PENITENCE IS ESSENTIAL to the Christian and Catholic life. It is so presented to us in the pages of the New Testament. When John the Baptist, forerunner of the Lord, appears to prepare the way for the Christ, his message is a message of penitence, "Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." When our Lord Himself begins his preaching ministry, His message at the start, we are told, is identical with that of John, "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand." It is as though He would set before us forever the truth that no one can prepare himself to receive His teachings, save by this way of repentance, of penitence.
Now, repentance is possible only to those who have a consciousness of sin. The Greek word metanoia, which is translated by our English word "repentance," means literally, as everyone knows, "a changing of the mind." But you cannot "change your mind" if you are quite satisfied with your mind as it is. You cannot repent if you have nothing to repent of. Penitence presupposes sin. The Prayer Book Catechism places "Repentance, whereby they forsake sin," with faith as one of the two things required of those who approach Holy Baptism. But you cannot forsake sin, if there is no sin to be forsaken. Only those who desire to be saved can wish for a Saviour. Self-complacency, self-satisfaction, the assurance that nothing is wrong with one's life—none of these attitudes is compatible with penitence, or Catholicism, or Christianity. That was the surprising truth which our Lord set before the Pharisees who noted that He seemed to prefer the company of publicans and sinners. "They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." The great truth of the necessity of penitence is most movingly put before us in the words of William Blake:
"If I were pure, never could I taste the sweets
Of the forgiveness of sins. If I were holy, I never could behold the tears
Of Love—O Mercy! O Divine Humanity!
O Forgiveness, O Pity and Compassion! If I were pure I should never
Have known thee" (Jerusalem, LXI, 44).
It is only through real penitence, it is only by contrition, that the Saviour can come to the human soul. The door by which Christ enters the soul is the gateway of a broken and contrite heart. Penitence is not remorse, though sometimes remorse may lead to penitence. Punishment in the form of suffering, in body or in mind, frequently falls upon the sinner as a result of his sin, but a mere desire to escape such suffering is not what the Catholic means by penitence. It is the vision of Jesus Christ and Him crucified, it is the knowledge that that crucifixion is caused by my sin, it is the revelation of sin as love rejected, love crucified, love done to death, which brings true penitence to the heart of the sinner. He does not so much wish to escape the punishment and suffering due to his sin, as to seek the restoration of that wondrous love which he now perceives he has so callously spurned. Like the Prodigal Son, he "comes to himself," his true self, as a child of God. And like the prodigal, grace is given him to say, "I will arise and go to my Father"—a difficult, painful, humiliating thing—"and will say unto him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. Make me as one of thy hired servants." Let me take the punishment I so richly deserve for my sin, but let me also remain where I may from time to time see thy face, and be near that source of love from which I so selfishly separated myself." True penitence springs not from the fear of God, but rather from a true realization of the love of God—God's love for me, revealed in the Face and in the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.
The passages of Holy Scripture which in our familiar King James Version are translated as "Repent ye," are translated in the Roman Catholic Douai Version, by the words, "Do penance." This particular translation of the Greek has been criticized, and rightly, as a mistranslation, if we interpret the words as meaning that any amount of outward penitential exercises—fasting and the like—can take the place of that inward change of heart and mind, which is implied in the Greek word metanoeite. No outward penance by itself can ever secure from God forgiveness of sin and restoration to His love and favor. It is only a complete change of heart, an entire forsaking of sin, a firm resolve by God's grace never to sin again, that can secure to the Christian, through the merits of Christ Jesus, the gift of forgiveness. Nevertheless, the thought of some outward acts of penance, implying a willingness to accept the pain and suffering due to sin, is an inevitable accompaniment of a true penitence. This we have already seen in our analysis of the attitude of the Prodigal Son. The human heart desires to suffer in order to exhibit its sorrow. "Make me as one of thy hired servants." The penitent Catholic will wish to do penance. That desire to avoid pain at all costs, which but too frequently leads us into sin, is changed into an attitude of willing acceptance of pain as a pledge of our real sorrow for our sin. The penitent Catholic offers his penance, his suffering, his pains, as a burden gladly and joyfully borne in union with Jesus, who has called upon His followers to take up their cross and follow Him.
How beautifully touching is the penance recorded by Boswell of the great Dr. Johnson:
"'Once indeed,' said he, 'I was disobedient; I refused to attend my father at Uttoxeter market. Pride was the source of that refusal, and the remembrance of it was painful. A few years ago I desired to atone for the fault. I went to Uttoxeter in very bad weather, and stood for a considerable time, bareheaded in the rain, on the spot where my father's stall used to stand. In contrition I stood, and I hope the penance was expiatory.'" (Life: Autumn of 1784.)
