20 May 2009

On Hairshirts and Penance in General. Beginning the Conversation

Recently on a list I belong to there was a discussion about hairshirts and the benefits and drawbacks of such practices (along with cilices, disciplines, and the like). It seemed to me the group doing the discussing fell into two camps on the issue, those who thought this was anachronistic and even lacking in spiritual authenticity, and those who were enamored of such practices and struggled to justify them. (I say struggled because again and again I got the impression that this was a practice people wanted to adopt because it was "Carthusian" --- despite the fact that Carthusians have generally dropped the practice of such "mortifications" --- and were looking for ways to validate their use in terms of genuine spirituality.) I also got the impression that time and again these struggles or attempts failed to convince or impress even those who were making them.

Interestingly, the strongest representatives of the "(this is) anachronistic, inauthentic, and even destructive" school of thought were those on the list who lived with chronic illness, while the "enamored" (or at the least, "intrigued") group seemed representative of the healthy or those who were just beginning to deal with illness regularly and wondered if such practices COULD have prepared them to live with their new situations better. (There were two other groups, those who wanted to find a place to buy or otherwise procur a hairshirt because of their nostalgia for things Carthusian, and a very much larger group who eschewed the discussion in distaste after a brief comment, but by definition neither added much in terms of posts to the conversation.)

Larger issues were certainly raised therefore: can these kinds of mortifications assist a person in preparing to live with chronic illness, for instance, what is the nature and purpose of penance itself, is the notion that the suffering that comes to us in daily life is sufficient and need not be supplemented by this kind of practice an adequate approach to penance? And of course, as someone living under a Canon that describes her life as one of assiduous prayer and penance and who wrote and lives a Rule that attempts to do justice to that, how does a diocesan hermit (or at least THIS diocesan hermit) look at all this? What does my own penitential life look like and why? What do I think a genuine penitential life should look like and why? In this post I want to begin a discussion of these and some other questions re penance. I hope people will contribute with questions and comments via email.

I often feel I am coming from a different place than most people on the nature of penance. However, the starting point for reflection, I think, should always be the life of Jesus. When I look at the Scriptures it seems to me that Jesus' penance (for instance his fasting in the desert, etc) was inspired, and it was above all an expression of dependence upon God through which he came to live fully his own Sonship with the Father and therefore, was a way of solidifying and maturing in that. It prepared for and helped create the life of prayer he lived and was. It served that, in fact. In this portrait, the two realities, prayer and penance go hand in hand as closely and naturally related, mutually empowering and nurturing one another.(In fact, in older parts of the tradition, authentic penance is called "body prayer" so essential is the relationship between the two.)

For this reason I tend to look first at prayer, at what it is, etc, and then to look at penance as that which assists prayer and allows it to 1) occur in conscious ways, 2) deepen and 3) become more extensive so that eventually one's whole being is prayer. Whatever truly assists in this process I would look at as penance, despite the fact that such stuff is rarely commonly perceived as penitential. Granted, it may be the better word for penance here is ascesis, but the Canon diocesan hermits live under pairs prayer and penance in a fundamental way, just as it pairs silence and solitude into something which is greater called "the silence of solitude", so I have worked through this to maintain the pairing I think is more essential or foundational than merely convenient.

In my Rule, therefore, since prayer is understood first of all as the activity of God within my life and secondly (and derivatively) as my own empowered or inspired response to that activity --- all of which is what I am made and meant for apart from sin --- I define prayer in terms of those moments of victory God achieves in my life, moments where the relationship between us is made conscious, moments where he is truly sovereign, moments where, in particular, he is truly allowed to love and create me anew from within and without as he wills. Penance then becomes anything which helps to allow, intensify, or extend these moments of victory into the whole of my life, and thus, to make me more fully alive and present to reality in a way which is the goal of my existence. The Rule reads:

". . . Prayer represents an openness and responsiveness to the personal and creative address of God which is rooted in and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Penance seem to me to be any activity which assists in regularizing, integrating, deepening and extending: 1) this openness and responsiveness to God, 2) a correlative esteem for myself, and 3) for the rest of God's creation. While prayer corresponds to those deep moments of victory God achieves within me and includes my grateful response. Penance is that Christian and more extended form of disciplined "festivity" implicating that victory in the whole of life and preparing for the fulfillment of this activity which is to be accomplished only with the coming of the Kingdom in fullness(Eph 1:4; LG 5,48)."

Two things I think stand out in this understanding of penance. The first is the notion of penance as a form of festivity (and I am NOT thinking of festivity for sado-masochists!), and the second is its integrative dimension. Penance is a form of responsive, even celebratory activity which, according to the promptings of the dynamic Spirit of God, allows prayer to become less and less compartmentalized in our lives, while helping us ourselves become more and more fully involved in constant prayer and fully responsive to the action and initiative or a God who would extend his sovereignty. While not everything is to be called penance, anything which is undertaken in response to prayer in order to serve prayer and our own authentic humanity and holiness could justifiably be thought of as penance then.

In this schema then, journaling regularly could be a penitential act. Or, for instance, sometimes a hot shower and timely nap, comforting as they are, are penance. Sometimes a brisk walk or time spent planting something in the garden is. Other times taking a pill I really don't like is --- not because I don't like it or because it produces some suffering (side effects are ALWAYS a reality), but because it SERVES my spiritual life. And in such a schema, appropriate rest and nourishment (especially so long as one is attentive at meals!), dream work, therapy, spiritual direction, recreation, and any number of other things could be considered penitential precisely because they can allow the maturation of prayer and the transformation of the person INTO prayer. Again, above all, in this schema penance is not punitive or geared towards subjugation of this or that dimension of our lives; it is instead celebratory and integrative.

Of course, this notion of penance does not rule out the unpleasant things which are necessary to grow and mature as a person of prayer. I think that is obvious even from some of the examples I chose: taking a pill (or many pills) I dislike, for instance, or therapy, journaling, fasting, etc. However, I think there must be a clear relationship between prayer and penance, and penance must always be the servant of prayer and human maturation. This is the driving consideration for me on what serves as authentic penance. More about the discussion re hairshirts and the questions raised in other posts. . .