Unlike Christ who was without sin, we who are sinners must undergo continual conversion, what Francis called a "life of penance." In the beginning of his conversion, he realized his need to overcome his repugnance to lepers in order to follow Christ completely, without reserve. He attributed the grace to love lepers, to help them even to bathe them, to the Lord "who led him among them". And what seemed so bitter before, now that he was "free", was turned into sweetness of soul and body.


Here we have a good example of how each one of us must approach penance, with our own particular needs, weaknesses, and sinfulness. Penance, the cross, is for all, but the manner of penance, the form which the cross takes, is not the same for all. It is very much individual. We are each called to move along a particular way of penance. Our identification is with Christ, not with this or that act of penance, or mortification, or self-denial, or particular discipline.


So we need not "force" ourselves to practise a particular type of mortification, unless it is imposed on us by the Church or obedience or necessity. The Church has mitigated the severity of external mortifications in our days, to leave scope for individual needs and attractions of grace. We may admire the austerity of St. Francis who drank hardly enough water to quench his thirst, but we may not be called to imitate him in this particular act of penance. In all humility, we must adopt another form of discipline to help overcome our sensuality.


Our mortifications must give expression to our inner turning to God in love. The pruning of the vine is only a means to produce greater fruit: penance is a help to true fulfilment. The emphasis is always on turning completely to the Father, total self-surrender to the Father's love and will for us. We may have little understanding of what "total self-surrender to God" means for us in all the details of our life, but we are approaching penance from the proper perspective. By concentrating on the outward manifestation of penance, we are in danger of forgetting what penance is all about. The goal of penance is God, not mortifications. The approach has to be by way of love; it must have its roots in charity, not austerity. Austerity may be a by-product but it is not the essential fruit. The infallible signs of penance are humility and charity.


A "false" saint can give a good account of himself in the matter of austerity, but no false saint can keep up humility and charity for long. Total surrender to God means that we do not tell him what kind of "penances" he should like to have from us: rather that we do and accept the style of penance that he indicates to us in prayer, in obedience, through circumstances and through others. We must listen to the Lord, rather than tell him what he wants or should want from us.


Prayer and penance are aspects of the same thing: prayer informs penance, and penance expresses prayer. It is like inhaling and exhaling. Neither is complete without the other. So in our life of penance there is the mystical receiving from God and the ascetical giving. To keep alive spiritually, we need both. In prayer we have the light to know what to do and how to do it. We realize more and more that the only approach to true penance is that of complete surrender to the will of God.


Francis expressed it simply when he said: "We should wish for nothing else and have no other desire: we should find no pleasure or delight in anything except in our Creator, Redeemer, and Saviour...Nothing must keep us back, nothing separate us from him, nothing come between us and him". And the way to this goal is penance, renouncing selfishness and self seeking and surrendering totally to God.


The more deeply we experience the love of God in Christ, and the more completely we let the saving grace of God flood our soul and work within us, the less we impede that action of God by our selfishness, our pride, our sensuality. God alone becomes the centre of our lives and our one desire is to please Him. As Francis says: "Now that we have left the world, we should have nothing else to do, save to be solicitous to follow the will of the Lord and to please Him."


The more closely we reflect the life of Jesus and the mind of Jesus, the more true our penance. If I train myself to "walk in Christ", I am living a life of penance. In all that I do, I must keep Christ before me as a practical living model. The words and actions of Francis will help me in doing this. He says: "In the love which is God , I entrust all my (followers) to put away every attachment, all care and solicitude, and serve, love, honour, and adore our Lord and God with a pure heart and mind; this is what he seeks above all else". This is our "life of penance".


Carmel Flora OFMCap

National Spiritual Assistant SFO Oceania