Penance for Preaching: Hunger for God and for Souls

March 1, 2018

Fr. Raymund Snyder, O.P., preached the following homily at a Vocations Weekend Mass at the Dominican House of Studies on February 18, 2018.

Here at the Dominican House of Studies the preacher at the conventual Mass ordinarily addresses the brethren during the week and our guests and visitors on Sundays. However, given that this is a vocation weekend, I would like to specifically direct my homily towards our vocation guests visiting here for the “Come and See” weekend.

Here at the beginning Lent, on this First Sunday of Lent, I think it is fitting to consider how our Dominican way of life is, in fact, a penitential life. Penance is one aspect of our life that may be somewhat hard to notice from the outside. We do not list it at the top of the vocation brochures: “Come do penance with us!” It is true, it is not the primary lens through which to see our life, but is a very important one, one that cannot be neglected.

When we think of penance, we typically think of a single action. We think, “I’m taking on this penance for Lent,” or “I’m giving up this out of penance.” As Dominicans, we of course do this. We do have specific penances and some even just for Lent, but there is a broader notion too. People do not always have the best connotation to the word penance. They think of it as a temporary sacrifice one makes to atone for sin and that is certainly true. It is likely something unpleasant, something we would rather not do. If our notion of penance remains here, we might think, “Why would someone want to lead a whole life of penance?”

How is Dominican life penitential? The most important penance is to be found in the totality, in the comprehensiveness of our life. Our constitutions say: “Religious consecration and the apostolic calling impel the brothers more than the rest of the faithful to practice self-denial. By taking up their cross and carrying in their own body and soul the sufferings of Jesus, they earn the glory of the resurrection for themselves and for others. Imitating Saint Dominic . . . the brothers should practice the virtue of penance especially by observing faithfully all that belongs to our life.”

I think this is important to consider this in the time of discernment. There can be a tendency to place too much emphasis on one or two external observances. You might focus on just one or two visible penances as the true litmus test of whether a religious order is worth joining. But considering a vocation is about considering the whole and for a lifetime: we are in it for the long haul! Our life is not just a few practices put together. Rather, our life is meant to be a harmonious ensemble of elements. Dominican life is also more than the mere sum of its practices and parts. Our life carries with it a unique grace, the charism of St. Dominic, the grace of preaching.

We can learn from early days of the Order. Blessed Jordan of Saxony, St. Dominic’s successor, and his friend Henry entered the order at a symbolic time. In his biography of St. Dominic, the Libellus on the Beginnings of the Order of Preachers, Blessed Jordan writes: “When the day came on which the imposition of ashes reminds the faithful of their creation from the dust and their return to dust, we decided it was a suitable occasion for us to begin our life of penance, and to fulfill what we had promised to the Lord.” When someone asked where they were going, Brother Henry responded: “I am going to Bethany”, that is, “the House of Obedience”. So it is a good time to be here on a vocation weekend, that is, at the beginning of Lent!

This story illustrates the critical connection between penance and Dominican life. Virtually everything in Dominican life can be seen under the aspect of penance: Study, Preaching, Prayer, Common life, Regular observance. Hopefully many of these elements appear attractive to you. You might be thinking, “Study, I like to study. Bring on the books!” Well, you can ask the student brothers whether they always find study a pure joy. Wait until finals week and “paper month.” You might also think, “I love the habit. How could wearing the habit ever be a penitential practice?” Wait until you’ve slammed your rosary in the car door several times or been marred by marinara!

The purpose of penance is not merely to endure things that are unpleasant. That would be a bit to superficial. It helps us to think of penance from a more metaphysical view. Penance opens us up for God. Penitential practices, or practices undertaken in a spirit of penance, dispose us to the Lord’s gifts. Actually, we should be precise and assign the initiative to God: Penance is one of the things God uses to open us up to himself. He uses penances to create spaces in our hearts for him.

On the first Sunday of Lent, the Church always directs our attention to Our Lord’s time in the desert and his temptations. This year we have Mark’s Gospel, which is very concise. However, Matthew and Luke both have a curious line, which we are all familiar with: “He fasted forty days and forty nights and afterwards he was hungry.” What a remarkable understatement! We were probably already hungry by 4 pm on Ash Wednesday! This statement conveys a consequence of Jesus being truly man: he felt hunger. This line also has a lesson for us: Lenten penances—and penances taken more broadly—are meant to make us hungry! They increase our yearning for the things of God, they open up space for his action within us.

I think it may help us to see the shape of religious life if we connect the three forms of penance—prayer, fasting and almsgiving—to the three evangelical counsels—poverty, chastity and obedience. There is a clear connection between almsgiving and poverty. To disposess oneself entirely is kind of further actualization of almsgiving. One authority St. Thomas cites says “it is a good thing to give one’s property to the poor little by little, but it is better still to give all at once in order to follow Christ.” Chastity and fasting are also related. Chastity is a perpetual fast from the goods of marriage and family.

Finally—and the connection I want to emphasis—obedience is closely connected with prayer. We might think of obedience only in connection to the explicit command of a superior, but it is much more comprehensive than that. We vow obedience to a superior according to a specific form of life. That form of life has many requirements, but the most important and pervasive of its requirements is the obligation to pray. Our obedience is renewed each day and many time each day by adhering faithful to all the aspects of our life, first and foremost to prayer and contemplation. We frequently stop our work (study, teaching, writing or whatever) to pray, even though the work may itself be very important and very absorbing and even though pausing goes contrary to our inertial tendency to continue with the matter at hand. Prayer is the first penance of our life, the most constant and all-encompassing task in our “house of obedience.”

That makes sense for the vows all religious take, but you can understand Dominican life as a life of penance according to a specific modality. It opens up space in our hearts for God, but that space has a special shape. Our life imparts a deep hunger for God. It stimulates our appetite for the things of God. We live the way we do so we can desire God more and so we can possess him more. One need only look at Thomas Aquinas’s response when Christ, in a vision, offered him everything: Non, nisi te Domine: Nothing but yourself Lord. Or consider Catherine of Siena’s hunger for the Eucharist. She nagged her spiritual director, “feed me”, “give my soul it’s food!”

But there is another deep and profound hunger that flows from this one: a hunger for souls. This is a deep concern and solicitude for the eternal destiny of others. One need only think of St. Dominic keeping Vigil in the Church, beseeching the Lord to save sinners, pleading to him on their behalf. Or again of St. Catherine, who described her own desire as a kind of hunger: “the soul begins to hunger for the honor of the Eternal God, and for the food of the salvation of other souls, and being hungry, she eats, that is to say, nourishes herself with love of her neighbor, which causes her hunger and desire, for the love of the neighbor is a food which never satiates him who feeds on it, the eater being insatiable and always remains hungry.”

We must be clear about our purpose: The Order of preachers was established for preaching and the salvation of souls, specifically. Through St. Dominic, the Holy Spirit established means suited to this purpose. The ensemble of means that is our form of life is what the Lord uses to create space for his grace in us, the grace Dominicans need. In so many words, we may say: Our life of penance opens us up to the grace of preaching.

The Spirit drove Jesus into the desert. If we are to flourish in our fast, the Spirit must drive us, must draw us, to attract us to the things of God. As far as discernment goes, know that the Holy Spirit tends to make himself abundantly clear, albeit according to his own timeline. His clarity brings peace even if it seems slow in coming. Let him drive you, let him dispose you. May Lent be a time of opening up to God, a time to increase your appetite for the things of God, your hunger for God and for souls.

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