QUAERITUR: Penances appropriate for a married layperson

From a reader:

I have a question regarding what kind of penances I should do as a married layperson. I feel a strong desire to do penance both for personal sins and as a sacrifice for the conversion of my family.

However, while I feel this desire, I have no knowledge of the best way to go about it.

I have tried skipping meals as it seems like a good and “private”
thing to do, but I often feel weak and my wife gets upset with me and says I need the calories.

I enjoy beer and pipe smoking, so I often give these up. The problem is, they don’t feel like very good sacrifices. I feel like should be doing something more concrete or difficult.

It seems to me that fasting is a pretty good penance/mortification. Cutting back on the quantity of food you eat is something that can be done daily, so long as you do not endanger your health or ability to care for your family.

The Latin Fathers, such as Leo the Great, attached almsgiving to fasting. Fasting wasn’t just about fasting. It was about then giving what was saved to the poor.

Thus, though we are always called to perform spiritual and corporal works of mercy, our penances can be more significant if we attach works of mercy to them.

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  1. Philangelus says:

    With regard to feeling weak if you fast, how about giving up a food you enjoy and eating something you don’t enjoy instead? That way you get the calories and the protein and it won’t harm your health, but you have to some extent fasted from the thing you enjoy.

    For a while I was doing “half-fast” days, where I’d have a normal breakfast and a normal dinner, but nothing in between meals. I was the sole caregiver for small kids at that point, and I didn’t want to get woozy or lightheaded, so at lunch I’d eat a peanut butter sandwich. I detest peanut butter and peanut butter sandwiches are only barely tolerable to me, plus that was fewer calories than I’d normal take in during lunchtime since I didn’t have anything to go with it, so I considered it my penitential lunch. :-)

    (Obviously on days the Church commands a real fast, I do a real fast. But for private observance, I figure it’s acceptable to accommodate our state of life obligations.)

  2. Philangelus says:

    Also, I believe St. Faustina said in her diaries that when due to her health she could no longer practice stringent bodily mortifications, such as fasting, she got permission from her superiors to sleep without a pillow. You might find a creative way to “fast” from some creature comfort in your life that you don’t ordinarily think about.

  3. Ecclesiae Filius says:

    As a married layman, I find fasting from television and internet work well in my schedule, although I don’t like doing it :). Additionally, i too enjoy beer and cigars, and although i do not feel they are good sacrifices, i continue to fast from them on occasion simply because i really enjoy them. Concerning food, I have heard it said that one could put too much seasoning on one’s own portion to ‘ruin’ the flavor a bit. These are some additional suggestions. Frankly, i suck at doing penances, so i have to try lots of little things.

  4. jaykay says:

    Hmmm… not so sure I’d go with the mortification (and I think it is such, all right) of “ruining” the flavour of food. Maybe it could be done in private e.g. eating on one’s own, but in a group it could draw attention, which is counter-productive to the spirit of mortification, i.m.h.o. Less is definitely “more” in the case of consumption, I think. I speak as one who struggles to mortify himself from anything, basically :(

    As regards alcohol and smoking (both of which I enjoy) a confessor once suggested to me that after a night of excess I should donate an amount equal to that I had spent (and that was some sum, I admit). It certainly focused my mind!

  5. avecrux says:

    Sometimes the best penances are fulfilling our daily duties promptly, with joy: getting out of bed when the alarm clock goes off without hitting the snooze button, etc. If your wife gets upset when you get weak, is that because she needs you to help with certain things? Maybe helping your wife without being asked – going out of your way to anticipate her requests and serve her with joy – would be a great penance.

  6. St. Epaphras says:

    These are tough penances for some of us:
    Refuse to complain or speak negatively about anything that happens or what someone says or does that really, really gets your goat. Don’t repeat it to a soul. Ever (unless it would be sinful to not speak out and then only to the party who must be told).
    Well, I’d better get started…

  7. Nun2OCDS says:

    While in grad school, a priest suggested that during Advent we give an amount equal to one half of what we spent on Christmas (gifts, clothes, food, travel, …) to the poor. That year I had really spent too much but I followed Father’s suggestion. It was the best Christmas ever! It is the combining of sacrifice with works of charity so that we are not the only ones to benefit from our acts of penance that is key. You are fortunate to have such a good confessor.

