21 May 2009

On Hairshirts and Penance. Continuing the Conversation

[[ Dear Sister Laurel. Thanks for beginning this conversation. It is a great topic. Too bad you don't allow comments in the blog itself, but email is fine. Here is my question. Why do you think your perspective on penance is such a different one from what is commonly held, as you put it?]]

This is a great question. When I began to write earlier I was aware of a voice in my mind from my first and most influential theology professor. He once said (and he said it several times over the years I studied with him!): "Fasting is not, of itself, essential to Christianity." Throughout the years since I have dealt (even struggled) with that dictum in various ways, but it has never left my consciousness. However, as I continued to write the first post in this thread I began to think that possibly this was one of those elusive but very real areas of Christian praxis where a feminine perspective produces radically different results than a masculine one. (Generally I cringe when I hear someone say, "Oh good, you can add the feminine perspective," or " What we need to hear (in preaching or whatever) is the feminine perspective.")

What I mean by this is that in very broad strokes the feminine perspective is usually more holistic, focused on integration, and less muscular or focused on beating things into submission, for instance. When I was answering questions on an online service once, it was not uncommon to get questions about masturbation. When someone would do so because they were troubled about it (usually it is an adolescent boy, though not always) I have heard priests (who were also queried) give the advice to confront it head on, do battle with the urges, cold-shower or otherwise pound them into oblivion, etc. My approach was and is invariably different: "make sure your life is full and rewarding; make sure there are strong relationships and healthy intimacy. Make sure you are active in school, sports, etc. Do not battle with your urges directly, at least not in the long term; it is a sure way to give them greater power." Over time I have come to think of my approach to these kinds of things as the more feminine approach, and the priest's I mentioned as the more masculine. Of course, there are strands of spirituality where body and spirit are understood to be opposed and even at war with one another, and these too are an issue, but I am not entirely sure these strands are not the more masculine approach themselves. Ordinarily this masculine-feminine division is not one I am comfortable adverting to in most things, but in regard to approaches to penance (and a few other areas), I think it is valid.

The second reason I think my approach is quite different is because of chronic illness. Possibly illness contributes to my sense that prayer and penance form an integrated reality where prayer is primary. I am fairly clear that life itself involves built in penance and obstacles to prayer which need to be negotiated in a way which humanizes. More about this when I look at some of the questions posed with regard to chronic illness.

The third reason is that for many people penance is divorced from prayer. It is not seen as a servant of prayer, nor is enabling or extending prayer the real goal of penance for many. Similarly then prayer is not the thing whch drives penance for many. The simple fact is that many people have relatively rudimentary prayer lives compartmentalized from the rest of their existence. Unfortunately then, penance is equally compartmentalized. By the way, note well that when I refer to prayer here I am referring to 1) the activity and initiative of God within us as well as to 2) the empowered response we make to that initiative. Because of this prayer becomes synonymous with the responsive or obedient life of sonship or daughterhood. Penance, as I noted in regard to Jesus, is inspired, and serves to assist in the consolidation of this identity. (It is striking that Jesus' prolonged fast in the desert is precisely a response to the Word he heard at his baptism:" This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." Similarly it is in their own sojourn in the desert that the people of Israel were drawn to consolidate their new identity as free and covenant people in a way where, though not identical to this dynamic in Jesus' life, prayer and penance flowed from and to one another.) This is not the experience of prayer and penance most people have, I think.

If prayer and penance are divorced from one another in this way then penance loses its source of governance and any drive within the human being can become expressed as "penance." Any unpleasant practice can become "penitential" nevermind the results in terms of prayer, humanity, maturation or integration. This is as true when another person is the one requesting or commanding the penance to be undertaken. I also think that sometimes we hope that in a person's life there is a small stream called prayer, and (if we can convince them to undertake it) another stream called penance, and that if someone merely practices both eventually the streams will merge into a large integrated stream and one will have a more adequate spiritual life. What is as likely to occur is that the two streams will remain separated with little influence (or at least, little positive influence, on one another. My own approach to penance always demands there be a clear preference given to prayer, and that the two be seen as integrally related in a demonstrable way.

Hope this helps. As always, if it raises more questions or is unclear in some way, please email me.