Penance and the Guarani

The following is a developed version of an email I sent to my friend, Kevin Bardon, who wanted me to respond to an article he sent to me about penance



I have been attending a fellowship group at Saint James, primarily comprised of young adults, and last week we watched The Mission, which was followed this week by a lesson I provided to process the film. In relation to your question about penance, I asked a couple of questions about the character Rodrigo, who, in case you haven’t seen the film, was a slave trader. The questions I asked were:  “Do you think it was necessary for Rodrigo to do penance to find forgiveness?” and “Why were the Guarani (the natives he used to capture and sell into slavery) instrumental in bringing Rodrigo’s penance to an end and in helping him find forgiveness?” The general consensus in response to these questions was that though God’s forgiveness is freely given, often penance is necessary in order for us to come to the place where we can take hold of what He is freely offering us. Penance puts us in touch with the gravity of sin and the profundity of our brokenness, and thereby brings us to the end of ourselves. In this way we are enabled to take a hold of God’s forgiveness in the only way that it can be appropriated, as that which is utterly free and completely unmerited.

Having offered this understanding of penance, and affirming it as my own, I realize that some potential problems need to be addressed regarding the application and practice of penance. The primary problem is that penance can easily become legalistic, and could be ironically used to prevent us from seeing the very thing it was designed to allow us to see. We could use our practice of penance to keep us from seeing the depths of our brokenness, and thereby the necessity that God’s forgiveness be unmerited. We could practice penance in such a way that we focus on the doing of penance, and through this generate a sense that we are atoning for our wrongdoing, or that we are overcoming our brokenness. If this is what happens when we practice penance, it is doing the very opposite of what God and the Church intends.

In some ways, my understanding of penance is akin to the Law/Gospel dichotomy that is present in Protestant notions of preaching, which is to say that Gospel proclamations should include some declaration of the Law so that people will despair of themselves and be led to Jesus. In this manner, penance is a kind of proclamation in gesture form. Again, through undertaking the discipline of penance we come to see our brokenness more fully, and become more fully able to throw ourselves upon the sheer mercy of God.

So, in light of this, penance needs to be a Spirit led reality, because the Spirit’s primary ministry is to lead us into all truth, and since Jesus is the embodiment of all grace and truth, the primary ministry of the Spirit is to more fully bring us into the reality of Jesus. The implication of this is that penance needs to be a discipline of the Church overseen by those who are wise in the ways of human depravity and who have deeply tasted the profound, glorious, and surprising grace of God.

In the movie, Father Gabriel was such an overseer for Rodrigo, and regarding his oversight I am reminded of an exchange he had with another brother of the Jesuit Order about Rodrigo. The exchange was as follows:

Father Fielding: Father, he’s done this penance long enough, and well, the other brothers think the same.

Father Gabriel: But he doesn’t think so, John. Until he does, neither do I.

As it turned out, Rodrigo’s penance came to an end when he encountered the Guarani. His penance was to carry a net full of weapons that characterized the depths of his broken existence over a great distance to the mission of the Guarani. Upon encountering them, one of the Guarani approached him with a knife in hand, and intent unclear. After a brief pause the Guarani cut the net from Rodrigo, and as the wares of his destructive life fell into the flowing waters of the river, Rodrigo was sacramentally freed from the weight of his sin. He cried deeply. He cried as Father Gabriel embraced him, and he cried even more as the Guarani encircled him, a clear sign that they had come to understand the Gospel of forgiveness by welcoming their former persecutor into their community. As I see it, the Guarani were instrumental in bringing Rodrigo’s penance to an end because they moved him beyond his existential experience of guilt, and into the realm of relationships and righteousness, where those who had every right to condemn him instead offered him unmerited forgiveness. For Rodrigo the Guarani were the face of God.

So, all this to say that penance can be a great thing when rightly administered.


Comments are closed.