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The Other Side of Penance

The Other Side of Penance

The pursuit of holiness is a struggle - a mighty struggle.

For it is an old proverb: Contraries are cured by contraries; for he who freely commits what is forbidden ought freely to restrain himself from what is otherwise permissible.

- Cummean, Penitential (Irish, 7th century)

Then the king sent and summoned Shimei and said to him, "Build yourself a house in Jerusalem and dwell there, and do not go out from there to any place whatever."

- 1 Kings 2.36

Shimei, you will recall, had cursed King David as he fled Jerusalem, then was pardoned by him upon his return. Solomon, however, imposed a penance on Shimei after his father's death. He who had cursed the Lord's anointed must not leave Jerusalem, but voluntarily restrict his movements and activities to within those precincts. He had freely transgressed in a manner worthy of death; now he must freely forfeit liberties he might otherwise have known.

In the Irish practice of penance a similar element is combined with the idea of contraries curing contraries. In order to emphasize the pursuit of holiness and to train both soul and body to turn from sin to righteousness, not only were acts of "rehabilitation" prescribed in any particular penance, but acts of "restriction" as well. Typically, these took the form of a fast, of being limited to only certain foods for an extended period of time.

I think I can see the wisdom in this. Once the new behavior had been put in place of the sin for which repentance was being expressed, what would make that new behavior permanent? The fast of a penance typically went on long enough to ensure that the penitential act would "stick." Each day of fasting would remind the penitent of why he was fasting, and would reinforce the new behavior that was being learned.

The pursuit of holiness is a struggle - a mighty struggle. If you're not experiencing it as such, then you need to consider whether you've really taken up Paul's charge in a manner worthy of your calling (cf. 2 Cor. 7.1). Shedding sin and taking on Christlikeness is hard work, hard, but glorious and liberating. We take on the call to holiness knowing that there will be pain involved, but knowing also that, as we press on, we will draw nearer to the One in whose righteousness alone we find our most complete joy.

Are you struggling in the quest for holiness?

Today in ReVision: Cutting Columbus Some Slack - Europeans didn't bring violence to the New World.

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T. M. Moore, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
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