How to Do Penance
The Confraternity of Penitents frequently receives the question, "How can I do penance?"
Before we can discuss how to do penance, we should address the term penance itself. Penance can be defined as doing something difficult for God and others out of love. Dieting may be difficult but it is not penance as you are doing it to lose weight, not because you love God or neighbor. If you refrain from certain foods or cut back on food amounts because you want to offer money saved on food to the poor or because you want to turn your fasting into a prayer of your body or because you want to control your human appetites and help make them more pliable to the will of God—if you do these things, you are doing penance as these difficult things are being done out of love.
Doing penance is a term that means "surrendering to God." Doing penance, in the popular mind, means doing works of mortification like fasting, self discipline, more prayer, and so on. These and others are penitential works, but people can do all of these and many others without love. Without love, none of these things are penance.
Doing penance means to turn our lives over to God, to give God free rein in your life. God may not have in mind for you to do any of those penitential acts. God may want to you be more charitable to your neighbor, to help someone you would rather avoid, and to take on a responsibility when you could be at home watching television. Doing God’s penances are often more difficult than doing our own because He thinks of the very things that will grow us spiritually in ways He knows we need, whereas we are often unaware of the need for growth in those areas or, if we are aware, we seek to avoid the growth as we know it will be painful.
How can you do penance?
How about praying to God and asking how you can serve Him more closely? He may show you something you had not thought of. Your penance may be totally different from someone else's. For example, weeding a neighbor's garden would be a joy to one person but a real drudgery to someone else. Be open to what God tells you. Be aware of what is happening around you. Be willing to be of assistance, even if you would rather not. Be open to more prayer time even though you have things to “do.” At Cana, the Blessed Mother told the guests, “Do whatever He tells you,” referring to her son Jesus. If you want to do penance, then ask God, “How do I do penance?” and listen for His promptings. Then “do whatever He tells you.” The Confraternity of Penitents has a Rule of Life that helps its members to do penance in specific ways by following a Rule of Life in their own homes. This Rule makes it easier for them to be aware of God’s call to additional penance, tailor made for each person to bring him or her into closer surrender to and union with the Lord. The Confraternity is here to help answer any questions you may have about doing penance. Please contact us! And may God bless you.