“How’s your Lent going?” I asked a friend the other day. And then I smiled to myself because that’s such a Catholic thing to say. Her response was, too. “Oh, you know … penitential.” That’s us. We Catholics like our penance.
Recent Lents have been a bit different for me as a mom of a growing-up family. For many years, my approach to Lent was necessarily quite simple. I was pregnant and/or breastfeeding for pretty much the first 15 years of our marriage, and so the Church’s rules of fasting and abstinence did not apply. And when it came to taking on additional penances, the very real depletion and exhaustion of my everyday reality during those years also required a simple approach.
In recent years, however, that has not been the case. With older kids and some even grown and living on their own, my body, my time, and my energy belong to me more than ever these days. I can fast, I can abstain, I can devote more time to prayer, and I can take on new penances. And so, when I sat down with my husband and a Google doc to make a plan before the start of Lent this year, I wanted to fill it with a long list of extraordinary things.
I could stay up late and get up early! I could go to every Mass! I could say all the Rosaries! I could do the Liturgy of the Hours! I could take cold showers! I could drink only water! I could run all the miles! I could eat zero carbs! This would be the Lent where I prevailed in all things pious and penitential.
But when my husband looked over my list he said, “You don’t want to set yourself up for failure. I think you should plan a little less.”
And though I hate it when he’s right, I’m so grateful for the voice of reason my husband is able to be for me when I need it sometimes. We all need the reminder sometimes that God is not so much calling on us to take on extraordinary penances as He is calling on us to seek and do His will for us every minute of every day. More often than not, that looks a lot more like loving and serving the people around you than wearing a hair shirt or public flogging.
St. John of God (whose feast day we celebrate March 8) needed this reminder as well. This great saint, born in Portugal in 1495, had devoted Catholic parents, but he was separated from them at a young age, and did not always live out his faith. He worked as a farmer and a soldier for many years before experiencing a conversion of heart after listening to a sermon from John of Avila, a great Spanish priest and preacher.
In penance for his past sins, John of God beat himself in public, loudly begging for God’s mercy. His penances were so dramatic that others thought he was mentally ill and had him committed to a hospital. It was there that John of Avila visited him and encouraged him to focus on serving the needs of others instead of taking on personal hardships. St. John of God took this advice to heart and founded the Brothers Hospitallers, an institution devoted to the poor, sick, and mentally ill.
This simple focus on service was something St. Elizabeth Ann Seton also exemplified in her life as a wife, mother, teacher, and founder of a religious order. Many of her letters to friends share the mundane details of mending clothes, caring for sick children, and sacrificing to make small budgets stretch to meet the needs of many.
It can be tempting sometimes to think that saints became holy because of extraordinary things they accomplished or extraordinary hardships they took on, but more often than not, the great saints did not so much seek out penances as embrace the ones God had planned for them, ones that resulted naturally from the everyday duties God called them to — loving and serving the people around them.
This Lent, God calls me to do that too. I don’t have to retreat to the desert or sleep on the floor to grow in real holiness. However worthy many penances can be, none of them can match the worth of simply seeking to know and do God’s will, moment by moment, day by day. Doing that today might mean sweeping a floor, preparing a meal, and patiently listening to the complaints of an annoying co-worker. It might mean calling a friend, folding a mountain of laundry, and driving boys to basketball practice. It’s not glamorous or dramatic, but it’s real work toward becoming the person God wants me to be.
Will you join me? This Lent, with St. John of God and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton to encourage us, let us pray for the extraordinary gift of faithfulness in ordinary things.
DANIELLE BEAN is the brand manager for CatholicMom.com and former publisher and editor-in-chief of Catholic Digest. Danielle is author of several books for women including Momnipotent,You’re Worth It! and her newest book, You Are Enough. She is also creator and host of the Girlfriends podcast and a popular speaker on a variety of subjects related to Catholic family life, parenting, marriage, and the spirituality of motherhood. Learn more at DanielleBean.com.
This reflection was originally published in 2021.
Image: Saint-Jean de Dieu, J.M. Smets, Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Auch, France, mid-18th century