Penance gets a bad rap, in my opinion. Many Protestants have the impression that penance is an attempt to pay for one's sins and earn one's way back into God's favor. At least that was my perspective for many years. I misunderstood. Penance is more like physical therapy for the soul - working spiritual muscles that have atrophied through sin or neglect. It is true that those weak places may burn a bit in the exercise - but the exercise is never meant to shame or punish a person. The goal is always rehabilitation, strength and joy.
Now I will offer another opinion. The penance commonly assigned to us Catholics after confession (say 3 Our Fathers and 3 Hail Marys) usually does little to exercise those spiritual weak spots. This is not to find fault with our priests. They are terribly overworked, and I can imagine that it would be difficult, near impossible, to discern the state of every soul and prescribe the perfect remedy for each. Confession is powerful medicine in itself. Stating one's sins aloud goes a long way in freeing one from their power. Then there is the balm of absolution. The supernatural work that God does in reconciliation extends far beyond our reach; and yet, He invites us to stretch out our hand to meet Him. A wise spiritual director (Protestant or Catholic), an insightful priest, or the quiet nudge of the Holy Spirit can direct us to practices which will transform our thinking and our behavior.
This is what happened to me in November. I found myself enveloped in fear. It was a fear disrupting my sleep. A fear creeping into my imagination. This fear was antithetical to love. It had to go. I went to confession and was assigned the penance of writing two letters of blessing, letters choosing faith for my children rather than fear. Perhaps the letters were helpful to my children. I do not know. But I am certain that the Holy Spirit met me in the process. Here is what I learned.
1) My fears are specific, not general. I may fall into a mindset, or lack of faith, where circumstances lead quickly to fear. I may live in a state of fear so persistently that I slip into general anxiety. However, each fear begins as a specific imagination, just as each sin of lust or envy has a particular object.
2) Naming the fear enables me to take the thought to God. When I articulate my fear, I can examine it more objectively. I can see what it indicates about my belief in God, or my beliefs about other people. I can listen to what God has to say when I state the fear clearly. I believe that examining the fear is the first step toward taking the thought captive,
3) I found that some of my fears stemmed from passivity on my part. There were some real dangers I hesitated to point out to people I loved because I thought I would be dismissed as worrying too much, or I dreaded the potential awkwardness of the discussion.
4) On the other hand, some fears were rooted in doubt or lack of faith - fear that God would not be as faithful to my children as He has been to me. Or that God would try to find my stress limit, or faith limit, by putting me to a test like Abraham. Confessing that fear was freeing. I do not believe God will be less faithful to my loved ones than He has been to me. I do not believe He wll test me/us beyond what we are able to bear. I do believe there is nothing that can separate us from His love, though I know that He does not spare His children from suffering.
I am happy to report that I am sleeping well again. And perhaps I am a little wiser.