QUAERITUR: Is enduring a migraine a substitute for Friday penance?

From a reader:

Would enduring a headache or migraine constitute a proper substitute for a Friday penance?

I’ve seen in others how intense the suffering is.

Enduring any illness can be penitential. Suffering can be offered up for the good of one’s soul (and for other intentions).

That said, it seems to me that sacrificial dimension involved in Friday penance requires not just acceptance of suffering, but also some act of giving up some “good”.  For example, for my Friday penance I may give up eating meat, listening to the radio, reading for pleasure, watching a baseball game.  My simply enduring something unpleasant is not a sacrifice.  You can offer up something unpleasant that it is your duty to perform, but that doesn’t make doing that thing a sacrifice.  Johnny, for example, is required by his parents to mow the lawn on Friday after school.  He does it, but he would rather be down at the sand lot playing baseball with his friends.  He offers it up.  On the other hand, he then sees that his neighbor 80-year old Mrs. McGillicuddy’s lawn really needs mowing.  He gives up going to the sandlot and mows her lawn.  There is an element of sacrifice in that gesture.

Provided that one doesn’t seriously endanger one’s health, perhaps offering up a headache or migraine without taking any painkiller to relieve the suffering could be along the lines of the penance we are asked to perform.  In that case it is the giving up of the good of the painkiller that makes enduring the suffering more sacrificial.

At the same time, migraines can be pretty bad.  In some cases giving up the good of the painkiller would be a serious gesture indeed.

You could take the painkiller on Friday and then not eat meat, not read that novel, not go to the sandlot….

In any event, it is good to see that someone is thinking about what Friday penance means and why we are obliged to it.  Sadly, when overly-optimistic Paul VI relaxed the obligations in the hope that people would on their own accord seek to do penance willingly in a deeper way, human nature trumped optimism and people stopped doing any penance at all.


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Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Imrahil says:

    As to Pope Paul VI,

    did he really?

    I was imagining that he thought, rightly or wrongly, the previous amount of penance overly burdensome and/or detrimental to the spread of the Catholic faith. (Just as it is easier to do obligatory penance than to do voluntary penance, so it is easier to do obligatory penance in a Catholic surrounding than in a pluralist surrounding, and that is not dependent on that other problem whether pluralism is to be praised or only to be endured, which knows only one obvious answer but which has suffered from the mainstream of contemporary theologians giving the contrary one.)

    If he really did think people would do penance rather more deeply and voluntarily and perhaps even more in amount, then … with all due respect… he was not only wrong, but I seriously wonder wherefrom he even got the idea.

    Well… perhaps… coming to think of it… he was after all a hard-working man who slept for three hours. He may, in all due respect, have had no clear distinction, or one only in mind and not heart, between the sinful and the less-meritful. This little technicality (and line probably is in many cases not easy drawn in precision) is of great importance, and the confusion was, I guess, not uncommon at the time.

    For you can combat sin, though we all do know the defeats we suffer in doing that and that even with God’s grace which we’re guaranteed to get, we cannot totally succeed even in a single person; still you can combat sin. You cannot, on the other hand, combat en gros the human craving for comfort. (Which is because, no, comfort is not a sin, but something which we’ll have in Heaven, even though some ways of seeking it now may be sinfully premature.)

  2. Ed the Roman says:

    Bingo. Speaking as a then ~10 year old boy, the People of God did not hear “you may now do a penance of your own choosing,” they heard “you may now eat meat on Friday.” I do not remember hearing that Friday was still supposed to be penitential until about 10 years ago.

    One of the worst bits of catechesis EVER. Part of His Late Holiness’s overoptimism was that even had it been pointed out to them, most people don’t want to think about penances generally. Just as in confession, they just want to be *told what to do*.

  3. robtbrown says:

    When Friday abstinence from meat was universal, it united Catholics. And local restaurants in Catholic areas often made sure that good, meat free meals were available.

    Now during Lent there are Friday fish fries by the KoC and some parishes–they are usually very well attended.

  4. robtbrown says:

    Paul VI only sleeping 3 hours a night shows the importance of having a good night’s sleep.

  5. robtbrown says:

    Not taking migraine meds on Friday seems to me serious business, perhaps too serious for a Friday penance. It would certainly be heroic, but perhaps it would be heroism born of pride (“I’ll make myself a saint”) rather than humility.

    St John of the Cross says we should not try to become saints overnight.

  6. rtjl says:

    On the other hand, many saints and msytics advise that patient acceptance the penances God chooses for and sends our way has more merit than observing the penances we choose for ourselves. [The Church’s law, however, obliges us to do penance.]

  7. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Perhaps enduring the Migraine CHEERFULLY would be penitential enough. So, instead of snapping at your kids to be quiet because Mommy had a headache, you could be calm and meek and gentle even while you wanted to dash your head against the concrete just to make the hurting stop?

