|Way of Penance
La Via della Penitenza in
Vincenzo Cherubino Bigi, OFM
Edizioni Franciscane Bologna, 1988
Fr. Seraphin J. Conley, T.O.R. & Fr. Patrick J. Quinn, T.O.R.
After so many
centuries, and in spite of the different forms of society, there is still a fascination
with the life of St. Francis of Assisi. And it is not a waste of time to consider the
question that Fra Masseo put to Francis as we read in the Little Flowers, Chapt.X: Why
after you, Francis? Why is the whole world running after you? (Read text of chapter in the
But, after reading
the story, perhaps the thought that comes to mind is that it does not explain the reality
of Francis. It might be seen more as a pious statement about the humility of the Saint
rather than telling us something about his real personality. Such an interpretation on our
part is probably mistaken because Francis truly believed himself to be a great sinner.
St. Francis had a
profound awareness of sin; so the sense of himself as a great sinner came from his
conscience, it was not a pretext or a way of avoiding the task of responding more
faithfully to God's call. It was really a more perceptive response: "I am the
greatest of sinners"; namely, "I have within me a profound and radical sense of
sin ... and this sense of sin places me in some way in the presence of God."
It is this that we
will consider as the point of departure for our reflection on the penitential way of St.
Francis. It is true that the word "penance" has a very forbidding quality, since
it goes against all the fashions and values of our modern society which is deeply marked
by desire for pleasure, for profit, for ownership and for power.
The way of penance:
Even for Catholics, the life of penance is rarely considered. Thus, Penance might be seen
as an extraordinary act, for example during a Holy Year, but generally it does not form a
part of Christian life. Moreover this term is burdened with a somewhat masochistic meaning
in its long semantic development and in practices of Christian life.
It is important for
us today to recover the sense of penance in the life of Francis. This is so in order that
we can practice it and to integrate in our own lives the penance lived by Francis. It must
be noted that Francis was also the man of perfect happiness, of joy. In him anything
seemingly distorted or masochistic such as scourging or other practice of mortification is
more incidental than being the purpose or the goal of his life.
It is important for
us today to recover the true sense of penance in Francis. And this begins with our own
awareness of being sinners before the Lord. Today our view of sin is very superficial.
The consciousness of
sin places me before God, because the reality of sin places me naked before God and before
Christ. Sin is not guilt. Guilt is concerned with the laws of this world, with duties
which we have not fulfilled. On the other hand, sin is concerned with the mystery of God
who gives himself to me and I refuse Him: "Only against You have I sinned." And
then again especially for the Christian, sin puts him before Christ himself. Sin is not a
word of this world, of our worldly culture; it is a word which links us with the divine;
antithetically certainly, but it makes a break with the limited world of earthly culture
and places us before the mystery of God. We see in the Gospel that the Pharisees, when
confronted by a Christ who says:"My child, your sins are forgiven you," are
scandalized and say "Who can forgive sin? Only God!."
Sin must be seen in
the context of Christ, because the presence of Christ in the world and, therefore. in each
one's personal history is ignored and rejected by the sinner. To have a sense of sin means
to be conscious of having disregarded God in one's life. The sin of Cain was that he
offered to God the leftovers of his labor. Francis, reflecting on his youth, saw it like
this: a life which had neglected God. He knew God only by convention but God was not the
central value of his life, nor was Christ was the inspiration of his choices.
Note well, that this
condition is very common among us in our daily lives because we leave God at the margin of
our interests. God is the great outsider both in our personal existence and in our
culture. Many times, however, one is afraid to admit the fact that God is emarginated in
my life and is distant. The Christian may be considered as Christian in so far as he is
attentive to Christ, the God who became incarnate in Christ, the model of life for every
person. For the Christian, the abandorunent and neglect of this truth is called sin.
Our great sin is to
live without an awareness of God, without an awareness of Christ. Francis was deeply aware
of this, so deeply aware that it became a determining truth for him. This enabled him to
say truly that he felt himself to be the greatest of sinners because in his youthful
efforts for self-realization he had excluded God and His Son, Christ.
He had wanted to be
a great knight, he wanted to attain worldly glory, power, preeminence and splendor but he
had not lived in the presence of Christ. Christ had no part in his plans for his future.
This was his great sin.
When one wants to
speak of the way of penance in the life of Francis, it is necessary to begin with
this deep awareness. It is not the disciplines, the fasts, the hairshirt or the penances
of the flagellanti of his time which characterize or qualify his life of penance.
The way of penance
is putting God as the center of all we value so that neither profit, nor personal success
direct our lives in this world. What matters now is living in God's Presence, and allowing
Christ center place in our lives. To be attentive to Christ as my Model and to try in some
way to integrate Him in my life is the point of departure and the continual renewal of the
true sense of penance: a continuous conversion which is profoundly internalized. It is
not the mortification of the body but the conversion of one's spirit.
To live in the
presence of Christ, to live in the presence of God is to assume in oneself the law
of love which was expressed by Christ in His life. Beginning from this point, we will
seek to discover the essential moments of the penitential life of Francis. The
fundamental point already described is that of putting God at the center of our daily
life, to refer to God in the continual horizon of our daily choices.
