"These cannot be driven out but by prayer and fasting." These words of our Lord indicate the power of self-denial. At the weekly rector's conference on Monday, the director of our seminary's spiritual life, Fr. Barber, gave a wonderful talk on the importance of penance. The necessity of doing penance is one of the hard teachings of Christianity that we do not hear about very often anymore. I am currently reading The Curé D'Ars by Abbé François Trochu. St. John Vianney is the patron saint of parish priests, and during his life on earth he subjected himself to ferocious penances, the kind that make Catholics like me wonder what the heck we've been doing all of our lives.
We cannot escape the cross. Our Lord was born in this world in order to die and rise again. Think and pray about that for a second: human beings committed the most diabolical sin imaginable - we killed God. Christ had to die for us to live. As He said in the Gospel, it had to pass but woe to those through whom it came to pass. He was like us in all ways but sin which means he experienced intense fear and suffering on that night in the Garden of Gethsemane. That, incidentally, is the reason why it is a good practice to make a Holy Hour with the Blessed Sacrament - you are keeping watch for one hour with Christ as He asked his Apostles to do so. Some of the guys like to do it at night and I've found a few of them in the chapel asleep. I tell them not to worry about it; it only means they're human like the Apostles!
It is also the reason why we need to return to the practice of penance, particularly those of you dear readers who are discerning a vocation to the priesthood. I believe in leading by example; if you think it is important for the laity to return to the practice of penance and regular confession, you must do so yourself. Fr. Barber warned us not to take on too great a penance because 1) we are still human, and if we may get discouraged and give it up altogether, and 2) it can lend itself to spiritual pride: "Look at me, I'm so holy, I'm doing X while those cafeteria Catholics are only doing Y." Needless to say, if you're puffed up with pride over some spiritual devotion you're making, you are being counter-productive to put it mildly.
We do penance to identify more closely with our Lord, to make reparation for our sins and for the sins of others, and to exercise greater control over the lower aspects of our will, i.e. our appetites. I think fasting is an especially good thing to undertake this Lenten season to express solidarity with the poor and those who are unemployed due to the economic depression. Before you do anything though, I also recommend running it by your confessor or spiritual director if you have one. I told mine about the penance I had thought of and he knocked it down a peg; I trust the Holy Spirit knows what I'm capable of better than I do. If you've never really done anything before, start small - like giving up the sugar and cream you normally put in your coffee - and gradually work your way up to greater things. And don't forget that we don't do these things for their own sake. We don't fast to lose weight, although that may be a side effect. Penance adds power to our prayer. And it helps us grow closer to Jesus, the Eternal Priest.