Friday, June 25, 2010

pondering penance...

... I've heard rumors of a time once when penance was given to suit the severity of the sin. The more grave the sin the stern the consequences. I know there are still priests out there who ascribe to this formula; however, they are not the majority. At least from my experience.

Without getting into the personal nature of my sins and transgressions, let's just say there are times when I feel like short of murdering some one I will never get more than the standard three Hail Mary's and one Our Father.

I've actually wondered how far I could go. What does one have to do to get an entire rosary as penance?! I'm going to completely honest here, but the pansy penance's are not going to keep from wanting to sin again. It's my developed sense of Catholic conscience that keeps me from the really horrible stuff.

On a sillier note; sometimes I think about the penance's I would give if I were a priest. I'm speaking hypothetically here, not heretically. I know I wouldn't be able to resist having a bit of fun with it... for the person who was a glutton their penance would be to serve meals at a local homeless shelter. The vain woman would have to go to work for a week without make up and jewelry; her only accessory being a pair of Birkenstocks. Or make some one stand around holding one of those "Free Hugs" sings, or attend a charismatic tambourine mass... the possibilities are endless.

My point, the standard 3 Hail Mary's seems a bit uncreative and uninspired is all. I'm sure there's more to it that I am missing. Maybe there's some prescribed rule of penance one of my good priestly readers can inform me of... but admit it, haven't you wanted to tell some one, just once, that they need to wear a hair shirt and whip themselves.

44 comments:

Angela M. said...

Best penance ever - I had to pray two decades of the Rosary and meditate on The Fall of Adam and Eve.

Faith said...

One time I was told to go out of my way to help someone. I had the hardest time completing that penance. It seemed that every time I did something for somebody, I'd think on it, and come to the conclusion that I would have done that anyway, so it didn't count as fulfilling the penance.

Linda said...

When I came back to the Church after many, many years and went to confession, the priest, who was an old-timer (and retired), gave me a whole rosary for a penance. Took me a long time to complete it.

Mark Scott Abeln said...

I used to go to an Opus Dei priest - he gave relatively severe penances and was an expert spiritual director, and it seems as though he could read my heart.

s-p said...

I was once told "do something good for someone anonymously and tell NO ONE about it"... a penance for my tendency to do my good deeds in public. Its the hardest penance I've ever gotten, and still haven't fulfilled it. sigh.

Anita Moore said...

My point, the standard 3 Hail Mary's seems a bit uncreative and uninspired is all. I'm sure there's more to it that I am missing.

Maybe the thing you're missing is the merit of obedience. Surrendering your will. Doing something you were told to do even though you feel like doing something else.

Adrienne said...

When I returned to the church and made a general confession, my penance was to drive to Cataldo Mission (Idaho's oldest church and a state historic site) which took about 40 minutes. Once there I was to do the stations of the cross. I had to do this every day for TWO weeks. I didn't think that was good enough so I stayed and did a rosary after the stations.

It was very early spring and cold and damp. I ended up getting sick. I did, however, make a good friend of the state park officer.

Mary said...

I've never gotten say three Hail Mary's and an Our Father...I've gotten everything from grow tomato plants, to go to mass and receive communion every time I go(I deal with scrupulosity), to read x book (which is divided into weeks) and do what it says, to pray y prayer for 2 weeks.

Pebbles said...

I got a whole rosary after my first post-baptism confession. I'm not going to say what you have to do to get it but I will say I deserved it. Actually I probably deserved the hair shirt. Honestly I didn't know it was a 'hard' penance until I read your post since I haven't been back since (not b/c the severity of the penance mind you).

BTW, I like the pic, where's it from?

Rick said...

Excellent conversation starter and clever penances because they fit the sin. If Sr. Keehan will actually repent and confess, I'd tell her to retract her support for Obamacare and go on a speaking tour about supporting the unborn in the political realm.

carina said...

I'm not a priest either, but one priest told me that the reason why they usually tell us to pray certain prayers for certain number of times, vs something more creative and perhaps more vague, is so that we wouldn't walk around thinking "have I completed the penance?"

Also, it's probably not common practice now but I think some priests still do it, but I heard once that some priests also perform the penance that they give to the penitents. They might want to avoid giving such heavy penance. ;p

G said...

