Like New Year’s resolutions, Lenten penances often do not end the way we envisioned. As Jesus tells his disciples, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). We enter the season of Lent with the idea that, for instance, we will spend a few more minutes in prayer each day, or maybe give up some food that we love, or volunteer our time. For the first couple of weeks, things work out well, but, as life would have it, we run into complications. Things get busy at home, or at work, or with school, so we cannot afford to pray as long as we said we would on a particular day. We make compromises: “Well… frozen yogurt isn’t really ice cream.” Before we know it, it is Good Friday and we have not been to the soup kitchen in weeks.
So, instead of the typical penances that we try to abide by each Lent, we can look at penance from a different angle. As novices, we were not allowed to take on additional penances without the consent of the novice master, and most often these requests were denied. The reason, as it was explained to us, was that the life is penitential enough in and of itself. The adjustment from living in the world to living as a religious is not an easy one. Living the life faithfully has its own penitential dimensions built in. So, it would certainly be imprudent for a young, zealous Dominican to think that he needs more penance right away.
Of course, the life of a Dominican is most definitely not the only life with its built-in penances. All Christian living entails taking up the cross daily. The single life and the married life are not cakewalks. Neither is the life of a student always easy, or the working world always bliss.
There we have it then: prepackaged penances. The easiest and most consistent way by which we can stay faithful to sacrifice is by harnessing the things that God has already given us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Taking up one’s cross each day and following Jesus is the surest way of penance.”
Now, simply suffering through a hard day with the kids, or a terrible professor, or an annoying co-worker does not equal a penitential act. The point of penance is to purify us, to point our minds and hearts towards Christ and away from the passing things of this world. The key is to offer these types of situations up to our Lord. A simple prayer: “Lord, I offer this time spent doing X to you. Give me the strength to X.” When we offer something to God, though, we don’t complain or boast. We trust that, through our sacrifice, through giving something of ourselves to God, his grace will open our hearts more and more to him.
Holy Mother Church teaches that conversion and penance does not aim first at outward works, but at conversion of the heart. This interior conversion leads to its expression in visible signs, but without the interior conversion, these outward penances remain fruitless.
The end of penance is not suffering for the sake of suffering. Penance is a reparation for our failings and a tool by which we clear away the unnecessary clutter in our lives to make room for Christ. As said in the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium and advocated by Blessed Pope John Paul II, everyone is called to holiness. This “universal call to holiness” is only lived through the grace of God, and involves saying “yes” to God in our thoughts, words, and actions. Lent offers us a special occasion for this “yes” through the small sacrifices that we offer to God.
St. Therese of Lisieux teaches us by example:
I understood that to become a saint one had to suffer much, seek out always the most perfect thing to do, and forget self. I understood, too, that there are many degrees of perfection and each soul was free to respond to the advances of Our Lord, to do little or much for Him, in a word, to choose among the sacrifices He was asking. Then, as in the days of my childhood, I cried out: ‘My God I choose all!’ I do not want to be a saint by halves, I’m not afraid to suffer for You, I fear only one thing: to keep my own will; so take it, for I choose all that You will!
Offering up the little annoyances in our life as penance does not eliminate the need for all other Lenten practices, but it is another way to grow closer to Christ. When we unite our sufferings to Christ, no matter how small, we take up our cross as Christ tells us, and we follow in his footsteps.