He who has been excommunicated from oratory and the community table is to prostrate himself in front of the oratory door when the Divine Office is concluding.
Do we need penance?
It all sounds very severe and humiliating to literally lie face down for an extended period of time in front of others. Two things to quickly note: one, to prostrate yourself has similar roots to the word ‘worship’ we prostrate ourselves before God, is this also ‘humiliating’? The second point is about the role of humiliation.
Humiliation means ‘to be humbled’ or ‘to be brought to a lowly position’. Prostrating oneself is going to the lowest one can go physically. What a wonderful enacting of a metaphysical positioning of the heart; we make visible that which is invisible, like a sacrament,
A Sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace, instituted for our justification (Cathech. Trident. II. i. 4)
Many commentators point out how alien this concept of physical manifestations of repentance is to our modern day sensibilities and it made me wonder, “why?”
Firstly there is a historical aspect to the thought of penance in this way. When we think of repentance we think of saying “sorry” but as my Mum used to say,
It’s no good just saying sorry, you have to mean it.
I’m afraid, Elton John, you might be wrong: ‘sorry’ isn’t the hardest word to say!
Repentance, in the Bible seems to require some physical acting out of the inward turning back, ultimately to God. John came to proclaim a baptism of repentance. To be baptised, therefore, is to physically and publicly enact your turning towards God with the symbolic burying (in the water) and the rising to new life (out of the water). As baptism cannot be repeated in fear of denying God’s eternal adoption of us into His Kingdom, the Early Church, and still in the Roman Catholic Church (amongst others), the role of penance became that symbol of re-turning after some sin or grievance had been made. Often these were a set of prayers or a pilgrimage to a particular holy site or relic.
During the time of the Crusades, however, the Church began to develop an idea of ‘indulgences’, a form of tax on repentance; one would pay for forgiveness/pardon from the Church as a form of penance. This was very lucrative and paid for the war against the Turks and the Ottoman Empire. Later, Pope Leo X needed funds to complete the building of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and so encouraged official pardoners to ‘cash in’ to cover the costs of the building project. These abuses were one of the primary causes of Martin Luther’s Wittenberg protest which officially started the Reformation.
We, in the protestant West, feel uncomfortable with St. Benedict’s use of ‘satisfaction’ for grievances because it flies too close to penance and indulgences. We want to reject that and proclaim freedom from such arcane understandings but we can’t fully believe this freedom to be true. We still have, in post-reformation religion, the language of penal substitution. Penal Substitution is the idea that Christ, by his freely chosen and perfect sacrifice on the cross, was penalised for sins we, ourselves should suffer for. Christ satisfies the demands of justice and pays the price of sin; death. The language of this theory is so transactional: payment of debts, satisfying an angry God who demands we repay Him for grievances against Him. It is too karmic for me and not enough of the power grace.
Luther was protesting against a system which had abused this ‘transactional’ approach to forgiveness and so used the language understood by the people to say,
Christ has paid off your debts. You don’t need to pay money or do anything except accept the forgiveness. If you need to feel that the indulgence or penance is completed then think of it as Christ doing it for you.
This is correct; we don’t need to pay someone to earn forgiveness from God, it is freely given by His grace. The problem, however, is we have not fully grasped the reality of the end of the transactional view of God’s justice. Grace, in my reading of Scripture, doesn’t say Christ participated in a real transaction with a wrathful God who is waiting for us all to balance our books. Grace speaks of Christ belittling and revealing the weakness of such an approach altogether. God was not separate from the cross, He was on the cross. God wasn’t receiving payment for sins, He was entering into the stupidity of that sacrificial system to end it, making it obsolete.
I don’t think Christ was paying God for my sins because I don’t think God is needs something to balance out my bad deeds before he forgives; he surely isn’t that petty. God does not withhold his mercy, that’s the wonderful truth about grace.
This notion of substitution centres in on Paul’s words in Romans 6:23,
For the wages of sin is death…
Correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t see where this literal idea comes from. I read these words as meaning that if we sin, i.e. we turn away from God, reject God, deny Him, we die. This makes sense if God is the giver and sustainer of life. God offers us, in relationship with Him, life and if we move away from the source of life we will die. Where did we get this notion that if we sin God will actively cut us off as a punishment?
To put it in another way, we don’t need to pay God for our sins because He isn’t asking for payment. The wages aren’t coming from God. We will receive death, not from God but as a natural consequence of refusing the payment of life. As Paul goes on to say in Romans 6:23,
…but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We want to live under the stick and know punishment. God wants us to live in true freedom and to know His free gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord, the source of abundant life.
Try reading Matthew 25:31-46, the image of the sheep and the goats, without the concept of karma (we need to have more good deeds by our name than bad) or balance books or any form of transactional justice. We naturally want to see this view of judgement as God, sat on His throne in heaven, with a list seeing who’s been naughty and nice. God is not Santa so let’s start believing that fact! The wonderful truth about God’s grace is that He’s not counting. He offers us the free gift of life which we can receive with joy or opt out of.
St. Benedict’s proposed ‘satisfication’ may strike us as too petty and humiliating but some of us still hold too much to a similar view when we preach the cross as ‘satisfaction’ of an angry God.
The Liberalism Delusion
The second aspect to why our modern sensibilities think this concept of physical manifestations of repentance is alien is cultural.