Leave it to Kat to think of this creative post...

I've gotten a whole rosary several times over the years as well as memorize Scripture passages, perform Corporal Works of Mercy etc. But then, that probably says more about the horrible nature of my sins than the priests who give me penances!

I have to agree with you though, it seems like the 3 Hail Mary approach is too rote to be too effective.

Cam said...

Our usual confessor gives out penances that range from 5-8 Hail Mary's. Since my husband and I usually end up going one after the other it's turned into-

"how many did you get?"
"eight. what about you?"
"I only got six." (raised eyebrows)

And since I've been hormonal and pregnant chances are the confession involves an argument we've had that we're both confessing.

The other priest at our parish does give more creative penances... which has left me in the past wondering if I've completed them... does saying a certain prayer every morning have a time limit? is it just until my next confession? So I am a little relieved to know I'm done after my (usually) eight Hail Mary's.

Christine the Soccer Mom said...

I've had priests who have given me penances based on the sin (uncharitable talk and gossip = Letter of St. James once), but sometimes I think that my attitude about the sin - my own feelings of contrition - drive the penance. I've confessed something small-ish and gotten a "harsher" penance (none seem that bad) than when I went into the confessional and burst into tears over something I'd just done less than an hour before. (That was grace that day. I was distraught, Father had not yet announced he was hearing Confession at this time of the week, and I was trying to prepare for Mass knowing I couldn't receive Communion until I'd had Confession. Big Girl said, "Father's hearing Confession; I'm going," and I was right after her.)

Anyway, I think priests probably take lots of things into consideration. Ever hear what Dr. Ray says about his wife's first Confession when she converted? It's hysterical!

Just another mad Catholic said...

hmmm I know what you mean Kat; the biggest penance I've ever been given is a decade of the Rosary. Personally I think we should all be doing extra to make up for the pitiful pennances we're given. Because (a) it shows that we actually love God that we're willing to go the extra mile and (b) it'll shorten our times in the flames of purgutory.

Karen said...

The toughest penance I've ever had involved reading a certain chapter in 2 Timothy over the course of several days along with with a few prayers. I went in expecting the standard 1 Hail Mary penance that this priest always seems to give and I was surprised. I think Father was being creative that day because everyone that got him was in there for a while.

TCN said...

Oh come now. I've gotten the "do something completely charitable for your nasty sister." Deserved it, too. Took me three months, and that was hard, being unable to receive for that long. That was probably the true penance--the separation. Worked, too. I haven't had to make that particular confession since.

Dan said...

There is a wonderful group called The Brothers and Sisters of Penance. They model their lives after the original rule that Saint Francis gave to the laity. The rule contains days of fasting and abstinence.

I encourage all to check them out at

http://www.bspenance.org/

Christina said...

The priests I go to usually have some series of prayers and occasionally give me "extra-curricular assignments." For example, my penance will be 3 Hail Mary's and my other assignment will be to read St Faustina's book, or do something kind for person X, etc.

One of the best penances I've ever received was to take a rosary and say "Jesus I trust in you" on every bead. I sobbed like a baby. Although, I suppose the emotion was connected to the grace of the sacrament because I've done that again (I usually end the Divine Mercy chaplet that way) and not had the same reaction.

JP said...

I've found that FSSP priests tend to be quite strict. Most recently, after having to beg him to actually give me absolution (I've struggled with a genuine pornography/sex addiction since 8 years of age, and fail quite often), I'm given a whole rosary, told to say three Ave Marias every morning and night for holy purity, and told to make a habit of receiving daily communion. Even one of the Novus Ordo priests will routinely give ten Pater Nosters, ten Aves, and ten Gloria Patri's. The priests here (Sugar Land, TX, at St. Theresa's, and Annunciation in downtown Houston) seem to have their things in order. Confession isn't an especially casual experience.

Suibhne said...

I brought this up once and it was suggested that I ponder the depth of God's mercy that He would let me get off with such an easy penance.

fuinseoig said...

Did get the standard "say three Hail Marys" penance on my returning confession, but it was linked to "in honour of the Holy Trinity" which made me think about it and not just rattle it off.

That was good.

Owen said...

Best penance ever was one Hail Mary. If you are interested I can explain why.

