Even when we're convinced that maybe we could use a little more self-denial in our lives, we're not always sure how to go about it. We might read about the self-floggings of medieval monks or the sometimes extreme penances of saints in past ages. The Church doesn’t encourage these practices today, but rather emphasizes three forms: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. That doesn’t mean, however, that she forbids any other form of mortification--far from it. Nor do we need to fall back on extreme practices of the past. It’s not hard to find simple but effective penitential opportunities; they’re all around us, every day.
G. K. Chesterton once wrote that “an inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered.” How life-changing a motto this could be! What is it about an adventure that is so much more appealing than a duty or an inconvenience? It must be the idea of being heroic, courageous, meeting a challenge bravely, for noble reasons, in defense of others, etc. Yet all of that resides potentially in every difficulty we meet each day.
It doesn’t feel like it. No dragons are in sight. But responding to a difficulty with Christlike charity and patience requires heroism, and the courage to die to oneself. It can also be done for noble reasons—such as the love of God (nothing nobler!)—and in the “defense” of others, if we turn it into a sacrifice that we offer up on another’s behalf. And if no dragons are visible, that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Don’t doubt that you’ll have to fight the world, the flesh, and the devil, at the very least in your thoughts and inclinations, in order to rise to this challenge.
This, in essence, is not all that different from the “Little Way” of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. As a child, she had been trained to look for chances each day to do something for Jesus—ten chances, specifically, even being given a little string of ten beads with which to count her sacrifices. As a young woman, reading about and being daunted by the impressive acts of mortification of the saints who lived before her, she decided to continue her practice, but instead of striving merely for ten, she would make it her way of life. She would use every opportunity—whether it be a crack in her pitcher or a fellow nun who consistently splashed her during the washing each day—to turn something unwanted, unpleasant into a gift to God.
Though many modern Catholics are familiar with St. Thérèse’s Little Way, she wasn’t the first to discover it. Brother Lawrence, a seventeenth-century French monk, and Jean-Pierre de Caussade, an eighteenth-century Jesuit and spiritual director to nuns, both wrote about the powerful efficacy of doing one’s duty and accepting whatever crosses might come along, out of love for God. In Practicing the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence advocates this method as a means to encounter the Lord throughout the day. Fr. Caussade describes essentially the same method as a means of spiritual growth that leads to what his work is sometimes titled, The Joy of Full Surrender (also known as Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence).
So let us pray that the Lord will change our mind-set, and give us a heart that appreciates the gift of penance—whether it’s one we choose or one that chooses us. May He help us to recognize in each opportunity the chance to make reparation for our sins, the chance to show Him how sorry we are that we have hurt or disappointed or offended Him, the chance to show Him that we love Him, and the chance to help build His kingdom by participating in His redemptive sacrifice on the Cross. Penance is not something to avoid, but a gift to be embraced!
Adapted from excerpts of my recent article, "Mortification for Moderns" in Voices, available at http://wf-f.org/11-4-Flood.html.