It has been a busy start to the year with lots of parish activities, lots of ministries, and… well… just lots of life. It is hard to believe that Ash Wednesday is this week marking the beginning of a penitential season for the faithful. I find that most of us have lost the core idea of “penance.” Most will answer that “penance” is the prayers and actions that the priest gives you at the end of the Sacrament of Confession. And indeed, that is true. But that is really just the “period at the end of a sentence.” The older, deeper meaning of penance might be better described as the period “at the end of chapter” in the story of one’s life.
The idea of penance is the same as conversion. In medieval Christianity they were synonyms. It is more of a spiritual practice or even a way of life in which one is in touch with God in one’s life. Connected to the Sacrament of Confession, we call it an examination of conscience. But it is also part of receiving Holy Eucharist. St. Paul tells us “A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup.” (1 Cor 11:28) The word “examine” (dokimazō) means to have been tested and found true or trustworthy. But examining one’s conscience or better yet, one’s life, is the way of asking am I true to this faith I proclaim when I say “I am a Christian.” A rabbi who taught one of our seminary classes remarked that, for a Christian, if one’s friends are surprised that you are one, then you have literally “taken the Lord’s name in vain.” Your friends have not seen you as true or trustworthy to your faith. That would certainly be an indication that you need conversion in one’s life – a time to turn the page of your “book of life” and begin a new chapter.
Examining one’s life, one’s conscience, is a tradition that goes back to the beginning of Christianity. It was a daily practice in the lives of early deacons and priests and those living a monastic life, such as the hermit St. Anthony, who was said to have examined his conscience every night. St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and founders of religious orders generally made the examination of conscience a regular daily exercise of their followers. St. Bernard taught: “As a searching investigator of the integrity of your own conduct, submit your life to a daily examination. Consider carefully what progress you have made or what ground you have lost. Strive to know yourself. Place all your faults before your eyes. Come face to face with yourself, as though you were another person, and then weep for your faults.”
One of the well-known spiritual practices is from the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius of Loyola. His Spiritual Exercises contains five points in the daily reflection or Examen. In the first point, followers thank God for the benefits received; in the second, they ask grace to know and correct our faults; in the third, they pass in review the successive hours of the day, noting what faults they have committed in deed, word, thought, or omission; in the fourth, they ask God’s pardon; in the fifth, they purpose amendment. Done on a daily basis, one begins to see the fruit of the Examen, prayer, and God’s grace, and the amendment become firm and a life moves closer to God.
In the past I have used this space to ask the basic question: “How will you make space for God in your life this Lent.” This Lent maybe my question is, “When you make space for God in your life this Lent, how do you plan to take advantage of the space?” The basic outline of the Examen is a great place to start. You can make it as formal as an appointed hour in a quiet space (light a candle if you want) or you can make it while you brush your teeth. Lots of electric toothbrushes have a 30-second tone to remind you to move to a different quadrant of your mouth – use the tone to move through the Examen. Ideal? No, but it’s a start! And is the first step into a new chapter of your life with God.