Do you practice daily bodily penances? You’d better be careful. It’s either a great assistance to holiness or it becomes the road to pride and Pharisaeism.
A Warning from Saint Jerome
St. Jerome, writing to a woman named Celantia on the topic of bodily penances, makes a careful warning:
Be on your guard when you begin to mortify your body by abstinence and fasting, lest you imagine yourself to be perfect and a saint; for perfection does not consist in this virtue. It is only a help; a disposition; a means though a fitting one, for the attainment of true perfection.
The Catholic Church, of course, induces us to practice bodily penance. The season of Lent is a time of bodily penance. We keep back from out body what it wants. As Saint Jerome reminds us, it’s only a means to an end. Fastings or penances are never as an end in themselves.
Daily Bodily Penances: the good and the bad
Everything above serves as an important caveat. Yet, we should also recognize a number of factors for those of us living in Western cultures:
- We live in the most materialistic era of mankind (availability of TV, DVDs, iPads, smartphones, cars, sex)
- We live in the greatest age of marketing (commercials, billboards, malls, advertisements, internet banners)
- We live in the most luxurious (softest) culture in human history (we don’t sweat, walk, hunt, gather, grind, launder)
I think we can all agree that this increasingly materialist environment has a negative effect on us. Much our our fascination with reality TV, dystopia, and “prepping” relates to our seated intuition that something has shifted in society…and something has shifted within our souls.
We secretly know that “hard workers” and people like “farmers” are almost naturally virtues on account of their labors. I realized this once in confession.
A Penance Epiphany in Confession One Day
As I knelt in confession, a priest examined my constellation of confessed sins and then said, “My son, you need temperance and fortitude. Might I recommend a daily penance?”
First of all, I was shocked. In my mind I though, “Umm, can you just give me my 5 Hail Mary’s so that I can get to lunch?” but somewhere deeper in my soul, I realized that this was something that I needed. He then went on to explain and recommend some daily bodily penances. Exercises to get my flabby soul into shape. It’s like push-ups or jogging for the soul. In the old days, they called it “ascetical theology” from the Greek word askesis meaning “athletic training.”
Examples of Daily Penances
I got the idea for this blog post when our reader Viviana wrote a comment to my 2014 goals post:
Would you mind giving some examples of “daily bodily penance”? I tried to research internet but it sounds a lot like giving something up versus doing more physically (giving up a favorite food daily, or doing an exercise daily…). I’m curious because I would also like to try as goal.
Okay, so here are some examples of daily bodily penances:
- skip meal every Friday
- don’t eat meat on Friday
- don’t eat snacks
- don’t use salt or pepper or creamer or butter when you want to
- don’t order your #1 choice on the menu but your #2 when at a restaurant
Of course, bodily penances should be secret and you should make a movement in your mind to offer this little sacrifice to the glory of God in thanksgiving. You should muster an attitude of joy. Otherwise, it’s just Pharisaism.
There are some daily bodily penances that should be cleared with a spiritual director.
- small pebble in shoe
- turn shower to cold before getting out
- sleeping on the floor
- waking up in the middle of night for prayer vigil
Again, don’t do this on your own. The devil will frustrate you. You need a spiritual director. You wouldn’t start taking potent pharmaceuticals without the watch a trained doctor. Same goes for advanced penances that could deeply effect you emotionally or physically.
If you don’t have a spiritual director, I recorded a podcast with my experience on finding a really good one: Podcast: How to Find a Spiritual Director.
Question: I’ll leave comments open, but this time I really don’t want you share your experience with bodily penances. It’s very private and I don’t others to judge themselves or others in this regard. But feel free to leave a comment about anything related. You can leave a comment by clicking here.
PS: For Members of the New Saint Thomas Institute:
January’s theological classes (beginning Jan 7) are “The Theology of Saint Augustine”
- 7 Reasons to Love Augustine’s Theology
- The Pelagian Heresy: Augustine’s Theological Nemesis Pelagius
- Predestination: Augustine and Thomas Aquinas (and Molina) on Predestination
- Augustine on the Fall of Lucifer (and how Thomas Aquinas borrows it from Augustine)
- The 6 Days of Creation
February’s theological classes (beginning Feb 4) are on the “Eucharistic Theology of Thomas Aquinas”
To learn more about the New Saint Thomas Institute or to enroll, click here.