Sitting around and chatting one Friday evening talking with a friend who is a lapsed Catholic, I remembered to my dismay that I had failed to complete the Friday penance I had set out for myself and remarked about it. My friend, who sometimes seems eager to criticize the Catholic disciplines in which she was raised, remarked to me, “You don’t have to do that to work your way into heaven, you know. The Reformers changed all that.”
It had a dampening effect on the conversation to say the least. It’s been interesting to me to find that my Protestant friends, who can see value in suffering, cannot see it in penance. Like the Eucharist, penance has become a cornerstone of my spiritual life. As a result, I look forward to the great, purple season of Lent.
I admit, it took me a while to begin to understand what penance is and what it does. I had read the admonitions to fast and pray but it never really connected to me. How could my depriving myself of something have any effect at all on the order of the world, except to make me grumpy and hard to live with?
I started my journey with penance when I discovered that the discipline of not eating meat on Friday had been replaced with an admonition for the faithful to enter into their own personal form of penance in remembrance of the Passion. Wanting to experience all the Church offered (or asked) and not being terribly creative in that realm, I decided that a penance that had been good enough for generations of prior Catholics was good enough for me.
Right away I found that the mere act of deciding to do something different, something planned, something that thwarted my moment-to-moment appetites took me out of myself and into the realm of God. No more stopping by the cafeteria for a sausage biscuit for breakfast. No more turkey sandwich for lunch. If we had dinner out, no steak and potatoes.
I remembered something long forgotten, something I had learned when studying Judaism and its dietary precepts: imposing rules on food takes the act of eating out of the realm of the physical and into the realm of the spiritual. It becomes, then, a way of prayer—something I was becoming very familiar with as a Catholic. Lesson one: fasting is a physical way of praying.
That lesson was driven home one Friday when I was traveling and lost track of the days, blissfully (it really was excellent!) having a sausage omelette for breakfast. Mid-morning, it dawned on me what had happened, and my first response was not that I had done something terrible and broken a rule for which I would be punished, but that I had made a promise to my loving Father and I’d failed to keep it. My sense was not one of shame for wrongdoing, but of sorrow for having disappointed my Father. Lesson number two: The act of contrition is right. Good enough to be sorrowful for things we do to offend God because we fear hell; better to be sad because we have disappointed Someone who loves us so much.
And then there was the lesson of my friend Judy. We met for lunch one day, and I was the only one eating because she was fasting and praying for the healing for the daughter of a friend. Ah yes—that fast and pray connection that I had read so often about in the Gospels once again but with an immediacy I had not considered. I realized it wasn’t just for those holy folk way back when but could be an integral part of my own relationship with God. I didn’t understand (still don’t) the mystery of how my little sacrifice works for another’s good. I had, however, already confirmed two of the lessons of penance and was ready to accept this third one in faith. Lesson three: penance works, we use it.
And so I started to incorporate little penances into my daily life, to elevate me out of the secular and into the spiritual. To remind me of who and Whose I am. I am not capable of the great heroic acts of the saints, and may never be. I am willing to let God gently teach me on that issue. For now, I am comfortable that He will accept what I am able to give.
I’ve always found the desert a place where I am wonderfully aware of God. Perhaps for the same reasons that I respond to the landscape of the desert—its sparseness accentuates the beauty of the surroundings—I respond to the landscape of Lent. It’s Ash Wednesday, and I will joyfully enter into my penitential offering, not knowing what I will find, but assured that it will be beautiful.