Daily Bodily Penances: Examples and Tips

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.

Saint Jerome

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:

  1. We live in the most materialistic era of mankind (availability of TV, DVDs, iPads, smartphones, cars, sex)
  2. We live in the greatest age of marketing (commercials, billboards, malls, advertisements, internet banners)
  3. 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.

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  • che

    I loved this article and I would like to begin a similar practice. I am of advanced age and because of a chronic health condition I cannot take up practices that affect my diet. Could you and my fellow readers offer some alternative suggestions?

    • Dear che,

      Absolutely. One must cultivate prudence in all this. There are many GREAT penances that don’t include the bodily penances:

      praying an extra Rosary
      not reading something you want to read at the moment
      praying for friends or the deceased
      encouraging others
      Scripture reading

      All of these are great ways to tame the flesh and grow in the spirit.

      Also, just enduring the pains of the body in illness are great sacrifices when united to Christ.

      • cymrais

        As a diabetic, I was delighted to read the gentleman’s question so that I wouldn’t have to ask it. Your answer surprised me until I got to “tame the flesh and grow in the spirit.” As a cradle Catholic I was brought up with the idea that penances are only or primarily reparation for sins, but you are perfectly right – positive acts like those you describe are extremely valuable – maybe they won’t reduce your time in Purgatory but they may help you avoid at least part of it!

  • Bonnie

    Can you explain why something like the cold shower should be cleared with a spiritual director? Thanks.

    • Jay Heathman

      @ Bonnie – One would hope that a spiritual director would be knowledgeable about the person’s physical condition; anything involving the heart or circulatory system can be very badly, or even fatally, affected by the sudden exposure to very hot or very cold water or even extremes in outside weather. It would not be a profitable penance if a cardiac patient or an elderly person died in the shower, although indeed he or she would get closer to God in an unexpectedly rapid fashion.

  • Chris

    I think a great follow up post would be one on redemptive suffering. Question: Why do you suggest the necessity of having a spiritual director for the more physically challenging penances? For the past few years I’ve been taking it upon myself to choose more physically challenging ideas for Lent. Some of the biggest ones were sleeping on the floor, giving up shoes (and this was during the time I lived near Vail, CO so we’re talking snow and ice), and last year I gave up my wardrobe so I wore one set of clothes for Lent. They were fruitful, humbling, hard, painful, prayerful experiences, and I’ve even seen prayers answered for the people I offered my suffering up for. During those points in time I did not have a spiritual director.

    • cymrais

      Was giving up your wardrobe harder on you, or on the people around you? How did you handle the issue of cleanliness?

      • Jay heathman

        And by golly Chris is downright proud of those penances and wants the world to know it :o)

        • Chris

          I hope that was a joke. I was not trying to boast or show off. I apologize if I came off that way. I was just using my experience as an example for my question. It was a genuine question and I’m looking to learn. I had great experiences but if I shouldn’t be doing that I want to know.

      • Chris

        I definitely bathed and changed my underwear.

  • Fr. Christensen

    As a priest and spiritual director, I don’t think things like a cold shower or a pebble in the shoe need to be cleared with a spiritual director or confessor. Things like using the discipline or the cilice should be…even serious fasting should be. My rule is that if it has the possibility of doing serious bodily harm or could have an effect on ones health (which cold showers and pebbles in shoes do not do) you should run it by a confessor or spiritual director. That’s my two cents.

    • therese

      I made the mistake of taking on the penance of turning the shower all the way to cold and praying the Act of Contrition the same as the previous year, only this time I was pregnant. My (devoutly Catholic) midwife was FURIOUS when she found out. She said it could cause a miscarriage and wasn’t good for the baby. I asked her because there was that little voice in the back of my head saying maybe I shouldn’t take on this penance this year. But stupidly I didn’t listen. Yes, some of us are REALLY stupid. Fortunately the baby was fine. She’s now 12.

      I think there can be other conditions where a cold shower isn’t a wise idea. I think running the cold idea through a spiritual director or physician is a good idea.

  • isabel kissinger

    To practice penance, For a long while, i have stopped buying nice shoes and dress . Walking around the city in my house dress. Our covenant to fast every fridays, first fridays and saturdays has helped me a lot to deny worldly pleasures. To God be the glory…

  • BFB

    I really don’t see how inflicting pain or discomfort on yourself can change you on the inside to be more kind, loving, and Christlike. Do these things really glorify God? In my own experience, the Holy Spirit works from the inside out, so to speak. He convicts us of our sins, and changes our inner man to align with the will of God.

  • ben

    I’m sorry, Dr. Marshall, but I’m having difficulty finding a clear point to your post.

    There exist bodily penances, we probably could benefit from them, here are a few examples, but be careful which ones you use and how/why.

    Is that it? It seems that you have rather offered a personal illustration, or testimony, of the value of a sensitive confessor who can provide individualized guidance (undoubtedly inspired by the Spirit) in the confessional. It appears that if most of us can say our daily prayers, attend mass faithfully, and avail ourselves to the sacraments (like pennance), we will incur the wonderful graces of God necessary to glorify Him with our lives. This seems far superior to stumbling upon your blog and then deciding to take a cold shower, or eat at Krystal rather than Five Guys, and pretend that we are doing something to advance our walk with God.

    • P.Deubler

      Dear Chris, I read and reread what you have shared….
      It was an answer to my prayer! Thank you and God bless you!

  • Pingback: Ideas for Penance on Friday and Other Days | Father Jerabek's Blog()

  • joyrunr

    I have had some limited spiritual direction in these areas and would like to offer a couple that were suggested to me … which were challenging and seemingly fruitful for the soul; Weekly adoration of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, spending 5-15 minutes of silence of heart, mind and soul before and with our Lord in companionship, leaving the last bite on your plate, doing more work than you think you ought. When you are done with your work help your brother or sister in Christ do their work, pick up little things on the floor that you come across…. ALL for the Love of God and for the Glory of God with a sacrifice focus and as a gift or intention for others learning and striving better how to please God with these little offerings to the Father in imitation of Jesus’ huge redemptive sufferings to the Father.