ABC of Penitence

February 21 2021 | by

THE YEAR 2021 marks the 800th anniversary of the first Rule for the lay followers of Saint Francis and Saint Dominic. Throughout the year, this series will explore Anthony’s words to these laity.

Most Christians are familiar with the verse: Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand (Isaiah 64:8).

In the 1500s Saint John of Avila captured this verse’s deeper meaning. “Turn yourself round like a piece of clay and say to the Lord: I am clay, and You, Lord, the potter. Make of me what You will.”

Priests regularly preach on this verse. In November 2020, Father Thomas Zehr reminded his congregation that the clay needs to “cooperate” with the potter. Consider clay and playdough that have been left in the air without being covered. They begin to dry out and get ‘crusty’, and then when a potter attempts to mold the clay or playdough, the creation resists molding. It may even crumble. If we are ‘clay’ that really wants God the potter to mold us, then we need to be pliable. How often, he asked, are we resistant instead?


Tender relationship


During Saint Anthony’s life, allowing oneself to be molded by God was a popular theme. Preaching by Franciscan and Dominican friars, and the examples of holy religious, were creating ripples of conversion among the European populace. Some of them voluntarily adopted a way of living that made penance the foundation of their spiritual life. Anthony frequently addressed these voluntary penitents in his sermon notes. He paints the relationship between God and the penitent as a tender one. Docile to the Lord, they are like clay that agrees to the Creator’s molding.

I am the Lord thy God, who take thee by the hand, and say to thee: ‘Fear not, for I have helped thee’ [Is.41.3]. Just as a loving mother of a little child, when he wants to climb the stairs, takes his hand in hers so that he can climb after her, so the Lord takes the hand of the humble penitent with the hand of love, that he may climb to the ladder of the cross, to the state of perfection, so as to become worthy to see him who is desirable in appearance” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals I, pp.2-3; translated by Paul Spilsbury, Edizioni Messaggero Padova).


Expect pummeling


God, Anthony assures the penitent, will guide and support a follower in a life of penance (conversion). However, lest the person desiring a deeper relationship with God thinks that all will be joy and peace, Anthony cautions otherwise. Just as clay, when molded by the potter, is squished, pounded, and twisted into a unique creation, so a penitent must expect some pummeling. Not all of it is the direct result of the potter. Much, at the very beginning of the penitential journey, is caused by Satan who wants the clay to resist molding, who wants the child to pull back from being led. Anthony likens this spiritual attack to a storm at sea. Recognizing the virtue of a penitential life, which is a life of on-going conversion, Satan attacks as soon as an individual begins to consider a shift in lifestyle. “When anyone boards the boat of penance, a great storm arises in the sea. The sea is the heart,” Anthony wrote (Sermons III, p.382). “… when the devil is rejected, he rises in rage and stirs up a storm in the sea” (Sermons III, p.383).


False beginnings


Storms differ. Some are squalls. Others bring lashing rain. Some develop slowly. Others descend almost without warning. So do spiritual storms differ. “Wonderful are the surgings of the sea [Ps 92.4], when it is tossed high by pride, and bursts its bounds by ambition; when it is overclouded by sorrow, troubled by vain thoughts, and foaming with lust and gluttony” (Sermons III, p.383). All who consider amending their lives understand the meaning. Some give up beginning a life of conversion because they are too embarrassed to be different (pride). Others want to possess everything good in life, rejecting simplicity and poverty (ambition). For some, dealing with loss impedes their looking beyond to what residing with God will gain (sorrow). Some think, “What if I can’t have this or that?” (vain thoughts). Others don’t want to give up doing or eating whatever they wish whenever they wish (lust and gluttony). The initial attraction fades. Conversion, once considered, is never begun.


Christ essential


How many of us have good resolutions at the beginning of a new year? How often do we keep them? Imagine how much more difficult it is to embrace a radical change of life that puts God ahead of self? It’s a noble thought. But a challenge to achieve. Such a life requires continual self-moderation and self-discipline. For those who are accustomed to succumbing to indulgence and temptation, a life of resisting temptation seems radical. Good resolutions immediately are subject to spiritual attack. What to do? Anthony recalls the story of Jesus calming the storm at sea. The penitent needs to cry out with the apostles, “Lord, save us!” And He will. “Temptation will cease at the presence of Jesus’ mercy. So when we are tempted by the devil, we should say with heartfelt devotion: ‘In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, who commanded the winds and the sea, I command you, devil, to depart from me.’ And there came a great calm.” (Sermons III, p.383).

In other words, just as the clay needs the potter to mold it, just as the child needs a mother to lead it, so a penitent needs Christ to keep to the life of conversion.

Updated on February 21 2021