappeared as thoroughly from everyday life as has Pilgrim’s Progress from the school curriculum.
Penance is essentially a pause amid the madness, the rush of consumerism and the competitive roar of today’s society. It is the opportunity to contrast one’s own sinfulness with Infinite Goodness, to focus on what is lacking in one’s own conduct and to seek to give the repentance for that some visible form.
On that basis, although the proponents would not necessarily recognise it as such, there is still some practice of penance in the secular world. Consider for example the student who uses a gap year not for lucrative employment but for helping in the Third World. To be sure the motives will include the thrill of travel and access to cheap accommodation but at root is a process of thought which runs: the western world is rich beyond belief while in other parts of the world people have not even got clean water or enough food or access to basic medicine and I am part of the rich bit. Therefore I should do something to help those in the poor bit because it is wrong that they suffer so.
In that thought process is recognition of selfishness, repentance for it and a desire for some degree of reparation. It is penance by any other name.
For the Christian penance is something very personal between him and God. He may no longer walk barefoot in the snow but still the practice of penance has to mean more than 10 Hail Marys between Confession and Coronation Street. Lent provides an opportunity to enhance prayer through penance, to offer some token of shame and sorrow, to meditate on sinfulness, to reflect on Infinite Goodness, to bear witness through penance which rarely fails to provoke curiosity or conversely to keep the penance so secret that God alone sees.
Nor is penance confined only to our own sins but rather can also be a recognition of the sinfulness of the world in which we live. In Sackcloth and Ashes I refer to the example of some German nuns who after the Second World War chose to live on starvation rations and to labour all day as had the victims of the Holocaust. They were not atoning for their own sins but showing an outraged Deity recognition of the profound sinfulness of the country to which they belonged.
From Canossa to giving up chocolates for Lent may seem like a journey from the sublime to the ridiculous but even the smallest act of penance can be a building block in our relationship with Him who paid the greatest penance of all.
Sackcloth and Ashes is published by Bloomsbury, priced £9.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (28/2/14)