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St Elizabeth of Hungary's Great Act of Renunciation, painting by Philip Hermogenes Calderon.
Penance, engraving by an unknown English artist, 18th century

Doing penance usually refers to an act of self-punishment or self-humiliation to demonstrate that one is sorry for a committed wrong. This can be anything as long as it is in some way painful. The penance can be imposed by oneself or by another person (such as a guardian or Confessor). It can be done in privacy or in the presence of others.

Penance, even when a second person helps to impose it (as in the picture to the right), is different from punishment in that the person is fully compliant and not only accepts, but asks for it to wipe the guilt from their soul. The process and result is also called catharsis ("purification").

Religious penance[edit]

An erotic birching under the pretext of penance. Illustration from Thérèse Philosophe (1774).

Penance, in a religious sense, is the "desire to be forgiven". It means the repentance of sins in general, as well as the Catholic Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation/Confession.

In a sacramental understanding of the term, "penance" applies to the whole activity from confession to satisfaction to absolution. Satisfaction thus is only a part of it, but it is a necessary part, and the priest can withhold absolution until satisfaction is done. Satisfaction is what most people have in mind when they use the term "penance".

Satisfaction is where the principle of punishment comes in. Modern ecclesiastic interpretation avoids calling it punishment, but traditionally, penance has been viewed as punishment. The root of the term penance is the Latin word poena which means "punishment".


A priest with the flagellarium. From the Original Brass preserved in the Church of Sawbrey, All Saints, Huntingdonshire.

In the feudal era, doing penance often involved severe and/or public discipline, which could be both harsh and humiliating but was considered edifying. Public penances have, however, long been abolished. Traditional forms still include prayers, while corporal punishments such as the wearing of a cilice and public humiliations have become rare, even in monastic practice. More recently, taking in account the insights of pastoral theology and psychology, penances have tended to move towards acts that positively or negatively reinforce the penitent's behaviour.

Penance in parenting[edit]

The concept of penance can also be used in parenting, although this is rare. A child who has done a misdeed can be given the choice of either getting a punishment for it (such as a spanking), or doing a penance - a task to show that they are sorry for what they have done. The idea is that self-punishment is psychologically more effective than punishment imposed by someone else because it requires full and conscious cooperation. For the same reason, a penance can also be more humbling than a punishment.

Popular culture[edit]

Nunsploitation (nun exploitation) is a subgenre of exploitation films produced in Italy and Japan in the Seventies and Eighties. These films were notorious for concentrating on sexual perversities among isolated nuns living in convents. Many films include lurid depictions of self-chastizements such as topless nuns whipping themselves or enduring painful masochistic rituals of mortification of the flesh. The Japanese film School of the Holy Beast (1974) is a prime example of this genre which shows various forms of sadomasochistic punishments.

Some producers of erotic BDSM and spanking videos have also created stories centered around penitent nuns. The caning video Hour of Penitence from Mood Pictures is one example.

See also[edit]

Smallwikipedialogo.png This page uses content from Wikipedia. The original article was at Penance. The list of authors can be seen in the page history. As with Spanking Art, the text of Wikipedia is available under a copyleft license, the Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike license.