Zelophehad’s Daughters

The Appeal of Penance

Posted by Kiskilili

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?

15 Responses to “The Appeal of Penance”

  1. 1.

    As a kid, this was one reason I was jealous of Catholics–I thought the idea of confession was sooo cool. And I can definitely see value in specific rituals related to repentance, some formalized way of putting past actions behind you and moving on.

    I agree, though, that there are problems with any approach in which every sin can be neatly categorized and labeled on a big chart, and matched with a corresponding penalty–even though I must confess that there’s a side of me that finds such things appealing. (When I was at BYU, I heard rumors of a religion professor who’d listed all possible sins in order of seriousness, thereby answering such questions as whether neglecting to do home teaching or neglecting to do visiting teaching is a worse offense.) But as you point out, you can’t de-contextualize sin from the relationship in which it occurs without losing something essential.

    A number of churches practice a kind of communal confession, in which part of the weekly liturgy involves confession of guilt (in very broad terms, of course, though presumably individuals can think about their particular situations). I know some LDS interpret the sacrament as performing perhaps a similar function–a sort of weekly absolution, as it were. I’m not totally persuaded by that interpretation, however, given the lack of any explicit reference to repentance and forgiveness in the ritual–it seems more focused on committing (or re-committing) to a specific covenantal relationship than on repairing past damage to that relationship. (Speculative question: does this contribute to an impression that church is aimed at people who are already “good,” who are living up to their covenants, as opposed to sinners who keep breaking them?)

    I’m maybe getting a bit off the subject. But I can very much see the appeal of ritual penance. I tend to think of repentance more in terms of a way of life than a discrete event–but I also think particular devotional practices could be helpful in encouraging and sustaining that way of life.

  2. 2.

    That’s such a good question, about whether church meetings are geared toward sinners or people in a state of grace (to employ a dichotomy that belies the complexity of the situation). I think you’re right about how we understand the sacrament. It’s making me think maybe another way of looking at Mormon ritual is that we have a lot of ritual for people who are in a state of grace, but no ritual for people who are in a state of sin, who are instead explicitly forbidden to participate in our ritual. Penance could potentially serve as such a ritual.

    (Perhaps the corollary to this in terms of belief is that we have abundant opportunity for expressions of faith, but basically none for expressions of doubt. That void is no doubt what the bloggernacle owes its existence to.)

  3. 3.

    In other words, our ritual seems to be not so much about absolution or reconciliation to God as it is about privilege.

  4. 4.

    In other words, our ritual seems to be not so much about absolution or reconciliation to God as it is about privilege.

    Fascinating, Kikilili.

    This makes me think of a YW lesson on repentance that for some reason stuck with me. The introductory question for the girls to consider was whether they’d ever wished they could be baptized again. The answer was, of course, that we can all be made as clean as we were at baptism through repentance.

    On the one hand, I think the point about repentance is an excellent one–it is the genuine change of heart and life that makes the atonement effective, and a ritual can’t substitute for that and is inadequate to enact it. On the other hand, as you indicate, our concept of repentance is so internalized and private that its boundaries can start to extend hopelessly in all directions. How do you know when you’ve repented enough?

    I’ve heard reports of early church members being baptized more than once, in illness or to indicate repentance (? Help from an actual historian desperately needed here!). I like the idea that after a period of estrangement from the church or of personal darkness, for instance, you could mark your reconciliation to God and the community with something like another baptism.

  5. 5.

    Perhaps the corollary to this in terms of belief is that we have abundant opportunity for expressions of faith, but basically none for expressions of doubt. That void is no doubt what the bloggernacle owes its existence to.

    An interesting point Kiskilili, but I’m afraid you’re quite wrong about the reason for the bloggernacle. The bloggernacle owes its existence to people’s desire to diss J. Max Wilson.

  6. 6.

    I’ve heard reports of early church members being baptized more than once, in illness or to indicate repentance (? Help from an actual historian desperately needed here!)

    I’m no historian, but I’ve also heard that they were baptized more than once if they were initially baptized before the organization of the Church, they then got baptized again later once the Church was organized.

    There, now we have two bits of information of questionable value for a historian to confirm or disconfirm. Perhaps if we can accumulate enough such nuggets, an actual historian passing by will be appalled enough to set us straight. :)

  7. 7.

