What Makes a Good Penance? 3 Tips for Mid-Lent Adjustments

What Makes a Good Penance? 3 Tips for Mid-Lent Adjustments February 19, 2015

Good news: If your Lent needs some improvement, there’s no law that you can’t adjust your personal penance mid-stream. Here are a few things I’ve found helpful for ordinary Catholics to consider when figuring out whether a chosen penance is realistic or not:

1.  Is it consistent with my state in life?

A lot of spiritual writing is done by people who aren’t, say, on call 24/7 caring for young children.  While it is good to examine your responsibilities and ask whether you need to adjust your priorities, it is quite possible that your God-given mission doesn’t give you the luxury of randomly tossing in an extra hour of prayer, or skipping meals your family needs you to eat so you don’t faint on the way to soccer practice.  A good penance supports your vocation, never undermines it.

2. How much room for additional penance do I have?

If you are a yes-person, you may already be living a fairly maxed-out Christian life.  Or perhaps you’ve had perpetual Lenten-living inflicted on you by the mysterious combination of the Will of God and blowback from original sin.  Ask yourself:

  • Do I regularly put large amounts of time and energy into personal pursuits solely for my own pleasure?
  • Am I wallowing in leisure time?
  • Is it pretty easy for me to get through my day and do my job?

If that’s you, pile on the rigor.  But if you are barely making it from minute to minute, don’t be the pharisee laying undue burdens on yourself.

3. Will this penance cause me to forgo a genuine need?

This is where we can start to have fun with fine-tuning.  If you pick a penance like, say, taking cold showers every morning, that works great as long as you are actually physically capable of enduring such a thing.

But imagine if immersing yourself in cold water causes you to become more vulnerable to every passing cold, or makes your back spasm such that you can’t get the snow shoveled like you are supposed to?  In that case, it’s a no-go.  A solution is to look for a penance that allows you to deprive yourself of a comfort, but leaves you absolutely no wiggle room to argue your way out of it by claiming necessity.

So, for example, if you want to give up your Starbucks habit for Lent, but know you’ll end up convinced that zero caffeine = messed up sleep schedule and poor focus at work, then what you do is forgo the Starbucks, but allow yourself some physically-sufficient alternative, like that nasty office coffee or a cup of strong tea.

Here are some examples of penance-with-compensation plans to give you a feel for how it works:

Penance = 20 Push-ups a day, supposing that both you have the shoulders to pull it off and in fact you hate push-ups.  Compensation: You’re allowed to shorten some other (enjoyable) part of your daily workout if you begin to fear you are over-training.  If your shoulders start to bug you, you are allowed to sub out a similarly-hated exercise that uses a different muscle group.

Penance = Giving up sweets. Compensation: If you start to talk yourself into, ‘but I really have a physical need for shortbread right now’ you are allowed to eat some concoction that has the right nutrient fix, but that you don’t actually like to eat.

Penance = Staying off social media.  Compensation: If you begin to worry you are isolated and lacking necessary social support, you’re allowed 30-minutes a day of phone call time to actual friends, even though it means letting the kids watch that horrible saccharine PBS show so you can talk uninterrupted.

Penance = Following the instructions in Sarah Reinhard’s excellent all-purpose Lenten devotional. Compensation: If the day’s penance is truly unsuited, you’re allowed to pick something from one of the other pages.

Rather than Piling, Leave Room for Spur-of-the-Moment Sacrifices

I think that for many people (but NOT ALL people) it is good to have some kind of Lenten sacrifice that is a true penance — a denying yourself of some legitimate good, or taking on of some additional rigor.  This is just spiritual discipline 101, and since I’ve been in 101 for an awful lot of years now, it’s my experience that this is a good way to make a happy Lent.

But what I’d challenge you to do, if you discern that yes, you have room for such a penance, is to limit yourself to just one Lent-long penance.

What you’ll be tempted to do, in a fit of ash-induced piety, is give up sweets, exercise an hour a day, pray the divine office, and care for widows and orphans in your spare time.  What works better for most of us is to pick one thing to be mandatory, and then allow yourself the luxury of making small additional penances as the opportunity arises.

–> If you’re already doing short, lukewarm showers as your penance, then you can allow yourself to skip dessert for just this meal. If you end up having the opportunity to skip again another day, or every single day, hey, that’s great.  But if you only give up one dessert all Lent long as a bonus-sacrifice, it wasn’t nothing.  It still had spiritual benefit.

Only the Lent Demon Demands Perfection

It’s tempting to feel that if we don’t have a perfectly-perfect Lent, beginning at 12:00 AM Ash Wednesday, and complete with a properly sober disposition Holy Saturday and homemade bunny muffins on Easter Sunday, we’re failed Christians.  Nah.  Just not.

If you started Lent too lax, you can up your game mid-way.  If you realize you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, you can thank God for such a relatively gentle lesson in humility, then dial back the penances accordingly.  If you screw it up for three days straight, but overall you think your penance was on target, you can repent and get back on the wagon on day four.

So relax, be as penitential as your state in life permits or inflicts, don’t agonize, and have a good rest of your Lent.




Artwork: Frans Francken the Younger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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