The Best Penance Ever

Fordham University Church

Many Catholics use Lent as a time to take advantage of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, particularly if they haven’t gone in a while.  For me, the introspection of the season makes it a natural time to look at what areas of my relationships with God and other people are in need of some work and some healing.  For me, going to confession has been a helpful way to enter into the season’s call to a joyful renewing of my heart.

One of the best experiences of the Sacrament I’ve ever had was during one particular Lent back before I entered the Jesuits.  I remember it being a stunning spring day in the Bronx as I made my way over to the lovely University Church on Fordham University’s campus (yes, I’m a Ram, go John Skelton).  I sat in one of the mahogany pew, praying for a moment or two before making my way to the confessional.  It was there that, to my slight surprise, I found myself face to face with a fairly high-ranking member of the university’s administration.  Still, a priest’s job description doesn’t change the sacrament, so we prayed together and I dove in.

It bears mentioning that my sins were nothing particularly extraordinary, but, even so, the priest listened.  He listened to me talk about various challenges in my relationships, my struggles to be kind and loving to friends, family, strangers.  And when I finished, we talked briefly and he set me a penance.

Now, if confession weirds people out (and, oh, it can… and, yes, I just verbed the word weird), the penance part of it is what usually pushes it over the top.  If the penance is perfunctory, it can seem pointless, and if not it can seem like a punishment, or some kind of a bribe we need to pay in order to earn God’s love back.  I have to say, though, doing a penance after confession has always made a lot of sense to me.  If I fight with one of my siblings, we’ll probably apologize to each other, but we’ll also make a point of it to spend some time together.  It doesn’t make the hurt feelings disappear like my brother Jesuits when it’s time to empty the dishwasher, but it does start the process of getting back into the habits of good relationship, the habits that make us close as friends and siblings.

On this particular day, the penance showed that the priest had listened very well indeed. Not only had he heard the particular sins I had articulated, but he also heard things that I hadn’t put into words, namely, the perfectionism that preoccupied me in my life of prayer.  And so, his penance was very simple: “For the rest of Lent, take 5 minutes every day – just 5 minutes – and just enjoy God.”

So I tried.  And at first, it was bizarre to sit down with God with no task in mind but enjoyment.  I wasn’t quite sure what to do when I wasn’t asking for answers to Big Questions, or when I wasn’t talking to God about my many character flaws.  But little by little, bit by bit, I started to treasure those moments of prayer.

I’d sit in the resplendent springtime weather and marvel at nature, or at the city noises that drifted faintly onto campus.  I’d bask in the laughter of friends playing wiffleball on the quad.  I’d sit relished the idea of God.

And somewhere in the midst of those five minutes I found something important.  Just as I was sitting down to enjoy God, it dawned on me that God was sitting down to enjoy me.  And that realization changed my life.

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