Penance is a part of Catholic life, but so is celebrating God’s amazing gifts, writes Sr. Helena. CNS photo/Stefano Rellandini, Reuters

Sr. Helena Burns: No call to re-Lent on penance or joy

  • March 9, 2022

When I first met Jesus at age 15, I was gung-ho for penances, self-sacrifice, offering up little sufferings, practicing mortifications, etc. In fact, I had picked up somewhere along the line that agony was the essence of Christianity and sanctity.

Being from an Irish Catholic family, I had imbibed that the more you suffer, the holier you are. “Offer it up” was not just a Lenten phrase in our house, but an all-year-round motto to live by. Heck, we didn’t even have medication beyond aspirin and Band-Aids in our medicine cabinet. (I think we may have been influenced either by the Great Potato Famine, Jansenism, or both).

When I entered the convent, we newbies were highly encouraged to put up with whatever displeased us, and with a smile, no less! A fellow novice and I even ate some food that was going rotten because we wanted to be like the Curé d’Ars, and we knew we would rarely have big privations to offer God, living in a prosperous North America.

Needless to say, this “first fervour” of voluntary deprivation, doing without, and choosing our least favourite foods, activities, etc., on a regular basis grew rather old — as did we. As I went on in religious life, I began to question the wisdom of not being able to thank God for all his amazing (and delicious) gifts, because … I was barely partaking of them! Wouldn’t it be better to enjoy and be grateful?

Little by little, my sacrifices (and their accompanying intercessory prayers) grew less and less. I convinced myself that “God wants me to be happy,” and that doing regular penances and cultivating a “holy indifference” to whatever I actually preferred was rather gloomy.

In particular, I began to chafe at my once-beloved Marian apparitions, saint-mystics, religious books, prayers, spiritual writings and victim souls who seemed to dwell on nothing else but sin and guilt —promising disaster if the world didn’t offer up quantitatively and qualitatively enough flagellation juice to thwart doomsday. The scenario I just described is how I think a lot of Catholics view penances, and are thus turned off and turned away from what feels like some kind of divine negativity which requires a state of perpetual cowering, trepidation and mea culpas, instead of a constant rejoicing in the Lord. The logic continues: “If Jesus is risen, why wallow in the morbidity of the Crucifixion? And as far as evangelization goes, we won’t catch any flies with that vinegar!”

Some Protestants (and Catholics alike) also fault Catholics for supposedly painting Mary as more merciful than Jesus (e.g., it is she who holds back His smiting hand), for putting too much stock (apologies to St. Simon Stock of the brown scapular) in dour, cautionary, extra-Biblical private revelations. But, what if they’re true? I mean the Church-approved ones. We’re not supposed to know the future à la fortune tellers, astrology, tarot cards and the like, but it is Biblical that God has always warned His people via His prophets, when impending misfortune due to the consequences of sin can be averted through prayer, penance and conversion of life.

So which is it? Are we supposed to dance through life or spend our lives like Veronica, Simon of Cyrene and the women of Jerusalem, accompanying and consoling the heart of Jesus in His Passion? Well, it’s both. Some might be called mostly to the latter. Some might be called mostly to the witness of a joyful life in Christ. It’s all about our calling (as well as our life circumstances). But Lent is for everyone. Penance is for everyone. We need a balance of the Joyful Mysteries and the Sorrowful Mysteries in our own experiences and devotions.

In the text of the third secret of Fatima, an angel points towards the Earth and cries: “Penance! Penance! Penance!” You see, in one sense, it doesn’t matter who committed the offenses — what matters is Who they were committed against, and the corresponding dire outcomes for mankind when spiritual laws are broken. In the end, what else is penance, but … love?

When I was a teen who embraced penances, I felt like I was actually doing something important, doing my part for God and for souls. And you know what? I was. Our good deeds of all kinds, whether “paying it forward” or reparatory, will sparkle like diamonds in Heaven. The rest of the story is that I have resumed my love for and performance of so privileged a way of cooperating in the Redemption.

(Sr. Helena Raphael Burns, fsp, is a Daughter of St. Paul. She holds a Masters in Media Literacy Education and studied screenwriting at UCLA.  Twitter: @srhelenaburns)

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