Someone recently asked, "What are some penance we can do to get us closer to God?" The general recommendations of the Church in the penitential season of Lent to pray, fast, and give alms are good starting points. Penances can be spiritual or physical works that show a desire to grow closer to God, and the types of penances we can do are unlimited. Some examples* would include: praying in the Real Presence of Christ for one hour, fasting in-between meals, or helping out at a soup kitchen. Whatever penances we do, we should do them in a spirit of conversion where we turn our hearts towards God and away from sin, with His Grace.
The practice of fasting is an aspect of the Christian life that most people do not consider very often, even practicing Catholics. In a world that preaches instant gratification and excess in pleasures, fasting and mortifications seem like outdated, foreign concepts. My good friend, Fr. Wells, once wrote that the spell-check on his computer did not recognize the word "mortification"! But, we see in Scripture, Tradition, and the lives of the saints that there is great value and power in the practice of fasting.
Rev. Michael Giesler wrote about mortifications last year in Crisis magazine. Here are some excerpts**:
"The word 'mortification' comes from the Latin words mortem facere, meaning 'to produce death.' A person who is mortified has accomplished a kind of death in himself to those obstacles separating him from God, and therefore genuine happiness. These barriers include pride, the excessive emphasis on the self or one’s own feelings or ideas; laziness, the tendency to do the minimum; and sensuality, the excessive attachment to bodily pleasures, whether food, or drink, or sex. Mortification is the process of 'putting to death' these lower desires and appetites so that the purified man might live...
"The ultimate strength and effectiveness of all Christian mortification lies, of course, in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary. 'And I, if I be lifted from the earth, I will draw all things to myself,' He said. Uniting themselves to His pain and blood, the saints—and those earnestly trying to become saints—have always recognized that they had to die to themselves, sometimes in very dramatic and painful ways, in order to gain eternal life. They did not perform painful sacrifices because they thought the body was evil. This would be the heresy of Manicheism, long condemned by the Church. Matter and the human body are not evil in themselves, but because of the body’s substantial unity with the soul, it’s often the staging ground for a person’s inordinate desires. As a result, the saints knew that their unruly tendencies needed to be corrected and purified...
But let’s go even further. It’s clear that simply being a good person requires some kind of mortification. If a man doesn’t control his anger or resentment, he’ll be impossible to live with, and may even end up a murderer. Furthermore, if a person doesn’t know how to deny his excessive desire for alcohol, he’ll become useless to himself and others. The child who wants to pass his exam must say no to, or at least postpone, his desire to watch television or play computer games. There is enduring human and divine wisdom in Christ’s powerful words: 'For unless the grain of wheat die to itself, it shall not produce fruit.'"
As we said recently on this site, true love means sacrifice. Fasting and mortifications are small or big sacrifices that we make for Christ in order to imitate Him and His love. There is real power and Grace in doing penance, for ourselves and others. The phrase "offer it up" has real effects; when we offer up a sacrifice on behalf of someone else (living or dead), the graces of that offering really do help that person. It becomes an act of sacrificial love, no matter how small, that participates in the work of Salvation that Christ began on the Cross.
*You should consult a priest/ spiritual director who can help you to know what types of penances would be best for you, at this stage in your spiritual life.
**To see this article in its entirety, click on: