the penance of penitence


I closed my most recent blog post (February 21, 2017: to bear or not to bear) with these words – Lent is my life…My life is Lent – by which I meant that the penitential character of this annual pre-Easter season resounds within my soul, boring down to the core of my viscera. Since then, I’ve been given, called by some inner urging to ponder why. Today, reflecting on some aspects of my life that I believe I have known and some new insights, which arose as I pushed, punished myself through at least one sleepless night to discern something, anything new, I write…

I was raised in a household encompassed about by the expanse and limitations of American history (true, of course, for any person or family, though each and all, by necessity, I think, need define the nature and range of each)…


My father, William John Abernathy, discouraged by a society and his family, each and both constrained by racism, to pursue his dream of becoming a mathematician (as he was possessed of a highly analytical mind), for the sake of providing for his family, settled for being a postal clerk. Moreover, his father, my paternal grandfather, Pedro Silva, was Cuban; that identification, evidenced outwardly in my father’s dark complexion and straight black hair added to his exclusion from circles white and black. My father lived a frustrated, melancholy, and angry life; his essential and volatile ire fueled by his alcoholism (also a symptom of his essential ire). He also was a deeply religious man, given to daily Bible study and prayer (his pietism and alcoholism being, for me, two contrary dimensions of existence that were difficult, well-nigh impossible for me, as a child, to comprehend; though, as an adult, I can conceive and, in my own life, perceive a similar discomfiting coalescence of contradictory elements of human ontology)…

My mother, Clara Lolita Roberts, raised in an austere Baptist household, a schoolteacher by vocation and by avocation, under the strict tutelage of her mother, my grandmother, Audia Hoard Roberts, always to be a saint-on-earth-in-training, was, in her quiet and reserved, but no less demonstrative way, a puritanical disciplinarian.

To these two folk, I was born. Each, in his and her abiding care and near constant reminders that I be upright in my behavior, my doing (though, in my view, much less, indeed, seemingly little concerned for who  I was, my being) held for me a certain awe, in reverence and in fear.

My father, raised a Methodist, and my mother, believing the adage that “a family that prays together stays together”, determined that the Episcopal Church, with its ordered liturgy built on a biblical foundation, was a fair, middle-way compromise.[1] All Saints’, St. Louis, was our parish home; during my youth, a vibrant community and the largest African American Episcopal Church west of the Mississippi River. There, I was tutored in The Book of Common Prayer 1928, through which I was steeped in the annual custom of a 70-not-40-day Lenten season beginning not on Ash Wednesday, but including the three prior Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima,[2] by which, my parents having instilled in me that I was defined by my good-doing (which never would amount to enough that I might become good), I found an oddly discomfiting solace, indeed, likeness. Penitence was my life. My life was penitence.


As I reflect, long possessed of (by!) a brooding spirit, it is little surprise to me that I, seeking to see and to know myself as a self, gravitated toward the discipline of existentialism with its central concern for the meaning of existence and its core questions of identity (Who am I?) and destiny (Where am I going?). It surprises me less that, in my ongoing pilgrimage toward my understanding of life and myself, one of my chosen companions, verily, champions is Søren Kierkegaard;[3] philosopher, poet, theologian, considered the Father of Existentialism (and, along with Hamlet, a melancholy Dane!) whose life’s vocation was his apprehension of individual truth and whose life’s journey was that of always becoming a Christian.

I am a follower of Jesus through the story of his life and ministry, death and resurrection. A story made my own, revealed to me and incarnate in me through the presence of God’s Holy Spirit. A story I daily strive and fail to live fully, for which I am grateful for the grace of the correction and the consolation of penitence.


Illustration: Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, unfinished sketch by his cousin, Niels Christian Kierkegaard, c. 1840


[1] Earlier and during my parent’s era, The Episcopal Church, historically the church of many of America’s “founding fathers”, also for some middle class (both aspiring and having arrived) black folk was “a destination church” (long before that term became popular to describe a religious community’s raison d’être to fill a particular cultural/societal or theological/liturgical niche).

[2] Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, derived from the Latin meaning “seventieth”, “sixtieth”, and “fiftieth”, respectively, were the names given to the Sundays coming seventy, sixty, and fifty days before Easter Day. Because of this, for most, esoteric knowledge, I recall handily winning an elementary school Spelling Bee when the final word was Quinquagesima!

[3] Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

3 thoughts on “the penance of penitence

  1. Paul,

    What an honest reflection! I’ve learned a lot from you about your family over the years, and have reflected a lot on the idea of how angry your father was. I’m so sorry he never had the opportunity to be all he wanted to be. I wish he could have been happy to be a father to two great sons, and a husband to your Mom, an amazing woman in her own right.

    I think too of my grandparents who also were drawn to the Episcopal Church as the “destination place” for them in Foggy Bottom, DC. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church was the first church for freed slaves and my grandparents joined around 1909. Much like your parents, my grandparents worked hard and raised their four kids. They didn’t encourage them to aim high in terms of career, maybe because they didn’t want them to be disappointed if they didn’t achieve their goals. They did however raise them to be four humble and very kind human beings, who then passed those traits on to us.

    As you continue to reflect, I hope you can do so while getting sleep too. This is an great journey you’re on, and sometimes reflections themselves can be exhausting when we dig so deep that we uncover pain we hadn’t expected. Take care of yourself along the journey. I know that you know your parents loved you in their own way.

    I also know Pontheolla and Kristin love you unconditionally as do many others of us who love you. If your parents were alive today, I believe that the conversations you would have had about your years at St. Mark’s Capitol Hill and your year at Epiphany, Laurens would have been filled with pride and love…. Their son, serving so wonderfully at two mostly white churches and preaching with your love of Jesus and using each Sunday some of the words that they insisted you learn from the dictionary as you grew up. I believe you still have many miles to go and are still becoming the person you were meant to be.

    Much love!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, bless you, Loretta. I relish and receive at my soul’s depth your insightful and kindly counsel! Of all you have written, one point stands out to me – others will, I trust, the more I reflect on your consoling words – that my parents loved me in their own way. Yes, I believe that, though I also must confess that it took me years to come to that realization and acceptance. Again, my thanks and love to you, always and in all ways.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Loretta, another element of your response touches me in an abidingly deep place historically and personally…

    “…my grandparents worked hard and raised their four kids. They didn’t encourage them to aim high…maybe because they didn’t want them to be disappointed if they didn’t achieve their goals.”

    How many times could and can this aspect of life be told within black and other minority families and communities? Countless times, I believe. And it is a complex aspect – one part loving self-protection for and of the next generation and another part unconscious, perhaps, too, unintended delimiting of the potential of that next generation (and, doubtless, nuances and gradations in between those extremes). For one of the damnable inheritances of oppression is the generations-after effects of the suppression of possibility.

    As for me, I remember my parents pushing my brother and me to succeed, “dare to be different”, my father would say (by which he meant, other than others who did not attempt to step up and out to seek their dreams). However, he also was wont to say, “You have to be twice as good as the white man to be recognized and accepted.” A problem with that counsel for me, however true in the nature of American society is may have been (and perhaps in some places still is!), if I had to be twice as good, then, in my mind, I never could be accepted to be as good or an an equal. I think my point here is that even when encouragement to aim high was given, it still had a debilitating, dis-enabling element to it. This, too, I believe, is an aspect of the generational inheritance of racism.

    Again, Loretta, always my love and gratitude


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