    That would be a biggie, if you could pull it off….

  8. robtbrown says:

    rtjl says:

    On the other hand, many saints and msytics advise that patient acceptance the penances God chooses for and sends our way has more merit than observing the penances we choose for ourselves.

    God knows that there is now medication for migraines.

  9. AngelGuarded says:

    Just to be clear, a Migraine is not a bad headache. Everyone gets headaches. Migraine sufferers get Migraines. It’s caused by dilation and constriction of blood vessels in your head, not from drinking too much or listening to loud music or shouting children. I’ve had blinding Migraine attacks for going on five decades. I think of them as a gift from God, a chance to suffer. I do take daily meds and have injections for a Migraine attack. I would never not take my meds as an act of penanace. In the days before the injectible cure, I would be out of my life for 18 to 24 hours, in a quiet dark room, excruciating throbbing head pain, and vomitting continually. Nothing helped but time, and I endured them with prayer. Thanks be to God for the medicine I can now inject and stop the attack. Just want to clarify because many people mistake a bad headache for a Migraine.

  10. helentourigny says:

    Fr. Z, it seems you don’t know the debilitation of a migraine. [Or… you could go back and read more slowly what I wrote, above, keeping in mind that this is about doing penance rather than how much you think I understand about migraines.] Giving up medication makes one useless for days, not charitable to family. Giving up reading or whatever else you mentioned is out of the question, since one is incapable of doing anything else except enduring it moment by moment. Accepting it cheerfully as God’s will is the only answer for me along with medicating quickly in order to return to duties for family, work and those who need me. Cannot function in any form till headache subsides. Do you get them? It seems not.

  11. BLB Oregon says:

    This reminds me of a quote I saw one Lent:

    Penance doesn’t mean a thing if it’s not God’s Will. St. Theresa of Avila was so determined that she was going to do all these penances one Lent. Well, she got into bed and was so sick that everybody had to wait on her. She complained to the Lord and He said to her: “That was your penance, but this is mine for you.”

    We all have ideas of how we’re going to be holy and how we’re going to do penance. It’s amazing what we’ll do if it’s our will, but if it’s God’s Will, we all scream. – Mother Angelica

    So if you can’t do the penance you had planned, complain to the Lord, and see what the Lord has to say to you. That will tell you what you ought to do!

  12. lampada says:

    It seems to me that suffering the migraine is more than a substitute for Friday penance. Like AngelGuarded said, you can be laid up in complete dark and silence for most or all of the day thanks to the massive pain involved. This means cancelling things, not being able to do things in the light, and has tons of implications. People are excused from many ecclesiastical obligations on the basis of sickness and this is surely one. Even attendance at Sunday Mass would be excusable on the basis of a migraine, not to mention lighter obligations like the Friday penance. I’d rather see someone slip out of their room and grab a meat sandwich than try to figure out what to eat in the light. Migraines don’t always come on a regular, predictable basis, and that fish fry you were going to do to observe some mode of penance might be too much for your head.

  13. The Masked Chicken says:

    I wish the original commenter had chosen a different example.

    In the modern world, it is neither heroic nor penitential to not take migraine medication during an attack. If medication is knowingly omitted, it could be a sin and under certain circumstances could be a mortal sin. There is an increased risk for stroke associated with continual exposure to migraines (about two-fold). If one knowingly puts oneself in a position to cause potentially catastrophic harm when remedies exist, one is guilty of the sin of imprudence, at the least, pride and presumption, possibly, as well. Migraines must be stopped as soon as possible, if possible.

    If one is in a 3rd-world country, this becomes a different subject, but a migraine is not like a headache. This like asking: if I am having a heart attack, should I just offer up the pain?

    I, once, had a student who had migraines so bad she could not sit up to come to classes and had to get injections to control the pain. What cannot be cured must be endured, but St. Teresa of Avila once said that any serious illness announces itself and this is a pretty loud announcement. If you can get treatment, get treatment. This doesn’t even become proper matter for discussion about penitential aspects, in my opinion, unless one does not have access to treatment.

    If one had, say, diabetes, would not taking your insulin be a penitential act?

    Enduring the normal aches and pains of life may or may not be penitential, but it is a form of discipline and a praiseworthy ascetic practice. Letting a migraine go is asking for trouble.

    The Chicken

  14. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    What TMC said. btw, if i had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone describe their ‘migraines’ in terms no real migraine sufferer would ever use, man, i’d have a lot of nickels. rule of thumb: if you are thinking about anything in the throes of your ‘migraine’, then, however much it hurts, you don’t have a migraine.

