The word penance seems like an archaic one filled with darkness and pain and suffering. People do not want to accept a penance given to them by someone else. In fact, most suffering is to avoided, unless it is the pursuit of bodily perfection. Penance can mean 1. a punishment undergone in token of penitence for sin.2.a penitential discipline imposed by church authority.3.a sacrament, as in the Roman Catholic Church, consisting in a confession of sin, made with sorrow and with the intention of amendment, followed by the forgiveness of the sin.( www.dictionary.com)
Focus on definition number one, a punishment undergone in token of penitence for sin. This means that you must be sorry for whatever wrong you have committed. And you must know you have committed this wrong. And that you are not going to rationalize this sin, but accept that you did it and should, in fact, must, be sorry for it. At this point there is no discussion of having told this sin to anyone, but rather, you have come to this realization on your own and know you must make up for it in some way or another. To me, this is the type of penance we take on during Lent.
It is not the same as number two where someone else tells me what to do as in do not eat meat on Ash Wednesday and all the Fridays of Lent. It is something I choose to do to help root out what is stubbornly clinging to my soul and should not be there. It is whatever is holding me back from being the person God is calling me to become.
So, I identify my sin and then choose a penance to help me overcome that sin. Maybe they are connected maybe not. If I use wine to forget my problems, than giving up wine and instead turning to God in prayer is a good thing. If my computer takes the place of family interaction, then by all means, turn it off after work hours. However, I cannot decide to spend more time in prayer and scripture reading and neglect my family. Your penance cannot be a way to avoid your responsibilities.
Penance is a means to an end, not an end to itself. It is a way to use your will to overcome your emotion. It teaches us to suffer a bit for a greater good. Penance reminds us that we do not die without our favorite TV show, drink or food. It teaches us that our dependence must be less on things of this world and more on God. The goal of our penance is to lead us closer to God and those he has given us to care for in our lives. My penance is good for the entire community, not just me.
Let us do our penance joyfully, purposefully and sincerely so that our hearts and minds be united in serving our Lord.