Choosing your Lenten penance

Choosing your Lenten penance

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!
  • Stephen K

    Father John, I don’t mean to be a spoiler, but having considered the various dabblings in Lenten penance of a past life, and having read both your and Ms Edwards’ reflections on the subject, I would like to suggest that nearly everything you have suggested is either inescapably Pelagian or just another form of self-indulgence. For example, Ms Edwards proposes reading the psalms: this for her I gather, or for me without a doubt, would be no penance whatsoever but a spiritual delight or necessity; you propose adding or omitting salt as opposition to your will (i.e. mood and taste) dictate. All the bodily mortifications proposed and practised by religious devotees are in the end embraced as “good things to do”, things they delight in religiously speaking. And, if the proposition is to make an amendment of life and manners, to curb one’s indulgences, why stop at Lent? Would it not be simpler and more logical to just do so to the final?

    The way I am beginning to see it, no matter what you propose will be in accord with your religious predilections and hence ultimately not a penance at all. I don’t deny that physical discomforts are not a usual thing; but if they are not so much endured but volunteered for religious purposes, they are simply personal preferences of a sophisticated nature.

    I suspect that the only authentic penance is the one imposed upon you when you are least willing or ready for it. The conclusion is then that one must not adopt voluntary penances at all, but simply accept those that come along when you least want them. Throw away the Lenten exhortations. By all means do what you want to do religiously, but above all do not be misled into thinking they are penances.

    • Stephen, I think what you have noted is insightful and true, but I can’t agree with your conclusions.

      Jennifer Fulweiler addresses the self-indulgent implications of “choosing one’s penance,” and my own experience confirms her conclusion that Lent really starts about three weeks in.

      This year, for example, I decided to make the small sacrifice of giving up candy. The day after Ash Wednesday was the first time I found myself tempted, and my thought process was something like this:

      Mmmmm, that box of Nerds that my toddler is eating looks delicious! I’m sure she wouldn’t notice if I…oh, wait, I gave up candy for Lent. Well, as I watch her enjoy this food, the tiny amount of suffering I experience will give me something to offer up as an act of penance for my sins. I can also use this time to meditate on what Christ has suffered for us. Indeed, what a wonderful opportunity this will be to detach from the hollow pleasures of the world.

      Last night, twenty-something days later, I found myself tempted once again. And this time my reaction was more like this:

      Mmmmm, that candy looks delicious! Oh. Wait. Is it STILL Lent?! Does this never end? I WANT THE HOLLOW PLEASURES OF THE WORLD BACK!

      I agree with you absolutely that a spirit of penance is something to be cultivated all year round. St Josemaría’s advice is worth consideration: “The day you leave the table without having done some small mortification you have eaten like a pagan.”

      But I don’t think you give due credit to the benefit of such a spirit. True, our greatest crosses are chosen for us. But if we foster the habit of embracing “voluntary crosses” along the way, then we are better equipped — mentally, physically and spiritually — to accept “authentic penance” in the spirit our Lord accepted his.

      Is mortification less penitential if it’s voluntary? Certainly. Is it not a penance at all? That, I think, is a leap too far.

      • I’d have to disagree with Stephen.

        First it is an entirely Jansenist notion, in my view, that a penance has to be something horrible. Penances can certainly include less pleasant things, but traditionally it can simply be doing something extra (that is why most penances when one comes out of confession are prayers which are surely not a great imposition!). And as Fr Corrigan has pointed out, sustaining that over consistently over time can be quite a challenge.

        St Benedict, for example, suggests that while ‘the life of the monk ought always to be Lenten in character’, since few can sustain this, so we should make a special effort during Lent to refrain from sin, and apply ourselves to prayer, reading, compunction of heart and abstinence (ch 49).

        Secondly, there is nothing inherently Pelagian in the notion of doing a particular penance. It shouldn’t need to be said that we need grace to gain benefit from it, and that our own puny efforts are worth nothing without grace. Indeed, I particularly like the idea of Scriptural reading as part of one’s Lenten program for this very reason: as Christians we know that we do not simply read Scripture as if it were a secular text, but rather read it with the help of the Holy Spirit, and so open ourselves to a dialogue with God. Similarly, the reason why the Church sets particular penances for us such as fasting and abstinence on certain days, including the much stricter rules that continue to apply to eastern Catholics, because they serve as a reminder of our very need for grace.

        Thirdly the idea that we should simply wait to see with what penances life afflicts us is, I think, as much as heresy as Pelagianism, for it seems to suggest that we ourselves have no responsibility for our own salvation; no responsibility to cultivate virtue and good habits.

        To quote St Benedict again, the traditional view is that we should indeed adopt a particular regime, even a strict one. At first we might follow it out of fear, but as time goes on, that fear will turn to love, and we will observe it naturally and by habit, out of love and delight in virtue (Prologue and ch 7).

        As for the selection of a particular penance, ideally one should indeed test out what one proposes to do with one’s spiritual director or confessor. But since many if not most people don’t have ready access to a suitable person in this role, we must rely on our own judgment confirmed by prayer as Fr Corrigan suggests.

      • PM

        St Thomas, as usual, can shed some light here. If we find prayer, study, works of mercy, generosity, abstinence etc ‘penances’ in the negative sense of the word, he would say that’s because we are not far enough advanced in the virtues. To grow in virtue for St Thomas means that acting well comes to us naturally and indeed pleasurably, rather than as something we have to force ourselves to do through gritted teeth. The trouble is that most of us have at least some areas of our life in which the latter, not the former, is still the case.

        The regulating virtue for St Thomas is the virtue of prudence, by which we discern how to act well and apply the eternal law in the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves. This virtue is partly acquired, but for a Christian is (as are all the virtues) one ofthe Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, all our ‘natural’ capacities are in any case created by God.

        So while I don’t agree with Stephen, I think Fr John’s original point about the danger of a Pelagian approach to Lent is very well taken. It is not an exercise in self-propelled moral heroism – the Christian life never is – but clearing of the way for divine grace to work on us. And the key to that lies in understanding it correctly, rather than in any particular type of penance.

  • Stephen K

    Thank you, Father John, Kate Edwards and PM for your replies. I think you all make some good points, in particular Kate Edward’s comment that these various forms of religious penance serve to remind us of the need for grace. In other words, perhaps, it might be said that the value and/or significance of the act (of penance) lies primarily in that reminder rather than in any other effect that it might have on mind or body.

    Likewise, the idea PM implies that a life of grace or virtues is only not a pleasurable thing because of our failings and limitations is also a corrective perspective on the notion of religious penances. It means that we should hardly be surprised or dismayed even when religious penances are tainted with vanity or self-congratulation for the reason that such things are invariably a given in our nature. Thus, curiously, the fact that these things attend one’s penances does not impugn or invalidate them.

    An interesting topic all round, I think.

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