Such a penance is an outward and visible sign of a real inward penitence. It is indeed sacramental. That is one of the reasons that Catholic Christians make their confession to God in the presence of a priest. They do not deny that God forgives the sins of all true penitents who turn to Him in real contrition of heart and with faith in the Atonement made for them by Jesus on Calvary. But a mere inward repentance is for them not enough. They are persuaded that our Lord Himself gave power to His Church to assure forgiveness to penitent sinners. They believe that the words which He spoke to His disciples after His Resurrection were not meaningless or unimportant. "Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose soever sins ye remit they are remitted unto them, and whose soever sins ye retain they are retained." In this double power of forgiving or retaining sins, they see the necessity of confessing those sins to God in the presence of one to whom our Lord has delegated this power, in order that he may judge whether or no they are really penitent and capable of receiving this priceless boon of forgiveness. They are aware that the Episcopal Church in the solemn words used at the ordination of priests plainly states that this power given by our Lord to His disciples is in turn given to the priest: "Receive the Holy Ghost. . . . Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained." They are unwilling, in the face of these facts, to refuse to come in a way which may be difficult, painful, humiliating, but which seems to be Christ's way and the Church's way, and make their confession to God.
Just because it is difficult and real and humiliating, such a sacramental confession often proves to be a real outward penance, accompanying and resulting in that true inward penitence which is so necessary. There was a woman in the Bible who was a sinner—a great sinner. She was sorry for her sins, she was a true penitent. She was not content to remain at home, she came openly to Jesus, a difficult and painful thing to do. He was at a banquet in the house of a prominent Pharisee. All uninvited, she rushes in, caring not for any of the others. And she "stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment" which she had brought with her. Simon the Pharisee and the others did not approve. But our Lord pronounces on this outward act of penance a great blessing. It was the sign of a true inward penitence. "Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much."
Our penitence, often so cold, so unreal, so ineffective, is it not perhaps so because we have never let it express itself outwardly in any acts of penance? The Catholic knows that by a good confession there has often come to him an inward knowledge of the meaning of his sin, an inward penitence, which can be his in no other way. Many of us will never cease to thank Almighty God, as one of the greatest blessings which He has bestowed upon us, for the words or events which led us to make our first confession of sin to Him in the presence of His priest. As we arose from that difficult act we felt and knew the meaning of that wonderful peace of God which passeth all understanding.
But however wonderful may have been that first experience of the full meaning of penitence, the Catholic Christian knows that penitence must be for him a life-long discipline. The chains of our sins which tie and bind us are not often snapped at once. Our penitence needs constantly to grow. As we go on in the Christian life, as by God's grace we draw nearer to Jesus, we are enabled to see more and more plainly many sins, many defects, many inconsistencies of which we were scarcely aware at the beginning of our conversion. We find it necessary from time to time to come again to Jesus' feet to tell Him the whole sad story, to renew our sorrow and our desire of amendment, to realize more clearly than before that only by allowing Christ to have the whole of our lives, that only by distrusting self greatly, and by trusting Him greatly, can we make our lives worthy of the great vocation to which we are called. So the Catholic Christian finds it necessary to continue to use sacramental confession. It is constantly necessary to remind ourselves that we are as yet far from having attained, though indeed we press onwards towards the mark of our high calling in Christ Jesus. To rest self-satisfied with our progress at any point, to lose the spirit of penitence, is to declare at once that we have no further use for the Saviour, it is to separate ourselves from Jesus by that most terrible of all sins, spiritual pride. "The last state of that man is worse than the first." So, too, as we go on, we may come to realize that we are called to share vicariously in penitence for others, for those who are out of the way, for those who know not our Lord. Thus to take upon oneself the burden of the sins of others is to draw very near to Jesus, who for love of all bore the sins of the whole world. Such a penitence is not unreal. The great saints have all known it, and shared in it. It is a penitence, this vicarious penitence for the sins of others, which arises out of the fact of the solidarity of the human race. Since we are indeed members one of another, I must really participate somehow in my brother's sin. Penitence, then, can never cease on earth. And in heaven? In heaven, too, penitence, we believe, will have its place. There will be there the fulness of joy. How can we express the joy of the fellowship of the saints, the joy of God's presence, the joy of beholding Jesus in His Beauty? And yet, even there in Heaven, as we behold Him we shall see the wounds in hands and feet and side. In those wounds is joy, in those wounds is healing, in those wounds is the price of our redemption. In beholding Him there will be the fulness of joy, but it will be a penitential joy. For those wounds are the wounds of sin—of my sin. How great is my joy as I behold them and wonder at the glory of His redeeming love! But how deep, too, my penitence, as I ponder in those eternal wounds the astounding mystery that "where sin abounded, grace did much more abound."