Penance. What’s up with that? What does it even mean?
The word ‘penance’ is related to the word ‘repentance’ and ‘repent’. What does it mean to repent? It means to turn away from the bad stuff you’ve done— the selfish stuff, the stupid stuff, the self-destructive stuff. It means no more excuses. It means admitting that the bad stuff you did WAS bad. And further, it means quitting the bad stuff. Turning away from it. Avoiding situations where you are tempted to it.
What is the difference between ‘repentance’ and ‘penance’? Not always a lot. Some Bible verses that use the word ‘repentance’ in the King James Version use the word ‘penance’ in the Douay-Rheims Version.
But in the ordinary person’s mind, repenting is more of a mental activity. You FEEL bad about your bad stuff and DECIDE to turn away from it. It all happens in your head. It may also include SAYING that you are sorry about the wrong things you’ve done.
Penance is action. It’s easy enough, sometimes, to SAY you are sorry for doing something wrong. People can do so insincerely, or to placate authority figures (like God). But to actually do something to show that you are sorry…. That takes effort.
The traditional day to do acts of penance is Friday, in honor of Good Friday when the Second Person of the Trinity gave His life so we could have a relationship with God in spite of our wrong actions.
A traditional penance is to not eat meat, but substitute fish instead. That’s the origin of the Friday fish fries we have around here in upper Michigan and Wisconsin. The problem today is that fish is more expensive than chicken, pork or beef and so the Friday fish fry, rather than being an act of sacrifice, is a bit of a luxury.
In addition, for those of us on low-carb diets for health reasons, rejecting meat on Fridays might constitute a temptation to self-indulgence, since some alternative foods— fish with batter on it, macaroni and cheese— are full of unhealthy levels of carbs.
Substituting penance on Fridays is allowed. If you are normally on low-carb and have a slice of low-carb toast every morning, you can make Friday your toast-free morning. Have a poached egg instead. Generally, give up more luxurious and less healthy foods. Substitute low-cost and humbler foods.
Give up the little luxuries as well. Don’t add soy sauce or extra salt or Splenda to your foods on Fridays.
Use up the food items you have in the house on Fridays. You know, that can of lentil soup you haven’t bothered to make for three months. Or that Earl Grey tea you got for Christmas even though you haven’t drunk Earl Grey for years.
Wear black. Wear simpler, older clothes. Wear a crucifix as a symbol of your faith. Wear a BIG crucifix. Wear it visibly even to school or work. If you get reprimanded, the crucifix is doing its job.
Do chores you have put off. Do acts of service for other people if you are able. Give up some television watching, especially programs that are morally questionable.
If you are a writer, Friday is a day for the boring part of the writing task. For organizing things. It’s a good day to do writing for others— such as a book review of a fellow writer’s book to be posted on Amazon.com, Goodreads and your blog. (To get REALLY penitential, write somewhat different versions of the review for each place.)
Penance is a way to show ourselves and the universe around us that we know we are NOT perfect. We know we have tendencies to be selfish, thoughtless, and just plain badly behaved. With penance, we admit this, we turn away from the wrong, and we move on.