  8. frjim4321 says:

    I have heard of some people switching to fish on either Mondays or Fridays or both. Penances that are also healthy could be good: Giving up egg yolks, giving up soda pop, giving up bacon except occasionally. There is no reason why doing something for health cannot also be penance. Swimming every day instead of taking a nap. Imposing an alcohol limit. Adding a prayer time each day. Joining a zumba or yoga class . . . cutting back on the Netflix subscription or the number of premium cable channels. Going to bed at a certain time can be a penance for people like me who can sit on Facebook instead of going to bed at a proper time. Giving up all but fact-base news sources. (Okay, I had my tongue in my cheek for that one!)

  9. Mike says:

    A good and holy priest I know used to say–“Doing something thoughtful and kind for your wife pleases God more than if you had fasted for four days on bread and water.”

    We need mortification (I know I do!) but we must remember Deus caritas est.

  10. APX says:

    Catholics should not be doing yoga. There is no way to remove the Hindu aspect from it as each pose is to bring the person closer to union with the serpent god.

    Being young and single, Friday penance when it involves food is extra painful when you want to go out with friends.

  11. tripudians says:


    I can’t recommend this enough, fasting and offering it for sanctification of my wife has brought many blessings to our marriage.

  12. “…my wife gets upset with me and says I need the calories.”
    Wow, in 30 years of marriage THAT has never been an issue. More common is my wife getting upset with me and saying, “You ate the whole thing?! In one sitting?!” (Actually, it was two sittings. Halfway through I got up to get some Cool Whip.) In a culture obsessed with pleasure and comfort, fasting is not just difficult for otherwise faithful Catholics, it’s simply off the radar screen. We can’t even comprehend the concept. I’ll pray for you if you promise to pray for me, which I definitely need, since there are still 6 tins of Christmas cookies left in the house.
    God bless!

  13. Sam Schmitt says:

    St. Josemaria Escriva had some words of wisdom about this. He was certainly not against active penances like fasting but laid special stress upon “passive” penances, of developing a “spirit of penance” in all aspects of life:

    “Penance is fulfilling exactly the timetable you have fixed for yourself, even though your body resists or your mind tries to avoid it by dreaming up useless fantasies. Penance is getting up on time and also not leaving for later, without any real reason, that particular job that you find harder or most difficult to do.

    “Penance is knowing how to reconcile your duties to God, to others and to yourself, by making demands on yourself so that you find enough time for each of your tasks. You are practicing penance when you lovingly keep to your schedule of prayer, despite feeling worn out, listless or cold.

    “Penance means being very charitable at all times towards those around you, starting with the members of your own family. It is to be full of tenderness and kindness towards the suffering, the sick and the infirm. It is to give patient answers to people who are boring and annoying. It means interrupting our work or changing our plans, when circumstances make this necessary, above all when the just and rightful needs of others are involved.

    “Penance consists in putting up good-humouredly with the thousand and one little pinpricks of each day; in not abandoning your job, although you have momentarily lost the enthusiasm with which you started it; in eating gladly whatever is served, without being fussy.

    “For parents and, in general, for those whose work involves supervision or teaching, penance is to correct whenever it is necessary. This should be done bearing in mind the type of fault committed and the situation of the person who needs to be so helped, not letting oneself be swayed by subjective viewpoints, which are often cowardly and sentimental.

    “A spirit of penance keeps us from becoming too attached to the vast imaginative blueprints we have made for our future projects, where we have already foreseen our master strokes and brilliant successes. What joy we give to God when we are happy to lay aside our third-rate painting efforts and let him put in the features and colors of his choice!”

