Part of my Lenten penance/promise is to blog more. So here I am on my lunch break, starting slow with a simple entry.
7 Things to Remember About Lenten Penances and Promises.
“Giving up” something is highly recommended, a very holy thing to do, and also completely voluntary.
If this last bit seems funny, the accurate communicator of faith and morals, Jimmy Akin, over at the National Catholic Register , even says so. But do not use this information as an excuse to throw penitential acts out the window and feast for forty days. Pray earnestly and ask God what he thinks would be an acceptable penance or promise. Then be silent and wait for His answer. More likely than not, He’ll respond and there will be something for you to do.
You may have what you’ve given up or take a break from what you’ve taken up on Sundays. It is a “mini-Easter,” a “day of joy.” Or you may not, as it’s the “-st, -nd, -rd, or -th” Sunday of Lent. It is up to you. Because you prayed about it, you know what God asks of you.
You don’t have to tell anyone. Because a Lenten penance/promise is personal and self-directed, you can choose to keep it secret always (a sinful habit, say, and you don’t want to give scandal); reveal your penance/promise on Easter as a means of faith sharing (“Here’s what I did and got out of it”); or tell whomever and how many and how often as you like – if the reasons are appropriate: give witness to the practice, act as accountability partners with another giver-upper, or provide examples of what someone might do, i.e. It’s my humble opinion that it is best not to reveal your penance, in the spirit of the Gospel verse to go into one’s “inner room” (your mind and heart count!) and to keep ourselves kempt.
Do not indulge in penance shame. Do not allow others to inflict penance shame on you. Because a Lenten penance/promise is personal and self-directed (this bears repeating), you know what God is asking of you and what is appropriate for your circumstances. So if your small group passes around a sign-up sheet for you to name which week you will be taking cold showers in the dead of winter in upper New England and your bathroom has no heat source, do not feel ashamed if you quietly pass it on to the next person. Likewise, do not give dirty looks or post passive aggressive comments when you see someone having a beer or chocolate or piece of cake. It might be that the person has been saddled with a birthday that will always be in Lent, they’re not giving up food anyway, and it’s unfortunate that birthdays aren’t Solemn Feasts. It might be that there is more charity in accepting a treat proffered by a loved one than declining the person’s effort because of some voluntary practice. If someone slips and has meat on a Friday, a charitable thing to think is “I/he/she will make up for it on Sunday.” or “I/he/she is allergic to beans and will pass out without protein.” I haven’t seen it written about much, but I believe the fruit of penance, prayer, and almsgiving is charity, and that is what Christ extends to us from the cross.
You can get creative. Because penance and promises are prayed over, you might discern God is asking you to do something different each day. Example: I attempted to give up coffee. Valentine’s morning, I intended to treat myself to a cab into work. None were available when I got to the stand. Rather than wait, I decided…okay…maybe I should give up the treat and trudge through the snow. And that experience made me think…was Jesus ever freezing? We always think about the long, sweaty walk up the hill, but not about other discomforts. How did He deal with them. And then, by the time I got into work, I realized I was not going to function on just tea or an unhealthy soda. So I had some java. Another sacrifice just applicable to this day was to give up gorging my single self on the couch in pjs was to dress up, make myself kempt, and head to evening prayer. Jesus was my “date,” and I was going to smile, not scowl, at the display of romance all around me. If you haven’t thought of what to do this Lent or struggle with your choices, simply pray each morning: God, how do you want me to be holy today? What draws me closer to you?
You may not feel anything at all. And that’s okay. Sometimes, if we give something up or take something on, we do it because it’s routine and/or expected. I know I went through some Lents in which I couldn’t believe that there was a spiritual benefit to eliminating a food item from my diet or didn’t feel any different if I successfully made it through my sacrifice. After all, when Jesus was tempted, weren’t the things the devil offered greater than satisfying a craving for chocolate. One year I had an amazing, grace-filled Lent doing some Ignatian exercises and meeting with a spiritual director. So the next year, when I had to direct myself, I took on what turned out to be waaaay too much and ended up spiritually burnt out. If you ever feel like this during Lent or on Easter, don’t worry. It’s okay. You haven’t failed anything. You haven’t sinned. If you feel like you have, talk it out with a priest, not the Internet.
God loves you. He loves you when you’re crying out in frustration or suffering. He loves you when you’re in bliss. No matter the day of the calendar. If the only thing you’ve “gotten” out of Lent or feel that you’ve given to God for Lent is just one instance of leaning on Him, then that is grace enough.