The best penances are those that God sends us. They are those circumstances we find in God’s “will of good pleasure,” which which He causes or allows to occur in our lives. The next best penances are those that help us to extinguish sin, that aid us in fulfilling the duties of our state in life, and that foster genuine devotion in our souls. The following suggestions are made with this in mind. Many of these penances are good habits that should extend beyond Lent, but we need to start somewhere, and Lent is the best time for that.
General Ideas for Penance
- For All: I will keep the Church’s traditional Lenten fast and abstinence. Traditionally, every day of Lent (excluding Sundays) was a fast day, defined as having only one meal, with two light collations allowed, both of which together do not add up to a full meal, with no additional snacks. Every day of Lent was also traditionally a day of abstinence from flesh-meat (hence the pre-Lent carnival — from carne vale, “goodbye meat!”). While no longer obligatory, these are still salutary penances.
- For All: I will add such-and-such practices to my spiritual regimen. (Positive devotional practices would include spiritual reading, mental prayer, daily Mass, family Rosary, weekly confession. Starting these habits and/or augmenting them slightly during Lent will entail some penance by sacrificing time or preferences. Such a regimen must not interfere with the duties of our state in life.)
- For Fathers: I will get to know my boys better, in fact, I will get to know all my children better, so that I will cultivate a healthy relationship with them. This will help me to be someone they will trust for advice, and open up to about their troubles. To do this will entail a sacrifice of time, and possibly other sacrifices too, as I will have to speak with them and do things with them when I might rather attend to other matters.
- For Mothers: Knowing how important it is to teach by example, I will make the sacrifice of getting up a little early so that I will get my children to school (and/or Mass) on time. (This resolution would obviously pertain to anyone who has had a problem in this area.)
- For Men: I will read The Three Marks of Manhood by G.C. Dilsaver and try to implement its exhortations in my life.
- For Husbands: I will listen more to my wife — not obey, but listen — so that I can cultivate a genuine sympathy for her, studying to understand her needs, fears, and concerns. This is not to forfeit my role as head of the family; rather, it is to make me fulfill that role in a truly Christian manner: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the church, and delivered himself up for it” (Ephesians 5:25).
- For Wives: I will revere and obey my husband as head of the family. I will not criticize him to others, mindful of the example of Saint Monica, whose own husband, Patricius, was very abusive toward her, but who castigated ladies who spoke ill of their husbands in her presence. (“Wives, be subject to your husbands, as it behoveth in the Lord.” Colossians 3:18; cf. Ephesians 5:22-24.)
- For Women/Girls: Taking the warning from Our Lady of Fatima that most people go to hell for sins of the flesh, and knowing that one of the nine ways of being an accessory to the sins of another is “provocation,” I will adopt a traditional Catholic dress code, not only for Mass attendance, but also for all places and occasions. (Note: Women are supposed to be beautiful. God made them that way for good reason. He also commands them to be modest. I say this to illustrate that feminine beauty and modesty are not contradictory, but complementary. Mrs. Colleen Hammond’s Dressing with Dignity is recommended reading.)
- For Children/Youth: I will not murmur when given a directive or correction by a parent or any other authority figure. Instead, I will be punctual in obeying it. (“Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing to the Lord.” Colossians 3:20)
- For Children/Youth: I will do something pleasantly surprising for my mother and/or father on a regular basis. Note: It will not necessarily be pleasant for me, but will entail some sacrifice, even if only small.
A Lenten program should be genuinely penitential but also within our reach, which means we must be able to sustain it for the entirety of Lent. It would do us no good to spend a week on bread and water, in sackcloth and ashes, if we become discouraged and give up.
Specific Things to Give Up
- Fasting – Fasting is the traditional penance of the Church. You can fast from a meal, dessert, sweets, smoking, salt on your food, alcohol or anything else you enjoy. Be sure to simultaneously “fast” from sin, or your bodily fasting will be meaningless.
- TV and social media fast – Many times, we drown our souls in media noise. We have no time to reflect because of the constant input of Facebook, Twitter, music, or TV. Cut these out and spend the time you would have spent on them reading a spiritual book or praying.
- Do a computer fast or replace a certain amount of time on the computer with time playing with the kids.
- Give up all drinks except water or give up a particular drink (coffee, soda, wine, etc.)
- Forego sugar in your coffee or tea, or better yet, give up the coffee entirely. Another option, give up the drive-thru for coffee on your way to work each day and make and take your own.
- Give up some sort of “convenience” item like prepared foods, the dishwasher, or paper towels/napkins
- Forego hair products, make-up, nail polish, etc. Basically no primping during Lent.
- Give up eating out and doing take out and donate the money saved to charity
- Forego listening to music in the car or give up talk radio shows.
- Give up hot showers; take lukewarm showers instead. Or turn the water to cold thirty seconds before you get out. If you’re really feeling penitent, take the entire shower cold.
- Give up the “snooze” button on the alarm clock.
- Give up lights in the evening after the kids are in bed, use only candlelight.
Specific Practices You Can Add
- Prayer: Add in an extra block of time in your day for mental prayer. It doesn’t have to be long, 15 minutes is good, longer if you can do it. Use a spiritual book, reading slowly and stopping to pray as you read.
- Add in a daily Rosary if it’s not something you already do
- Lent is often a good time to add in doing the Stations of the Cross.
- Replace one snack a day with a prayer instead.
- Getting up early is hard. A great penance is to rise early, maybe 30 minutes earlier than you normally do. This time could be well used for spiritual reading or mental prayer.
- Read the Bible and/or memorize a Bible verse each week
- Add in extra reading for you or the whole family (reading aloud as a family is a great idea!)
- Listen to some good Catholic podcasts or sermons.
- Go to daily Mass each week, even just one extra Mass a week can make a difference in your relationship with Our Lord. Try for all 40 days of Lent if you can.
- Read the daily Mass readings in your Missal.
- Go to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. If you already go to Adoration, add in an extra time slot for it during the week.
- Go to confession weekly.
- Do an act of kindness every day.
- Pay extra attention – Many times, we don’t give others our full attention, whether it’s our wife, kids, or coworkers. Make a sacrifice of your time by paying attention to the words and concerns of others.
Other Types of Sacrifices
- A friend of mine once told me that he put a pebble in his shoe for several days while a friend of his was on a retreat. It was a constant reminder to him to pray for his friend. Why not try this during Lent?
- Park in the last spot at the shopping center or at work and say a prayer as you walk in and walk back to your car when you leave.
- Buy a pair of used shoes from Goodwill and wear them every day of Lent.
- 40 Bags for 40 Days: fill up 40 bags of stuff you don’t need and toss it or donate it. It’s a good sacrificial way to take an honest look at whether you really need something.
(Sources: Catholicsistas.com, Catholicgentleman.net)