A Life of Penance

We don’t like the word “penance.” For us, it’s an ugly word, bearing connotations of guilt and shame. Yet, the foundation of St. Francis Assisi’s spiritual life is built on penance. Harsh penance. St. Francis’ sense of penance bordered on the extreme edges of asceticism. The people of Assisi were dumbfounded by the near inhuman aspects of the austerity of his life. St. Bonaventure tells us that the saint “curbed the stimulus of the senses with a discipline so rigorous that at great pains did he accept what was necessary for his sustenance.”

Lent was not merely a season for Francis, but a way of life.

If conversion and faith require this kind of change – the “metanoia” of the New Testament – then we are not interested in it. But for Francis, his understanding of penance, manifested in the extravagances of austerity, was not tied to punishment. For him, penitential mortification was a means for growth, creating a “new man.” Francis wanted to put his abounding passions to death so that their creative power could be put to the service of a higher goal, namely holiness. Francis wanted only to serve God in a full and radical way, and personal privations and penance was the path he chose to follow.

In time, as Francis began to attract followers, he did not demand that his brothers emulate his relentless drive to subjugate his own earthly passions. On the contrary, St. Bonaventure notes, “he rejected [for others] excessive severity [in penance] that was not, at the heart, clothed in mercy, nor sprinkled with the salt of discretion.” Francis was only hard on himself, which made it easy for him to be soft with everyone else…especially with the poor and the poorest of the poor, the lepers.

For St. Francis, profound penances were the gateway to his profound humanity. His gentleness was derived from the strength and discipline he acquired while silencing everything within him that was not in harmony with the love of God.

I need to learn to be able to say “no” to the things in my life that are blocking me from a fuller relationship with God. The spirit behind St. Francis’ desire for a life of penance, tells me that small acts of mortification in my personal life, especially during Lent, can be effective teachers.

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