Our fallen nature leads us to pleasurable things. As we see throughout history, whether salvation history or world history, in many cases it is about the “us”, not the “them” or the “Him”. As a catechist, it is difficult to explain and “get through” the benefit and value of penance to young people. No one likes to suffer and young people cannot rationalize the need or benefits of offering penance. Some not-so-young people have that same challenge.
In its most basic form, penance is a way of making up for a wrong done. In a Catholic sense, it’s a way of making up for a wrong or offense done to God. The three most common forms of penance are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Prayer forces us to stop and prioritize God above all else. It acknowledges that God is greater than us and by raising our hearts and minds to Him, we endeavor to grow closer to Him. Fasting is the forgoing of something we find desirable. Normally food, but it really can be most anything. This causes suffering, whether an actual physical hunger for food or the fighting of another desire that we have chosen to set aside. Need I say that suffering is not “fun” and can easily get a frown (and much more negative responses) from students? Almsgiving is doing for others, generally for the glory of God and to please Him. Most commonly viewed as helping the poor by providing money or goods, it can actually also be much more. Giving alms includes giving of your time through volunteering or by helping a neighbor, giving of yourself to others in need, including emotional need, spiritual need, etc. This means you have to forgo something to offer the other person. Again, this can produce a form of suffering by not being able to use the thing being given or the time being offered for something else that might be more pleasurable.
However, the wisdom of penance is much greater than the obvious products of our efforts noted above, as is the case with all suffering. A practice of penance and suffering can lead to detachment. As you focus on these acts of penance, over time you begin to place less importance on the things you are giving up and even the pleasure they might otherwise bring you. You begin to refocus your life through this detachment of earthly “things” and begin to focus on God and love for Him.
This is what Lent is all about. Taking 40 days “in the desert” to refocus our lives back on God — to acknowledge where we have gone astray, with contrition ask for forgiveness and make up for our sinfulness. By refocusing back on God, we should expect to take what we’ve learned and changed during Lent and do it for the rest of the year and the rest of our lives.
As catechists, we must bring these principles back to the forefront of our students’ lives. While we can plant the seeds, the students must make the changes themselves, preferably with the guidance and support of their families. We, however, should be tools to help them better understand the importance and value of these traditions that, through the Wisdom of God, the Church has charged all the faithful to follow.
Until next time, keep sharing the faith!
(Jonathan Sullivan has invited Catholic bloggers everywhere to write on a common theme today — penance — as part of the first Catholic Blog Day. Please visit the Catholic Blog Day site to find other great posts from a variety of Catholic bloggers.)