Holy Humor and Lenten Wisdom: Mother Angelica’s Guide to Fasting and Sacrifice

EWTN foundress’ signature wit underscores her timeless advice.

Mother Angelica, foundress of EWTN
Mother Angelica, foundress of EWTN (photo: EWTN News / EWTN)

Mother Angelica had the knack for always providing the right advice — including for Lent.

And all of this wisdom can be rewatched, thanks to EWTN.

Once in her memorable, timeless reflections about Lenten penances and Ash Wednesday, she said, “I never saw anyone that gave up sweets during Lent that lost a pound — not a pound! Why? Because your motive is wrong. See, for Lent, you’re supposed to give up something that’s lasting — ’cause I know giving up candy isn’t lasting. You know, at Easter, you’re going to gulp down those Easter eggs. You know that. Well, I don’t see the purpose of offering up candy. Why don’t you offer up your temper? [Mother chuckled at this point, and the audience laughed, too.] That’s what I’m going to do for Lent: I want to give up my temper.”

She considered that a needed penance because, another time, she expanded on avoiding anger. 

“I need to give up something that I know is wrong in me,” she reflected, “and then perhaps these 40 days will get you in a habit — not this kind of habit [meaning her religious clothing] — but a habit of not losing your temper, a habit of being nice, a habit of being kind. And begin with your family.”

She continued, “Sometimes we’re just so wonderful to people outside; then, when we get home, we’re like bears. ‘What do you want?’ Well, you’d never say that to somebody outside. You’d say, ‘May I help you?’ But if it was home, you’d say, ‘Get it yourself’ [audience laughed in response]. Isn’t that what you’d do?”

“I don’t know why we get kind of nasty to our relatives and then we’re so nice to strangers,” she added. “I guess because we don’t live with them. Well, if you’re going to be nice, begin at home, because what’s the use of being nice to people you work with when you’re a bear at home? So, that’s a good penance for Lent. And then maybe you can carry it on.”

Another common fault became the focus of more practical Lenten advice from Mother Angelica: “Another one is not to gossip, not to gossip. You say, ‘I don’t gossip. I just explain the faults of others’ [audience laughed]. Isn’t that what we do? We explain the faults of others. So, we don’t really gossip; and then we say we always tell the truth. Well, we call that slander.”

In another example, she gave particularly creative advice. “Why don’t you use a toothpaste this Lent that you don’t like? Wouldn’t that be a nice penance? Get up in the morning, your husband says, ‘What is this?’ And it says, ‘My Lenten Toothpaste.’ Now, you say that’s a simple thing. No, it isn’t. I got some terrible toothpaste, oh, a couple of weeks ago, and I wanted to get it out of my mouth so bad … it was for kids besides. Those poor kids, no wonder they don’t want to brush their teeth. It was terrible; and then, suddenly I thought, ‘Well, this is a pretty good penance for early in the morning.’”

Her advice was always true — and practical. In another show about Lenten observation and penance, she sighed and said, “When there are big penances, we don’t think about a lot of them. In our daily life, there is a penance for everything. It’s a penance to get out of bed in the morning. Did you ever notice that? … That horrible alarm clock — and I always say, ‘God, forgive the man who invented this thing.’ You want to throw it out the window or something. Well, that’s a penance just to say, ‘Oh, praise you, Jesus, my alarm went off.’ Or [use that annoyance] just to thank God that you’re awake, that you have a brand-new day.”

Mother also pointed out, “A nice place for Lenten penance is your car.” She went on to describe several possibilities of drivers being annoyed on the road. “That’s a nice penance: not to criticize your neighbor during Lent driving down the highway …”

What she said elsewhere summarizes her suggestions this way: “You see, you don’t realize how many daily penances we have.”

Mother Angelica also emphasized something difficult but necessary for Lent — and all year besides. 

She recounted an incident from the Bible and went on to speak about contrition and confession: “Jesus says, ‘Thy sins are forgiven.’ That’s what it means to look into the eyes of Jesus, to absorb the mercy of God. But it takes a penance, doesn’t it? It takes a humiliation to kneel there and tell Father all your sins and weaknesses and imperfections. But the result is awesome [she chuckled]: You feel like a bird.”

Mother Angelica also explained simply what Lenten penance accomplishes: “The idea is to remind you of death; that’s one thing: to remind you, you do not have here a lasting city. Now, the second thing is that when you do penance for Lent, you imitate Jesus; and, secondly, you strengthen your will. So, when something sinful comes your way, you can say, ‘No.’ See, there’s a twofold advantage to doing penance, real penance.”

Her timeless advice for Lent boils down to the essence of the Christian journey: 

“Let’s grow in holiness, and that’s something all of us can do and we must do — we must do, ’cause time is short, very short. The days pass quickly, don’t you think? And one day it won’t be ashes on our heads, it will be ashes in the box, and you’ll be it. So have a happy Ash Wednesday.”