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Penance and Suffering

 
 

April 14, 2019

One of the prominent effects of the Fall of Man is suffering. Suffering comes to a person in a number of different ways. There is physical suffering, spiritual suffering, mental suffering, and psychological suffering. Usually, a person will suffer in more than one way at the same time causing the person’s suffering to increase in ways which may not have been expected and certainly not desired.

Physical suffering is the most common form of suffering. It seems that no one is free from this form of suffering. Whether it is the baby who falls while learning to walk or the child who cuts his finger while playing a game, a teenager who breaks a bone while playing a sport or an adult who is injured in an auto accident, physical suffering occurs each day throughout the world.

If a child is taught at an early age to accept this suffering because of his love for Our Lord, it can be of a great help spiritually as he grows into adulthood. No one doubts the pain from suffering, for all, have experienced it in some form. Perhaps the most positive thing to result from suffering comes when we unite our suffering as well as we are able to the sufferings of Our Lord during His Passion and Death.

A person must truly love Our Lord to be able to unite his sufferings with those of Our Lord. This requires prayer, the establishment of virtue, and most importantly the will or desire to take part in this holy union. This is not easily accomplished when one is in pain. It will require an awareness of the circumstances and the need to super-naturalize the actions, in other words, to offer up the suffering for the love of God.

As difficult as physical suffer-ing is, spiritual suffering is far worse because of the reason for the pain. Sin is the source of spiritual suffering or the pain which the soul experiences from offending God. Not all are aware of this suffering because they do not know about the workings of the soul, or they simply choose to deny or reject the suffering.

Catholics are taught from a young age about sin and the harm it does to the soul. Venial sin causes damage to the soul because all sin offends God and has a corresponding effect. Mortal sin deadens the soul and rids the soul of all sanctifying grace. Only by being absolved in the Sacrament of Penance is the soul restored to life.

The soul is at some degree of peace when it is in the state of grace, but suffers to various degrees when it is stained with sin. During this sinful state, the soul is separated from God, either partly or entirely. It is this separation when causes it to suffer.

A Catholic with a correctly formed conscience will experience a conscience which is in conflict because of the sins committed by the person. This conflict is a part of the spiritual suffering the person has when he has sinned. Because the conscience is a spiritual faculty it is a part of the soul. As a result, when the conscience is in conflict, the soul is in conflict. This conflict, or suffering, is truly the worst type of suffering for any person who understands the spiritual battle which is taking place within that life-giving spirit known as the soul. When these things are properly understood, then one knows why Holy Mother Church has always encouraged Her sons and daughters to make regular use of the Sacrament of Penance, the Sacrament which restores life to a suffering and sometimes miserable soul.

The second part of this spiritual renewal of grace to the soul is that of penance. Here penance is to be understood as the punishment by which he atones for the sins committed, which is separate and distinct from the Sacrament of Penance.

It is quite clear from the Scriptures that penance was, and still is, the means through which one makes up for his sins. God imposed required penances, particularly fasts, on the Hebrews in the Old Law. Christ fasted on different occasions as a means of spiritual preparation for those events which were about to occur. His acts of penance were not a means of Self-atonement, for Our Lord is God and never sinned. He wished to set an example for men, illustrating a means through which to temper the lower passions and gain greater control of the soul.

The sins of the individual are such that penance is needed throughout the course of the life of the sinner. Holy Mother Church, as a means of stress-sing this fact, has set aside a Holy Season for us to con-template our sinfulness and truly miserable state. The Lenten Season provides us with an excellent time to consider the state of our souls and the means through which we are able to elevate the soul.

Catholics are encouraged to take advantage of this penitential season. One should approach Lent with a positive attitude, having the desire to atone for his sins and having the opportunity to follow the example of Our Lord by performing acts of penance and mortification. In this way, he is able to unite his penances with the sufferings of Our Lord. It is in this spiritual union where Catholics may rejoice at the opportunity to perform these penances.

There are many who desire to do great things in this world.

Usually, they want some degree of acknowledgment from others. Some are satisfied with helping other men. The effort put forth in most cases is endless hours of relentless work, having only the goal of accomplishment in mind.

Far too many Catholics will obey the laws of the Church, doing what is necessary to be a good, practicing Catholic. In itself, this is good and we may not expect much more. Why are we willing to give our natural, human endeavors the greatest possible effort and those spiritual acts of faith and religion the minimum time and determination? It is meant to be a point of consideration and reflection where penance and suffering are concerned. What am I willing to give in return to Our Lord for the many blessings and graces He has so abundantly given to an un-deserving soul?

Fr. Joseph Noonan, OFM