Have a Meaningful Lent with these Practical Tips
Ash Wednesday commences the holy season of Lent in the church. Lent is a 40 day period in which we the faithful prepare for Easter and during which the “…Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.” (CCC 540) During this time, Catholics are specifically asked to practice three spiritual activities: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
What does it mean to pray, fast, and give alms?
The glossary of the catechism defines these three terms as follows:
Prayer: The elevation of the mind and heart to God in praise of his glory; a petition made to God for some desired good, or in thanksgiving for a good received, or in intercession for others before God. Through prayer the Christian experiences a communion with God through Christ in the Church. (Glossary of CCC)
Fasting: Refraining from food and drink as an expression of interior penance, in imitation of the fast of Jesus for forty days in the desert. Fasting is an ascetical practice recommended in Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers; it is sometimes prescribed by a precept of the Church, especially during the liturgical season of Lent (glossary of CCC)
Almsgiving: Money or goods given to the poor as an act of penance or fraternal charity. Almsgiving, together with prayer and fasting, are traditionally recommended to foster the state of interior penance (glossary of the CCC).
Why should I pray, fast, and give alms?
Ultimately, the reason we pray, fast, and give alms is because it has been proven over time that these three activities bring about a radical transformation in the practice of our Christian faith and unity with Jesus.
Pope St. Leo the Great tells us that “…there are three things which most belong to religious actions, namely prayer, fasting, and almsgiving…” and that “This threefold round of duty, dearly beloved, brings all other virtues into action: it attains to God's image and likeness and unites us inseparably with the Holy Spirit. Because in prayer faith remains steadfast, in fastings life remains innocent, in almsgiving the mind remains kind. (Pope St. Leo the Great http://www.ancient-future.net/leosermonxii.html)
Why does praying, fasting, and almsgiving work?
The answer to this question can be found in Jesus description of the greatest commandment.
“…one of them [a scholar of the law] tested him by asking, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”” (Matthew 22:35-39)The whole faith (represented by the law and the prophets) depends on loving god with our whole heart and loving our neighbor as our self.
Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving direct us toward the three objects of the command. This is why Pope St. Leo is able to say that prayer, fasting, and almsgiving “brings all other virtues into action”. Prayer directs us toward a greater love of God. Fasting leads to self-mastery that allows us to love ourselves in the right manner while also being able to uphold the rights of others even at personal cost. Almsgiving is the direct expression of the love of neighbor in which we are united to him, truly loving our neighbor in the manner in which we love our self.
Practical advice for making the most out of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving this Lent.
Each practice has great individual benefit, but directing all three practices toward a common end this Lent will yield the greatest benefit. Here are some 5 practical tips:
1) Consider fasting from some form of noise or media this Lent.
We are so uncomfortable with silence. We run from our thoughts, seek distraction, and fill our lives with technology to avoid it. However, we will never learn to pray unless we learn to tolerate silence. This Lent, consider giving up radio in the car, listening to your iPod, surfing the web, or turning off the tv for a specified time each day. Take it as an opportunity to embrace silence. Then commit yourself to some small act of prayer each day to witness the benefit.
2) Fast for someone particular each day.
Offering your sacrifice for a specific person will bring new meaning to your Lenten fast. It will also remind you to pray for that person. You can offer your fast for anyone, but I suggest your spouse, children, or perhaps a deceased relative. Offering your fast for someone specific allows the practice of fasting to positively influence both you and a loved one. You will truly be loving your neighbor as yourself.
3) Let your fast financially support your almsgiving.
So often we give up items that are treats. Perhaps, it is a weekly cup of coffee from Starbucks or an evening of entertainment. This Lent, take the savings from these practices and put them in a jar. Then at Easter, donate the contents of the jar to the poor through Catholic Charities, a local soup kitchen, or giving directly to the homeless.
4) When you give alms, do not judge the intention of the recipient.
Often times, it is easy for me to judge the people to which I am giving. I fall into the trap of wanting the poor to be “deserving” of my generosity. I ask myself, “If I give money to the homeless will they just use it to buy beer?” This is not to say that we should give indiscriminately or not direct our resources toward their best use, but we should give freely trusting that God will recognize the intention of our gift apart from the outcome.
5) Consider adding in addition to subtracting.
So often we only think of what we are giving up during Lent, but the addition of spiritual practices can also be valuable. This Lent consider adding a devotional practice to your daily life. There are many possibilities, but praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy daily can be a great option. It only takes five minutes and leads us to a deeper understanding of the mercy of God which Jesus demonstrates at Easter. Instructions for praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy can be found here: http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/how-we-teach/new-evangelization/year-of-faith/how-to-pray-the-chaplet-of-divine-mercy.cfm
This Lent make the most of your prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to live your Christian faith in a radically new way.