In our daily
activities, we can find ourselves in a fortunate condition: we can do, good in our
actions. The conversion of Francis is to be found right here: in referring the good we
do back to God.
This is the interior
poverty of man as against the boast of the Pharisee who attributes to himself the
possibility of doing good, of saving himself by means of the observance of the law in his
St. Francis always
has this concern at the core: all the good that I perform by my actions is not
mine, but is God's work. From here flows the centrality of God in my life. It is not
my possessions, not my riches, my prosperity but everything good that I am able to do is a
gift from God and so I refer it back to God in thanksgiving and in self- emptying.
The heart of one
who does penance is a heart empty of self ... which recognizes that the journey of
this world is a gift of God. All the good things one does in the course of daily living
are not his riches, his possessions but rather come from the God Who is the Giver of every
good gift and so must be referred to, and brought back to Him. Hence, the first
characteristic of the penance of St. Francis is purity of spirit, of interiority, is a
poverty of the heart.
back to God implies yet something else, it implies not seeking our reward in
this world. "You have received your reward." Many times in life after doing
something good we expect to receive the reward for this good act and, when we don't
receive it, we complain to God: I chose the good and still I have this sickness, etc.. To
be converted means not looking for a reward in this world. Here is the deep reality of the
Spirit, namely that if I do good in order to receive a reward, it means that I wish to
possess, I wish to enrich myself, I wish to have a lasting place in this world. Often St.
Francis in his writings admonishes us on this very point. The gift of yourself must
be free just as the gift of God is free. The reference back to God means not
seeking in this world one's reward: this is what it means to be free.
multiplied the bread and when they would have made him king, He hid himself, because if He
had agreed to be King then, it would have been this miracle which ruled men. Jesus would
be manipulating them through persuading them by satisfying their physical needs. The
reward of bread as a promise for meeting Christ would have taken away their liberty.
I am free when I am
able to give, not when my conduct is influenced by selfishness. even when it is a
spiritual selfishness, which always seeks to be rewarded and gratified. One who acts in
this way is not yet converted.
Penance is above all
this deep freedom from one's selfish demands in order to be perfectly free for God and our
neighbor. It is a profound guiding concept which interiorizes the notion of changing one's
mind. Generally our mind is concentrated on ourselves, our power, our benefits, our
possessions, our success. We really become the center of our life. Conversion means to put
God at the center and myself to the side.
The journey of St.
Francis from the beginning to the end consisted in this very movement. One might say that
externally nothing changes, but everything changes internally, because in the interior of
man God becomes everything, the center of emotions of action, from which I draw and to
which I refer all my deliberations and my daily choices.
Therefore, the life
of penance in Francis presents itself first of all as an awareness of sin and immediately
thereafter as a profound displacement of self as the center of one's existence and
allowing God to be the Lord. Cristocentrism is characteristic of the Franciscan school,
because St. Francis lived in a real and existential way centered on Christ. His was not an
egocentric but a Cristocentric life.
In this study
concerning penance a question arises regarding the body. When one speaks of penance,
immediately one thinks of disciplines, hairshirts, and mortifications. When St. Francis
lived there this form of penance was prevalent. There were the "flagellanti. "
The body came to be abused by penances of various sorts that were all directed towards a
mortification of the flesh. Many went too far in reducing the meaning of penance to
consist in these. The theme of the body in penance is a very delicate one.
There is a need to
be very aware of some aspects: St. Francis did not seek corporal penance in itself. He
desired the mortification of the body when it rebelled against the law of the spirit, the
Law of God. Yet one is not to do penance when it is done to weaken the body so that it can
no longer carry out its work. The penance that S. Francis wanted for a man is found in
work. "I want to work and I wish that all would work with their hands." It
is one of the fundamental points of his spirituality. No idler could appear before him
without being strongly admonished; he considered the lack of work as a reason for being
sent away from the Order (ex. Bro. Fly).
It is labor which is
the true penance he himself practiced and proposed for his friars. St. Fraricis never
accepted idleness, considered by the ancient philosophers as a consequence of a superior
status, a striking type of idleness which placed a man in a kind of an ivory tower, in a
privileged state. Thus, the first penance which is concerned with the discipline of the
body is our daily labor. Having said that, we must make a further step in examining the
way St. Francis lived this dimension of the life of penance. We see that at the end of his
life he asked pardon of his body, "Bro. Ass." St. Francis wished also to submit
the body by penance, and by penance he understood vigils, fasts, frequent flagellations
and the use of a hairshirt. Yet, in his biography, we see that he did not advocate this
type of penance and he even warned the friars against such practices so as not to be
regarded as superior to holiness.
But he did desire
mortification of the body. In what way and why did he want it? Because the body (the
"flesh" as St. Paul expresses it) fights against the spirit. The centrality of
Christ in my life can be deposed by selfishness and its desire to dominate, to possess to
enjoy, etc. thus making my body subject to selfishness in place of Christ. Thus S. Francis
in this dialetical battle between the spirit of the flesh and the spirit of God is very
demanding regarding the mortification of his own body so that the body would always in its
expression would always reveal the actions of the body of Christ.
