There are many things that we can do for the sake of penance. First of all, any suffering we endure with a right intention, offering it up to the Lord, can be counted as penance. Our Lord, in His Sermon on the Mount, gives us a few examples of situations where such a penitential intention would be beneficial:
St. Luke 6:22-34: “Blessed shall you be when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man's sake. Be glad in that day and rejoice; for behold, your reward is great in heaven. For according to these things did their fathers to the prophets. But woe to you that are rich: for you have your consolation. Woe to you that are filled: for you shall hunger. Woe to you that now laugh: for you shall mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when men shall bless you: for according to these things did their fathers to the false prophets. But I say to you that hear: Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you. Bless them that curse you, and pray for them that calumniate you. And to him that striketh thee on the one cheek, offer also the other. And him that taketh away from thee thy cloak, forbid not to take thy coat also. Give to every one that asketh thee, and of him that taketh away thy goods, ask them not again.
“And as you would that men should do to you, do you also to them in like manner. And if you love them that love you, what thanks are to you? for sinners also love those that love them. And if you do good to them who do good to you, what thanks are to you? for sinners also do this. And if you lend to them of whom you hope to receive, what thanks are to you? for sinners also lend to sinners, for to receive as much. But love ye your enemies: do good, and lend, hoping for nothing thereby: and your reward shall be great, and you shall be the sons of the Highest; for he is kind to the unthankful, and to the evil.”
We are all unthankful and evil, and there is nothing that we can do on our own to even come close to repaying the debt we owe God for sacrificing His only begotten Son for us. The price of our redemption was just too high, yet as our Lord says, the Highest is kind to the unthankful and to the evil. His infinite mercy grants us leniency in paying the debt back to Him, but that does not mean that we are completely off the hook.
All have sinned and are in need of God’s mercy. It is because of this mercy that God allows us time in this world to work. If we put off paying our debts to God, then we may still be given the opportunity to do so in the next world, in Purgatory, but it would be far easier to willingly chip away at it while still in the flesh.
Job 24:23-24: “God hath given him place for penance, and he abuseth it unto pride: but his eyes are upon his ways. They are lifted up for a little while and shall not stand, and shall be brought down as all things, and shall be taken away, and as the tops of the ears of corn they shall be broken.”
What can we do for penance and mortification?
Saints are renowned throughout history for their heroic penances. We should definitely take hints from them. It is true that we may not be saints ourselves, but this is no reason not to emulate them, in fact it is all the more reason to try our best to do so. Our thoughts should be ordered thus:
“I am unworthy to be compared with saints. Nevertheless, it is quite safe to aim at perfection by degrees. What is to hinder me taking up unaccustomed practices? God is able to help me. It often happens that some poor man follows in the path of a mighty and wealthy nobleman. Although the nobleman reaches the inn sooner and enjoys a delicious meal and rests on a soft bed, yet the poor man reaches the same inn, though later and there he partakes of the leftovers from the nobleman's meal. If he had not followed in the nobleman's path and sought the same inn, he would not have enjoyed his nobleman's meal. In the same way I say now that, although I am unworthy to be compared with saints, I do wish to follow along their path, so that at least I might be able to partake of their merits.”
Naturally we should begin to do penance, as we are able and should not presume to exceed our natural abilities. As time goes on, we will be able to do more and more, and we should do so, for the sake of sinners, as penance is also a wonderful way to hope for the conversion and salvation of those we love.
Job 42:10: “The Lord also was turned at the penance of Job, when he prayed for his friends. And the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before.”
Some possible penitential or mortifying practices include taking cold showers, scourging oneself with a belt or a chain, wearing a hair-shirt, allowing a pebble in the shoe for the whole day, fasting, sleeping without a pillow, or without a blanket, or on the floor, praying while kneeling, genuflecting or bowing (especially on rocky ground or other hard surfaces). The important part of penance is that it is uncomfortable, inconvenient, even painful. Prudence must be your guide when performing penance, in order that you do neither take upon yourself too much nor increase your penances too fast. Doing so much penance that we become incapable of doing our duties, for example, would be sinful, if not also prideful. Nor should you do so little that it is rendered meaningless. As with all things, start small, and work your way up. Finally, do it in private, avoiding boasting and temptations to pride.
(ALTERNATIVE) PRAYER BEFORE PENANCE