Having a change of heart about penance

We’re told that Lent is a “penitential season.” And so it is. But if our minds turn immediately to mite boxes, forgoing ice cream or TV or donning hair shirts (do they make these anymore?), then we aren’t seeing penance as clearly as the church sees it.

Two popular readings from the Gospel of Luke, one read in Lent and the other in the Easter season, clarify what stands at the heart of penance.

The parable of the prodigal son, read this year during the Second Week of Lent, speaks of, well, the prodigal son. Who doesn’t know this story? After collecting his father’s money and leaving home, this second son spends it on loose living, until he hits the bottom of a pig’s trough. From this lowly spot, the only way he can return to life is to turn around: “So he got up and went back to his father.”

The second scene sees Jesus walking along the road to Emmaus with the two disciples, blinded in their hearts by the confusion of Christ’s death. This episode is heard during the Octave of Easter. These disciples had literally turned their backs on Jerusalem — the Great King’s city! — and on the promise of its restoration. As Jesus explains how His story was foretold by Moses and the prophets, His traveling companions’ slow hearts quicken and their dim eyes brighten. When they stop and Jesus breaks the bread, their eyes finally open and see Him for who He really is. And then? “They set out at once and returned to Jerusalem.”

Both stories, so central to Lent’s penitential message, have a basic truth in common: turning around. And this turning around — also called conversion or metanoia — is the underlying reality of penance

By way of comparison to this understanding of conversion, the dizzying experience of vertigo gives one the sensation of turning around and around again. The root of the word, meaning “to turn” (vertere), is the same as in the word “con-version” (con-vertere). But unlike vertigo, where one seems to be spinning by oneself (much as Jimmy Stewart did in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller “Vertigo’) with neither direction nor purpose, the turning of heart that penance involves includes others — hence the prefix “con.” But who are the others assisting us in re-turning — to the Father’s house, like prodigal sons and daughters, or to the heavenly Jerusalem, like the pilgrims on the road? The whole church, in heaven and on earth. Penance, the catechism says, is both “personal and ecclesial.” (1423)

Similarly, that strange word referred to above, metanoia, means to change one’s mind — a metamorphosis of thought. Our intellect and our will are here turned back to God, changed from the half-truths and disordered desires they sought. At its core, then, penance turns one’s heart and mind back to God.

But that leaves one question: Where do the mite boxes and hair shirts come in?

As human beings, we possess both a body and a soul, the two elements comprising a singular being. We can communicate what’s in our soul through our body (through, for example, what we call “body language”). We also use our senses to comprehend in our minds and hearts the external physical world. It is in virtue of this integrity of body and soul that the interior and exterior work with one another.

In terms of penance’s conversion of heart and change of mind, the internal turns we experience within our souls often find external and bodily expressions. The prodigal son’s interior change of heart became an exterior and physical re-turn to his father. The Emmaus disciples’ recognition of the Truth before them resulted in their feet turning “at once” back to Jerusalem.

Lent’s penance, then, includes both body and soul, external and internal. When we see only one dimension, or to not keep both in clear focus, we risk darkening the enlightenment our baptism gives. When the Catechism lists “the many forms of penance in Christian life,” we might expect it to give a litany of tasks to be done. Yet it includes such things as concern for the poor, exercising and defending justice and right, admitting one’s own faults, examining one’s conscience, taking spiritual direction, going to Mass, reading sacred Scripture and praying the Liturgy of the Hours and the Lord’s Prayer. (1435-39) That reciting the Lord’s Prayer ought to be considered “penance” is not, on the surface, what we might expect. But when we understand what underlies penitential practices — conversion of heart and change of mentality — then it is clear how such a prayer helps turn us back to Our Father.

So, whether we own a hair shirt or not, we can all put our hearts and minds to the penitential test this Lent, and, like the prodigal returning to his father or the disciples returning to Jerusalem, return to God.

Christopher Carstens, Director of the Office for Sacred Worship

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