Just another mad Catholic said...

What I like about FSSP priests is that in my experiance they actually walk you through your sins and try and work out how you can avoid repeating them - I still haven't got a full Rosary from them yet.

What annoyed me about the cannon of the Cathedral is that even though I begged him for a stiff penance he still only gave me one Our Father.

Nan said...

Recently, as penance, I received the exact thing I was going to do after Confession. A few days later, I began to ask a priest how that could at all be penitential, and after going off on a tangent before I could complete my question, he told me that penance is more about contrition and obedience than about difficulty. He believes that penance should be simple and that the penitent should be able to complete it after Confession, rather than being in a position to wonder whether they got all the information and if they actually had completed the penance; people tell him about complicated penance received from other priests.

The most difficult penance I have ever received was a decade of the Rosary a week and a half after I had first prayed it; keeping in mind that I wasn't raised with religion and knew Our Father and that I also needed Hail Mary and Glory Be, neither of which I knew. The priest told me I could keep it (the penance), and eventually I started to go all the way around. Approximately a year later, a different priest gave me the same penance and I laughed because a decade of the rosary is no longer so difficult.

Just another mad Catholic said...

@JP
I sympathise brother; porn is an evil thing that should be burnt and destroyed. Just invite Jesus into every PART of your life and I mean EVERY part of your life since you were eight (remember those moments are as present to him as is the present is to you) and ask him to take control of that part of your life and to wipe the memories clean, to heal your disordered passions and to make your soul anew. also (it sounds like your doing this already) but plead with Our Lady to heal your wounds and to give you the grace to withstand temptation - peronsally I reccomend a full 15 decades (takes anyhere from 1-2 hours) of her Rosary each day , St Louis De monforts method is brilliant), something I know that helps i to begin a great devotion to one of the Virgin Martyrs; learn to love women chastely and your problems with porn WILL go away.

A Year of Cooking Dangerously said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Linda said...

Owen...yes, please do explain the one Hail Mary!

Ben said...

I used to think it was absurd to get such "easy" penances. The one day I realized... the easy, silly ones required more humility on my part in fulfilling them because I didn't get the self-satisfaction of doing something grand afterward.

Mitch said...

My favorite penances are when I am told to meditate on a chapter of the Psalms (the priest I often goes to always picks a good one that fits with what I have said). It leaves me thinking but it still can be hard to get it to stick. One time a priest even told me to read all of John's Gospel... that was one of my hefty penances (and I felt like I hadn't done nearly as much as times when I was given the 3 Hail Mary standard... but oh well it was good for me).

Physical penances like feeding the homeless would be cool. A lot of organic farms and even regular farms take volunteers. For many sins telling the penitent to go volunteer half a day at one of these places would be a really good penance (at least for me, half a day of hard work, but work directly with God's creation, working to subdue the earth)

Owen said...

Linda,
Ben pre-empted me :)

Even so, here's my story.

I heard of an Opus Dei priest in the area doing monthly evenings of reconciliation for men with the opportunity for Confession. I went.

I was hoping for a priest who could dish it out. Something solid, difficult, measurable, even physical (not S&M but maybe hauling trash down at the mission or visiting someone I can't stand and doing nice things for them). It seems I, as many, had confused punishment with penance. I seemed to have rather quickly adopted a "Catholic" mindset. I thought, yeah, this Opus Dei dude will really lay it on. I took him my worst. He gave me "one Hail Mary."

Right there, on the other side of the screen I nearly said, "Seriously?" I held out for the inevitable, "And jump a tall building in a single bound, while reciting the rosary seven times" but I got silence until I said, "Yes Father." I thought, "you gotta be kidding" and within a few days I actually complained to my Spiritual Director.

My SD, a diocesan priest but a "friend" of Opus Dei with an Opus Dei Confessor and SD himself, asked me what I understood about the Hail Mary.

I gave him my convert best and he told me that I had done well to understand it with my head but that I had not embraced the fullness of that prayer, the reality of "grace" expressed in that prayer with my heart nor did I grasp the totality of surrender as our Holy Mother understood and lived surrender. He further explained that many Opus Dei priests will give a "light" penance but then do some form of redemptive suffering on behalf of the penitent.