This Christmas there’s one book that I would really like (no pressure!) and that’s John Marsh’s book, ‘The Liberalism Delusion’. Regular readers of my blog will know my blatant disagreements with the form of liberalism prevalent in British culture today. John Marsh, in his synopsis of his book, sums up my questions concisely. He suggests that the flaws in liberalism are: ‘human nature is good and rational’, ‘the more freedom the better’, ‘morality is unnecessary’, ‘the individual is of overriding importance’, ‘greater equality is always beneficial’, ‘science is certain and benign’, ‘religion is untrue and harmful’, ‘history and tradition are unimportant’, ‘universalism and multiculturalism are beneficial’ and ‘we are shaped by our experiences not by our genes’.
I might, if I get hold of the book, write a full review of the book but for now it would be worth taking three of these ‘flaws’/‘delusions’ and outlining his proposition in our current discussion on penance and repentance.
Firstly, ‘human nature is good and rational’.
At the heart of liberalism – and of its forerunner the Enlightenment – is the rejection of the Judeo-Christian belief that human nature is flawed, believing instead that we are born good and wise; although later warped and corrupted by parents and society. These ideas became popular in the 1960s, especially in areas like education, which became child-centred. This led to the decline of discipline and undermined parental authority. However recent scientific discoveries in genetics – including the Human Genome Project – and in psychology have shown that human nature is indeed flawed. In religious jargon we are sinners; and science has proved it. (John Marsh, “‘The Liberal Delusion’ by John Marsh – synopsis”, Anglican Mainstream, December 2 2014, http://anglicanmainstream.org/the-liberal-delusion-by-john-marsh-synopsis/)
With this view of human nature, sin becomes an unnecessary and dirty, guilt inducing lie to keep us trapped, unable to flourish, rather than the fact of our own brokenness and need for healing. If human’s are essentially good then we are innocent until proven guilty. The problem, however, is that liberalism also promotes the idea that ‘morality is unnecessary’.
If we are good we do not need morality, restraints, regulations or religion. Many liberals regard moral rules as unproven, unscientific and having a traditional or religious basis; they maintain children should be free to make up their own minds on morals, without the influence of parents or schools. So undermining morality is consistent with liberal principles; the outcome is a society that is non-judgemental, value-free and amoral. (John Marsh, “‘The Liberal Delusion’ by John Marsh – synopsis”)
If we desire a society which is value-free and non-judgemental then the sort of penance that St. Benedict is proposing is bound to be out-dated and alien; this is religion at its most harmful! The wisdom of the Christian tradition, however, witnesses to our deep need to enact, embody and manifest that which is internal. We are symbolic creatures who benefit from ‘making visible that which is invisible’. This tradition of physicalising repentance is much more than proving to one another the truth and completeness of a transformation or ‘rebirth’, it is also about proving it to ourselves. We mark in history, physically, the momentous occasion of a decision; we sign a document, we submerge and re-emerge from water we gather witnesses to testify to a declaration of belief and change of heart/mind.
Our liberal culture would refuse this, however, because ‘history and tradition are unimportant’.
Many liberals regard the past as an era of ignorance, superstition and darkness best forgotten, and strive to free people from history and tradition. So in liberal societies there is a tendency for the past to be forgotten, and for history to be downgraded as a subject in schools. However history is necessary for our self-understanding and identity.
In my mind there is a more dangerous characteristic of our liberal society and it, ironically, shares this with other fanatical ideologies such as fascism and communism and that’s not only the forgetting of the past but the re-writing or re-interpreting of the past.
I have already outlined my discomfort of the projecting onto of the story of St Aelred of Rievaulx, reframing his ideas and ministry as overtly pro-homosexuality. Some have even gone as far as proclaiming St Aelred as ‘gay’. It’s wrong. Imagine, if I were in fifty years time, to promote the idea that Alan Turing was straight and he the way he lived his life was not what he truly wanted, there would be uproar and rightly so. If we view our travel through time as one of pure progress culturally, always becoming more and more enlightened then we will always feel the need to correct the stupid, narrow-minded ancestors and re-interpret them saying to ourselves,
What they meant to say was…
We cannot tell what they were thinking or seeing. We cannot teach them how to look at the world because they were different to us, not worse, different. We cannot colonise the past with our culture.
Indeed, when you explore monasticism as just one example, you discover that our fore-fathers and mothers made discoveries and solved problems we are struggling with today. There is a well-spring of wisdom we’d do well to draw from the past. We shoot ourselves in the foot when we reject the past as uninformed and bigoted; maybe it is us who have stepped back in our understanding of the world and ourselves as humanity.
Making amends is a natural desire of human beings. We want people to show us that they regret their actions or words against us. Before we forgive we want to know that we can trust them again. In this way, the ‘satisfaction’ St. Benedict is proposing is legitimate and understandable. The problem comes when we project that onto God in His dealings with us.
God does not require us to prove to Him our repentance for He knows our hearts and knows when we are truly turning to Him or not. Penance is for each other not God. In this way the ‘satisfaction’ is about reconciling the community together and not about the earning the reality of God’s mercy upon the sinner. The prostrating is not about earning forgiveness but about rebuilding trust and re-bonding the division made by the transgression.
In our churches there are times when we divide ourselves and others off from one another. We say something, or do something which hurts, disappoints and upsets a brother or sister. Saying “sorry” doesn’t rebuild trust, it may help, but it doesn’t complete it. Physicalising regret communicates a genuine change of heart and mind to the other and rebuilds relationship. If someone is unable to suffer public humiliation they will never achieve humility, which, as we are continually reminded of in the Rule of St. Benedict, is the very heart of healthy communities and the very centre of the Kingdom of God.
Merciful Father, we confess our sinfulness and praise you for your unending love, grace and forgiveness of us. We thank you that you are the source of life and we are invited to drink from that well. We thank you for the perfect revelation of your love through Jesus Christ on the cross. We thank you for suffering in that way to show us your character and desire for relationship with us.
Come, Lord Jesus.