The Penance of Every Day

Photo by Anna Dziubinska on Unsplash

“Perhaps you have an impressive plan of intense penances that you are convinced will make you holy by the Easter vigil … but what do your daily activities, obligations, and vocational demands look like?”


If you’re a planner, you’ve already begun to think about what you’re going to “do” for Lent. When I was growing up, it was in vogue to tell us that instead of “giving something up” for Lent, we should instead do something for Lent. While the intention is in the right place, there’s a danger to minimize the need for active mortification. We shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of “giving something up,” i.e., fasting. The Gospel for Ash Wednesday mentions three practices that are the hallmark of the Lenten season: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Notice in that Gospel, Jesus doesn’t say “these are good to do” or “if you do these things…” Rather, he says, “When you do these things.” (see Mt. 6:1-6, 16-18)

Fasting is important, and it is something many of us don’t do well. We should be fasting during Lent. At the very least, we fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. We abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and each Friday. We should be examining our lives to see where else we can mortify our desires this Lent.

At the same time, it’s also important for us to see penance in the wider context. Canon Law reminds us, “The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way. In order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance, however, penitential days are prescribed on which the Christian faithful devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence, according to the norm of the following canons” (CIC, 1249).

We are all called to do penance. Each of us needs to find ways to do penance in his or her own way. We are individuals with different vocations and life situations and desires and dislikes and tendencies. Perhaps what is penitential to me might not be penitential for you.

However, since we are part of the Body of Christ, we also practice penance together. We are united in our observance of penances too. Canon Law proscribes, “The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent” (CIC, 1250).

Let’s go back to the way Canon Law outlines penance for us. It mentions prayer and good works, which as I mentioned earlier, are hallmarks of the Lenten season. It mentions denying ourselves through fasting and abstinence, which we observe according to the rules outlined by our bishops. But it also mentions that Christians should deny ourselves “by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully.”

At times, we take on added mortifications or commit to ambitious programs like Exodus 90, and yet continue to approach our daily obligations half-heartedly. Do we look for penances to take into our lives, yet ignore the penances that God has already put there? Perhaps you have an impressive plan of intense penances that you are convinced will make you holy by the Easter vigil … but what do your daily activities, obligations, and vocational demands look like?

What does it look like to fulfill your own obligations faithfully? It will look differently for each us, given your state in life, your age, and your occupation. Perhaps it means waking up on time and conquering “the heroic minute” so that you have time to pray and prepare for the day. It likely means being prompt and getting to appointments on time, showing respect for others’ schedules and time. Do I give people my full attention or am I distracted? Am I gracious to those who make my life easier, whether a cashier, a waitress or barista, or the person cleaning my office building?

These are all ways I can fulfill my daily obligations faithfully. Do I keep my word to people, or am I constantly dropping the ball or missing deadlines? Am I completing tasks at work or at home and see jobs to the end, or do I cut corners? Do I work charitably alongside others?

If I’m married, do I attempt to do what I can to make my spouse’s life easier? Perhaps your wife loses her temper in the morning before her cup of coffee. You could wake up a little earlier and make the coffee for her, probably to the delight of both her and your children.

While these things don’t seem to be on the scale of abstaining from alcohol or cold showers, they are still penitential. Penance can be giving up social media for Lent, but it can also be small victories of not giving into distraction at work when you’re tempted to ignore that last email and watch YouTube instead. Perhaps at home it means biting your tongue with your spouse, even if you want to defend yourself, or not arguing in front of your children.

Perhaps fulfilling daily obligations more faithfully looks like the building of good habits: making time for family prayer even when everyone is tired, waking up early to exercise and care for the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, or fixing a healthy dinner instead of getting takeout. Maybe it means having more patience with your children. Or perhaps on the opposite end of the spectrum, it means disciplining your children and teens, helping them grow in virtue, when we’d rather not be the “bad guy” or take the time to correct behavior.

Am I patient in traffic, in long lines, with my spouse’s idiosyncrasies, and with my children’s needs? Do I spend my time well and productively? Do I complete tasks to the best of my ability?

It’s important to find ways we can take on additional penance during Lent. Prayer, almsgiving, good works, and fasting are all important ways we enter into the desert with Christ. Yet the Church also asks you to faithfully fulfil the obligations you already have. How can you be a better husband, wife, son, daughter, girlfriend, boyfriend, fiancee, mother, father, sister, brother, colleague, boss, neighbor, grandmother, grandfather, niece, nephew, godmother, godfather, cousin, worker, mentor, priest, religious, or friend this Lent?


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About the Author

Joannie Watson

Joan Watson was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, but college and graduate school took her to Virginia, Ohio, and Rome. After graduating from Christendom College with a B.A. in History and Franciscan University with a M.A. in Theology, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee to be part of the explosion of Catholic culture in the middle of the Bible Belt.

She has been blessed to work for Dr. Scott Hahn at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at Aquinas College. She is presently the Director of Adult Formation for the Diocese of Nashville. She also serves as the Associate Editor of Integrated Catholic Life.

When she’s not testing the culinary exploits of new restaurants or catching up on the latest BBC miniseries, she’s FaceTiming with her eight nephews and nieces and enjoying her role as coolest aunt. She likes gelato, bourbon, and the color orange.

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