I began to explore the life of St. Francis and his spirituality first because of the stigmata. As I looked further into his life, there were some other things I noticed also, one was his insistence on living penance. Until recently, I’d thought of penance as something that’s asked of me when I make a confession, but the way St. Francis wrote about penance it obviously meant something a little different to him. I know that he wasn’t making confessions that often, not even I manage to have to make one quite that often, so evidently this was something else.
St. Francis, as a Medieval saint, lived faithfully in the culture and and the life of the Church of his time, but I wasn’t sure that God really wanted me, in the Year of Our Lord 2021, to go about my daily life wearing a hair shirt. That was something St. Francis did in his life because it made sense in his time and context. One of the reasons I was drawn to the spirituality of St. Francis in the first place was that it is an incarnational spirituality that a layperson like myself can live in ordinary life, which is a relief because I love Jesus but I’d make a shitty nun.
I don’t believe that St. Francis wanted to live penance just because he needed something spiritual sounding to do, but he truly believed that the penances he lived would bring him closer to holiness. The purpose of penances is the same no matter if it’s St. Francis in the Middle Ages or MaryClare in modern times. It’s as much about holiness and spirituality as it was back then. Penance is an action of surrender to God that contributes to amendment of life and trust in God, and to keep walking in repentance in the long term. It’s a renunciation of past sins and walking in repentance by staying away from things that would contribute to falling into such sin again.
I’ve had to renounce a lot of evil things I was once involved in, and in order to keep embracing the light, I have often taken on something better to replace the thing I renounced. I believe this is the spirit of the penance that St. Francis was trying his best to live, even though even he would tell you, he went way too far and damaged his body in his desired to mortify his flesh. But St. Francis also received the stigmata, because he wanted to enter into the story of Christ’s passion.
I recently had Jesus ask me to take on a particular penance that I fought like hell not to do. I threw a fit and told Jesus it wasn’t fair that he would ask it of me, that he didn’t understand how much this meant to me. Eventually, however, I gave in, because it was clearly something I needed to walk away from in order to keep myself clear of sins of the past. So over the next few days after my surrender to Jesus’ request, I got rid of all my horror books, I deleted documents on my computer of horror stories I had started writing, and I vowed to not write about horror anymore.
I had created a large part of my identity in horror, and Jesus wanted to take it from me? I was upset. I was still upset as I did as he had asked, and, although it sounds stupid, I grieved it. But I also am completely certain that this is the right thing to do, and that in following Jesus in doing this, it is further walking away from the past and embracing the present with Christ. Horror in and of itself isn’t a sin, especially not for other people, but it was something that was becoming problematic for me and my promise to walk with Christ. Sometimes it would feed desires towards things I shouldn’t do and places I shouldn’t be.
There are certain stores that I like, or places that I like going that I cannot go anymore, because they feed evil desires. I walked into Spencer’s in the mall a few months ago, looking for some tunnels for my ears (I swear that’s all I was in there for, hahaha). I had forgotten that in the middle of the store, beside where the body jewelry is, there is a large section that contains tarot cards, crystal balls, and other such merchandise. I knew I should leave, but I lingered, those cards calling my name, speaking to me. I knew that the longer I stayed, the bigger the temptation would end up being. I thought of Jesus, and the promises I made, and I drew my eyes away from the cards, and walked out of the store. I had genuinely forgotten that they sold those things in there, but when I came face to face with them, I should have walked right on out of there. After all, I can order 00g earrings online.
Penance in this regard for me is avoiding places that I know I will encounter such things, it means turning down invitations to play cards with friends, it means not going into certain parts of New Orleans despite living close enough to go. It also means that I continue to surround myself with sacred items such as icons, prayer books, and I now collect rosaries instead of tarot cards. Instead of reading horror I now read and write more nonfiction. I was trained in graduate school as a nonfiction writer anyway. I have different spiritual practices that bring me closer to Jesus such as prayer, which has been huge the past year or so. I’ve found new things that fascinate me to study such as prayer (which is why you’re reading an article by me about penance), suffering as a way to enter the story of Jesus, atonement theories, mysticism, saints, medieval Christianity, Christian art, and Ecclesiastical Latin.
These are things that work for my relationship with Jesus, and for others, their penances will be much different. I’m still a little miffed over having to give up horror despite knowing that it’s a good thing for me and will keep my desires for things forbidden to be reigned in some more. While it’s still fresh and hurts some right now, I look forward to when it won’t hurt quite as much and I am glad that Jesus is still there for me just like he has always been.