  14. catholicmidwest says:

    Many people really don’t find the need to practice artificial penances when there are so many that present themselves naturally in modern life. There are tons of them: not complaining, doing things without waiting to be asked, giving things you don’t need away to people who do need them, being patient in traffic, getting right up when the alarm clock rings, taking in a homeless dog and treating it well (there are millions of homeless animals!), reading the bible or the catechism day in and day out, buying mittens on sale and donating them to the poor, the list goes on and on.

  15. catholicmidwest says:

    Yielding sports so that someone else can watch TV, letting your kids sit in the recliner and have the clicker, shoveling the neighbor’s drive without being asked, buying your wife a rose once a month, dropping off an occasional bag of pet food at the shelter, praying an extra 20 minutes every afternoon, becoming the guy who smiles in the hallway at work til everyone wonders what’s going on, admitting you’re catholic to all the people you know and answering their sometimes not so nice questions patiently …… these chances for penance go on and on.

  16. acardnal says:

    Sam Schmitt,
    And yet Opus Dei endorses the use of the cilice.

  17. priests wife says:

    Sam S- Thank you for that text! I will be copying it and (I pray) remembering it

    For most lay people, mortification is in the proper ‘celebration’ of our vocation. The man is normally the chief breadwinner for the family- let him work diligently and joyfully- the woman is normally in charge of household work- does she remain hardworking, without complaint?

    As lay people, we need to consider the needs of all the family members. I know a Roman Catholic woman who is married to a man who became Orthodox. He follows monastic fasting guidelines- vegan every Wednesday and Friday and all Advent and Lent. Perhaps it would be a greater penance to eat what his wife cooked and be vegan when he was at work.

  18. sanctasophia says:

    Penance is not supposed to make you feel special……if you look for difficult things you will miss the point… you should read the gentleman saint – Francis de Sales…..

  19. sanctasophia says:

    oh i forgot to say let today’s concerns belong to today…..for tomorrow has…. sorry I am paraphasing someone else…. simply and quietly do what you can…. no fuss… the Lord did not come into the world for people to be anxious about types of penance….. the Lord did not like penance made too much of in public…… perhaps you could ask in prayer what quiet penance is for you…… I think you should talk to your priest in confession as a director and accept his instructions. I wish you well and with an Ave Maria. Regards, Stuart

  20. PA mom says:

    Some very sound advice above.

    I have at times stopped having my hair professionally cut so I had money to buy my students gifts. There was a time when I was trying to fast more specifically, but I realized that the food being wasted in my house was wrong, and decided that I would press myself to eat whatever was left, even if it was day four of the same dish.
    I try not to purchase new clothes for myself. I am usually given a thing or two for holidays, so I try to be satisfied with whatever I am given.
    I especially like sacrifices that save resources , for someone else I like to think. Stopping the shower water rather than running it the whole time, turning the heat down, wearing the coat that I am tired of for another year.
    Sometimes, visiting people I am not quite comfortable with (elderly relatives) has seemed right too.

  21. mamajen says:

    Some of these posts make me worry–if people who are doing so much more than me are fretting about whether they are doing enough, what chance do I have of getting into heaven? Ugh.

    Some of the comments here offer very good ideas, though. I especially like the idea of doing one’s daily duties (even getting out of bed with the alarm clock) promptly and without complaint. As a wife and mother I feel like I’m already struggling to keep it together…adding anything else to the mix seems overwhelming, but the idea of offering up my regular challenges is something I can do if I focus. Maybe eventually things will go more smoothly and I can start thinking of other “add-ons”.

  22. Hidden One says:

    Perhaps daily praying (in private, secretly) of the Litany of Humility and choosing each day (or week) to focus particularly on living out one line of it.

  23. jaykay says:

    Wasn’t it The Little Flower herself who recommended the little private self-denials, on a moment-by-moment basis? Lord, how hard to do. Fr. Jim, God bless him, gives many practical examples. Small things, yet binding… e.g. in my timezone it’s already 2.15a.m so … :D

    Nun2OCDS: yes, he was great. But sadly, not my regular confessor. Although the regular man is pretty sound too!

