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Ten works of penance


If Lent has become routine or hollow for you, consider these ten forms of penance from the tradition and what they might look like for you today.

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As Christians, it is our lifelong responsibility to strive to conform ourselves to Christ. The Church gives us the period of Lent as a time to concentrate more seriously on the practices that lead us to grow in discipleship and advance in the spiritual life.

  1. Give up sin

This is straightforward; if it’s wrong, don’t do it! Discipline in the small things makes us strong for when we face bigger challenges. This is a time to clear up the seemingly inconsequential but sinful habits that have crept into your life – the white lies, taking things nobody will notice, overindulging and spreading gossip.

  1. Pray

Prayer is a conversation that requires both speaking and listening. If you tend to talk more than you listen, try silent meditation or adoration. If you get distracted on your own, join the community for daily Mass or join a prayer or bible study group. Do you find yourself at a loss for words when it comes to prayer? Try memorisation – a Psalm or one of the Gospel canticles from the Liturgy of the Hours makes a scriptural prayer available to you at any time.

  1. Fast

Intermittent fasting is all the rage. Put a spiritual focus on this latest diet trend. Instead of fasting to lose weight consider that fasting is an ancient tradition meant to strengthen the mind, the body and one’s relationship with God. By limiting not only what but also when you eat, you put your trust in God rather than eating whenever you want or whenever food is around.

  1. Do good works

Have your chronic sleep debt and busyness led you to let the little things slide? For the sake of others, clean up after yourself, unload the dishwasher at the office and bring in the bins for your elderly neighbour. For the sake of the environment bring your own travel cup, borrow rather than buy and repair rather than dispose of and replace.

  1. Give alms

As we become increasingly a cashless society, some of the most vulnerable among us are the casualties. Not having spare change could be a convenient excuse to walk by those begging but you could turn this moment into an opportunity to acknowledge the humanity of the other and ask, ‘is there something I can buy for you?’ Similarly, many charities make it possible for you to make a gift automatically through a regular subscription. This kind of commitment increases your sense of belonging and makes it possible for organisations to plan their programming and services.

  1. Abstain

Did you know that Fridays throughout the year, not only in Lent, are days of penance? The current regulations permit the substitution of abstinence from meat with other good actions but that seems to have led many to forget the prescription altogether! In addition to abstaining from a desirable food for one or more days during the season, Lent is an excellent time to reclaim Fridays as the memorial of Christ’s saving death on the cross.

  1. Carry out our duties of life

Do you sometimes turn down invitations to socialise or join a team, skip the gym or can’t find time to make an ongoing volunteer commitment? It could be that you are already carrying out your duties of life! By contrast, if your primary responsibilities and relationships are suffering because you’re too busy with things on the periphery, it might be time to slow down and recalibrate.

  1. Read deeply

Neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf has researched how the brain develops different skills when reading in print rather than online. Online readers cover more content, but they skim rather than read deeply. What does it matter? The online reader fails to grasp complexity, understand another’s feelings, perceive beauty and create their own thoughts. Reading a printed book over Lent can improve your concentration, remind you to think critically, and develop your empathy for others, all of which can help you become a better disciple.

  1. Control desire for possessions

Marketing is all about psychology and the power of persuasion. In our social media age, ‘influencers’ drive sales. If you use social media, mute your favourite influencers and submit yourself to the influence of prayer instead.

  1. Control desire for entertainment

Entertainment often provides a welcome rest but today’s streaming services make distraction available any time all the time. Suspend, limit or schedule your streaming so that entertainment does not drown out uncomfortable feelings that you could bring to God in prayer.

Simone Brosig is pastoral leader of Community Life and Worship.

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