I was stunned (no jokes please). Right then I needed Confession again. How foolish and small minded I had been. How had could I have mistaken the grace of God as sissified stuff or lame Catholicism. How incredibly judgemental I had become, how pompous and self righteous. What a hypocrite.

It's probable by the tone of a number of the other good responses here that my own response will seem weak or wrong headed. I accept that.

Adoro said...

Newsflash: the penance isn't ABOUT "you". Or any of us.

It can't make satisfaction for sin. Only Christ can do that. That's what the "easy" penances are for; to help us see that there is nothing we can do to satisfy the debt of sin. Our penances are an act of love for Christ because that's all we can ever do, and no, it's not enough. It's not supposed to be.

That said, I did once receive the penance of an entire rosary. I had already been in Adoration for an hour (confessions follow my Adoration hour), and needed to go. I had confessed a sin relating to impatience; nothing mortal at all in my entire confession that day.

I knelt down and had to struggle not to gripe to myself...and that's when I "got it". The priest had made his point (or rather, God's point!)

Yup...helping me grow in patience! ;-)

Kat said...

The "biggest" penance I ever got was a rosary every day for a week.

Just another mad Catholic said...

I was on a day retreat last weekend and some of the more 'liberal' Catholics there were shocked when I said that if I was a priest I'd be giving tough pennances e.g. a couple using artaficial contraception would have to abstain from marital relations for a year (this did used to happen); when they told me that such a pennance would be to harsh I told them something along the lines of they had no idea what the words 'pennance and mortification' mean.

Cecilia said...

I was once told to visit an insane asylum, or--since there were none in the area--spend a good solid hour listening to someone who was seriously mentally ill.

That was rather more creative than I was looking for....

3puddytats said...

One priest I used to go to for confession would assign you passages out of the Bible to read..so unless you had a mind like a steel trap you'd better bring in a notebook and paper to write down your penance...the first couple of times I didn't know this so sure enough as soon as I'd leve the confessional I'd forget what I was supposed to read...nothing like going BACK to the confessional to ask the preist to repeat the penance as I had "forgotten."....

Sara

Anita Moore said...

What annoyed me about the cannon of the Cathedral is that even though I begged him for a stiff penance he still only gave me one Our Father.

That was a good mortification, then: overcoming the reluctance to obey.

The Crescat said...

and this is why I love you all...

Owen, Anita and Adoro... thank you for the simple blunt truth.

Pennycake said...

"St. Philip Neri was an enemy of solemnity and conventionality. When some of his more pompous penitents made their confession to him (he was famous as a confessor) he imposed salutary and deflating penances on them, such as walking through the streets of Rome carrying his cat (he was very fond of cats). When a novice showed signs of excessive seriousness, Philip stood on his head in front of him, to make him laugh. When people looked up to him too much, he did something ridiculous so that they should not respect someone who was no wiser – and no less sinful – than they were. In every case there was an excellent point to his pranks: to combat pride, or melancholy, or hero-worship."
http://www.universalis.com/

For penance at my 2nd-last Confession (in uni in Brisbane), I had to say a rosary for each of the people I sinned against; and for my father's penance (in Singapore), he had to take my mother shopping (he hates it 'cos to him (and me) it's so pointless!)

Pennycake said...

here's more!

"Humility was the most important virtue he tried to teach others and to learn himself. Some of his lessons in humility seem cruel, but they were tinged with humour like practical jokes and were related with gratitude by the people they helped. His lessons always seem to be tailored directly to what the person needed. One member who was later to become a cardinal was too serious and so Philip had him sing the Misere at a wedding breakfast. When one priest gave a beautiful sermon, Philip ordered him to give the same sermon six times in a row so people would think he only had one sermon.
Philip did not escape this spiritual mortification himself. As with others, his own humbling held humour. There are stories of him wearing ridiculous clothes or walking around with half his beard shaved off. The greater his reputation for holiness, the sillier he wanted to seem. When some people came from Poland to see the great saint, they found him listening to another priest read to him from joke books."
http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=97

quotes from St. Philip Neri:
“Cheerfulness strengthens the heart and makes us persevere in a good life. Therefore the servant of God ought always to be in good spirits.”
"A glad spirit attains to perfection more quickly than any other."

