How to Choose a Lenten Penance

Lent is a great experience of spiritual solidarity for Catholics. We fast together, pray together, and fall in love again with the central beauty of our faith: suffering never has the last word, and always has meaning in light of the cross. 

The spiritual practice of fasting has the unique capacity to remind us of our dependence on God. But in the age of specialty diets like Keto, veganism, and Whole 30, are we numb to the spiritual power of fasting? Our culture has become addicted to the rigidity of individualized eating plans. The popularity of regulating one’s diet colors the way we see fasting. Whatever the health or spiritual benefits or moral impetus that motivates these changes, Lenten fasting is something different. By choosing a penance intentionally, we can embrace the spirit of sacrifice that has been a favorite of saints for centuries. To choose a penance that will help you enter into the season of Lent, keep the following in mind.

Examine your conscience

How many times do we feel defeated by the busy pace of our lives? “I don’t have time to pray,” is such a common mantra. If we pause to move mindfully through our day with an honest eye, we will usually see that we have more time than we think. Giving up Netflix, social media, even just noise of the radio can be great ways to cultivate space and silence this Lent.

More generally, the examination of conscience helps us to recognize areas of spiritual weakness. Do we suffer from pride, intemperance, anger? Whatever our area of growth, we can choose a Lenten practice that encourages us to exercise the opposite virtue. For example, a daily Litany of Humility, in conjunction with small acts of self-denial, can help us combat pride. Looking for ways to set aside our own agenda to help others can foster patience. Our Lenten sacrifices are not just about saying “no.” That “no” frees us to say “yes” to something else, something greater.

Choose a challenge

It doesn’t mean very much when a vegetarian forgoes meat during Lent. The nature of a Lenten penance is such that we should feel the sacrifice. Giving up something we use daily is a much more powerful practice than sacrificing something weekly or sporadically. We ought to choose something that challenges us, that stretches us beyond our comfort. I used to worry that choosing a challenge was a mistake; I wanted to select something I knew for sure I could do without. I also was afraid to pray the common Act of Contrition; how could I tell God I intended to “sin no more”? Wasn’t I setting myself up for failure?

Here’s the thing: it’s okay to fail. Failure to keep a Lenten promise, failure to live up to the Christian ideal – these things remind us of our smallness, of the frailty of our own will, and ultimately our dependence on God. Failure is the antidote to pride.

On the other hand, you don’t have to be extreme. Choose something that challenges you. I didn’t have to give up caffeine entirely when switching from coffee to tea was a daily struggle for me.

Integrate

The three traditional practices of Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. When selecting a Lenten penance, be intentional about integrating these three. Use your social media or Netflix time to add in daily prayers. Working on temperance? Give up your daily latte and donating the savings. Consumed by consumerism? Offer a prayer for the poor every time you’re tempted to break your “no buy” Lent. Integrating prayer and almsgiving with our fast deepens its spiritual meaning and provides the opportunity to be mindful of all three each time we make our sacrifice.

On a final note, there are seasons in our lives just like there are seasons in the Liturgical year. This is the third Lent I’ve spent pregnant or postpartum. The challenges of some seasons of life are enough in themselves. When you’re already struggling or suffering through something difficult, the most fruitful practice might be not to impose an additional burden on yourself, but to enter more fully into the grace of your suffering by taking it even more intentionally to prayer.

7 thoughts on “How to Choose a Lenten Penance

  1. I find just devoting extra prayer time to a Lenten/Easter devotional does more to turn my eyes towards God than any bodily penance. It definitely isn’t about me that way.

    1. That’s a good point. Our individual dispositions vary so much. For example, fasting for the sake of vanity is VERY different than fasting out of a desire to sacrifice in solidarity with Jesus and the poor. The outward action is often much less important than the intention and interior experience it fosters. It’s great to have a spiritual director or someone to talk to who can reflect back to us and even challenge us when we begin deceiving ourselves.

      Of course, there is always value to practicing any virtue; we need to strengthen our spiritual muscles! Any time we pray, we open ourselves to grace. Any time we practice self-denial, we strengthen the virtue of temperance. Following the example of Jesus in the desert and joining the Church (across time and in the present) in this season of penitential fasting is a beautiful way to offer ourselves as “living sacrifices” as St. Paul encouraged the Romans (12:1). Sure, we can do this any time, but there is also something meaningful when we practice it together as a Church in the season of Lent.

      1. Oh, I get that! I’ve been pregnant or nursing 4 out of the last 5 years, so I’m in a similar boat. I try to take up other sacrifices that offer the same opportunity to practice temperance and give up something I really love for the sake of something greater (like fasting from coffee or even non-dietary things like spending extra money or social media). Feeling the pang of wanting for something and denying myself is a constant reminder during the season of what we are praying through.

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