The term Penance in Franciscanism is equivalent to the biblical meaning of metanoia, understood as an intimate conversion of the heart to God, as a vital altitude, a continuous state of being. It is not a question of doing penance but of being penitent.
Anyone who says that cooperating with God to become holy isn’t hard is a liar. I’ll tell them that to their face. Looking at your crap and changing it out of love for God is not supposed to be easy. It is supposed to cost us something, it cost God His son. Look at a crucifix and tell me that somehow we are supposed to get off easy. We aren’t. We make our choices, we choose our sins, we give in to them knowing that they are wrong and then we expect what? To give our lives to Christ and POOF, magic Jesus just fixes us? What would we learn from that? Nothing. The way that we learn is by facing our sins, ugly as they are and seeing what destruction they have caused and then ridding our lives of them. That is not easy, it is hard. Staying the same is easy. I’ll say it again, anyone who says that it is easy is a liar, Jesus didn’t call it dying to yourself for nothing.
Despite all of this trouble, this overthinking, the potential for scrupulosity, I must confess: I love Lent. I love the sense of possibility the season implies. I love the symbolism that comes along with it. I love that it compels me to act, to change, to rethink how I am living, in a way that is more purposeful than at any other time of year.
Violence and oppression take many forms within our world. No Secular Franciscan can work for the reform of every oppressive system; yet every Secular Franciscan must be involved somehow in the work of justice if they are authentically converted, if they truly appropriate the Rule. Each response to the Rule will be unique; each person must interpret what that call to radical conversion means in his or her life. But to all those who respond authentically will come the blessing of penance.
He (St. Francis) no longer did what he wanted himself but what God demanded of him: “that which seemed bitter to me.” In the process, he came to experience a special grace, that his bitterness was”changed into sweetness of soul and body.” Penance to him is thus the conversion of a person from a life centered on the personal “I” to a life which is completed under the will and sovereign lordship of God. Thus, penance is the same as “change of heart” in the biblical sense (Turn away from your sin and believe in the good news,” Mk 1:15), and according to the mind of St. Francis, it must be the basic life attitude of all his followers.
Of course, unless we understand our own sinfulness, unless we understand the urgency of repentance and reconciliation, the Cross makes no sense; the Resurrection makes no sense. Easter joy is the joy of deliverance and new life. If we don’t believe in our bones that we really do desperately need these things, Easter is just another excuse for a holiday sale; and the Sacrament of Penance, and our fasting and almsgiving, are a waste of time.
But in the silence of our own hearts, if we’re honest, we know we hunger for something more than our own selfishness and mistakes. We were made for glory, and we’re empty of that glory until God fills us with his presence. All things are made new in the victory of Jesus Christ – even sinners like you and me. The blood of the Cross washes away death. It purifies us as vessels for God’s new life. The Resurrection fills us with God’s own life.
~ Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, “Three simple questions on the threshold of Lent – Catholic Philly”
When the nuns at St. Damian’s had come together to hear the word of God, though no less also to see their father St. Francis, he raised his eyes to heaven, where his heart always was, and began to pray to Christ. He then commanded ashes to …be brought to him and he made a circle with them around himself on the pavement and sprinkled the rest of them on his head. He remained in the circle in silence. The saint suddenly rose and to the amazement of the nuns recited the Miserere mei Deus in place of a sermon. When he had finished he quickly left. By his actions he taught them that they should regard themselves as ashes…
~ Thomas of Celano, The Second Life of St. Francis of Assisi, Chapter CLVII, via Portiuncula: the Little Portion
For Secular Franciscans, conversion is the singular character of the Order, which is supported by the initial and ongoing processes of formation in the life of the fraternity. In the end, conversion is shot through with mystery. While personal stories, biblical insights, the sacraments of initiation, theological reflections and psychological categories are helpful to understand and explain the experience, the Christian tradition in the end must stand before the grace of God in silence and wonder.
~ Ron Pihokker, OFS, “Penitence and Conversion: Spirituality of Conversion” (Chapter 17 of the FUN Manual)
Carried away by the force of his preaching, great numbers of people adopted the new rule of penance according to the form instituted by St. Francis which he called the “Order of the Brothers of Penance.” The way of penance is common to all those who are on the road to heaven and so this way of life includes members of both sexes, clerics and lay folks, married and single. How meritorious it is in the eyes of God is clear from the numerous miracles worked by some of those who followed it.
~ Saint Francis of Assisi, Bonaventure, Major Life via Portiuncula: the Little Portion
The fundamental value of penitential spirituality is integral to the continued development of Franciscan life and spirituality. The penitential life is not a matter of “doing penance” or accomplishing penitential acts, rather it is the openness to grow, to be shaped, and formed in a life that reflects the dynamic movement and presence of Christ within. Metanoia is not something we do; it is God’s gracious gift. Our participation in metanoia depends on our capacity to be receptive, bent low in prayerful and contemplative love, to dwell in Christ, and with Christ live in bountiful love and service to others.
~ Margaret Magee, O.S.F, “Reclaiming Penitential Spirituality for the 21st Century,” The Cord 57, No. 2 (April/June 2007), 152.