The three traditional penances of Lent are
- prayer, which helps re-establish a right relationship with God;
- fasting, which helps re-establish a right relationship with self, especially our bodily self;
- almsgiving, which helps re-establish a right relationship with others.
St Benedict was keen on three-fold patterns, and we can see how this one addresses all the important activities of life.
When Benedict talks about prayer in the context of Lent, he concentrates on the idea of making good the negligences of other times (cf RB 49). We all know occasions when we have been half-hearted or done our best, like Jonah, to escape the Lord. Lent provides us with an opportunity to try to do better. For some that will mean trying to go to Mass daily or to pray some part of the Liturgy of the Hours in union with the rest of the Church. Even if it’s just the Benedictus in the morning and the Magnificat in the evening, we shall be trying to maintain a structure into which all other attempts at prayer will fit.
Setting ourselves an unrealistic target, a certain quantity of prayer to be got through every day as though we were engaged in some kind of competition, will quickly end in failure and disillusionment. So will piling on devotion after devotion. What we need to do is to quieten ourselves down, to listen; and to do so with regularity. Learning to love the Lord in silence and poverty of spirit is one of the gifts Lent offers us, and we should seize it gladly. In a later post I shall say something about the practice of lectio divina, but for now it is enough just to highlight what our Lenten prayer is meant to do: bring us back to God.
Fasting is not dieting, although in our crazy world the two are often confused. To deny ourselves some food and drink, some pleasure of the senses, is to remind ourselves of our total dependence on God and our own dignity as temples of the Holy Spirit. The body we have been given is holy, perfect; but we do not always treat it as such, nor do we always exercise the kind of restraint that its holiness demands. Lent is a time to do just that. But our fasting isn’t meant to impose burdens on others (I will have just a little brown toast and honey, if you please, but it must be this kind of toast and that kind of honey, served on good china, etc, etc) nor is it meant to improve our bank balance. If we fast and save money or time, what we save should be given to others in almsgiving.
Even more than with prayer, fasting can be undertaken with one eye on its effect on others. It can become a source of what Benedict calls ‘vainglory’ — inordinate pride in our own achievements — whereas it is meant to remind us of our creaturely condition. Few of us in the West ever experience real hunger except by choice. That cuts us off from the lived experience of millions of people living in less fortunate conditions. It is good for us to be really hungry from time to time, but even if we can’t fast from food and drink, we can fast from some of the other little indulgences that make our existence comfortable. Think of the ways in which we waste time or are profligate in our use of resources. So, how about not speeding in the car, not spending so much time on Netflix or computer games, not leaving rubbish for others to clear up but dealing with it ourselves? Add to these fasting from anger and bad temper and all the other negativities to which we are prone, and you will see that the traditional discipline can be reinterpreted in ways which make painfully clear that (a) we are not self-sufficient and (b) we have a tendency to misuse the gifts we are given. What we mustn’t do, however, is to fall for the temptation to be vague about fasting, fasting in a general way. We need specifics, a firm commitment, something that challenges.
With almsgiving, I think we come to the most difficult of the three Lenten disciplines. It is comparatively easy to pray, or at least to observe times of prayer; it is comparatively easy to fast, or at least to omit something from our meals; but to give of ourselves, to go out to the other, to be generous, that requires much more. It means we have to be open to others, on the watch for opportunities to be of service, ready to take risks. Many use Lent as a time for planned giving to various charities, but it is the unplanned opportunities the Lord puts in our way that can be most costly. Small acts of kindness go a long way towards making people feel valued and loved. The trouble is, we have to be alert to the possibilities but how often do we lament, ‘I didn’t know’ or ‘I didn’t realise.’ Perhaps we should all try to make this Lent one in which we keep our eyes peeled, as it were, for the needs of others.
The Joy of the Holy Spirit
One final note: Benedict says that everything we give up or take on during Lent should be done ‘with the joy of the Holy Spirit, looking forward to the holy feast of Easter.’ One of the great attractions of Lent for me is that in community we live with great simplicity, and that simplicity is always suffused with joy. Jesus in the desert was not plunged in gloom, nor should we be. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving set us free from what binds us at other times, and such radical freedom must surely be a joy. Allow it to be so.