“I am the true vine, and my father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does He prunes so that it bears more fruit.” We are each called to let the Lord work in us, pruning aspects of our life so that we might bear more fruit. Perhaps no action helps us prune more than penance, which are exterior acts, like prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, that help create interior conversion. In doing something physically with our body, we can grow interiorly. Penances beautifully represent the anthropology of the human person, that we are both body and soul in the Lord’s image and likeness, and they help us embrace being healthy in our personhood.
Penance includes a purification of the senses and many saints discuss the importance of this purification. As Fr. Jordan Aumann says, “the purposes of active purification of the external senses is to restrain their excesses and to subject them to the rule of reason illumined by faith.” Our senses are not bad, but without purification they can lead us astray. For example, if I continue to eat sugary sweets even though I am pre-diabetic, both my soul and body will suffer. This is why we discipline our senses and learn to subject lesser desires for greater goods.
Purifying our external senses can take on many forms. It can involve saying no to a second donut, or working out when we are busy or don’t want to. Beautifully, this discipline can bring us peace, and recent studies (https://positivepsychology.com/benefits-self-control-discipline/) in psychology show that it makes us more content and makes facing obstacles easier. Purifying our senses leads to “better relationships and interpersonal skills, higher grade point average, less binge eating, more secure attachments, and better adjustment as defined by less psychopathology and higher self-esteem.” Being disciplined in establishing healthy habits aids our physical, emotional, and spiritual growth.
Penitential acts themselves are based off the need to grow in humility. Understanding pride as the root of all sin, humility requires us to acknowledge our behavior gaps (and thus our need for grace, forgiveness, and the Lord in our Life), which enables a healthier attitude. That is, when we recognize we aren’t perfect and need the Lord, we can actually grow more. Recent studies point to this saying, “A humble mindset has significant positive effects on our cognitive, interpersonal, and decision-making skills.” Practicing humility can take on many forms; having accompaniment in setting nutrition goals, developing discipline when it comes to exercise habits, and being open to the ideas of others. Mother Teresa (https://www.ncregister.com/blog/mother-teresas-15-tips-to-help-you-become-more-humble) also has tips for being humble that can help!
The Lord is inviting us to open our whole self to him for healing. Conversion of heart occurs when we invite the Holy Spirit into our lives, directing our actions to our eternal good, so that we might be pruned and remain in the Lord.