In the Catholic Church, the season of Lent is a time for increased prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in preparation for the greatest feast on the Church calendar: Easter.
Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are forms of penance. Penance simply means the repentance of sins by taking some form of action in reparation for our sins. Just as we sinned by actually committing or omitting something we shouldn't have, so we should do penance by actually committing or omitting something to "make up" for it. And this is for our benefit.
Just as sin did something real in our souls by causing damage, in the same way penance does something real in our souls by bringing healing; doing penance spiritually turns our hearts away from sin and back on the right path of reconciliation with God and a life of holiness lived according to his will. (This is why the Sacrament of Reconciliation is also called the Sacrament of Penance; the priest always gives a prayer or an action to perform after we confess our sins).
"Wherefore, we ask, urgently and prayerfully, that we, as people of God, make of the entire Lenten Season a period of special penitential observance." - Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinance, USCCB, 1966.And penance is hard work! But the saints tell us that health of our souls depends on it.
"Let us chastise our body crucifying it with its vices, concupiscence and sins, because by living according to the flesh, the devil wishes to take away from us the love of Jesus Christ and eternal life and to lose himself in hell with everyone else." - St. Francis of Assisi
THE TWO PRIMARY REASONS WE DO A LENTEN PENANCE
1) To make reparation for our sins: We need to grow in our understanding of the depth and seriousness of our sin that nailed Jesus to the Cross, so that we do not fall into the deadly trap of thinking "it's no big deal." All sin is an offense against God, and something for which we must make amends in order to restore our right relationship with Him. The saints and holy men and women did great penances for themselves and also for the souls of many others.
2) To grow in virtue: We do not do penance for the sake of suffering. We should not choose what is going to make us suffer the most, that isn't the point. We do penance in order to deny ourselves the movements of the lower parts of our nature, thus making our will grow stronger towards the higher parts of our nature, so that we will be better able to resist temptations to sin. Virtue is only gained by choosing it over against the vice that is most opposed to it (for example, to conquer pride, one must practice humility).
WHEN CHOOSING A LENTEN PENANCE, WE SHOULD
Choose something that will help you grow in virtue: Our model for Lent is Jesus who endured the wilderness for 40 days while denying his bodily appetites. When we choose a Lenten penance, we should choose something worthy and something that will help us to rely on grace to accomplish, so that we will be closer to the heart of Jesus Christ by Easter than we were at the start of Lent.
The point of doing penance during Lent is to accomplish something good in our lives, and to remove obstacles to loving God with our whole heart.
What is your Lenten penance this year? Share in the comments below.
This article has been updated and was originally published in February 2015. © The Catholic Company. All rights reserved.