Penance is the principal element of the Christian life. St. John the Baptist prepared men’s hearts for the coming of JESUS-CHRIST by preaching penance. St. John himself prepared for his ministry by a thirty years life of penance. Before commencing His preaching, JESUS, Son of God though He was, passed forty days of most rigorous penance in the desert, and it was penance on which He laid the most stress in preaching. "Do penance," He said, "for the kingdom of God is at hand." The word penance wounds the ear of the natural, the old man; for to him, penance means death, and he wishes not to die but to live, even if he drags us with him to the eternal flames. But we cannot listen to the promptings of the old man, i e. our sinful flesh: it was not for this that we were baptized. "At baptism," says St. Paul, "our old man is crucified with Him that we may live to life everlasting." In this matter there is no middle course. We were conceived in iniquity and clothed with a flesh which is ever in revolt against the law of God. Therefore we must either do penance, says our Lord, or perish everlastingly.
If you read the lives of the Saints, you will see that they were all much given to penance and we always picture them to ourselves as very mortified men. This virtue, too, was more especially practiced by St. Anne. It is true that on this point also we are reduced to conjecturing the truth, but our conjectures amount to a certainty. Anne was preeminently given to prayer, as we have already seen, and as is proved by her sublime sanctity. Now, prayer goes along with mortification; prayer unaccompanied by mortification is only an illusion, or at the least, is not long practiced. Prayer is the cry of the soul, and sensuality is the cry of the flesh or the animal man: if the soul does not subdue the flesh by penance, it becomes sensual, carnal, it is weighed down and can no longer raise itself from earth to converse with God. Likewise the holy women Judith, Hannah the mother of Samuel, Esther and Anna the prophetess joined perpetual fasting to the prayers which they offered up by day and by night, and it is but right to believe that the Mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary was in no way inferior to those illustrious Saints. It may well be said that a well-made prayer is in itself a mortification, and that fervent, persevering, continual prayer, like St. Anne’s, is an uninterrupted penitential exercise. Constant mental application to heavenly things is a powerful means of bringing the flesh into subjection, of overcoming its instincts, of forcing it to sympathize with the aspirations of the soul. Violence to ourselves must be done before we can remain for half-an-hour or an hour on our knees, motionless, our eyes closed or cast down, repressing all wandering and flights of the mind so soon as they are perceived. What then must it be to pass two, three, five, six consecutive hours in this exercise, and this not only occasionally, but every day of a long life, as many Saints have done and, as we can hardly doubt, St. Anne did? Nor must we imagine that the consolations they felt in their prayer, prevented their feeling the irksomeness of such constant restraint. Like other men, the Saints usually experience great aridity, dryness and desolation in prayer, as we are told by St. Alphonsus who had himself experienced it. Faithful soul, place yourself under the protection of your holy Patroness and resolve to enter courageously on this salutary way of penance. Whoever you may be, you have sinned, and sin has to be expiated here below or in another life. The sufferings here below, even the greatest austerities practiced by the Saints, are as nothing in comparison with those of Purgatory; and besides they gain merits; they help us to advance in interior virtue and draw down on us divine favors and heavenly consolations. But do not take fright: I do not wish you to practice the austerities of the Saints, but only those which are indispensable and which are:
I. Unless for some just reason and legitimate dispensation, observe punctually the fasts and abstinence imposed by the holy Church.
II. Be courageous enough to impose on yourself some mortification on Fridays, Saturdays, on the eves of the feasts of Mary, and daily during the novenas which you make in honor of St. Anne. "Prayer is good with fasting and alms," as the Archangel Raphael told Tobias.
III. Support patiently and uncomplainingly all the annoyances which you meet with daily; accept in the same way, as if sent by God, all the affronts, unjust treatment, persecution which men make you suffer.
IV. Frequently make acts of contrition for your past sins,
V. Lastly, whatever may be the state of your soul, whether you be joyful or sorrowful, experiencing consolation or a prey to dryness and distaste, be always faith ful in the discharge of all your devotional exercises, neither diminishing nor abridging them, whatever effort it may cost you, and being always on your guard against voluntary distractions.
A Sister of Charity, Quebec, writes as follows:
For thirteen years I had been suffering from dyspepsia when, in the winter of 1881, I was confined to the infirmary for two months. The stomach was so much affected that the roof of the mouth swelled up, and at length an abscess forming there, my sufferings were most acute. The doctor’s lancet gave me relief from this abscess, but I remained with a constant spasm that tormented me for a whole year. In the month of March, 1882, 1 had to return to the infirmary, for the spasm had become still more persistent and gave me no rest either day or night. I felt that my strength was nearly exhausted and I had even been advised to prepare for death. I then made a solemn promise to St. Anne that in return for my cure, if she would but grant it, I would (with my Superior’s permission) make a pilgrimage to St. Anne de Beaupre, and if, at the end of a year the improvement continued, I would make the miracle known in the Annals. I then took a spoonful of the water of St. Anne’s fountain, and with all possible faith prayed: "Good St. Anne, I pray thee to cure me." Hardly had I uttered the invocation when the spasm ceased. It was then nine o’clock at night and I fell into a peaceful sleep which lasted eight hours. The next day I was perfectly well and could even go out without fatigue. Ever since then I have enjoyed excellent health.
Great Saint! Thou didst join severe penance to admirable innocence of life; and I who have so often offended God and deserved Hell, I hardly even know the meaning of the word penance. What confusion for me and what folly if I leave the rigorous expiation of my sins to a future life, while I might have obtained pardon for them here by means of much less suffering! Nor can I dispense with penance without exposing myself to eternal damnation! My powerful Protectress, I stand in urgent need of thy help in this matter. Aid me, I pray thee, to commence at once those practices which are indispensable to Christian mortification, such as the observance of the prescribed fasts and abstinence, the abandonment of all pleasures which are forbidden, dangerous, or useless to my bodily health, patience in the troubles of this life, perseverance in prayer and pious exercises, notwithstanding the dryness and distaste I may feel for them.
St. Anne, obtain for me a spirit of compunction and the courage to do penance.
See the consideration above.