So, if someone were to ask you what you’re doing for Lent this year, you might answer rather quickly, “I’m giving up desserts.”
Or, “I’m going to Stations of the Cross.” Or, “I’m giving a generous donation to the Catholic Charity Appeal.” All of these things are worthwhile and certainly consistent with the threefold pillars of Lent, “prayer, fasting and good works.”
But if someone were to ask you why you’re doing these things, you might have to think a little bit before you answer. You might say it’s because you do the same thing every year. Or because it’s what the Church tells you to do. Or because it makes you feel good. While each of these answers has some value, the reasons for our Lenten practices should be a little more profound.
You see, each of the practices of Lent– prayer, fasting and good works – has its own particular purpose or goal. We should be aware of these when we commit ourselves to a Lenten program.
For example, prayer is a loving conversation that opens our hearts and minds to the Spirit of God. It is in prayer that we develop our friendship with God and learn to discern His will in our lives. Prayer, like any good conversation, is a two way street. We speak and we listen. We speak to God, expressing our needs, our hopes and our gratitude for His goodness and love. We also listen to God, knowing that He will speak His word to us – His word that comforts us in difficult times, encourages us to keep on going whenever we suffer, challenges us to do better in our moral lives, and forgives us when we fall short of the mark, as we all do from time to time.
God speaks to us especially when our hearts and minds are open, quiet and peaceful, and that’s why we need to carve out some silence, in the liturgy and in our daily lives. As spiritual author Matthew Kelly has written: “You will learn more from an hour of silence than you can in a year from reading books . . . It is in the classroom of silence that God bestows His wisdom on us.” (Rediscovering Catholicism)
The Lenten discipline of fasting has its own particular fruit. And in speaking of “fasting” here I refer to abstinence as well, and to any other sort of bodily discipline or denial we impose on ourselves. This discipline strengthens our spirit so that we can overcome temptation, avoid sin and thus be victorious in our battle with Satan.
In approaching fasting it’s essential that we keep its spiritual purpose in mind, for fasting is more than the dieting so fashionable these days. In his book, Fasting Rediscovered, Father Thomas Ryan emphasizes that fasting has to be an act of religion, a doorway of the Spirit. “The Holy Spirit not only gives fasting its true significance, but is absolutely necessary to animate the fast so that it goes beyond mere technique.” That reminder ensures that we will avoid the excessive legalism and superficiality that sometimes accompanies fasting and other works of discipline.
And then there’s the almsgiving, the good works to which we commit ourselves in Lent. And while charity is an essential part of the Christian life all the time (as are prayer and fasting) during Lent it should be more generous and intentional.
The path of charity can be traveled in different ways – monetary donations to worthwhile causes, volunteering in community projects, and personal acts of kindness and reconciliation, for example. But in every case charity moves us beyond the normal boundaries of self concern and renders us more aware of and responsive to the needs of others. In serving others we become Christ, and we encounter Christ too!
Not every act of love is heroic, but each one is important. As Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “God has created us to do small things with great love. I believe that great love should come from our heart, should start at home: with my family, my neighbors across the street, those right next door. And this love should then reach everyone.”
So then, let’s go back to the first question – why do we do what we do during Lent? While each of the pillars has its own specific goal, taken together there’s one goal that they share, and that’s to draw us closer to Christ and to make us more like Him in our daily lives.
When all is said and done, the Christian life is all about Jesus. Pope John Paul described the “program” of the Christian life with these words: “Ultimately it has its center in Christ Himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in Him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with Him transform history until its fulfillment in the heavenly Jerusalem.” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, #29) And Pope Benedict put it this way: “There is nothing more beautiful than to know Christ and to speak to others of our friendship with Him.” How simple, how beautiful, how true!
So, dear fellow pilgrim, what are you doing for Lent? And why are you doing it? Think about it. And, if at the end of the forty days you’re closer to Jesus and more like Him in your everyday life than you are now, the season will have been a great success.