The wrong kind of penance

The word "LENT" stamped on cards and pinned to an old piece of twine over a rusted metal background.

It’s Lent again and time to think about reform in our spiritual lives by taking on some Lenten penance. But is all penance equal?

The traditional Lenten traditions of prayer, fasting and almsgiving have been somewhat diluted by we moderns to very lame versions of what our forebears in faith used to do. Here’s what Lent sometimes looks like in our household.

  • Say a decade of the Rosary…once, or maybe each day of the first week… until we forget or get too busy. Prayer – tick.
  • Avoid meat on Fridays and eat salmon or prawns instead. Fasting – tick. (Strictly speaking this is abstaining, not fasting, and though fish is permitted, it is hardly a sacrifice. After all, fish is just meat that swims!)
  • Clean out the wardrobe and donate our shabby old clothes to the clothing bin (most of which are only good for ragging). Almsgiving – tick.

Okay, so we might try to do better than this but you get the idea… spiritual practices can often be shallow or trite, or we might not persist beyond the first week or two.

Having said that, there’s no such thing as a bad penance unless it is actually a sin. For example, a person with anorexia should not fast during Lent, but should eat more as their sacrifice. Generally, anything that helps to attune our soul to the Lord and bring us closer to Him is good penance.

A common problem with penance is not so much what we do or how intensely we do it, but rather the assumptions we make about what is most needed in our spiritual lives.

For those of us who are married, our spiritual life is intricately entwined with our married life. Just as we expect a celibate in a religious order to adopt and live the spiritual practices of their order, so also do we couples need to adopt spiritual practices that relate to our vocational call and sacramental mission.

There’s nothing wrong with any of the spiritual practices typically adopted by Catholics to develop their relationship with God, it’s just important to remember that they won’t necessarily advance our vocational mission as married couples. Most of the common spiritual practices can be done by celibates, singles, or children.

Married couples are called to a specific mission of witnessing to the passionate nature of Christ’s love for his bride, the people of God. When we live our marriages well – intimately, deeply, passionately attuned to each other – we are fulfilling our sacramental call. It’s marital holiness at its best.

Here’s our question for couples this Lent: what are some spiritual practices unique to the married state? Which Lenten sacrifices will most directly help your marriage to flourish and so better fulfill your sacramental mission?

Here are our takes on the traditional Lenten penances, especially for couples:

  • Prayer: Pray for your spouse, daily. Pray also for your marriage and for the grace to become a better spouse. Your prayer doesn’t need to be long or especially original. A short prayer said daily will have more impact than a verbose one said rarely. Write your own, search the web, or say a rosary for the specific intention of being a more loving spouse.
  • Fasting: Fast from criticism…for the whole of Lent. No days off on Sunday for this one! This is actually really liberating and is as much a gift to ourselves as it is to our spouse. When we surrender the right (some people think it’s an obligation) to criticise, we stop looking for someone to blame. When things go wrong we are less likely to get obsessed about who is at fault which is profoundly disempowering. Instead, we’re more likely to approach the situation calmly and so be able to resolve it confidently. We relax and enjoy life more …and so does our spouse!
  • Almsgiving: Give without expecting a return. Our wedding vows call us to approach our marriage in the spirit of self-giving service. Once a week, give something to your spouse without expectation of pay back. Truly give. Do something nice for him or her according to what you know they would really appreciate – a back rub, some free time to read a book, a night off cooking, a car wash etc. Be generous with your time. Be generous in your love making. Be generous with your affirmation.

If your spouse isn’t interested in trying this emphasis on Lenten penances, that’s no excuse to opt out yourself – these tasks can be done by any husband or wife on his or her own initiative.

Nourishing our marriage should never be seen as an indulgence, or as a side issue to our spiritual life. It’s central, and every time we actively work to make our marriage stronger, we are cooperating with God in transforming the world.  So make a good Lent this year and do something for your marriage.

Francine & Byron Pirola

Francine & Byron Pirola are the founders and principal authors of the SmartLoving series. They are passionate about living Catholic marriage to the full and helping couples reach their marital potential. They have been married since 1988 and have five children. Their articles may be reproduced for non commercial purposes with appropriate acknowledgement and back links. For Media Enquiries Please Contact us here

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