Cultivating the virtue of penance
by Fr. Roy Cimagala

This is just to be realistic about our human condition. It’s not to paint a dark world for ourselves. If we believe in God, we know that our life ought to be bright and cheerful, and that everything, including our mistakes, works out for the good.

But we cannot deny that we have weaknesses. There are temptations around. And in spite of our best efforts, we know that sooner or later we find ourselves falling into sin.

We need to know how to deal with these conditions. We need to find a way to derive some good from them, since if we have hope, some good can always be achieved from them.

We have to remember what St. John said about what we have to contend with in the world. “For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.” (1 Jn 2,16) With that warning alone, it would seem that we are doomed to fall one way or another, sooner or later.

St. Paul also points to us the tremendous evil spirits that we always have to do battle with. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 6,12) We need to process these words slowly, and be prepared for them to happen in our life.

It’s good that we never forget this reality. But we need to prepare ourselves for it. Precisely, the virtue of penance starts when we acknowledge these conditions about ourselves. We should be humble enough to accept this reality.

But the virtue of penance goes farther than that. It grows when we put up the necessary defenses against these enemies of our soul and wage a lifelong ascetical struggle. Yes, our life will be and should be a life of warfare, a war of peace and love that will also give us certain consolations in spite of the tension.

And for this penance to be a true virtue, it has to include an indomitable hope that can survive even in the worst of scenarios. In fact, this hope gets stronger the uglier also the warfare gets.

It’s a hope based on God’s never-sparing mercy. Some relevant words of St. Paul: “I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil 1,6) It would be good if these Pauline assurance forms the deep attitude we should have toward our fragile human condition.

Besides, we should not forget that nothing happens in our life without at least the permission and tolerance of God. And if he allows something to happen, no matter how evil it is, it is because a greater good can be derived from it. Precious lessons can also be learned from our sinfulness.

God predestines no one to fail definitively, although we have the power, due to our freedom, to go against God’s will and saving designs. This truth of our faith should never be forgotten, especially in our deep moments of misery and misfortune.

The virtue of penance also includes the desire and practice of regular and frequent recourse to the sacrament of penance, where through the ministry of priests, Christ comes to us as father, friend, judge and doctor. This sacrament not only reconciles us with God, but also repairs whatever damage our sin would cause on others and the Church in general.

It’s good that the practice of confession becomes a habit and is approached with the proper dispositions and preparation, making a thorough examination of conscience, contrition, purpose of amendment, confession and acts of penance.

As a sacrament, confession gives us, aside from sanctifying grace, some special and sacramental grace that would make us at the same time more sensitive and resistant to our weaknesses and temptations. There is a kind of strength that it gives and that is useful to our daily spiritual battles.

This virtue of penance also includes the desire and practice of continuing atonement and reparation. This can be done in many ways—exerting greater effort to pray, being more generous with our sacrifices and daily self-denials, especially in food, drink, and comfort. It can be done also by doing many corporal and spiritual works of mercy, etc.

All of these should produce an inner joy in us. That’s a sure sign the virtue of penance is alive in us.

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