So, what does penance really mean? Penance is a supernatural virtue. It begins with an understanding that I am a sinner and that my sin has consequences. It is rather like someone who has borrowed a car from a friend and then has an accident while driving the friend’s car. I can apologize to my friend and the apology is accepted but the car needs to be restored to my friend or my apology is just words. There is a sense that to replace the car is an honorable thing to do and I think I would have trouble meeting my friend eye to eye if I did not replace the car. I WANT to replace the car, I won’t be happy unless I do.
St. Paul reminds us in Romans that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” Rom 3:23. So, just being alive seems to call for the virtue of penance in my life.
The Christian life if not meant to be a sad thing. St. Teresa is supposed to have said, “From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us.” We know the saints were the most joyful of people and Carmelite saints like Teresa and the little Therese known for their sense of humor and fun. So how are the virtue of penance and the spirit of Carmel woven together? It is love that is the thread that runs through Carmelite penance. Going back to my example of the smashed car, I restore the car not just out of a sense of duty but primarily because I love my friend. I have destroyed a valuable possession and want to give it back in the best condition possible.
When I sin I have damaged my relationship with the Lord. In some way I have preferred my will to His and said “my way is better”. Carmel is all about relationship; it is all about the face to face encounter with the Lord. Having turned my face away and realizing my error I turn back with fervor to repair the broken gaze. But, as a lover it is not enough to come into his presence repentant I want to say “I am sorry” with more than words, I want to say it with works, acts of penance. But this is not enough; I want make acts of penance for those who cannot do this for themselves. The brown of my Carmelite habit is a constant reminder of this to me. I am called to the virtue of penance for the world.
The acts of penance are not earth shattering, but they do not need to be. St. Therese is famous for “picking up a pin” for a missionary. There are countless small acts of self-denial that can be made for souls. It truly is the little things that matter. Each of us can do something little every day. It might even be a chocolate bar!