Why Penance? Removing Distraction to Focus on God

Gillian Weyant

Why Penance? Removing Distraction to Focus on God

Throughout the Catholic liturgical year, we find a diverse array of opportunities to unite ourselves to the life of Christ.  These opportunities range in tone from joyous to sorrowful, as we experience the breadth of Jesus’ life by reflecting on the mysteries contained within it.  We feel a spirit of peaceful anticipation as we walk through the season of Advent to the birth of Jesus, and we feel a more somber anticipation as we pray our way through the liturgical season of Lent, for although the Resurrection awaits us at the end, we must first pass through the passion and death of Jesus.

This year, the season of Lent begins on February 17.  Although Lent can often feel dreary or difficult, it is in fact an opportunity to unite ourselves to the joy of Jesus’ Resurrection by first uniting ourselves to Him in His suffering.  One way to do this is through acts of penance.

The Church calls Catholics to three practices during the season of Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These three things correspond to God’s forgiveness, His sacrifice, and His generosity.  In this post, we’ll focus on what penance is and how to choose a Lenten penance as we consider how we can best follow in the steps of Jesus as He walked toward His death and eventual Resurrection.

The Goal of Penance

For many Catholics, what is associated with the word “penance” is simply “giving up” something without much further thought about the reason we might give something up in the first place.  It is important to note that while giving something up is indeed an important part of penance, we should always keep in mind the reason for forgoing it.

Fasting throughout the forty days of Lent unites us to the time that Jesus spent in the desert, as He fasted and resisted the temptations which He faced.  Jesus’ fast in the desert is detailed in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.  It is written that He went into the desert after His baptism by St. John the Baptist, before He began His public ministry.  Although He faced temptations of several kinds, He never wavered but instead remained resolute.

Giving something up that is a normal part of our lives, such as a particular food we like to eat or a particular habit we enjoy, allows us to place ourselves in a kind of desert ourselves.  In this desert, away from some of the noise we may experience in our regular day-to-day, we can hope to prepare ourselves either to begin or to better continue whatever ministry or evangelization we are called to in our own lives. It is an opportunity for us to reflect on things that may be crowding out the presence of God, and seek to eliminate those things going forward.  The goal of penance ought not to be simply eliminating something from our lives for a designated period of time; rather, in acts of penance, we often will come away with a greater understanding of what in our everyday lives is taking our attention away from loving God as well as we can.

Seeking Silence in Penance

It was Mother Teresa who said, “In the silence of the heart, God speaks.”  In the year 2021, we are experiencing an unparalleled amount of noise from many sources and about an overwhelming number of topics.  Technology has made it easy to access almost any information at any time, and while it is a great good, it has contributed to many people feeling a kind of mental unease or disquiet.  This collective feeling seems to indicate that it would be good for many people to seek more silence in their lives in order to see what God may be saying to them in the silence of prayer.

Actively seeking to incorporate more silence into our lives also gives us an opportunity to make our homes a kind of domestic monastery.  The function of a monastery is to be a place set apart, a place in which people can step away from the rest of the world in order to seek the blessings of prayer and contemplation.  By attempting to withdraw from disquiet and distractions in our homes as we go through the season of Lent, we can be inspired by the quiet contemplation of monks and nuns and seek not only to withdraw from the world, but also to make our everyday lives full of acts of prayer.  

As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work. Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall, driving horses, sweeping, scouring, everything gives God some glory if being in his grace you do it as your duty.”  Keeping this concept in mind can help us not to simply subtract something as an act of penance, but instead replace what we give up with conscious effort to unite ourselves closer to God.  

How Do I Choose a Penance for Lent?

Choosing a penance for Lent can seem intimidating and leave us with questions about whether we are choosing the right thing, if we will be able to continue our penance throughout the entirety of Lent, and if a particular penance will bring us closer to God as we hope.  While these are certainly valid concerns, it is important to consider that self-reflection is of immense importance when it comes to choosing a penance.  Many people find it to be beneficial to do a kind of examination of conscience or examination of the self before the beginning of Lent, in which one can consider how they are doing spiritually and what might be something in their lives that is distracting them from closer union with God.  

This examination of conscience can be a kind of prayer in and of itself.  All too often, in the busy activity of our daily lives, we can forget to pause and reflect on the state of our spiritual lives and our souls.  Lent can provide a much-needed opportunity to reflect on certain aspects of our lives or habits that might be in need of some work, and in this way, we can better understand how to make each of our souls a temple and a place of holiness.

An examination of conscience forces us to reckon with our virtues and vices in an immediate way.  Recognizing our vices can provide some direction in terms of choosing a penance: choosing a penance that actively works to fight against a particular vice can be helpful to make us better Christians.  A struggle with moderation may point to giving up sweets or alcohol.  A temptation to laziness may mean stepping away from the snooze button in the mornings.  A temptation to endlessly scroll through social media suggests replacing that particular use of technology with more prayer, spiritual reading, or a more mindful presence in our daily vocations.

It is important to remember that there is not a checklist of Lenten penances that can fit every person’s spiritual needs.  We may be tempted to compare ourselves to the people we know, and sometimes feel as though we ought to be doing more or doing what another person is doing.  However, what is most important is to frequently examine our consciences, persevere in whatever penance we have chosen for ourselves, and ultimately, remember the reason we are giving anything up in the first place.  Ultimately, in our acts of penance, we are seeking to unite ourselves to the suffering of Jesus, so that we may better join ourselves to Him in the joy of His Resurrection.