Can you believe it? Lent is nearly upon us. Ash Wednesday is less than a week away! That means it’s time to think about our Lenten penances.

‘Tantumergo’ — a blogger whom I’ve only recently discovered and whose insights and fair-mindedness are equally refreshing — warns against a Pelagian attitude towards Lent. We shouldn’t embark upon any form of penance without keeping in mind our dependence on God.

“We need to prepare for Lent by imploring God for graces to help us get more focused, be more ready to offer up penance, and to practice virtue much better. We must implore God’s Grace, because on our own, we can do nothing.”

Advice which is, perhaps, especially pertinent in this Australian Year of Grace!

So, in choosing a few penances to adopt this Lent, maybe the first step is to choose those penances in dialogue with God, rather than unilaterally. It’s good to place oneself in the presence of God, both literally and figuratively. You can sit before the Tabernacle — placing yourself in the sacramental presence of God. And you can foster an interior silence and recollect your thoughts, mentally placing yourself in God’s presence. (Of course, we’re always in God’s presence, so perhaps it’s better expressed as making ourselves present to God.)

So what sort of penances are good to run by Him? In the past I’ve been attracted to demanding penances, which to my mind were heroic. Cold showers! Sleeping on the floor! Bread and water on Wednesdays and Fridays!

I don’t want to denigrate that. Those penances are demanding, and they are heroic. And they can do a lot of good. But such penances are also an invitation to pride. Or discouragement. Maybe even both.

Confession time: when it comes to temptations towards pride, I’m a sitting duck. And since I’m weak-willed, I’m also susceptible to discouragement. So when it comes to choosing penances, I heed our Lord’s advice. “Be as cunning as serpents and as innocent as doves.”

When I review a possible penance, I try to scrutinise it the way the enemy might scrutinise it. Is there an opportunity for this ostensible act of virtue to feed my ego? To aggravate a vice? To snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? (C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters is helpful in this exercise. Fr Longenecker’s The Gargoyle Code is written in the same vein. I haven’t read it, but I’ve heard good things about it.)

Hence, I think my Lenten penances this year will be much less ambitious . . . Getting up as soon as my alarm sounds in the morning. (And turning the lights off on time in the evening!) Never slouching when I’m seated, but sitting straight, maybe without leaning on the back of the chair. Adding salt when I don’t want it, and omitting salt when I do. That sort of thing.

I’ve come to think the best penances mortify the will more than they do the body. The best penances are small enough that they are invisible to others. Small enough that it would be absurd to congratulate a victory. (Oh? You had jam on toast even though you wanted vegemite? Whoopee-friggin-do!) And small enough that it would be absurd to commiserate a defeat. (Wait! What? You buttered that toast? You must be Hell-bound!)

It doesn’t sound like much, but that’s the point. Penance should make us feel little, not holy.

They say great minds think alike. But that precludes me, so I guess it’s sheer co-incidence that Kate Edwards has blogged on the same subject. Her post taught me that my oh-so-original suggestion of some Lenten spiritual reading is actually an ancient Benedictine practice!