Penance is an unpopular topic these days. Perhaps it is because we have become soft, even wimpy, valuing comfort over anything else. Maybe it’s due to a misguided attempt to seem less rigid and legalistic. Then again, maybe it’s really because we don’t think we have any sins over which to be penitent.
Whatever the reason, penance should not be ignored. It is vital to the spiritual life, and there’s no better time to practice it than Lent.
But when we get down to it, what is penance really? Is it just hair shirts and 40 day fasts? Let’s get to the heart of the matter.
What is Penance?
When we talk about penance, we usually think of doing things, and that is indeed part of it. But our actions will be dead, and in fact harmful, if they are not preceded by an interior conversion of heart. Penance, then, is nothing more than an interior contrition of heart displayed through outward actions.
True penance flows from love for God and a recognition of the seriousness of sin. If we don’t realize how good and loving Our Lord is, and if we don’t simultaneously realize how truly evil sin is, we won’t be truly penitent. We’ll just think of God as angry tyrant who we are trying to appease by checking off a list of actions.
Yet, he is no tyrant. Our Father daily pours out blessings and graces on us, and He loves us fervently. He has given us everything he has to give— most of all, Himself. Yet, we daily repay him with ingratitude and indifference, wounding him deeply and crucifying his Son with sins of lust, anger, slander, pride, and countless others. We are the worst of children to the best of Fathers.
When we let these thoughts sink in, when these realities penetrate our hearts, we are moved to penance.
You may still be wondering why outward actions are necessary at all— after all, doesn’t God look on the heart? Of course he does, but with each of our sins, damage is created both spiritually and temporally, and it must be repaired. An example will help illustrate this principle.
A few weeks ago, a priceless violin, a Stradivarius, was stolen from the concertmaster of our local symphony. Now, this is no ordinary violin— it is valued somewhere between $6 million and $10 million dollars. It would be more accurate to say that it is priceless, as its maker is long dead and its unique qualities can never be reproduced. Fortunately, it was recovered quickly and has been returned safely to its owner.
Now, imagine if the criminals who stole the violin hadn’t kept it safe. Imagine they had smashed it to pieces. We cringe at the thought—yet that is exactly what sin does to our souls.
Your soul is of infinite worth. Jesus bought it with his blood and has enriched it with His grace. The Holy Trinity dwells there. With each sin you commit, you are marring and destroying this priceless treasure, the temple of God. More than this, you are harming your relationship with Our Lord. It’s important to remember that no sin is isolated when you are a member of Christ’s body. Whether you see it or not, your sin is marring and wounding the spiritual reality that is the mystical body of Christ.
Now, this damage must be repaired, and it is repaired through penance. If I argue with my wife and say things I regret, I will show my sorrow by buying her flowers and chocolate. While it’s a poor analogy, penance is the flowers and chocolate of the spiritual life, restoring the broken relationship with Jesus and repairing the damage we have done to both His mystical body and our souls.
Now that we have defined penance and its purpose, we should discuss how to incorporate it into our Lent, as well as our daily lives.
Remember, deciding what penance you should undertake is a question of how best you can show Jesus you love him, recognizing that sacrifice is at the heart of love. Of course, even the greatest of our sacrifices are nothing compared to what he gave— His very life— to show us that he loved us. Keep that in mind as you prepare for this Lent.
Here are some penance ideas for this Lent:
- Fasting – Fasting is the traditional penance of the Church. You can fast from a meal, dessert, smoking, salt on your food, alcohol or anything else you enjoy. Be sure to simultaneously spiritually fast from sin, or your bodily fasting will be meaningless.
- Rising early – Getting up early is hard. A great penance (recommended by St. Josemaria Escriva), is to rise early, maybe 30 minutes earlier than you normally do. Jump out of bed immediately after your alarm goes off and don’t give yourself the comfort of hitting snooze and dozing off again.
- Cold shower – Turn the water to cold thirty seconds before you get out. Or if you’re really feeling penitent, take the entire shower cold.
- Extra attention – Many times, we don’t give others our full attention, whether it’s our wife, kids, or coworkers. We men are especially bad at this. Make a sacrifice of your time by paying attention to the words and concerns of others.
- TV and social media fast – Many times, we drown our souls in media noise. We have no time to reflect because of the constant input of Facebook, Twitter, music, or TV. Cut these out and spend the time you would have spent on them reading a spiritual book or praying.
- Daily crosses – Every day, we experience irritations and annoyances. Maybe it’s a traffic jam, maybe it’s a flat tire, maybe it’s an upsetting of our carefully laid plans, maybe it’s a sprained ankle. Accept these crosses patiently and peacefully, rather than resisting them irritably.
Penance is integral to Lent and to the spiritual life. It is only real and valuable if it flows from love for God and a grief over the reality of our sin. Through penance, we repair the spiritual damage we have done, healing our wounded souls and our relationship with Jesus.