This is the penance for his offense, that he cure and correct contraries by contraries.
- The Penitential of Finnian (Irish, 6th century)
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
- Romans 12.21
A "penitential" was, during the period of Celtic Christianity, a pastoral handbook for dealing with sin, especially when it was discovered among the ranks of the clergy. Penitential handbooks, like case laws in the civil realm, described certain likely offenses, and then prescribed punishments or corrective behaviors so that the sinner could overcome his evil acts by doing good.
"Contraries are by contraries cured." That was the general rule of thumb for prescribing the discipline of penance. If a man had a lying tongue, for example, and had come to conviction and repentance, he would need to train that tongue for truth. So he might be given a certain regimen of psalms to pray or sing over a particular period, and a soul friend to help him carry out his discipline.
Other, more severe sins - particularly sins against the body - were subjected to disciplines designed to strengthen the soul against the body by, for example, depriving the body of its regular food for a period of time and making it subsist on the meagerest of fare. This would give the soul opportunity to grow strong in such areas as patience and self-restraint.
Contrary to the way it is often thought of today, penance was not a sacrament but a spiritual discipline. It has solid Biblical foundations and can still be of much use today for those who are pursuing holiness in the fear of God. But without conviction of sin and heartfelt repentance, penance - no matter how concise or severe - will not be able to do its work. Unless we grieve for our sin, we will not rejoice to overcome it by a temporary regimen of good works.
Still, it is an effective discipline, and one that those who are seeking to grow in holiness must learn to use as often as is needed. By practicing the discipline of penance we, having acknowledged and repented of our sin, can move on into greater holiness as we correct behavior contrary to God's holy Law with a regimen contrary to evil, and, therefore, focused on attaining what is good.
Today in ReVision: More Nones - So how's all that making Christianity more contemporary workin' out for us?
This Week's Download: Soul Friends - You'll need some if you want to make penance work.