I remember as a young person growing up in Catholic school a trend which tended to de-emphasize traditional Lenten practices of penance in favor of works of charity.  It went something like this:  It is more important to do something positive for someone else than to deny yourself something. Even at the time it struck me that there was something not quite right about that.

It seems that our faith practices tend to swing to extremes. If there was an overemphasis perhaps in times past on penance and mortification during Lent, there developed such an emphasis on works of mercy that penance became “a thing of the past.” I would like to propose that this is not an “either/or” situation, but a “both/and.”

There are three traditional pillars of our Lenten observance. They are really three pillars of the spiritual life itself which only get a greater emphasis during the more intensive period of Lent. They are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These three are deeply rooted in the scriptural tradition, and they constitute sort of three legs of a stool. Without all three, spiritual life is unbalanced.

Through prayer we develop, foster and nourish a personal relationship with God. Through fasting and other works of self-denial we learn to conquer our selfishness and gain mastery over our will. Through almsgiving and other works of mercy we learn to get beyond our obsession with our own needs and wants and extend ourselves to the other.  All three are essential to a healthy spiritual life.

During Lent we should intensify our life of prayer.  To put it simply and bluntly, if we want a personal relationship with God we must spend time with him in prayer.  There is no other way.  Our relationship with God is meant to be just that — “personal.”  How does any relationship we have with another person grow?  By spending time together, getting to know one another, sharing our hopes, dreams, fears and doubts.  This is also true of our relationship with the persons of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

It never ceases to amaze me when people claim to experience no closeness with God, and then reveal that they seldom or never pray.  It’s like saying I want to be close to my best friend, but I don’t intend to spend any time with him or her.  It just doesn’t make any sense. Jesus gives us the perfect example of prayer. Even he who is the eternal Son of the Father and God in the flesh needed to go off by himself regularly to pray and be with the Father.  If this was necessary for the Son of God, what makes any of us think we can get by without it?

Fasting, self-denial, mortification and sacrifices are all part of the spiritual life and are necessary for authentic spiritual growth and renewal.  During Lent we only intensify these practices beyond what should be a part of our life throughout the rest of the year.  Again, Jesus gives us the example.  Before he began his public ministry he went off to fast and pray in the desert for 40 days.  He also encouraged us to fast and pray.  

When we deny ourselves even the good and licit pleasures that this world can offer, it helps us to focus on what is really important. It breaks down our selfishness and desire to simply gratify our own desires. It strengthens our will and helps us in the end deny ourselves the passing pleasure of sin. It also gives power or a “punch” to our prayer life. When we fast, our prayer is more fruitful.  The wisdom of the saints throughout the ages testifies to this fundamental spiritual principle. So let’s not relegate this essential spiritual practice to the past. We do so at our own spiritual peril.

And then there is almsgiving and other works of mercy.  We cannot forget this or leave it out.  Otherwise our spiritual practices of prayer and fasting become very self-centered and focused only on ourselves.  Being closed in on ourselves in this way is not what the full living of the Gospel is all about.  We have to “get out of ourselves” and extend love, mercy and kindness to others, especially those in great need.

I do not need to repeat for you here the many scriptural references to a call for charity and generosity to the modern day “widows and orphans” so often spoken of in the Bible.  The poor, the homeless, the hungry, the lonely, the abandoned, the sick, the imprisoned, the mentally ill and those who suffer in any way are at our doorstep asking for our love.  Jesus warns us not to turn a blind eye to them. We do so at our own peril. Whatever we do for the least of these, we do to him.  Whatever we deny to these least ones, we deny to Jesus.  He identifies himself with the poor and suffering.

Certainly our monetary gifts to assist the poor are very important.  But it is even more powerful for us and for those in need when we somehow get personally involved.  When we meet the poor and see them as real people.  In our communities there are so many opportunities to reach out personally to those in need.  We can intensify these efforts during Lent, hoping that they will endure well beyond into our daily lives.

All of this — prayer, fasting and almsgiving during Lent — is to prepare us to celebrate the Paschal Mystery of God’s love for us in the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.  My hope for myself and for each of you is that we can celebrate Easter with our hearts and minds renewed by all three pillars.