A group of young Jesuits has been writing a blog called "Whosoever Desires" for almost a year and I recently commented on a post about penance. Here's what I wrote:
Here are a few thoughts on mine on the topic of penance.
1. The 12 Step Program of recovery from alcoholism and addictions includes penance. It's in Steps 8 and 9: "Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others." The person in recovery recognizes that a harm was done and cannot be changed. Making amends is a way of trying to bring balance into the relationship. Even if it is not possible to make amends directly, a person in recovery can do something that, on a spiritual level, brings balance into the broken relationship.
2. The Church has always spoken of "reparation" in conjunction with penance. In my explanations of the traditional formula of the Morning Offering I like to explain "reparation" as "repairing the damage" that sin has caused.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his second encyclical "Spe Salvi," wrote about justice, reparation, and grace in Numbers 42-44. Quoting Theodor Adorno of the Frankfort School, he wrote that "true justice--would require a world 'where not only present suffering would be wiped out, but also that which is irrevocably past would be undone.'"
How is that possible? Only, as was pointed out in the "Whosoever Desires" post, on the Cross. The Holy Father continues: "God now reveals his true face in the figure of the sufferer who shares man's God-forsaken condition by taking it upon himself. This innocent sufferer has attained the certitude of hope: there is a God, and God can create justice in a way that we cannot conceive, yet we can begin to grasp it through faith. Yes, there is a resurrection of the flesh. There is justice. There is an 'undoing' of past suffering, a reparation that sets things right."
In the next paragraph, Pope Benedict elaborates on this mystery: "God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope. And in his justice there is also grace. This we know by turning our gaze to the crucified and risen Christ. Both these things--justice and grace--must be seen in their correct inner relationship. Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value."
As members of the Body of Christ, we continue the work of repairing the damage that sin has caused by sharing somehow in the mystery of the Cross. or, as St. Paul wrote to the Colossians: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church..." (1: 24). In most cases the work of reparation will involve "offering up" the suffering that is an inevitable part of human life.
3. It seems to me that penance is part of all religious traditions and in that way could be called a "spiritual instinct" that all humans, as spiritual beings, have. Penance is a way that we "pray" with our bodies, whether it be through fasting from food or some other ascetical practice. This became clear to me when I worked among the Lakota people of South Dakota and witnessed the "inipi" or sweat lodge where the participants offered their discomfort and suffering as an intercessory prayer for individuals and the tribe. There was a strong sense of "communion" as participants would pray "Mitakuye Oyasin" ("All my relatives") and seek, through their personal purification, the good of their families, friends, and all creation.