Mother Julian of Norwich writes that of all the penances we might perform, nothing honors God more than living gladly and joyfully in His love. She says: so merciful is God that He regards our whole life here as a penance. The deep, never-ending, ever-longing passion that causes us to pursue what we can never quite grasp is penance enough.
Her attitude is wonderfully optimistic and full of hope and consolation. Besides that, I think it’s closer to the truth regarding our penitential relationship with God than hair shirts, sack cloth, and ashes. We are, every one of us, sinners! We have faults, weaknesses, and we make mistakes. When we fall, our knee-jerk reaction to our own weakness probably draws two pictures to mind: 1) an image of You, freshly slapped, and 2} a “fill-in-the-blank” picture of something we can do to atone for it.
At the beginning of each day I say a little prayer asking You to accept my will to do what I would not choose to help repent for my past sins. Each day I’m alive does, in fact, offer such opportunities. Things I’d rather not do are a part of my life. They are the built-in penance of being alive and there is a certain joy about the opportunities they offer if embraced. It is to opportunities such as these that, I think, Julian refers. But it takes discernment and willpower to latch onto them. They take effort, and we tend to ignore what takes effort. Yet, implicit in the joyful acceptance of Your love is our extension of it to others - especially in ways we might not choose because they take effort. This is the joyful “at-one-ment” to which Julian refers as penance.