  24. WesleyD says:

    Regarding fasting: I discovered that when I am very hungry, I am quite irritable. So I decided not to fast when I am at work, because I end up snapping at my co-workers and then having to apologize. I think that each person has to find what penances work most effectively for them.

  25. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Just read a good life of Thomas More (one of the few saints whose example helps us married-with-children types here). You’ll see that most of a ‘husband’s/dad’s penances are imperceptible to others, but once in a while, you need to do a public penance, for the wife and kids’ sake. ALWAYS check your penances with a spiritual director. Pride very easily infiltrates here.

  26. amsjj1002 says:

    This thread reminded me of something I try every day, and I have to admit I find it difficult!

    A Short Road to Perfection — September 27, 1856

    It is the saying of holy men that, if we wish to be perfect, we have nothing more to do than to perform the ordinary duties of the day well. A short road to perfection—short, not because easy, but because pertinent and intelligible. There are no short ways to perfection, but there are sure ones.

    I think this is an instruction which may be of great practical use to persons like ourselves. It is easy to have vague ideas what perfection is, which serve well enough to talk about, when we do not intend to aim at it; but as soon as a person really desires and sets about seeking it himself, he is dissatisfied with anything but what is tangible and clear, and constitutes some sort of direction towards the practice of it.

    We must bear in mind what is meant by perfection. It does not mean any extraordinary service, anything out of the way, or especially heroic—not all have the opportunity of heroic acts, of sufferings—but it means what the word perfection ordinarily means. By perfect we mean that which has no flaw in it, that which is complete, that which is consistent, that which is sound—we mean the opposite to imperfect. As we know well what *im*perfection in religious service means, we know by the contrast what is meant by perfection.

    He, then, is perfect who does the work of the day perfectly, and we need not go beyond this to seek for perfection. You need not go out of the *round* of the day.

    I insist on this because I think it will simplify our views, and fix our exertions on a definite aim. If you ask me what you are to do in order to be perfect, I say, first—Do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising; give your first thoughts to God; make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament; say the Angelus devoutly; eat and drink to God’s glory; say the Rosary well; be recollected; keep out bad thoughts; make your evening meditation well; examine yourself daily; go to bed in good time, and you are already perfect.

    + Meditations and Devotions — Blessed John Henry Newman.

  27. Ellen says:

    Some of the penances mentioned are too easy for me. I am a super early riser and have never even owned an alarm clock, so getting up is a piece of cake. I’m not a lover of food and giving up food is not all that difficult. Last Lent our wonderful priest said that he finds he wastes a lot of time on Youtube and gave that up as a penance.

  28. JLCG says:

    @ Sam Schmitt:
    Splendid quotation. Why do sterile abstinence when life asks us to be generative?
    I have read that he also said that we should make hendecasyllables out of the prose of life.
    A good truly valuable penance is to have many children.

  29. LisaP. says:

    I get a little concerned when I see folks advised to give up complaining and do our duty cheerfully as a penance. Sometimes it’s entirely right, even usually, but sometimes complaint (like pain) is a warning sign, or even a necessary first step towards righting wrongs.

    Great comments above, very helpful to those of us working on this, excellent.

  30. frjim4321 says:

    It seems like there is a difference between penitential practices that one chooses vs. the penance a confessor would give. The penitential practices may be ongoing whereas the penance given by a confessor should be “doable” and not spread out over time.

  31. Cafea Fruor says:

    I’m not married, so I can’t directly speak to doing penance when you have a family, but I know enough married people that I could imagine that fasting while your wife is not fasting could present tension (e.g., the non-fasting spouse can feel like the fasting spouse is trying to be holier than thou and thus resent the fasting one). What about doing a penance together? Maybe that would go over better?

    If you still want to do your own penance, it may be better to go for those that aren’t noticeable to others and won’t inconvenience them. A priest suggested that to me once since I live alone but can get prideful about penance when coworkers and friends know what I’m up to. For instance, I have an extremely nosy coworker who calls attention to every single thing I eat or to the fact that I’m not eating, and then I struggle with being proud when she’s made it known that I’m fasting, so fasting is not the best for me unless it’s a Church fast day.

