Lent is a penitential season, the church tells us. Some churchmen bemoan the fact that what we do during Lent nowadays seems minor compared to what our ancestors in the faith did.
It wasn’t all that long ago, after all, that American Catholics were expected to abstain from meat not just on Fridays but every weekday during Lent. Before that, Catholics were expected also to abstain from eggs, milk, butter and cheese throughout Lent. Thus, the concept that Lent is a penitential season was driven home to all practicing Catholics.
That’s a far cry from today. The more relaxed practice has probably led to the erosion of the concept of Lent as a penitential season. So what is penance, anyway?
Having spent three years in formation with the Confraternity of Penitents, I think I’m starting to get the idea. I don’t guarantee that I’m 100% correct — but I do think I’m much more correct than I am incorrect.
Simply put, penance is giving up something good for something better.
So, for instance, over the second year of CFP formation, one learns to devote 90 minutes a day, every day, to prayer. This necessarily means one gives up something to make room for those 90 minutes: Maybe it’s watching dramas on TV, maybe it’s playing tennis, maybe it’s hanging out with friends at a bar. None of these are bad things in themselves, but prayer is a better thing. So one gives those up in order to pray, which is a far better thing.
In the third year, one learns to fast for extended periods — roughly 50 days before Christmas and 40 days before Easter. No question that food is good! But as one reduces the amount of food taken, one is reminded that we are dependent upon God for the things that sustain our life, and to have empathy (and pray for) those who don’t have enough to eat, whether it’s a result of poverty, war, drought or other causes. Remembering our dependence upon God’s mercy is a better thing than stuffing ourselves with the third helping of steak.
So that’s it in a nutshell: Penance is simply giving up something good for something far better.
If you’re ready to consider giving up something good for something much better this Lent, why not consider exploring the Confraternity of Penitents, Opus Dei, Benedictine Oblates, Order of Malta, or Secular Carmelites?