St. Paul famously likens perseverance in the ‘race’ towards heavenly glory to athletes who train their bodies for competitions in his 1st letter to the Church in Corinth. He indicates his own need to persevere when he states, “I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection” (1 Corinthians 9:27). In other words, he practices self-mortification; he denies his body certain goods or comforts to grow in self-control, better resist the temptation to sin, and live in the freedom of Christ.
Often people misunderstand self-mortification. A good depiction of this mistake is featured in the movie Happy Gilmore, named after its lead character—a struggling hockey player portrayed by Adam Sandler. Happy is the toughest man on the skating rink. He can endure great suffering. And yet—year after year he fails to get into a minor league team. Why? Because he lacks all the technical skills required for playing hockey. His shots are inaccurate, he lacks coordination, skates poorly, etc. In one scene, after he gets rejected again from the local team, he goes out to a batting cage to prepare for the next year’s tryouts by receiving blows from baseballs fired from a pitching machine. The comedy of the scene consists in Happy’s failure to see that achieving athletic excellence takes more than just a willingness to endure pain. He needs to improve other capabilities to become a great hockey player.
Some people view penances like fasting or self-mortification in the same way: penances are attempts to obtain the love of God and/or holiness by enduring intense physical sufferings. This misconception leads some to endure those sufferings while not attempting to grow in virtues which they lack. People in this group might embrace ineffective penances for Lent. On the other hand, other people see self-mortification as a frivolous enterprise which leads to nothing but needless suffering and bodily damage. These people might skip anything penitential entirely.
To avoid these errors we should keep two principles in mind. One, we should take on penances that are doable. Instead of living off of bread and water we might skip a daily meal or eat substantially less for one of them. This kind of fast would require fortitude without inflicting undue stress.
Two, we might reconsider penance as moving us towards something positive instead of treating it as something negative we do to avoid sin. When combating a vice…seek a virtue. Do you struggle with anger by fighting with a family member, friend, or coworker? While offering up some kind of fast or self-mortification in reparation for your sin is good, it is also good to try and grow in friendship with that person. By daily choosing not to argue with them or finding some kind of good deed to do for them, you can help yourself grow in friendship and the virtue of charity. In choosing a penance we should always ask ourselves: What can I do to encourage myself to strive toward the love of God and neighbor? It is then that we can grow in holiness and persevere in the race.