We’ve recently begun the season of Lent, forty days of preparation for the Easter festival, echoing the Israelites’ forty years wandering in the desert, and Christ’s forty days of prayer and fasting prior to the commencement of his public ministry. In this season the Church presents us with three traditional practices that have been handed down to us from Christ himself: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
And it’s worth keeping in mind that these are indeed practices. This season of repentance is not simply about the inner life. Indeed, the fact that we are given tangible practices to focus on highlights the inherent connection between the body and the spirit, and the fact that one affects the other.
The first great Lenten practice is prayer. Saint John Damascene speaks of prayer as “the raising of the mind and the heart to God.” In Lent we consciously take the time to raise our minds and hearts to God. All of our spiritual practices are ultimately aimed at the increase of charity in our relationship with God, which flows into our relationships with others. We need to make an effort to slow down – carve out moments in our day to consciously be attentive to the Lord, to ask for the graces we need, to apologise for our failings, to give him thanks and praise. Ultimately, our Lenten prayer is designed to help us desire true friendship with God.
The second great Lenten practice is fasting. We Catholics aren’t puritans – we can enjoy the pleasures of the body in moderation, but we do need to be aware of the fact that they can have a way of taking over in our lives. Saint Thomas Aquinas compared our physical appetites to little children, who want what they want right now! And so in Lent, we purposefully fast from assorted bodily pleasures, to remind us to keep them in perspective, and to ensure that they don’t control us. As the Venerable Fulton Sheen would say: “Fasting detaches you from this world. Prayer attaches you to the next.” Ultimately, our Lenten fasting is designed to help us hunger for the deeper things that only God can provide.
The third great Lenten practice is almsgiving. To be blunt, chances are that all of us —myself included—probably have far more material things than we need. And I don’t need to tell you that these things—our stuff—can become a crutch, almost an addiction. It’s worth asking ourselves: if our home was robbed and our material things destroyed, how distraught would we be? How distraught should we be?
Obviously we need material things to be able to function in this world and to live out our respective callings, but we should take care not to be too attached to them. And, as Saint Augustine reminds us, our excess belongs not to us, but to the poor – and I quote:
“Find out how much God has given you and take from it what you need: the remainder is needed by others.”
At the end of the day, everything we need—physically and spiritually—comes from God, and it is God to whom we must cling above all else. Ultimately, our Lenten almsgiving is designed not only to help the poor, but also to help us know our need of God.
Our Lenten practices are not a set of new-years resolutions, and they are not designed as a means for us to earn our salvation. Furthermore, as Jesus reminds us, they are not a means of showing off our spiritual life to others. No, these practices are designed to help us to be appropriately disposed for Easter – so that by Holy Week we might have a burning desire for the reconciliation that Christ won for us on the Cross.
God has beautiful things in store for us at Easter, but if we aren’t suitably disposed to receive them, they can pass us by. And so we are given these three great Lenten practices to help us desire friendship with God, to help us be hungry for God, and to help us know our need of God. If we cultivate these desires throughout the season of Lent, it will truly be a worthy preparation for the tremendous mysteries that await us in Holy Week.
And so once more, let us undertake this Lenten campaign of Christian service, so that armed with the weapons of self-restraint we may do battle against spiritual evils, be granted pardon for our sins, and be prepared for the new life offered by the risen Christ.