Smiley said...

Kat,
This would depend on the priest in the confessional and how well he knows the penitent. We have a preist here in good ol Canada and in the begining it was say 3 Our fathers and 3 Haily Maries (he is african so his engilsh is quite cute sometimes).
Then as time passed and he got to know the penitent and thier tendencies to fall into certian things, the penances got more approrpiate. For Example, person A gives into his apetietes, so for your penance have one less spoon of sugar in your coffee, or dont trun the shower up so hot.
This preist is a gem, when he sits for confession the lines go on and on and on. Thank God for him. He usually ends with please pray for many otehrs who have forgotten this sacrament so that they return.

Janny said...

JP-

If you truly have a porn/sexual addiction, don't think it necessarily leaves at the confessional OR with your "learning to love women chastely." If you can do that, it's not an addiction, just a persistent sin. If you CAN'T do that, all the praying in the world may not be able to bring you to recovery by itself.

No, I don't deny the power of the Sacrament...but if it's a true addiction, you might need the help of others (i.e., a 12 Step Group, a counselor, a combination of those things) in ADDITION to regularly participating in the Sacraments. There's nothing "sinful" about a true addiction, even though the acting out of it leads to sin. But I have a knee-jerk reaction to a lot of spiritual guidance that seems to say, "If you just a) go to Confession b) go to Mass enough c) do enough other penances, d) DECIDE to be pure, e) etc., etc., etc., "God will take away this addiction"--with the corresponding converse that if God DOESN'T take it away, that you just weren't "spiritual enough." That kind of advice does far more harm than good.

Not everything on this earth, especially sinful addictions, can be "cured" by merely "getting more spiritual" and "resolving." Some of it's physiological. Some of it's chemical. Some of it comes from deep emotional wounds. The whole person needs treatment and healing at that point. To imply that there's no need to go outside the Church for such help is, IMHO, as irresponsible as telling a person with a ruptured appendix to go get the Anointing of the Sick as their sole treatment. None of us would consider that advice responsible; why should an addiction be any different?

Please, please, please...if this is truly an addiction that you can't stop yourself from doing, that's why God placed helpers on this earth. Use them.

JB

Pebbles said...

Pennycake,
Thanks for posting. I wasn't familiar with St. Neri. That's hilarious ... and good advice, too. Humility works wonders. Sounds like my kind of confessor.

Robert said...

JMJ+OBT

I have thought and felt similarly as you have expressed, but I have never seriously considered what an answer may be until now. Not being a priest either, I wonder if, in addition to the suggestions that folks have left above, it may have something to do with helping penitents avoid the temptation to think that they have earned forgiveness through their own actions by performing rigorous penances. Closely related may be avoiding the temptation to spiritual pride.

I often try to remember that there is a difference between humility and humiliation. I often desire humiliation when I'm particularly entangled in spiritual pride ("How could I have committed that sin AGAIN?!") I have experienced humility most profoundly when I receive a gift far beyond any merit I might possibly possess--even if that merit be only in my mind. No gift apart from Jesus Himself in the Eucharist could approach the gift of the forgiveness of sins. (May I interiorize that fine observation with ever greater sincerity of heart!)

What penance would ever eradicate the smallest venial sin? Without our Father's Grace, nothing would come close, of course.

There is also an invitation to grow in faith through the reception and performance of such seemingly trivial or inadequate penances. Is Father standing in persona Christi or not? Is the Holy Spirit present and active in the sacrament as the priest tells us in the formula of absolution?

These points for meditation and opportunities to exercise both our faith and our will to trust that "He who promised is faithful" promise to carry us in prayer far beyond the obedient recitation of whatever prayers we were given to say as penance. Indeed, I think we will be a step closer to fulfilling our Lord's command to pray without ceasing. Once that happens--and AS it happens--we are on our way to developing a living relationship with our Lord. St. Josemaria Escriva once wrote: "Fall in love, and you will never leave him."

I've run out of time, and I've just realized that I was inserting my comments into the larger context of your original post, to which I was referring mentally as I typed. I hope I did it so as to have the points line up. Otherwise, the tenor of my remarks and observations could come off sounding condescending or sanctimonious, I fear. My apologies if this is the case. God's peace and blessings!