Quick guide to keeping Lent
Holy Mother Church offers to bring order to our lives through her Calendar and not least the cycles of feasts and the seasons of the Year. As well as calling us to days of feasting she also calls us to days of penance. She designates every Friday (except on solemnities) and the season of Lent as days of penance.
What is meant by penance?
While we might have a fair idea what keeping a feast might entail, it might not be entirely clear what we should be doing on a day of penance. Let us look at a definition:-
PENANCE - The virtue or disposition of heart by which one repents of one's own sins and is converted to God. Also the punishment by which one atones for sins committed, either by oneself or by others. And finally the sacrament of penance, where confessed sins committed after baptism are absolved by a priest in the name of God. (Etym. Latin paenitentia, repentance, contrition.)
So ‘penance’ is used in three ways as defined above. And all three are helpful to us as we try to understand what a season of penance might involve.
· One of the key words to grasp is that of conversion. Unless we are a saint we are in need of conversion. We need to convert those parts of our lives which are opposed to God, that is, that are sinful. We need to convert those sinful parts of our lives so that we not only avoid sin but also grow instead in godly virtue.
· Another key concept is that of voluntarily taking a punishment that atones for sin. This is an act which we unite with Christ on the cross who Himself voluntarily took the punishment of sin upon Himself so that we could be saved from sin.
· Penance as a punishment for sin can be done not only for one’s own sin, but the sin of others. To be clear, our acts of penance are not, in any way, replacing the redemption won for us by Christ. Our acts of penance are a uniting of ourselves voluntarily with Christ’s suffering on the cross because of our sin and the sin of others.
What are the acts of penance I should do?
Holy Mother Church does not specify in detail the acts of penance we should do. She obliges us to keep days of abstinence (abstaining from meat on Fridays) and she obliges us to keep a fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but otherwise she does not specify our acts of penance.
So the question is, how should we choose our acts of penance?
Holy Mother Church gives us guidance not least through the words of our Lord. There are three broad types of penance: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. These three traditional ways of doing penance come from the teaching of our Lord in St Matthew’s gospel, and which we hear at the Ash Wednesday Mass (Mt 6:1f).
Now we might wonder why these three things are the types of acts of penance we should be doing in Lent. Well they pertain to the three broad areas of conversion needed by us all: our bodies/flesh, our relationship with God, and our relationship with our neighbour. Fasting includes all acts that are related to the conversion of our bodily desires and the mortification of the flesh (as St Paul and Holy Tradition understands this, but certainly not in a kind of way the Gnostics believed i.e. that the physical body was evil). Prayer relates to the conversion of our relationship with God. And almsgiving is about the commandment to love our neighbour and the conversion of our relationship to our fellow man.
So each Friday and each day of Lent Mother Church calls us to perform at least one act of penance: an act of fasting, an act of prayer or an act of almsgiving (act of charity towards our fellow man).
Doing them in secret
In Matthew 6 our Lord is very clear that we should not parade our acts of penance. They should be done in secret and we should hide them from others. There is a great danger with such voluntary spiritual practices that we grow in pride (the deadliest of all the deadly vices). We must avoid anything that communicates “look at me I have voluntarily done these penances for sin…” If we fall into pride we are clearly in a worse situation than if we had not done any penance at all.
Sacrament of Penance
All of this should also lead us to the confessional for the Sacrament of Penance. As we grow in understanding of ourselves and our tendencies to sin through these acts of penance, we grow in understanding of our great need for grace. An incredibly important source of grace for the conversion of life is found in the Sacrament of Penance. Using a more exhaustive examination during Lent would be appropriate for most people. If you cannot find one suitable I sometimes recommend to people using the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church – Section 3 Life in Christ, and especially the section on the Ten Commandments. If one is able one could work through that same section in the full Catechism, but for most people the Compendium is sufficient.
We all need to do penance because we have all sinned. We are reconciled to God, from whom we have been sundered because of our sin, through the Redemption Christ won for us on the cross, and we receive the grace needed for a life of grace primarily through the Sacraments, but also through living a holy life of penance. We need to keep doing our penance until we are saints. But it is not all drudgery. We can make real progress if we follow the Church’s Tradition of penance for the conversion of our lives.
May the Holy Spirit guide you in your Lenten observance. May Our Lady at the Cross pray for you. May the Angels of God protect you from the evil one. Fr Ian