Observing the senseless battles between people, both outside and within the city of Assisi, Penance became a key theme and practice for Francis every day. Penance for Francis was not about giving up sugar for lent or not eating meat on Fridays. Penance was about “right relationships”. It was about conversion of the heart, of engaging in practical actions, of repairing the ruptures so evident in the relationships he observed around him.

The story of Francis and his encounter with the lepers of Assisi plays out his experience of penance as the source of his spirituality. Writing in his last Testament, Francis says,

“The Lord granted me, Brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way: While I was in sin, it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I had mercy upon them. And when I left them that which seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body; and afterward I lingered a little and left the world.”

His encounter with otherness and his desire to right the relationships which seemed to be wrong in his world, was the principal and practical spiritual action that moved him towards the divine. In other words, you cannot discover God—in yourself or in the world around you—unless you right the relationships that seem to be fractured.

For Francis, doing Penance is essential to the spiritual life; and that means engaging in a practical love that repairs relationships that have been ruptured by war and poverty, famine, greed, self-centredness, and consumerism.