    But as theologically appealing as this may be, there seems to me to be a raw emotional appeal to rote penance.

    If you will forgive a lighthearted observation, this post and quote, especially, reminded me of the end of the movie The Godfather (Part 1) when Michael Corleone is answering the priest’s questions as he becomes godfather to his infant niece (who is actually baby Sofia Coppola) and is renouncing his sins at the precise time he is orchestrating the hits on the Five Families (with the appropriate levels of bloody violence and mayhem befitting any respectable mafioso).

    Nice touch. :)

  8. 8.

    I wonder if there is an actual difference in the amount of guilt experienced by LDS people and Roman Catholics?

    It is my observation that many of us have a very hard time putting things behind us, and so the idea of a penance with finite terms holds some appeal. But I’d be surprised if our counterparts on the other side of the Tiber didn’t experience guilt in similar ways and quantities.

    I’ve seen our LDS approach bring about truly profound results, where the individual becomes redeemed and can be thought of as a new person.

  9. 9.

    I have a view of repentance that is too long to summarize here. If anyone is interested:

    A Fresh View of Repentance

  10. 10.

    Well, Eve and Ziff, the historians with expertise don’t seem to have been attracted to the honey you put out. Maybe we need a full-fledged post rife with historical misinformation!

    Of course, you still can be baptized more than once–first you just have to undergo membership annulment. I think our view of baptism, though exemplifies our understanding of ritual as privilege, in that it represents the culmination of the conversion process rather than the means to bringing it about (as it’s usually presented).

    Yes, E, that is perhaps the danger of penance! It might be a little too easy to move on, immediately (and correspondingly, it might not provide sufficient disincentive to sin!).

    That’s such an interesting question, Mark! I’d love to see a study comparing subjective levels of Mormon guilt, Catholic guilt, and Jewish guilt, for example.

    Thanks for the link, Ray.

  11. 11.

    Eve, Ziff, and Kiskilili, though I am no official historian, I can tell you that one of our ancestors was rebaptized. I believe he was baptized the second time just before he set out for Utah with the first Pioneer Company in 1847.

  12. 12.

    Thanks, Elbereth. You’re certainly more a historian than any of the rest of us.

    Kiskilili, I’ve been thinking more about your point about penance being more manageable than nebulous open-ended repentance, where you can’t quite be sure that you’re done. I wonder if this nebulousness of the process isn’t what motivates discussion of being able to forgive yourself. For example, here’s Elder Scott in October 2004 Conference:

    Now if you are one who cannot forgive yourself for serious past transgressions—even when a judge in Israel has assured that you have properly repented—if you feel compelled to continually condemn yourself and suffer by frequently recalling the details of past errors, I plead with all of my soul that you ponder this statement of the Savior:

    “He who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.

    “By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins— … he will confess them and forsake them.”

    I’ve also been thinking about discrete penance versus nebulous repentance from a usability standpoint. We typically think of usability as applying to computer programs or physical objects, but it can describe a process too. Anyway, a common truism about backing up your computer files is that the best method is one that you will actually use. This statement acknowledges that even if you come up with some ideal approach, it’s worthless if it’s too much of a hassle to use.

    I think this point translates well to penance versus repentance. Like with backing up your computer files, there’s no guarantee that you’ll do it if it’s too complicated. So while I can see, as you point out, the value of the flexibility of repentance, I wonder if the discreteness of penance might make it something I would more likely do if given the option, where I might just skip repenting at all when it’s my only option. But then, I’m probably more lazy than average. :)

  13. 13.

    I did see that historian bait a day or so ago, and was going to bite, but I was pressed for time and forgot.

    I’m not a historian, but on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. Google leads us to the twin founts of knowledge: the MHA Journal and BCC.

    Hre is the short version. Re-baptism as a token of repentance was common and even customary among us for the first 30 or so years of the church’s existence. J. Stapley and Kris Wright are doing ground-breaking work on the issue of baptism for health, an ordinance we performed well into the 20th century.

  14. 14.

    I just noticed this post in the bloggernacle concerniing re-baptism.

  15. 15.

    Thanks for the link, Mark. Notice also in the comments section J. Stapley has an article coming out in JMH this fall on the topic of rebaptism. In the footnotes there are links to other discussions, etc. on rebaptism as well.

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