As I find myself (all too rarely and all too late) repenting of whatever sin, I wonder what the proper actions of repentance look like. Surely, if Christian tradition is to be believed, then there is a salutary spiritual effect from penance. Obviously, penance done wrong or without knowledge of how it is a healing practice is dangerous and destructive; but just because a doctor may give us meds that don't cure our physical disease (and sometimes make them worse) doesn't (normally) cause us to give up the whole practice of taking medicine, or seeing physicians, for our ills and aches and pains. What might be a proper penance, then?
First, it might be beneficial, for me at least, to look at the practical effects my own sin has on me: often I get irascibly angry at myself and take that anger out on those closest to me -- my wife, my kids, my employees, my students. For some reason, once I have sinned, I find it extremely difficult to overlook or sympathize with their sins or weaknesses. That reminds me of a parable:
Then Peter came to Him and said, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, 'Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.' Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, 'Pay me what you owe!' So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.' And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?' And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses." (Matthew 18:21-35)The teaching, as practical as it gets, that our lives -- repentant lives -- are to be lives characterized by forgiveness, is one of the most prominent teachings of Jesus, found in all four Gospels. However, we often make this void by talking about the "free offer of the Gospel," turning the true Good News (not only that we are saved from our sins, but are in the process of being made more and more like God Himself -- theosis) into some sort of cheap grace, which produces embittered, arrogant, and hateful people who can easily hide behind a powerful (and powerfully demonic) Christian veneer. Lord, forgive me for doing this, help me to forgive others -- are we not of the same flesh from Adam?
What is penance? It is forgiving our friends, our brothers and sisters, our enemies. The salutary effect is our own forgiveness, but much more than that: it is the restoration of all things. Forgiveness is the ending of Adam's animosity towards Eve, it is the ending of our long rebellion against God and those made in His Image, it is the beginning of the new humanity in Christ. A Church without forgiveness is no Church. As Orthodox presbyter Stephen Freeman puts it, "Forgive everyone for everything." There is the Church Catholic, there is the Spirit, there is Life and Light and the overcoming of death, the trampling underfoot of the old Serpent who knows not what forgiveness is (Rom. 16:20). All our externals mean nothing if we have not forgiveness. Indeed, even Christ tells us that any true rituals we may possess from the Apostles are without effect without forgiveness (Matt. 5:23-24).
Here's the strange thing, though, and maybe the thing I've been musing on most: forgiveness is hard. Yet we expect it to come easy. I want my wife and children to forgive me quickly when I've spoken a word too harshly, or been selfish, or been absent (even if bodily present). Yet, if they sin against me, I want to see contrition, I want to see, maybe not groveling, but some self-abnegation, in other words, I want them to feel at my mercy -- being in the position to forgive or not is an incredible position of power: consider what it means for the Apostles to be given the keys to the kingdom: no wonder debates about what "Apostolic Succession" really is have raged! Yet, the parable teaches the exact opposite of what my experience is: giving forgiveness is to be easy, not used as a tool of power, but rather as a tool of reconciliation. All penance, in the end, is an exercise of reconciliation, of reuniting that which has been sundered.
Lord, give us strength to forgive as we have been forgiven.