Self-watch and Penance

Faith and holiness begin in the heart.

When I think on my ways, I turn my feet to your testimonies; I hasten and do not delay to keep your commandments.

  - Psalm 119.59, 60

If anyone has sinned in the thoughts of his heart and immediately repents, he shall beat his breast and seek pardon from God and make satisfaction, that he may be whole.

  - Finnian of Clonard, Penitential (Irish, 6th century)

A penitential was a handbook prepared to guide pastors in dealing with common sins that arose within the communities of Celtic Christians. We find these manuals in the literature of this period early on and throughout. Their presence and use throughout this period suggest that one of the explanations for the success of the Celtic Revival (ca. 430-800 AD) was that these people were serious about holiness and sin.

It is very significant that the prescription quoted above is the first in Finnian's penitential. Celtic Christians understood that faith and holiness begin in the heart, and the only way to stay on the path of holiness is to remove all obstructions to that path as soon as one becomes aware of them.

Thus, a person who, under the influence of the Spirit and Word of God, became mindful of some sinful thought or attitude was expected to deal with at once, right away. Confess the sin, repent of it, strike the breast as a physical action to reinforce the inner hatred of sin, and "make satisfaction", which probably meant to take some action that would move body and soul in the opposite direction of the sinful thought ("contraries are by contraries cured," as Cummean would later explain).

Thus wholeness in the Lord might be recovered through the faithful practice of a self-watch coupled with the discipline of penance.

The effect of living this way is to train the heart and mind to recognize and resist evil and to seek the path of whatever is good and pleasing to the Lord. As long as they lived this way, Celtic Christians were distinguished by their uncompromising purity, boldness in the face of moral corruption, and persuasiveness in proclaiming the Gospel.

Of course, Christians today acknowledge the reality of sin. Most will even agree that it's not a good idea to allow sin to gain a foothold in one's soul or a place in one's life. But we don't seem as resolute about the pursuit of holiness, as ferocious in our hatred of all sin, as the believers of Finnian's day.

I can't help but think that our growing inability to salt and leaven the culture and society of our time, and the increasing disenchantment of our contemporaries with the things of God and Christ, are results of our rather cavalier approach to sin and holiness. If we were more serious about these, and diligent in renouncing the one and pursuing the other, would our faith be more credible to the lost people of our generation?

Seeing is believing when it comes to our claims about new life in Christ. If the people around us see little or no difference between themselves and us, what incentive will they have to think that what we profess is to be preferred over what they already believe?

Exercise a careful watch over your souls, brethren, and practice the discipline of penance as often as it is require. Thus you may expect to make progress in holiness, and to strengthen your witness to the people around you.

T. M. Moore, Principal

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Learning to practice a self-watch and to identify and start reaching out to the people around you are just two of the important concepts examined in the course, PT 1 Spiritual Maturity: Revival. Sign up for this free course, and begin to take charge of your own walk with the Lord with greater clarity, conviction, consistency, and success. And while you're at the website registering, order copies of If Men Will Pray for the Christian men you know. Challenge yourself and them to get serious about the power of prayer!

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 Essex Junction, VT. 

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Facing-Up to Sin

If we continue to ignore it, it will destroy us.

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