Each of the sacraments has multiple names. These names are not interchangeable, but each reveal a different aspect of the sacrament. The sacrament we are considering now is called Reconciliation, because that is its end, what it brings about. It is also called Confession, because that is its means, the thing we do. But a third name for it is the Sacrament of Penance, because that is its inner nature: what Confession consecrates, and what brings about Reconciliation.
The word penance is a rich inheritance from our Latin Catholic tradition. The Greek in which the New Testament was written uses the word metanoia, which means essentially a change of mind, or conversion. “Conversion” literally means “turning around,” and that is another important name for the sacrament of Penance. It is about changing our direction.
The Latin tradition expresses a key insight into conversion with the word poenitentia, penance, or repentance. The root word is poena, which is pain, or punishment.
That sounds ugly at first, but the point is that conversion really does involve change. Conversion would be painless if we were not set in a certain direction. Some of the shallowest modern philosophy (with roots, really, in a certain kind of Protestantism) pretends that each moment is completely unconnected with the moment before, so that we can painlessly make a complete about-face.
But that is not what it’s like to be a human person. We are more steady than that. We set our heart on things. (That’s what the whole business about “kidneys” refers to.) To give up on one way of life and begin another is painful.
Put it this way: there is no such person as Ebenezer Scrooge. One night, Scrooge changes his mind, and wakes up in the morning a radically different person.
But that’s not what it’s like for us. If you have had your heart set on riches – or on anything else – it hurts to turn away from that. In fact, this is something profoundly healthy about us: we do have hearts which get set on things. We do get attached. And we are supposed to get attached: that’s what our passions are for.
But that’s also why change hurts. You may know that Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is a reworking of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The difference, though, is that in the Catholic view, which is so much more human, it’s hard to change: that’s what Purgatory is all about. In fact, it’s what the Inferno is all about.
(Of course, Scrooge does suffer in the night – but our suffering is more than that.)
Or put it another way: it wouldn’t be a real change if our hearts weren’t really set on something. Painless metanoia is not really any change at all.
Jesus enters into the pain of our conversion.
Luke portrays this vividly with the story of the good thief. “Do you not fear God,” he says to the other thief, “seeing that you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Lk 23:40-41).
The good thief joins Jesus in Paradise because he accepts the pain of conversion. He recognizes the evil of his sin, and he literally feels the pain of conversion.
Punishment, you see, is not meant for the glee of the punisher. It is meant to give us an opportunity to acknowledge the evil of our turning away from God, and experience what it is like to turn back.
Jesus joins us in that penance. It is not so much that Simon the Cyrenean helps Jesus carry the cross. Rather “on him they laid the cross, so that he might carry it after Jesus” (Lk 23:26): Jesus walks the way of penance with us. It is he who gives us the strength to carry the cross.
In Confession, the priest has the power not only to “loose” us from our sins, but to “bind” us, by giving some penance, some cross of conversion, bound to Christ, that will help us walk the way of real personal change.
“They have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14). The path to true conversion is by bathing in the Precious Blood of Jesus.
Are there crosses of conversion you are unwilling to carry? Bathe them in the blood of the Lamb!
Click here for the entire series on the Precious Blood.