  15. MikeM says:

    It really depends on how severe your migraines are. They seem to run in my family and I get them so I’m fairly familiar with them. In recent years, mine have been infrequent and, while miserable, generally not debilitating. In those cases, if one struck on a Friday, I would try to put on as cheerful a face as I could muster through the day and do some penance that did not risk making me feel any worse. Migraines can, however, leave a person hiding under a pillow in a dark room unable to do anything all day. In such cases, I think that it’s fair to assume that you’re dispensed of the need to do penance… not only are you sick, but everything about the day is sufficiently miserable that there would be nothing you’d enjoy to give up, and it would be approaching impossible to do anything extra since you can’t do much of anything at all.

    While it’s admirable to do whatever possible to carry through on a Friday penance, I would be hesitant to risk exacerbating the migraine over it… and migraines can seemingly be triggered/worsened by all sorts of things. We’re all undoubtedly more pleasant and useful to everyone when we’re not balled up on the verge of tears in a dark room.

  16. Supertradmum says:

    God gives us our physical crosses We need to choose mortifications on top of those.

  17. Jeannie_C says:

    I agree with what Masked Chicken wrote. If migraines are severe enough to warrant prescription medication then it should be taken as directed.

    One word of caution – if anyone reading this, or anyone close to you complains of the worst headache of their lives, seek help immediately. Someone we know died of a ruptured brain vessel a few months ago, and last week a neighbour narrowly survived a blood clot in her brain, under the age of 40! In both cases the main symptom was unusually severe headache.

  18. Deirdre Mundy says:

    That’s why I think enduring your ‘medicated’ migraine as cheerfully as possible might qualify as extreme penance.

    I get the full aura/ nausea/ rustling paper feels like elephants dancing on my head migraines. (Except when I’m pregnant and before the baby has started solid food! Yet another reason to have as many kids as possible!) BUT since I have small children, while hiding in a dark room and not moving would definitely be the preferred plan, it’s not a realistic option until my husband gets home.

    So I do have the struggle of not screaming at the kids….. because…. they keep MOVING. And TALKING. And…. TOUCHING me……..And I can’t even look at them because those wavy lines make everything so hard to see…….

    Anyway, so I tend to think ‘living your vocation WITH migraine’ should count as penance. And, if I’m too sick to cook, and we have meat leftovers…..well….. that’s dinner, folks.

  19. Marion Ancilla Mariae says:

    Migraine is to headache as a 454 Big Block is to the motor on your electric carving knife.

    You can have a bad headache. A bad migraine feels as if your head has gone into labor. With quadruplets.

    I don’t cry often. Some years maybe once, some years, not at all. Before the advent of Sumatriptan, I would feel one of those bad boys coming on, and I knew my life was over for the next 24 – 36 hours, I would break down and cry like a baby. Pain so bad, you would welcome the news that a bomb had been detected under your bed, and could go off. “When?” would be your only question – as in, may it go off sooner rather than later, and put an end to my suffering.

    Even with medication to control the pain, the vomiting and general debility can make one’s life miserable.

    Now I don’t cry anymore; I take my medication. Not to take it would be, I think, truly cruel and unusual punishment for anyone suffering from true migraine.

  20. I will turn comment moderation on now.

  21. Chuck3030 says:

    I suffer from these migraines. I used to get worse ones, but what is being mentioned above seems to be much worse than I have ever suffered. I, with the milder form of the migraines, describe Hell as the pain of a migraine in every cell of your body (with Metallica playing a concert in front of you for good measure). Last year, I came down with one of those during finals week. That soooo screwed things up for me… Anyone else have the strange ability to predict horrendous weather with their migraines?

  22. Mary Jane says:

    I do not have migraines so I cannot speak from experience, but I am sure they are quite painful. I’m sorry to hear that some of y’all suffer from them.

    That said, Fr Z is right on this one. A Friday penance cannot be something that “happens” to us…like, “I was involved in a fender bender on Friday…that’ll be my penance”, or “I’m expecting and my morning sickness was particularly bad…that’ll be my penance”. A Friday penance, if it’s not giving up meat, needs to be something proactive rather than reactive. Like, “I’ll pray an extra rosary” or “I won’t have that second helping of dinner” or “I’ll not have any coffee this morning”.

  23. Rachel Pineda says:

    A few people who have commented really hit the nail on the head. If in fact, you are suffering from a migraine, giving up any good, even walking and especially eating is no problem. Patience during a migraine? Talking, with a smile? Well now that’s a feat and some penance! I’d say sign me up on that person’s prayer list.

  24. GypsyMom says:

    Although I don’t suffer from migraines, I passed along a harmless home remedy to a friend who has suffered with them for years. The next time she got one, I went out and bought her an Icee (Slushy, Slurpy). Within 10 minutes of drinking it, the migraine she had been suffering with for over 12 hours disappeared. She has been using this “cure” every time she gets a migraine ever since. It has something to do with the intense cold causing a restriction of the blood vessels in the brain–“brain freeze”–and it works for many sufferers, without medication. This has nothing to do with penance, but we should help alleviate each others’ suffering when we can.

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