Almsgiving, Prayer and Fasting – Lenten Practices in Our Lives Today
Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, brings with it a reminder from Jesus of the importance of 1) caring for each other, especially those in need, 2) staying in close communication with God, and 3) strengthening our physical, mental, and spiritual lives through actions that help us develop more control over the urges that don’t lead us to God. The traditional names for such activities are almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.
Catholics who grew up before and during the years of Vatican II often think first of fasting or giving up something as the activity of choice for Lent. This practice was generally phrased in terms of “What are you giving up for Lent?” There were (and still are) days in which fasting from normal amounts of food was required of adults between the ages of 21 and 59. However, there were other days in the year which were also set aside for fasting, so that was not unique to Lent. What was unique to Lent was giving up something: candy, television, movies, cigarettes, drinking, etc.
Ash Wednesday’s reading from Matthew 6:1-18 is a reminder that all three practices are important and even interdependent. They are also to be done quietly, without great fanfare, and without even congratulating ourselves on how well we’re managing to do them! So, how can we — citizens of a busy, busy world — find time to pray, identify and organize resources to share with others, and make fasting somehow different than dieting?
A few thoughts come to mind.
1) Almsgiving: The sharing of worldly treasures has been a mark of the Christian community since its earliest years. Christians recognized from at least the time of St. John’s Gospel, and before, that Jesus is present in the community. To the extent that anyone is suffering from lack of basic necessities, those who do not lack them have failed to meet the needs of Jesus. This is a hard teaching sometimes, especially when times are tough and there is little left over to share. Remember: we are called to share our time, talents, and treasures. If what you have is time, then give of that. If what you have is talent (maybe for telephoning or organizing a bake sale), offer that talent to help provide for those who need food or shelter. If you have enough money (treasure) to support yourself and your family, then share from what you have; maybe eating more simply for a few meals or waiting an extra month before buying that new pair of jeans, and giving the savings to feed those who don’t have enough.
The important thing is to be open to sharing what you have and creatively listening for the opportunities to do so.
2) Prayer: Time for prayer is not easy to find — if you think you have to set aside an hour a day to pray. On the other hand, if you remember to intersperse prayer into your entire day, then it becomes easier. A quick thank you for the morning as you open your eyes, a blessing over breakfast, a smiled expression of gratitude for a pretty sight on the way to work or the joy of a child exploring her world, a few moments of reflection on how the day is going at lunchtime, a quick prayer for the right words to say in conversation with a friend or co-worker, a blessing at the end of the day, a few moments of reading scripture while supervising a child’s bathing — all are ways to pray in a busy life. God is present in all of these moments and in the unpleasant, difficult moments as well. But God generally doesn’t burst into our lives and shout, “Do This Now!” God is much more subtle, inviting us to notice the presence of the divine in the everyday creation in which we live, and always leaving us free to respond to that presence as we choose.
3) Fasting: Limiting the amount of food eaten, or not eating at all, is the generally understood meaning of fasting. Going hungry on occasion is a good thing to do. It helps develop a greater appreciation of the gift of food. It also helps strengthen the will, so when other things must be declined, the will is strong enough to do so. However, fasting from food is only one way to fast. The practice of “giving up something” was a form of fasting. When we turned off the television on weekdays during Lent during my childhood, we broke its spell and no longer felt we had to watch any programs. We had time to do things together as a family that we didn’t do when the television was on: board games, music, conversation, outdoor play, cooking together, etc.
Fasting today may mean limiting our consumption of: consumer goods, recreational activities, social media including Facebook, television, text messages, tweets, online games, lunches or dinners out, or (insert your own time-consuming activity). It creates a space for other things – for God to be noticed and heard.
Perhaps, out of fasting in this broader sense will come opportunities for prayer and resources for almsgiving as well. Then the circle of activities that quietly draw us closer to God will have become complete.
Praying Hands by Albrecht Durer – Public domain image