Looking Back at Lent: Why Do Penance?

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Thinking back over Lent, one of the things that hits me, as it has before, is that I am much better at not doing things for Lent than doing things. Even moderately big changes in my daily routine such as “fasting” by having only one meal a day on Wednesdays and Fridays, or abstaining from alcohol entirely, are fairly doable. However, my resolutions to start each day be reading Morning Prayer, or reading the Pope’s second volume of Jesus of Nazareth, or blogging my way through all of Augustine’s Confessions — not so much.

That’s the point at which I find myself wondering: Is putting so much focus into not doing something a mistake? There is, after all, nothing wrong with eating, or with having my nightly beer or glass of wine. Why should God have any interest in my not doing these perfectly acceptable things? It’s not as if God gets satisfaction out of thinking, “Ah, it’s Lent. I do so look forward to all those little human creatures going in for a little bit of voluntary discomfort. I thrive on discomfort.”

So why give up a few pleasures for Lent — especially while at the same time failing in doing some positive things which would arguably be better things to do?

Well, obviously, the reason for penance is not that God wants us to be miserable. (Come to that, Mom and Dad didn’t make you eat your green beans because they wanted you to be miserable either, but that’s a story for another day.) But I think it is a valuable activity, even if — indeed perhaps especially because — I often find myself failing in some of the “positive resolutions” I make during Lent. Penance is a sort of spiritual and moral training. When you pick some thing you enjoy and resolve to give it up for a time, you give your moral will practice in conforming itself to something other than its own desires.

I enjoy my nightly drink, and I enjoy eating (and somehow it seemed like my fast days were always the days when huge trays of deli sandwiches and brownies and such appeared in the break room) and there’s nothing wrong with either of those activities. However, by giving them up for a time, you give yourself practice in not doing something which seems attractive, and not any harm to anyone, because you have a moral reason for doing so. And while we often imagine moral choices as being that one huge moral dilemma in which we know exactly what the right thing to do is but it so hard, far more often moral choices involve that little tiny thing which surely couldn’t hurt anyone and really feels right this one time anyway.

And in the larger sense, when we try to form our wills in this life so that we can follow God’s will even when we don’t want to, we are trying to build the habits which will make it possible for us to turn our wills over totally to God when we see Him face to face beyond this mortal coil. We do well not to be too used to always doing what we want, even if the things we desire are basically good things.

Of course, those positive things do still need to happen. But after all, I actually want to read the second volume of Jesus of Nazareth, and finish Confessions, and such — I just need to make the time. And now I can do it with a glass of beer next to me.

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  1. It’s also about remembrance (at least it is for me, anyways). It reminds me when I am not drinking that glass of beer of what the season is supposed to be about and what I should be thinking of rather than my own pleasures. In that context, it puts Jesus and His sacrifice front and center in my thoughts, which can lead to other reflections.

    Sadly, many young people see it more as a hassle or guilt trip than anything else. But then, they ARE young people (sigh)…

  2. I’ve been taught that you should give up something you enjoy as a suffering in remembrance of what Jesus went through (I was later taught that I should replace it with “something positive”). My problem has always been that after the first week, I don’t miss what I gave up anymore and I’m not suffering anything :/

  3. Doing something positive is acceptable, but I tend to think it should be something positive not as in a personal goal with a vague general good, but as a life changing positive or doing something profound for others. Like something that takes us out of our comfort zone and forces us to act on things we know we should do for others but often rationalize it away. I also view the giving up of something not so much as to be a rememberance of Our Lord’s passion (though it is certainly that too!), but as a true mortification. Something that causes us discomfort, a serious denial of the flesh. I’ve had a few good Lents where I was really ambitious in both the mortification and positive departments, and I’ve had many more Lents where I’ve been a sissy and just gave up soda (like this year). As a big soda drinker it’s a definite change of behavior and an inconvenience, however I don’t delude myself into thinking it’s true mortification, after all I end up just drinking more iced tea.

  4. The past few years I’ve been trying to do one of each – give up something and do something. I find that I get so much less out of Lent when I give up (or do) something that I’ve done before. I need that “oh, darn it, that’s right” moment as I reach for potato chips (or whatever), followed by the self-pity at my huge sacrifice, followed by the humiliating contrast between not eating potato chips for 40 days versus being crucified for someone else’s sins. That keeps me from falling into the problem that Kylekanos describes.

  5. The self-discipline imposed at Lent serves another purpose also; knowing that you can say ‘no’ to things which are not sinful teaches us we have the strength to say ‘no’ when we are tempted by things that are and gives us the strength to resist.

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