St. Francis highly
esteemed the human body. In a remarkable exception in Christian literature, in Admonition
V, he says: "Remember 0 Man your dignity, namely that you are made in the image of
Christ as regards your body and in the likeness to God in your spirit." There is none
among the Fathers of the Church who had said this. It is a splendid exception and a great
intuition. It can in no way be held that S. Francis had a mistaken sense of his own body.
But if his body was opposed to the image of Christ then it was necessary to punish it by
means of penance, so that it would become obedient, that it "be conformed" to
the body of Christ. For this St. Francis often sought to reproduce in his own life the
actions of Christ, from Bethlehem to Calvary, culminating in his receiving the sacred
wounds of the Lord.
Concluding, we might
ask: What is the goal of the way of penance according to St. Francis? The goal is joy and
Today we live in a
world in which to be truly authentic it is necessary to be distressed, to have an uneasy
conscience because of this world's misery. Certainly, our age is not characterized by an
evident joyfulness. In Francis, on the other hand, there is this esteem for joy. He
explains it by saying that the joy of good works is very important; one gives greater
witness to communion with God and to the way of penance through the joy which is
communicated to another through the witness of a cood work. The devil has great fear of
the joy which comes from a good work. However, until a man possesses such joy he is
vulnerable to the insidious temptations of the devil.
We are all familiar
with the famous dialogue about perfect joy. It is really a dialogue about penance in the
sense that selfishness becomes completely destroyed in the suffering which is accepted for
love of Christ. Hence, one can demand of the man who leaves everything: that the end or
the purpose which gives meaning to his renunciation or penance, is joy. A penance which
does not bring joy cannot come from God and does not lead to God. It is a penance which
ends in selfishness. Then it turns hostile because it looks at the other with a sense of
judgment and contempt. This attitude, which we might call strict, is none other than an
attitude of Egoism. If a sense of joy does not accompany our life of penance then we are
very likely operating from a sense of superiority or from a desire for self-security. Joy
is the tell tale sign of the presence of God. If we lack this in our efforts at
penitential living then we are not doing penance.
In summary: the way
of penance is a simple way, but it is not simplistic. It is most profound. It consists in
this: metanoia, change. I have an awareness of my sinfulness because I have dismissed God
from my life. There is no sinner like myself because I, who have been so loved, have
disregarded that love and I have made myself in the central value of my existence.
There can be no progress in the way of penance if one has not deepend the awareness of
sin in oneself. The beginning of penance is to feel oneself to be truly a sinner before
above all to put God at the center of all my considerations and Christ at the center of
all my actions. Each day my journey in penance must embrace this conversion of spirit and
body in such a way that my spirit and body will be one in harmony giving credit to God
while claiming nothing for myself. Penance has in itself this radical poverty. It is God
Who gives me the possibility and power to do good. It is not my doing and thus any good I
do refers back to Him. And in my physical, corporeal life the body is the expression of my
spirit which points to God. One accepts this task: the Father works in me and I cooperate.
Should the body refuse the dignity of being the Image of the Body of Christ, in that case
St. Francis seeks penance, but only so that the body can realize itself.
The goal of this
life of Penance of St. Francis is Joy. The joy which is noted especially in humble people,
who may not even be aware that they are living in this way of penance. Joy which is so
rarely seen on the faces of the powerful and on those who believe themselves to be
important in life. Joy is this world thus becomes the joy for which we were created, that
joy which Christ in the Kingdom of His Father lives in His spirit and glorified body.
There can be no
being on the way of penance if one has not deepened the awareness of sin in himself. The
point of departure is to feel oneself truly a sinner in the presence of God. Conversion
means, before anything else, this: to put God at the center of all my considerations and
Christ at the center of all my interventions. My journey in penance must embrace each day
this conversion of spirit and body in such a way that my spirit may be always in agreement
crediting God while claiming nothing for itself. Penance has in itself this radiant
poverty. It is God who gives me the possibility and power to do good. It is not my doing
and thus the good goes back always to Him. In my physical, corporeal life, my body must
always be the dynamic sphere of my spirit which refers to God. A dynamic sphere is one
which embraces this work: the Father works and I also work. Should the body refuse this
dignity of being the image of the Body of Christ then St. Francis also seeks penance, but
seeks it so that the body can realize itself.
The result of this
penitential life of St. Francis is joy. The same joy which is seen especially in humble
people, who may be unaware that they are living in this way of penance. Joy which is
always very rare on the faces of the powerful and those who believe they have arrived. Joy
in this world is thus the anticipation of the joy for which we were created. That joy
which Christ in the Kingdom of the Father lives in His spirit and glorified body.
La Via della
Penitenza in Francesco d'Assisi
Cherubino Bigi, OFM
Franciscane Bologna, 1988
Fr. Seraphin J. Conley, T.O.R. & Fr. Patrick Quinn, T.O.R.