In the past I have offered some creative ways of approaching the Lenten “fast.” In addition to giving up something, we often hear the alternative of taking something on, kind of like a Lenten new year’s resolution. These are all fine, but I want to offer another twist to Lenten penance.
What images come to mind when you hear the word penance? Penance usually gives us negative images in our mind. We think of Jesus fasting in the hot dry desert for 40 days (which is what Lent commemorates). We may also think of ascetical practices like putting pebbles in our shoes or self-flagellation. But the word penance comes from the Latin word for repentance and when the Bible uses the word repentance it usually carries a meaning of changing our attitude toward sin.
A change of attitude means a change of orientation. Lent is a time to develop ourselves so we come out on the other side (Easter) more prepared to avoid sinful tendencies and habits that are not life-giving and that do not bring us closer to God. Ascetical Lenten practices actually help us in this. But no one’s suggesting self-flagellation or walking a mile on your knees. In fact, asceticism actually means to train or exercise, as in training like an athlete; it’s not about self-denial.
Here’s my suggestion: Take a look at the ascetical practices that already happen every day, those little things that offer the opportunity to build spiritual strength. Parenting may be one – how does parenting help you “train”? Maybe you have a long commute like me – does it give you time to grow closer to God at all? Tough relationships are also opportunities to exercise charity and love of neighbor. Even cooking for another can be considered an ascetical practice if it helps you develop your love for others.
Asceticism happens every day. Part of finding God in all things is noticing the little daily opportunities to change our attitude toward sin and bring us closer to God. It’s the penance of noticing.
Andy Otto is the creator and editor of God In All Things.