Approach to Penance (Zeller)

The Cenacle Press at Silverstream Priory

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“The end of penance is God, not more penances. Thus the approach to penance has to be by way of love, not by way of steeling the will to toughness. Penance must have its roots in charity, not austerity.”

With characteristic Benedictine discretion, Van Zeller here sets straight common misapprehensions of penance, steering the reader past the Scylla of extremism on the one hand and the Charybdis of avoiding this essential virtue of the Christian life on the other hand. “Take up your cross and follow me,” Christ asks each disciple in turn. It is thus a joyful duty for all to understand and approach the penitential cross correctly. Rather than a frightful self-punishment, penance is rather a means to an end—God—and thus must always be tempered and exercised according to that end. Cast in this light, what Van Zeller teaches here is not how one is to do penance, but how one ought to approach penance: “In the last analysis we cannot guarantee the measure of asceticism which will atone for our sins or bring us one single step closer to union with God. Is it not much wiser then to make for something which can be guaranteed? Is it not better to have recourse to Christ, and learn from him a lesson of love? Christ atones for us; love draws us nearer to union.” Equipped with this knowledge, each reader may go forth with complete freedom to gladly bear the cross that Christ has fashioned.


Born in British-controlled Egypt, Dom Hubert van Zeller (1905–1984) was a Benedictine monk of Downside Abbey in Bath, England, where he was educated. Of his scholastic career he said that he “passed no examinations—merely by-passed them.” The author of numerous books ranging from scriptural commentary to fiction and biography, he was also renowned as a minimalist sculptor and cartoonist. He was a friend of Ronald Knox and of Evelyn Waugh, who described Dom Hubert’s writings as “characterized by vitality and elegance.”

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