Theologically, I find it satisfying not to have a rigid, mechanically enacted code of penance but instead to employ a flexible system whereby we express genuine contrition, abandon our sins, and accept God’s mercy. Such a system is satisfying in its very insistence on the spontaneity and thus the authenticity of our remorse, in its focus on the concrete particulars of our misdeeds and their very specific consequences to actual individuals’ lives rather than on ethereal generalities, and on its privileging of heartfelt emotion and internal change over potentially empty action. We repent of our personal behaviors that have harmed others in personal ways particular to and fundamentally inseparable from them, not of metaphysical categories of mistakes.
In this way our very identities are implicated in the repentance process. There’s no grand chart where sins such as “smacked little sister” can be located and their appropriate punishments–”doing said sister’s chores once, plus 10 push-ups”–can be meted out, because no chart is big enough to adequately capture the uniqueness of this sisterly relationship or the complicated individuality of the smacked sister. In spite of recurrent efforts to straitjacket a process made complex by its requirement of emotional authenticity into various pared-down checklists (such as the Four R’s: felt remorse? move ahead one space), repentance involves more than playing a board game–more than going to jail, losing three turns and then moving ahead as usual.
But as theologically appealing as this may be, there seems to me to be a raw emotional appeal to rote penance. The very nebulousness of this system with its focus on unremitting scrupulosity and personal transformation presents emotional perils all its own, in that you can never really know whether you’ve repented (or, to put it another way: you can always know that you haven’t finished repenting). Penance is discrete and manageable: it has a beginning and an end. You can know when you’ve finished crawling on your knees for three blocks, or fasting for three days, or saying three Hail Marys. You can play your get-out-of-jail card. And, perhaps for better or worse, you can move on.
(Obviously, for certain serious transgressions a system approaching this is already in place, although not applied uniformly, and while it entails the withdrawal of ecclesiastical opportunities it does not specifically prescribe penitential, purgatory actions.)
Penance might sound somewhat foreign or even distasteful to Mormon ears, but it is essentially a form of ritual and, theoretically, I think, could be integrated into our already ritual-laden sensibilities fairly seamlessly. Would it be merciful of God to assign us fundamentally arbitrary tasks to fulfill in response to particular sins, making his grace contingent on them not to satisfy any eternal law, but simply for our own peace of mind? God’s grace, it seems, alighteth where it listeth, sometimes unbidden but never forced. It is ungovernable. The appeal of a system of penance is that it would give us more control over that grace. Would such a system thereby trivialize the Atonement, whose power is not ours to command but only to plead for? Would it trivialize it in a way that our other rituals do not? Or is an important aspect of a devotional life the recognition that, unless we can behave perfectly, the quality of our relationship to God is ultimately out of our hands?
- 17 July 2008