The Sublime Joys of Atonement

We are told that early in his career, St. Francis of Assisi presented us with some exhortations. These sum up what the Franciscan Order requires andare also a pretty good description of a Catholic life.

1. Love God2. Love ones neighbor3. Turn away from sinful tendencies4. Receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and, as a result of the above5. Produce worthy fruits of penance a renewed life characterized by charity, forgiveness, and compassion.

There is probably nothing in this summary that we were not taught as children. But then, during our formation as Secular Franciscans, we learn that the original name of the Third Order Secular was The Brothers and Sisters of Penance. And although the name has since changed, brothers and sisters of penance we still are.Lets face it. Penance and its sister Atonement is what scares us, especially when we see these words linked to something that has the unfortunate name of Order as in "taking them". No Catholic is probably going to argue that living a life of penance and atonement is a bad thing as such. But the fact is, its the kind of thing that sometimes makes the words vocation and conversion synonyms for crazy--- but in a good way.The Franciscan Orders are penitential orders and because we are used to thinking of Penance as the punishment the priest gives us after we go to Confession, leading a life of penance sounds like leading a life of suffering. And since as far as I am concerned I am already leading a life of suffering, thank you very much, I think Ill take a pass.And yet the Franciscans are known (and rightfully so) as a particularly joyful order. So how does this penance produce this joy? Have Franciscans found the secret formula for how much self-punishment cancels out Catholic guilt? Or do Franciscans have a vocation (nod nod wink wink) for some sort of Holy Masochism?

There is a famous prayer called the Prayer of St. Francis, attributed to the saint but probably written about 100 years ago. Most of us have seen it before, often mounted in a state of high kitsch on the wall of grandmas kitchen; a plaque containing the prayer and a picture of a smiling-idiot dove-covered St. Francis looking exactly like Christ with a funny haircut. The prayer goes like this:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peaceWhere there is hatred, let me sow love.Where there is injury, pardon.Where there is doubt, faith.Where there is despair, hope.Where there is darkness, light.And where there is sadness, joy.Oh Divine Master! Grant that I may not so muchSeek to be consoled as to consoleTo be understood but to understandTo be loved as to loveFor it is in giving that we receiveIt is in pardoning that we are pardonedAnd it is in dying that we are reborn to eternal life.

It is a pretty prayer that I have heard some people refer to as a liberal manifesto, both in complimentary and not so complimentary ways. But it was a major moment in my formation as a Franciscan when I realized that its not just a pretty prayer. It is a deadly serious statement about the true nature of penance and atonement.We our pastor collars us while we are walking the dog by remembering our name, and he reminds us that not only is it Lent but that there are going to be extended hours for Confession next Saturday and that he will be delighted when he seesus there, we often expect to do the same old deal where we kneel down and enumerate our lists of broken rules, for which we expect to receive a stern talking to and a punishment that we hope we can get out of the way before we leave the church. We believe (although we dont quite see how since they usually seem so arbitrary) that somehow the penance or punishment is specifically tailored to our sins. This is penance for most people.It is true that a good penance should be tailored to the sin. But leading a life of penance isnt about our sins any more. It is not the Holy Spirit calling upon us to receive the Sacraments, go to Confession, and then whack ourselves in the face with a board frequently. A life of penance and atonement isnt tailored to our sins. It is tailored towards sinfulness. If we think about it, we might see that sinfulness (as opposed to our pathetic little personal infractions) is about the affronts to charity, forgiveness, and compassion that sin actually represents and which causes sin to move beyond its moment and place of infraction like ripples in a pond. If penance and atonement were some kind of bill we had to pay for our sins, we could never possibly pay it. We cant even count up our own sins, because our sins escape us and take on a life of their own, continuing to resonate beyond us, sometimes for years, sometimes even for generations.A life of penance and atonement, then, isnt about punishments. Its about restoring charity, forgiveness and compassion and sending these resonances out through the world. It isnt easy to do, at least consistently, especially as we seem to have been built to sin. But penance and atonement isnt about pain and punishment. Its about spreading the joy, as the Prayer of St. Francis tells us.If you want to know what the Secular Franciscans, formerly known as the Brothers and Sisters of Penance do, this is it.

unagidon is the pen name of a former dotCommonweal blogger.  

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