    Something that works instead, for example, is taking the stairs instead of the elevator at home (I’m an apartment dweller) and at the office, which others do notice, but they assume I do it to lose weight rather than to do penance. Or when I’m eating lunch at work or with friends, I can quietly to leave off some flavoring like salt, butter, salsa, etc. without drawing attention to myself. Or I can heat my lunch only until it’s not refrigerator-cold, rather than piping hot as I prefer it. I love to chat with certain coworkers, so rather than joining that highly intriguing conversation I happen upon when walking down the hall, I could just say a quick hello and keep going. And I very much enjoy coffee (hence my screen name), but I like it with sweetener and loads of cream, so my confessor once suggested keeping the cream but doing without the sweetener, as my drinking black coffee would be terribly obvious to everyone. This just might be the hardest penance ever… :o)

    Ideas I’ve heard from others are: parking further away from a store than necessary when you’re shopping alone, and offering up the extra walking; not making comments or switching the TV channel when your spouse’s favorite show that you can’t stand comes on; letting someone in ahead of you on the road when you’d rather not wait; turning off the car radio and sitting in silence.

  32. AnnAsher says:

    Thank you Fr. Z for posting this question and providing an answer and space for so many more answers and thoughts to be shared. It seems to me that God may have laid the desire for more concrete pennances on the writers heart. For me, beginning to do regularly scheduled pennances has led to the awareness I needed to be more responsive and attentive to opportunities to do the “passive pennances.” I am very inspired by all the men here sharing their practices !
    @Dr Peters: if only one could find a spiritual director in this modern Latin life. Another reason to be thankful for Fr. Z filling in an otherwise vacuous gap.
    I am practicing Latin fasts on three days a week. I enjoy wine so I never have it on fast days. I began the fast days for the conversion of my extended family and for my marriage.

  33. CatholicByChoice says:

    I have been studying what the Desert Fathers taught in Cassian’s Conferences, Conference 5, and it seems to me that they teach the real reason for fasting is not to go without food, but to learn self-discipline so that we are no longer controlled and tempted by all the zillions of impulses and influences that assault us constantly. I think the idea they are teaching is that to fast, we must determine ahead of time exactly what food we will eat during our fast, the size of the portions, and the time that we will eat. The amount of food that was allowed was generous, the point was NOT to be starvingly hungry, but to be only a little bit hungry (not enough to distract from our focus on prayer). The point of fasting was to make a plan for eating, and stick to it, and thereby build up our discpline to say “no” to impulsive influences. This makes quite a lot of sense to me, I think it is a way to train ourselves to be strong spiritual warriors.

    Here is the link to Sec. 5 of Cassian’s Conferences, on OSB.org: http://www.osb.org/lectio/cassian/conf/book1/conf5.html#5.0

    Here is the link to the entire online Cassian’s Conferences, on OSB.org: http://www.osb.org/lectio/cassian/conf/index.html

  34. Imrahil says:

    Dear @sanctasophia,
    while it is true that penance is not about feeling oneself special, we should by no means suppose that everyone who does a special penance will feel himself special. In general, unless he chose penance for this very reason, he will just feel as if he was doing a penance.

    Dear @mamajen,
    they are not doing penance to get to Heaven (although if they are helped a bit in helping graces they won’t mind a bit, of course); except in the assigned penances of the Sacrament of Penance, and in the mandatory penances of the Church. For getting to Heaven, there are the Sacraments , trying to avoid to sin, and praying (of a not penitential amount).

    They are doing penance for the exterior glory of God, as a sacrifice for specific things, and to get their reward in Heaven. (Let us not forget the doctrine of Merit.)

  35. Hidden One says:

    Upon reflection, it might be worth remembering that St. Philip Neri gave penitents permission to wear the hairshirt, provided they wore it outside of their other clothing.

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