What’s the Deal with Penance?

I think I must have struck a nerve with last week’s post on confession.

From ‘Hail Marys’ to Hair Shirts, why is it that everyone seems to want to know about those ways in which we punish ourselves for sins? In the wake of my recent post on reconcilliation, I’ve gotten several questions about those practices that we frequently see on television being doled out by priests in confessionals – or that our grandmother told us about as she recounted her own misspent youth as a practicing Catholic.

Today, we dust-off the penitentiary and explore these ancient practices.

While penitence, the “worthy lamentation” of your misdeeds has been a part of the formula for forgivenesss since ancient days, the trranslation of this into a system of set ‘penalties’ for set infractions is a rather later development – at least for Christians. In fact, much of the earliest thinking of Christians (as well as later, Reformation thinkers) was quite to opposite. Formularies of penalties for sin felt too much like the sacrificial codes of ancient Judaism and were shunned as back-sliding into an outdated and wrong-headed legalism.

But, during the mid-to-late Middle Ages, when the western church was attempting to manage a diverse and growing body of faithful people with a declining and relatively uneducated clergy, th sense was that some codification of appropriate signs of penance was needed. Thus, beginning in Ireland in the 13th or 14th century, books of penitential actions, called penitentiaries began to be punished.

These books, rooted deeply in the casuistry (formulary rather than precedent-based legal codes) of the time listed common sins alongside appropriate marks of lamentation ranging from time spent in prayer, to increasingly strict self discipline and denial, to mortification of the flesh and even self-mutilation. (These last two were always offered in the context of strict oversite and were ultimately removed from most subsequent volumes.)

As with most things, what began as a tool to inform people about their options became, ultimately a weapon used to limit them. As we see reflected in popular (though not always fair or accurate) depictions of both medical and modern sinners, the books and their contents ultimately began to be understood as penalties, punishments and even payments for sins. “Good” equivalents used as a medium of exchange for “Bad” deeds done in the past. This is the kind of stuff that drives reformers mad.

Thus, one of the major theological arguments that drove Luther and other 16th century reforms was the abolition of penitenitaries (the books, not the buildings) and the priviledging of group confession in the context of a church service. This remains the practice of most non-Roman Catholics today although many traditions, like mine, still have rites for private confession and absolution that include the assignments of acts of penance as a part of the encounter.

From my point of view, these acts are still useful even when they are not seen as “payment” or “restitution” for sin. For the most part, suggesting that someone spend an additional amount of time in prayer or study is a way to encourage them to spend more time with God. Particularly in the case where someone is having trouble getting their mind around the severity of their sin, or, more commonly, getting their mind around God’s forgiveness of the sin, tie spent in prayer can be seriously effective in developing a sense of closeness to God. Its kinda cool how that works.

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