Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man with give you. (Mark 5:28)
I must confess feeling sometimes that I am not living up to my calling as a penitent. I explained to a friend once that it is as if I am following the letter of the rule but not the spirit. My greatest temptation is in the area of food—and the evil one knows it. That, I suppose, is why the Scripture passage above caught my eye. I have been a professed member of the BSP since 2007. I suppose the evil one must wait for days when professed members become complacent or let their guard down. Then he hits you with a temptation just made to measure. Sigh. What weak creatures we are!
Perhaps God allows this so that we will know whose work it is, and what we are capable of outside of grace. Yet he never leaves us in our misery, but gives us help and strength, if we will only recognize and grasp it! For me this has come in the form of the book Spirit of Penance, Path to God by Dom Hubert Van Zeller. I have mentioned this book before. It is an absolute gem for the penitential life. I wish to share with you some of the spiritual wisdom and assistance I have gleaned from this treasure chest for living a life of penance.
One of the first principles of penance that Van Zeller mentions is that true penitence is not about specific penances imposed on oneself.
“True penance is the surrender of the whole self to God…enduring constantly the greater as well as the smaller hardships of life…The end (goal) of penance is God, not more penances. Thus the approach to penance has to be by way of love, not by way of steeling the will to toughness. Penance must have its roots in charity, not in austerity. Austerity may accompany its growth, but it will be a by-product rather than an essential fruit. A certain austerity will even be a sign of true penitence, but it will nor be an infallible sign, nor the only one. The infallible signs are humility and charity.”
This is a very rich paragraph, and it is only one paragraph in a treasure chest of wisdom. Later on Van Zeller adds:
“It is not the hardness of the work that God wants, but the love that inspires the work. If God wants hardness as well as love, he will arrange for the work to be hard. The first concern from our point of view is to make sure of love. Hardness does not cover a multitude of sins; love does. Hardness is not the bond of perfection; love is.”
So just to apply these two paragraphs to my own situation, I can see that even though I may not live the penitential lifestyle perfectly on any given day, that is not really the point. The aim of the rule is not the rule itself, but growth in holiness and in nearness to God. “True penance is the surrender of the whole self to God…Penance must have its roots in charity not austerity…Make sure of love.” I think I will print those out in poster size to assist me in my daily struggles.
So why have a rule at all? If I want to please the Lord, love and surrender are an important beginning. However, Van Zeller also speaks about renunciation as being liberative and life-giving—redemptive suffering! “Freedom, peace, and penance go together. Conversion to Christ means liberty, not slavery. It is only those who die and live again in Christ who are free.”
Further, renunciation is not a call for the few but for everyone. The Scripture passage in which Christ says to take up our cross daily and follow him, is not just for penitents but for all Christians. As weak as we are, God knew that a rule of life would assist us in following Christ on the way of the cross. As Van Zeller says: “In order to keep alive physically, you have to breath in and out; in order to keep alive spiritually, you have to pray and do penance.” That is the rule, thanks be to God!
May God keep us always breathing in and out in our efforts to live this holy rule of life.
Spirit of Penance Path to God by Dom Hubert Van Zeller, p. 7
Ibid., p. 27
Ibid., p. 14