A Penitential Season

A Penitential Season November 18, 2023

The season of Advent is coming.

There was a package of purple and pink Advent candles at the craft store the other day, when I was rummaging the clearance rack.

I bought them. I like candles. And I didn’t think about Advent again that day.

Adrienne and I were on one of our drives recently, and we drove through downtown. There were the red and green wooden chalets set up for the annual Advent Market, a part of the beautiful and silly Nutcracker Village that always takes over downtown. I talked about how exciting it would be to see the Christmas tree lighting next week. And again, I was happy, and then forgot about Advent.

Last night I saw somebody on Twitter, which I refuse to call X, boasting that Christmas doesn’t start until the 25th and doesn’t end til mid-January. She declared that Advent should be a penitential season of prayer and fasting, and that’s when I crumpled.

That’s how it is to be a person struggling with religious trauma. You’re fine, and you’re fine, and then you crumple.

I don’t want it to be Advent again.

I don’t want a season of prayer, fasting and penance. I don’t want any kind of liturgical season ever again.

This has been an agonizing pain all year.

I am not better than my friends who have been spiritually abused and then left organized religion entirely. I am not better than my friends who have been spiritually abused and don’t believe in God anymore.  But I am different. I still believe in Christ. The summary of my beliefs about Christ is what I’ve learned in Catholic theology. But I do not believe in what was done to us in the name of Catholicism. And I have no idea how I’m supposed to access Christ, without all the Catholicism. I don’t even really want to lose my Catholicism. I want to reconcile who I am and what I’ve been through, with Christ, and I keep circling back to Catholicism.

But Catholicism makes me sick.

Going to Mass has made me so sick that I cannot go every Sunday. I’ve worked my way up to going to Mass MOST Sundays, but I’m still overwhelmed with panic attacks a great deal of the time.

Going to confession is so terrifying, I honestly don’t know if I can ever do it again.

I would rather rip my skin off than pray the Rosary. I would rather jump in the Ohio river than pray the Divine Office. I don’t want to think about any of that. And I especially don’t want to do penance.

When I first came to Steubenville, to attend Franciscan University, I was great at doing penance. I used to give up meat and sweets and eating between meals every Wednesday and Friday. I would pray for an hour in the Adoration chapel almost every day and go to Mass once or twice daily as well. I went to confession once a week, or sometimes more, if I was feeling particularly guilty. I sang in the Music Ministry and served at the soup kitchen. I snapped myself with a rubber band around  my wrist when I had an impure thought. I was a good penitent. And I loved Advent.

And then my chronic illness flared up, and I got into a very bad place with some very bad people and my whole life was ruined, and I have been sweeping up the pieces ever since.

And then the revelations about Franciscan University and the Charismatic Renewal trickled out one by one, and I realized that the religious movement which had demanded so much of me was not from God at all, but a cult. Catholicism isn’t a cult, but the sect of it I’d known is.

And now, I can’t stand the thought of a penitential season.

I shook with equal parts fear and rage, at an unjust deity who would demand a penitential season just because he had a birthday coming up. No, I wasn’t going to do penance. I wasn’t going to go into a box with a dangerous person and tell them my impure thoughts. I wasn’t going to give up the things that made me happy. I  wasn’t going to get out my rubber band and snap my arm to appease the God who did this to me. Unless, of course, God didn’t do it.

And then I remembered that the word “penance” is the same as “repentance,” which is the same as “conversion,” and they all merely mean “turning around.”

To repent is to turn around, to change directions, to admit you’ve made a mistake and re-orient yourself.

That’s why Christians are supposed to do penance, after all. We’re supposed to keep re-orienting ourselves to Christ every time we go astray. Advent is a season of turning around.

I don’t even know where Christ is anymore. But if Christ is anyone worth my time, Christ doesn’t want me to feel this way. No God of justice or mercy could want a person to feel this way. If God is good, God is kind.

Maybe my penance could be doing things that don’t make me feel this way. Maybe it could be to be kind to myself.

Maybe this Advent I could ask God to be kind to me, and then do things that are kind for myself– and for others, starting with my family, but not without breaking the rule of being kind to myself.

I’m going to do things that make me happy. I’m going to put up the Christmas tree on Thanksgiving while the turkey is cooking, because the house is drab and needs some color. I’m going to bake Christmas cookies when I feel like it and bring some to the neighbors. I’m going to find a time to watch Christmas movies at the same time as my online friends and make jokes about them on Twitter.  I could take Jimmy and his family  to the museum to see the annual Christmas display. That’s what I want to do anyway.

If God wants to meet me in that, I’ll be glad to see Him. But either way at least I won’t be miserable.

That’s all I’ve got for you today.

That will be my penitential season.



Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.

Browse Our Archives