Penance as Prayer

A talk given for a ‘teams of Our Lady’ retreat by Sr Tamsin Mary Geach

When we were discussing themes for this year’s retreat and day of recollection two ideas emerged – the theme of prayer and the theme of confession.  As I was reflecting on what I could say I thought that I could talk about both – that perhaps to see the sacrament as a way of prayer would shed light on the whole theme of confession, and to talk about confession as prayer  would shed light on the idea of prayer.

Start then with prayer:  Prayer is the lifting up of the heart and mind to God.  There are traditionally four main strands in prayer – petition, adoration, contrition and thanksgiving.  Conveniently for remembering this there is the acronym ‘PACT.’  So in the confession of sins all these elements should be present, although maybe not quite in that order.  Firstly, we may find in our life of prayer some sense of blockage, woundedness, a sense of being called to a conversion we are not ready to make.

There may be a sense of boredom with the things of God, or a feeling that if we were to do this honestly and selflessly it would change our lives, yet somehow we seem to stay still.  We may also have particular sins on our consciences that weigh us down, or habits that stand in the way of our relationship with God and each other.  We may feel less able to do spiritual things, or unable to move on from destructive patterns of behaviour which damage or destroy our relationship with each other and with God.

So Holy Mother Church in her wisdom presents us with the Sacrament variously called Penance, Reconciliation, or Confession, the sacrament of conversion and forgiveness.  This is a way of trying to call time on sin, to start afresh in grace, to turn again to Christ.

The first step in this process should be to ask God for help.  We need to ask Him for real repentance, for a truthful knowledge of our sins, for the courage to speak the truth about them in Confession, and for healing and peace.  These petitions should form the basis of our preparation for confession, along with a sound examination of conscience.  We should also pray for the priest to be inspired by the Holy Spirit to say the words we need to hear when we confess.

The examination of conscience is part of the second aspect of prayer that belongs to the sacrament, which is contrition.  There are various ways of approaching this.  Some people are organised and keep a spiritual diary.  Others are not, and one of the sources of unnecessary fear in relation to the sacrament is that one may leave out something important.  However unless one has given up on going to Confession for a very long time, one is usually aware of one’s serious sins, and it is these which it is essential to confess – deliberately concealing such is a way of invalidating the sacrament, but forgetting through human frailty is not.

Examination of conscience should be seen as part of a conversation with God – what things are coming in the way of my life with Him, how am I negligent, how am I failing to grow?  One can use a chosen text, like the Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes,  but above all the examination of conscience should be as realistic an appraisal of our relationship with God and other people as is possible.

Many priests object to what they call a shopping list approach to confession. I think they are wrong, with this proviso:  You do not go on buying a brand of light-bulbs that fits a lamp you no longer have;  similarly the ‘list‘ should be appraised in the light of one's present situation, not the situation ten years ago.  For cradle Catholics this becomes obvious at the point where for example confession of ‘disobedience to parents‘ is replaced  by the confession of disrespect or neglect for them as an item on the list.  That is, ones account of one‘s sins should not be trivial or thoughtless.  The other thing is that sometimes a sin should be confessed in detail as to its context,  including where it came from.  If you are general in your confession  you will receive general advice, and many sins have deeper and more serious roots than the presenting symptom might suggest.  Leaving out the motivation for serious or persistent sins is like skimming the top of the weeds off  in a garden without digging out the roots.  We should pray for the self-knowledge to know where sins are coming from.  On the other hand it does slightly depend on the nature and kind of confession you are making:  If it is the Christmas rush and there are forty people in the queue behind you, have done by confessing the major areas of concern.  Deeper, more detailed confessions are not usually for ‘peak times‘


The examination of conscience should inspire sorrow in us.  We stand in relation to God, and depend upon Him absolutely for everything.  He has loved us into being, formed us in His own image and likeness, redeemed us with His precious Blood.  And yet we sin.  Contemplating the sheer love that shines on us from God we should feel in our souls compunction and sorrow for what we have done out of the depth of our love for God.  St. Ambrose wrote that, in the Church, "there are water and tears: the water of Baptism and the tears of repentance.’  This type of sorrow for sin out of perfect love for God is called perfect Contrition.

For most of us however it does not quite work like that.  Rather we feel a vague discomfort, or maybe even an acute discomfort, and want to be rid of it. Or we want to be able to go to Communion again.  Or we just go from habit.  That is to say a large part of our motivation is about ourselves rather than true sorrow for the injury we have done to God and other people.  This manner of sorrow for sin, where the sorrow and love towards God is tempered with an admixture of various selfish motives is called attrition.  This is one of the reasons why the sacrament is necessary – our feeble gesture in the direction of reconciliation is met by the Father who watches from afar and runs to meet the sons and daughters whose decision to come  home is anything but perfectly unselfish.  The Holy Spirit rushes in to supply the thing that is lacking in us, the robe, the ring, the splendid garment.  The Sacrificial act of Jesus on the Cross is applied to our souls, and what was dead is made to live again.  Attrition is moved into being contrition by means of the Sacrament.

The Church teaches that if someone is able to attain to perfect contrition the Sacrament of Confession is strictly speaking unnecessary, but on the other hand firstly it is not usually possible to know if one has been perfectly contrite, and secondly even if one could, there is a spiritual benefit in confession of sin, in unburdening the soul to another human being and also in humbling oneself to do so, and in hearing the words of advice from the priest who in the context of the Sacrament should be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The priest will give some kind of a penance.  Some imaginative confessors will give a penance that somehow in an obvious way relates to the matters confessed, but more usually it will sound quite trivial – you have off-loaded perhaps a month’s worth of uncharity in the confessional, and the priest says ‘three hail Mary’s.’  How does that work? 

Some priests do penance for their penitents.  Indeed it says in the Catechism that they should do so (CCC 1466).  I do not know how common this is, but I have heard of it.  The main thing however is that the weight of our sin, intolerable for us to bear, has already been carried and atoned for by Our Saviour.  We just have to be humble enough to receive that salvation.  Also it shows us the real value of prayer –a prayer said with sufficient attention is worth all the more strenuous penances in the world.  Someone I met said that this sort of light penance reminded him of the parable of the unjust steward who said to His Master’s creditors that they should take the bill of the sum they owed and write down half the amount.  (cf. Luke 16.6)

The third aspect of the prayer of this sacrament is Thanksgiving.  The Lord has filled up our emptiness, restored us to life and grace.  We should thank Him for His merciful pardon, for our reconciliation with His church which we wound by our sins, for the charity example and prayer of the Church that labours for our conversion.  We should also thank the priest who is the minister of this grace, and pray for him. 

Finally there is adoration.  The Sacrament of the Eucharist is an end in itself, the source and summit of the Christian life.  The Sacrament of penance is not an end in itself, but is directed to opening us up to the grace of God, so that we may fall ever more deeply in love with Him. It should have other effects in our life, by slow attrition or rapid contrition, the movement away from destructive habits that separate us from the love of our neighbour, but the most important effect is that it restores in us the capacity to love God with a sincere heart, so we should use it in turning towards God with all our hearts, looking towards His love to reflect it back again, a preparation for our ultimate life in Him, where we shall be happy with Him forever in the life to come.

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