Saint Angela of Foligno and the Enlightenment of Penance
Even though she died in 1309, Saint Angela of Foligno helps us appreciate the enlightenment that can come from a life of penance. It was a time not unlike our own. Epicureanism was destroying society even as great saints attempted to help their contemporaries see that there is so much more than the short term pleasures of the here and now. Saint Angela started out more on the Epicurean side of this equation. But because she responded to Christ’s great love for her, she is now a witness to the truth: when we do our penance with contrition and love, we learn something about ourselves and about God that leads to a fullness of life and the freedom to love.
After several years of marriage with children and comfortable living, she was pierced to the heart by an awareness of her own sinfulness. She was afraid to make a full confession so she prayed to Saint Francis and asked him to help her find a confessor. And He did. Appearing to her in a dream, he told her that if she would only have asked sooner, he would have responded faster. The very next day she heard a friar preaching and knew that this was the priest to whom she should confess. And she did. It was one of the first steps she took to begin anew her spiritual life – leaving a life of convenience to embrace a life of penance.
A beautiful lesson to draw from this very first part of her spiritual journey is the importance of making a full confession of our sins when we go to confession. Many are afraid to put all the cards on the table when they confess their sins. Some, like Saint Angela, even go to communion burdened with serious sin: drawn to Jesus but afraid to accept responsibility for their lives, they make their piety into a sham. In the midst of these kinds of struggles, the Mystic of Foligno draws our attention to the lack of peace we have with such lifeless religious practices. Praying, just as she did, to make a full confession already begins to open us to the new freedom Christ wants us to have: the freedom to live by the truth.
As Pope Francis has explained, God never gets tired of granting his forgiveness. We are the one’s who get tired of asking to be forgiven. Saint Angela’s prayer in the face of her awareness of her own sinfulness and need for forgiveness is an important witness in this regard. Jesus re-establishes our integrity through the Sacrament of Penance because His offering on the Cross establishes us in the truth when we accept this gift of love by faith.
Saint Angela’s confession was a real beginning to her own conversion, a conversion that brought her into ever deeper intimacy with the Word of the Father. The further she went on this journey of faith, the more amazed she became over the love of God for her personally. This enlightenment made her want to respond with even deeper devotion. Here, she began to learn the wisdom of making progress.
The penitential life was never a legalistic exercise for Saint Angela but instead an enlightening one. There is a knowledge of the truth that rectifies our existence and helps us stand firm even when the whole world crashes down around us. Very early on after Saint Angela’s conversion, there was a disaster in which her husband, mother and children all died, and she was left alone in the world. Rather than thinking that God had abandoned her and that all her efforts at holiness were in vain, she responded with faith and even more penance, grateful that the Lord would bless her with a new kind of opportunity to be dedicated to Him alone. Her new knowledge of Christ’s love and of herself allowed her to make a new beginning.
Penance can be an expression of our love for God that sees us through sin and every other kind of trial. The absolution Christ grants us through the ministry of the priest can stir a deep gratitude in our hearts and open us to a wisdom not of this world. In carrying out our penance, our hearts can be pierced by the Lord’s mercy. This enlightenment, like that experienced by Saint Angela at the beginning of her conversion, is a gift every soul can savor when penance is embraced with love.
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