WARNING!! Free-wheeling amateur theologizing ahead! Be Warned!
“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground…”
- God to Adam – from Genesis Ch. 3
“I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
- God to Eve – from Genesis Ch. 3
As a young Baptist, the word “penance” had no meaning for me. Even a little later, it was a word associated with the exotic machinations of the Catholic religion, and the idea that it may have really incorporated a spiritual dimension – that it might be something pleasing to God – was an utterly alien concept. I now see penance (an act of self-mortification or devotion performed to show repentance and to atone for sin) as a great gift, a spiritual boon to mankind. Through it, and only by His grace, Christ has made a way for us to participate in our own salvation, and that of others. I believe we crave penance.
I say all that because for some time I’ve kicked around in my mind the impression I have that what are commonly seen as the curses that fell on mankind after Adam and Eve ate from the Tree can be understood as having the character of penances rather than simply curses or punishments.
When you look at the punishments that fell on Adam and Eve, they are things that, though a trial, we see to be of great benefit to individuals when approached in the proper spirit. Eve’s punishment had to do with the bearing of children and submission to her husband. Adam’s punishment was toil, and the constant struggle against the earth now cursed for his sake – “It will produce thorns and thistles for you”.
I’m by nature lazy person. It can be difficult for me to stir myself out of a comfortable place to go and do something that involves sweat, dirt or manual labor. Or other labor. Even my day job, which no one could call strenuous, at times wears thin, and I have to drag myself in some mornings. I’m truly grateful for the work, but it can seem tedious and burdensome when there are great books that need reading and paintings screaming to be painted. But in spite of my natural lack of drive or initiative or whatever, I generally get out and (as Garrison Keillor would say) “do what needs to be done”.
And most often, a funny thing happens; the job that I put off or even positively dreaded turns out to be, in the end, profoundly satisfying. To step back and look at a well-painted wall, or a well-mowed lawn, or a door that closes when it wouldn’t before, or even a well-washed dog is to have a kind of mystical experience. It almost seems as if we were made for work… or it was made for us. To stack firewood on a crisp fall day is such a poetic activity that it seems almost too great a privilege to hope for.
When you face the work you have been given and “work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord” what had seemed like a burden becomes a great blessing, not just materially, but in a spiritual sense. One grows through such things. As a man, I have found that accepting the penance of hard work that God gave in a unique way to men, entails all kinds of benefits for me and for those around me. It isn’t always pleasant, and sometimes is mainly a matter of plodding through when one would rather quit, but it is always worth the effort, and I don’t mean monetarily.
Speaking in very broad terms, God, because of original sin, set men the penance of hard labor and of providing for and protecting the family. That does not mean that all men are always called to that role in the ways we most often conceive of it, but in a general sense, men are called to these things. If we shirk our penance, resist or avoid it, we see no spiritual benefit or growth. We are stuck. As I say to my son, we need to “man up” and do the hard thing.
I used to wonder, when there was a nasty bug to be killed or corralled around our house, why it was that the job always fell to me. Surely, I figured, the weight advantage of any half-grown human made the job as easy for a woman as a man. Most anyone can wield a shoe. Upper body strength matters very little when dealing with a cockroach or a spider. So why is this the man’s job? Because it just is. It involves some faint echo of the man’s responsibility to protect the family. I am the watchman on the walls, ever diligent against the invading insect hordes. As in other things, the men sometimes have to be pushed in the direction of this responsibility by the women.
For women (and obviously I’m speaking theoretically, here, so input from real, live women would be welcome, as always) the penance given in the Garden touched on the pain of childbirth and submission to a husband. As with men, this penance is given in a general sense and does not mean that every woman must be married or bear children. It does mean, though, that most women are called to these things, and that we should therefore unapologetically present marriage, childrearing and homemaking (in the full and wonderful sense of the word) as things intrinsically good and eminently desirable. When women (in general) embrace these self-sacrificing roles and persevere in them, they grow and find fulfillment. As the man embracing his role as laborer, provider and protector finds a certain joy and completeness, so the woman who willingly takes up her role as mother and keeper of the home can find great satisfaction even through the pain and toil of her position. And not satisfaction only, but joy, which is not mere happiness.
Aside; Here’s something many feminist types may not realize; men – the vast majority of them, anyway - never worked outside the home because it was fun. They worked because they had to. I understand that a lot of you feel strongly that all options ought to be equally open to all adults, regardless of sex, and that’s fine. As I said, not everyone is called to live the same way, and there should be as much freedom and as little compulsion as possible in one’s choice of work. So, I’m all for a lot of the gains women have made in recent decades. But many of you probably know by now that looking after your boss and keeping a nice, tidy cubicle is no more rewarding than looking after your kids and keeping a nice, tidy house. If you go to work outside the home looking for personal fulfillment, well, good luck. I think one reason women – in general – lost so much of a sense of fulfillment in their roles as wife and mother is because since the industrial revolution we have almost totally destroyed our social connections to extended family, neighborhood, etc… but that’s another post. End aside.
To sum up – hard labor, painful childbirth, thorns and thistles, deference to a husband… are all difficult. They are crosses to bear. But when we take them up in a spirit of loving obedience to God, and even thankfulness, they become a path to holiness and joy. What look like punishments, by the grace of God, become penances, and we need penance. Real, deep, meaningful penance can be hard to come by, but if we look carefully, we can find opportunities all around us. Penance is an unspeakable privilege and a gift from God, if we can only get past the wrapping.
By the way, this is just a notion, this idea that the punishments of the garden can become more like penances. Just something that has occurred to me a number of times and that I thought might be worth running up the virtual flagpole. I don’t presume to teach.
Next; On the Importance of Not Working
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(Painting American Gothic by Grant Wood – 1891-1942)