Choosing Lenten Penances
Lent begins this Wednesday. Early as it is this year, we cannot let this season slip by, lest we lose the many chances for grace therein. With that in mind, I wanted to offer some practical tips for choosing your Lenten penances. Hopefully you have been prayerfully considering this before today! But in any case, these can help to solidify what you choose.
1. This is not a season of “self-help.” Your focus in these days should be to grow in relationship with the Lord and in virtue. If you choose a penance for selfish or personal gain, it isn’t a good penance to choose. An example would be fasting only to lose weight. Instead, fast so as to unite to the suffering of Christ, and enjoy the physical benefits that can come from that as well.
2. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These are the three pillars of Lent. I recommend choosing one penitential discipline in each pillar so as to keep a balanced spiritual life.
3. Be practical and concrete. Like New Year’s Resolutions, we cannot choose to do some amorphous thing like “be healthy” or “pray more.” We must aim toward practical goals, things that we can actually achieve. Moreover, we must make concrete plans to achieve these goals. For example, if you want to pray more this Lent, decide when, where, and for how long you will pray each day and put it in your schedule. In addition, decide what that will look like: will you read Scripture, pray the rosary, visit the Adoration Chapel, or some mix of these? The more real your goals are, the more likely you can achieve them. The same is true here: the more applicable and achievable your penances are, the more likely you will stick with and benefit them.
4. Penances should be sacrifices, even if small. This means that you shouldn’t give up something you don’t enjoy anyway. It certainly means we don’t “give up” some sin that may be in our lives—that shouldn’t be there to begin with! Your chosen penances should be some licit pleasure (like time, food, money, etc.) that is given up as an offering to God in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. It doesn’t have to break you, but you should still feel it in some way.
5. Our penances should not become penances for others. A perfect example of this is coffee. If you want to give up coffee, but it would cause you to be impatient and easily upset with others, don’t give up coffee! A bit of self-knowledge is needed here, of course, but we can’t unjustly impose penance on others, especially if it means we lose virtue in the process.
6. It is ok to re-evaluate as the season goes on. Sometimes our circumstances change or we realize a particular penance was too much or too little. We are not “locked-in” with no recourse in this holy season. I’d recommend that each Sunday of this season you examine whether your penances have been helping you grow in your relationship with the Lord. If they have, stick with them. If not, feel free to adjust them (keeping in mind #3 above).
For the season of Lent, I will be offering short, daily reflections on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. To receive these in your email, please sign-up at desertfather.substack.com