The Big Three: Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving

Thankfully, we’re given the freedom to choose what to give up for Lent each year. For some, it may be a certain TV show or a particularly favorite dessert; for others, it could be a time-consuming social networking site or an always-faithful caffeine drink. The Church gives us this season of Lent and encourages us in our sacrifices.

If you look at the practices of successful athletes, musicians, or even surgeons, you’ll notice a commonality: discipline. Those who have excelled in their fields, do so because of passion, endurance, and discipline. These people learned the fundamentals of sports, music, and medicine, never wavering from time-tested practices and skills. While each may exhibit unique styles and individual elements, their success ultimately runs parallel to their dedication to the defining disciplines of their field. Discipline, not individual freedom of choice, brings out the most success.

Tiger Woods didn’t become the youngest professional golfer to win all four major championships in his career by doing what “felt right,” inventing his own best practices, and training whenever he could “find the time.” Tiger learned the game of golf at a young age, worked diligently to master the mechanics of the game, and dedicated himself to near perfection in his execution. The time-tested disciplines and traditions of golf throughout history weighed heavily upon Tiger’s success on the course.

In our relativistic society, we are lead to believe that if I do what feels right or what I believe is right, I will “find myself” and be happy. Our faith teaches us that “I” cannot “find” myself because “I” did not create myself. Only God, our creator, can reveal who we truly are. Only in God will I ever find my true self.

Doing what feels right brings us closer to sin, because we are fallen creatures with disordered desires. The Church offers her divine wisdom in encouraging the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, just as Jesus instructed. Discipline in Christ will draw us closer to our Creator, the divine Healer.

In running the race toward heaven, we are faced with options: take the path of least resistance or gear up for the route guided by discipline, sincerity, and devotion. Just as we train our bodies to become physically fit and healthy, so let us strive for spiritual fitness through the principal disciplines that draw us closer to God: Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving.

Jesus gave us himself as an example. This Lent, we set our sights on the discipline of our spiritual lives, so as to become the holy men and women God created us to be. “We can’t make ourselves holy; only the Holy Spirit can!” (Perrotta, Kevin. Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving)

Jesus encourages us, in his Sermon on the Mount, to have purity of intention when we pray, fast, and give alms. He warns us: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). If you pray for others to think you devout, or fast for others to admire your self-control, or give alms for others to think you generous, you won’t experience the true outcome Christ designed for us through these disciplines. God offers us these spiritual pillars in order for us to draw closer to him. How can we draw close to him when we’re focused on impressing others or pleasing ourselves?

Our reward in practicing these great spiritual disciplines is the heavenly reward of God the Father. When we truly pray, fast, and give alms, we seek God. Jesus tells us that when we seek God, we are never disappointed.

Prayer

When we pray, we directly communicate with God. Prayer is central to these spiritual disciplines; it lies at the heart of our longing for union with God here on Earth. In offering ourselves in prayer, we draw closer to God. Without this closeness, our fasting and almsgiving would have little meaning and depth. Prayer changes our heart and changes our actions.

Don’t over-think it. Prayer is talking with God—being ourselves and sharing our joys, struggles, thoughts, and emotions. If prayer isn’t part of your daily life, make one small change to incorporate it. Get up 5 minutes earlier and talk with God in your living room. Turn off your radio during your morning commute and tell God what you’re nervous about or looking forward to that day. Ask for his guidance throughout your day. Make a quick stop on the way home at your church’s chapel; greet the Lord and thank him for your day. Read one Scripture passage a day; try to memorize it and recite it during your day. Every time you see a red vehicle on the road, say “Jesus, I love you.” Honestly, any thing you want to tell the Lord, he wants to hear. Start simple, but start now!

Fasting

In seeking closeness to God, we turn to prayer. In seeking God’s help in rooting out selfishness and indulgence, we turn to fasting. Fasting helps us turn from our individual focus as we resist our own desires. When we fast—with right intent on drawing closer to God—we physically exhibit our commitment to set aside our own concerns and to focus our efforts on God’s will and the needs of our neighbors. We experience God’s healing and compassion when we turn from our selfish desires and sinful ways, with a purity of heart and intention. We draw close to God and experience his love.

Fasting can take many forms in our lives. Typically, we think of fasting as an abstinence from food. Are there certain foods you crave and couldn’t go without for a day? Perhaps you could limit yourself, only eat two cookies instead of your usual three or more. Maybe you could give up certain foods altogether. Try eating only one simple meal on Fridays (without meat, of course), having only an apple or bread and water the rest of the day.

Fasting can also mean abstinence from other comforts in our lives. In fasting lies the crux of our decision to “give up” something for Lent. What draws us away from loving God, others, and ourselves? Is there something we could go without, or have less of? Lent is a great time to evaluate where your treasures and comforts are. Ask the Lord for guidance as you take up your Lenten fast.

Almsgiving

Ask the Holy Spirit to give you an overflowing spirit of love and sacrifice this Lent. St. Gregory the Great tells us that “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.” God has blessed us with life on this Earth, to share with others and to live in generosity and humility. Almsgiving naturally takes us out of ourselves; it gets us to focus on the “other,” instead of on the “I.”

We experience growth, fulfillment, and happiness in our lives when we freely give of ourselves. We grow closer to God in our service to our neighbors. We also recognize that just as God, in his superabundance of generosity, gives every blessing to us, we are to bear witness to his love and be examples of this generous spirit. If we set aside our selfish concerns and give generously to others, we can experience the freedom of living purity of intention and in cooperation with God’s great work on Earth.

This Lent, reflect on the ways you give alms. Is this a priority in your life, in your marriage, in your family? Do you help financially support your church, in its mission to serve and bring others closer to God? Is there an organization that inspires you—one that lives out the Gospel message of evangelization through love and sacrifice? Are there children who need your help in their daily existence and in their spiritual development? Are there people in your local community who need basic staples for daily living? Where can you give? To whom will you share the hope of God’s love?

During Lent, we’re all challenged to give up something, take on a new devotion, incorporate prayerful practices, etc. Whatever it is you decide to give up, take on, or incorporate, make sure you offer a pure heart to the Lord in your Lenten sacrifice. Our focus should be on growing closer to God, who is Love himself. We take on the disciplines of Lent, in order to “succeed” in our spiritual journey. This success is everlasting salvation and communion with God.