by Dr. Taylor Marshall
How do you choose a Lenten penance?
Our Catholic forebears used to keep a strict Lent. They were spiritual giants in the old days. For the days of Lent, all Catholics ate no eggs, no dairy (milk, butter, cheese), and no flesh meat (pork, chicken, beef) AND only ate one meal per day after 3pm (after the hour of mercy). This applied to all laymen and all clerics. These rules of penance began to be relaxed in the 13th-14th century.
Now we only have fasts on Ash Wednesday and Friday and meatless Fridays in Lent.
We are, of course, not required to keep the “old Lent,” nor should we try. We are not as holy as Catholics once were. We live in different times with different troubles (like pornography, evil movies, easy contraception, and abortion).
However, we may want to kick it up a notch and take it to another level by offering greater sacrifices to Christ during Lent.
You may wish to spend a few weeks time planning for this. Before we do anything for Our Lord Jesus Christ, we should spend time in prayer asking Him what He desires. After we begin to form an idea, we should speak to our spiritual director about it to get suggestions from him and to get approval. Then last of all, we must make a plan for how to execute the plan for Lent. For example, if you give up alcohol for Lent, then what will you do when invited to a cocktail party? What about if someone hands you a flute of champagne? Will you make exceptions or not? For what reasons? Make a plan and stick to it. Be specific. Otherwise, your Lent will become unraveled.
Remember, penances must conform to our inner contrition and sorrow for our sins. Acts of penance our outward signs of inward realities. Saint John the Baptist said: “Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of penance.” (Matthew 3:8, D-R) Saint Paul also said: “I preach that they should do penance and turn to God, doing works worthy of penance.” (Acts 26:20, D-R) I very much like how the Apostle speaks of “works worthy of penance.”
Below are some traditional Catholic penances. Remember, that you should get explicit permission from your spiritual director before doing most of these. These acts should be unseen by men and offered only to God:
- Abstaining from all meat
- Abstaining from all alcohol
- Abstaining from all sweets and desserts
- Having only one or two meals per day
- Eating little or no food of Fridays – the weekly remembrance of the crucifixion
- Cold showers (or turning the hot shower cold at the end)
- A pebble in your shoe
- Sleeping without a pillow
- Sleeping on the floor
- Waking up for a night vigil of prayer
- A hair shirt, course rope or other unseen article of discomfort
- Abstaining from television, music, radio, and/or movies for all of Lent
- Daily Mass
- Weekly Confession
- Daily Rosary
- Daily Divine Mercy Chaplet
- Daily or Weekly Stations of the Cross
- Attending a parish mission
Again, talk to your spiritual director before you do anything. Obedience is always better than the most ascetic penances. If you do not have a director, talk to your priest in the confessional about how you can take it to higher level this year. The goal is to give greater glory to God, grow in holiness, and bring graces to others who need Christ.
As we learn from St Therese, even the smallest thing done for the love of God is great in the Kingdom of Heaven. Picking up piece of trash or opening the door for someone with a heart full of love for God and neighbor is better than a bitter heart enduring a hairshirt for forty days. This is why you need a holy spiritual director to help you think these things through.
If one could choose say six of these lenten practices, I’d be fine with numbers 13 to 18 and ‘abstain’ from the others :-). But that would be cheating wouldn’t it? That’s the mystery of making sacrifices and doing without what we like best; it humbles and edifies us (when we do it secretly) and helps us grow in love for God and service to others.
And having just read Br. Burrito’s new post on fasting, I’ve just heard it can also help beat cancer. What a discovery!
Not sure about the ‘hair shirt’ Kathleen – or the pebble in shoe. Though perhaps, and on reflection, the least appealing might be the most benefit to our souls? 😉
A number of these practices above focus on punishing the body, as if it weren’t our minds which run the shop. Punishing the body in this way reflects a mediaeval approach to correction, much as Islam does today when it chops off hands because the owner has stolen something. All quite unsavoury and highly suspect.
It reminds me of the Frank Zappa lyric –
“What’s the ugliest part of your body?
Some say your nose, some say your toes
– I think it’s your mind”.
Could the reason for more of a physical Lenten effort is to in the end, bring the mind into discipline with the body?
“Discipline with the body” – ooo-arr!