Jesus in the Gospel invites his disciples to conversion and penance: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:27-38). This is the sense of Jesus’ invitation to renounce ourselves. That is the object of penance. In the writings of the Church Fathers we find the traditional and wise doctrine of the five ways of penance.
1. Awareness of my sins
This is the first way of penance. The best example is in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Publican or tax-collector (Luke 18:9-14). Jesus praises the deep awareness of the tax-collector and says that it was instrumental to his purification and God’s forgiveness.
The following questions will help you in this search: Do I consider myself better than the others? Am I quick to judge other people? Do I start my prayers seeking first purification?
2. Mutual forgiveness
The second way of penance is clearly implied in the prayer that Jesus Himself taught us, the Our Father: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” (Matthew 6:12).
The following questions will help you to see clearly into your heart: Do I find it easy to forgive? Do I take the first step? Can I pretend to pray without being in peace with everybody?
3. Prayer from the heart
If your heart is hardened by inordinate attachment to sinfulness, the best exercise that will bring the necessary resiliency and openness is prayer. This is the third way of Penance. The best example of this is Jesus’ exhortation to the apostles on the occasion of His agony in the Garden of Olives: “So you had no strength to keep awake with me one hour? You should be awake and pray not to be put to the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:40).
Answer the following questions and see where you stand: How much time do I give to personal prayer? Do I look for God in silence and solitude? Do I go to God in thankfulness and praise?
4. Fasting and almsgiving
The attitude of penance matches Jesus’ determination against your basic instincts by means of the traditional paths of fasting and almsgiving. This is the fourth way of Penance.
Sincerely ask yourself: What are my addictions: food, smoking, words, gossip, TV? Can I fast to make room for prayer, for God?
Listening to the dire needs of the poor is the other way to dominate your instincts and grow in care and love. Thus the question: What am I doing to help the poor?
The fifth way of penance is humility. In the Gospel, it is called “poverty of spirit” (Matthew 5:3) and Jesus confers a blessing on this attitude. It is self-acceptance and acceptance of others as they are.
Usefully ask the following questions: Do I accept myself as I am in peace and ask the Lord to make me better? Do I use the means God gives me to make myself better? Do I accept others as they are and ask the Lord to teach me how to love them?
The hoped-for outcome of your journey of penance is inner freedom, that is, to liberate the energies of the better self and to make it open to love and to the cost of loving. Freedom doesn’t mean indetermination, but it is a door open for love. It is the only way to return the love that God continually offers you in Jesus. “Do not run away from Me. Come back to Me, not once, not twice, but always again. You are my child. How can you ever doubt that I will embrace you again… I am your God, the God of mercy and compassion, the God of pardon and love, the God of tenderness and care.”