“Penance”—the word itself is enough to make many shudder. The philosopher Nietzsche in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra could scarcely find words strong enough to stigmatize penance that he saw as an affected masquerade. As we will see, it is nothing of the sort, and the Christian virtue of penance, to the contrary, is the indispensable condition for perfect joy and the spiritual progress of the soul.
Let us begin by considering the term “penance.” In Sacred Scripture, it is used to translate two Hebrew words, the first expressing the idea of sorrowful regret, the second insisting more upon the desire for a change of course that affects one’s entire moral life. And our word “penance” expresses both of these meanings.
In the writings of the pagan Latin and Greek authors, the word “penance” is rare. Reflecting upon one’s past actions to consider whether they are in keeping with the eternal law is an attitude that was particularly developed by Christianity, in which the intimate relation between God and the creature, a relation of knowledge and love, is at the very foundation of religion.
Indeed, man’s actions in the eyes of the Creator are not indifferent. They do not hurt His divinity strictly speaking, for no imperfection, no moral or physical evil can affect His divinity. But we say that our actions hurt God metaphorically, in the sense that these actions go against the order and harmony established by God, a harmony that will have to be reestablished no matter the cost.