As part of my study of historical Celtic Christianity, I have been doing a deep dive into an essential aspect of that tradition. The Celtic practice of penance is one of the unique contributions of the early Celtic Christians to Christianity as a whole. A book about penance is called a penitential and there are numerous and diverse penitentials which survive from medieval Ireland. You can read about how I envision penance being relecvant to the modern world HERE and an example of some of the spiritual wisdom the penitentials have to offer HERE.
Because penance has such a bad reputation today, I feel it is necessary to explain where this word comes from and how I use it in my own practice of spiritual direction. Penance is the practical expression of that essential Christian virtue, repentance. To begin, let’s look at one of the key passages about repentance in the New Testament itself. In the book of Acts Peter says,
“Repent, therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.”
The English word repent comes from the Latin word penitire which means “to regret.” But the scriptures are originally written in Greek and the word Peter used in his sermon is metanoia in the original text. Metanoia is more than the simple idea of regret. It is a spiritual conversion which transforms the heart and mind of the person who experiences it.
“Meta-” means to change something but it also refers to something which is above and beyond. “-noia” means mind but in the spiritual sense it refers to the eye of the soul. Repentance, as it is truly meant to be understood, is a spiritual transformation which gives us a new way of seeing. It elevates our minds into true spiritual knowledge of ourselves and of God.
There are many references to repentance in the scriptures, but I have chosen this passage from Acts intentionally because it addresses another important issue at the same time. Peter talks about a time of universal restoration which has been foretold by the prophets of old. Universal restoration means that everything will be saved. Repentance, therefore, is not about obtaining an escape ticket from hell. There can be no eternal hell if the destiny of everything is restoration in Christ Jesus.
More and more people everyday are realising that the idea of hell as a place of eternal conscious torment is repulsive. Salvation, as I understand it and as it relates to penance, is about being liberated from the chaos and torment of a soul which is divided against itself. Understanding hell as a spiritual condition, in which the soul is tormented by its own disordered thoughts and emotions, allows us to engage with Christian language and imagery in a more healthy way.
Hell is neither permanent nor eternal. It is not something which is waiting to punish God’s enemies after death but something we can and do experience throughout our lives. Hell is a condition of the mind. We can be saved from its torment in the here and now if we put on the mind of Christ instead.
For Peter, the work of repentance is about changing our orientation away from sin and towards God instead. This is what it means to put on the mind of Christ. When we do this, so Peter tells us, times of refreshing will come from the presence of the Lord, whom we have drawn nearer to. Every person who undergoes such a spiritual conversion hastens the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. When the good news of inner peace has been preached to the ends of the earth, then will come the time of universal restoration. The healing of the world is wrapped up in the healing of individual souls.
This understanding of repentance as a spiritual transformation is the foundation of the Irish penitential system. Just as in the excerpt from Peter’s sermon above, the intention is for this transformation to be universal. Penance is focused on individuals, but the big picture is about the liberation of all people from the slavery of sin. It is a desire to heal the world. In the penitential of Finnian, one of the earliest of the Irish penitentials, we see that Finnian hopes his book will be of service to the healing of all humanity. His penitential ends with the following words.
“Here ends the little work which Finnian adapted for the sons of his bowels, out of affection and in interest of religion, overflowing with the waters of the Scriptures, in order that by all men all evil deeds might be destroyed.”
The phrase “sons of his bowels” is an archaic way of saying that he had great compassion and tender mercy for those under his care. The important thing to note in this quote is that the purpose for which he has adapted and compiled his penitential is the destruction of evil deeds in all people. It is meant to be a tool which brings about the salvation of everyone. The purpose of penance is to lift humanity out of sin and into goodness.
Penance was understood by the writers of the Celtic penitentials as an essential part of salvation. The work of healing souls was seen as a cooperative effort between the individual and God. Each person, in this stream of thought, must work out their own salvation in partnership with God. While it is God’s mercy which is our true salvation, we must participate in the process through our own work and effort. This dynamic between our repentance and God’s mercy in the salvation of souls is described by Finnian earlier in the same work.
“If a cleric is wrathful or envious or backbiting or gloomy or greedy, great and capital sins are these, and they slay the soul and cast it down to the depth of hell. But there is penance for them, until they are plucked forth and eradicated from our hearts through the help of God and through our own zeal: let us seek pardon from the mercy of God and victory over these things.”
This short passage encapsulates the heart of penitential theology for the Celtic monks. Firstly, the sins which he names here are more about inner conditions than they are about outward actions. He is describing inner conditions which interfere with a priest’s ability to be a servant of God. These inner conditions are what lead to sinful actions and so they are the true cause of discord in the world.
Penance is about healing the conditions of the soul which lead to violence and corruption. According to Finnian, these inner conditions cast the soul into hell. If we understand hell as a spiritual state rather than an eternal torture chamber, this quote from Finnian makes just as much sense (perhaps even more). Living with violence and corruption in our souls is certainly a hellish experience.
While the Celtic penitentials do not refute the existence of hell as a place of eternal conscious torment, they do often use hell to describe the condition of a soul who is lost in sin in this life. Another example of this can be found in The Old Irish Penitential in the section on avarice (which means greed for money and material possessions). It says,
“Avaritia is the name of the third vice that kills the soul of a man, that is, avarice: for it may be compared to Hell as to its extent and capacity, and because it gives up nothing that is cast into it: so likewise the maw of avarice, though the world’s whole wealth were poured into it, could not be filled, and would give nothing back again. For it is a fire to burn and a sea to drown, an earth to swallow up, a lion to ravish, a beast to devour, a sword to spoil, a serpent to spring, a dungeon to keep, a chain to fetter, a pitfall to compass the destruction of body and soul. For from this root of avarice grow all the vices, and on its account are most souls of the human race brought to Hell.”
The hell which greed creates inside of us is like a dungeon in which we are chained up and bound. It is a consuming pit which leads us into the destruction of our bodies and our souls. The hell which greed (and all the other vices as well) casts us into is like a great nothingness which pulls in and destroys but never gives in or lets up. Greed can never be satisfied, it only grows larger the more money we throw at it, and this is the nature of the spiritual hell we create inside our own minds. Our disordered and chaotic desires create a beast within us that devours our souls and yet is never satisfied.
Since living with these sins inside of us is hell, Finnian suggests that we can use penance as a means of salvation from torment. Penance is to be used until such a time as these sins have been completely plucked out of our souls by a combination of God’s help and our own zealous efforts.
The penitential tradition arose as a tool in the conversion of souls from spiritual death into spiritual life. The metanoia which they sought to instil in people was a change in thinking, a new way of understanding life and our place within it. This spiritual healing was directed towards individuals, but its intended purpose was to heal the world and everyone in it. This is how I understand penance as well. It is my hope that a revitalisation of spiritual practices we are experiencing in our times will help to bring peace to individual souls and peace to the whole world. In the words of Christ, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be children of God.”
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