On this First Sunday of Lent, many of us are still trying to nail down the “Lenten routine” or perhaps even decide on “what to do” for Lent (i.e., what to give up for Lent). Let's take some time today, then, to review the “three pillars” of Lent, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and reflect on how they can help us grow closer to God.
We'll start with fasting. Most Catholics automatically think about three things when they hear this word: no snacks between meals on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, no meat on Fridays, and giving up a favorite food, usually sweets. Fasting, however, can incorporate much more than just limitations on food. Do you have any bad habits you'd like to get rid of? Lent can be a good time to work on breaking them. Do you exhibit any character traits that drive your family crazy? Are you negative or complaining or sarcastic? Fast from those traits during Lent. Is there anything in your daily routine that you spend too much time on, say television viewing or Facebook? Try giving up or limiting those things. Do you spend too much money? Cut back on your shopping. Remember, though, that Lent isn't about self-help gimmicks. We give up something that is hindering us or even something we enjoy because we want to improve our relationship with God. We want to make a statement that He is the most important thing in our lives; everything else is secondary.
What shall we do with all the money and time we save/gain when we fast? That's where almsgiving comes in. Part of almsgiving, of course, is giving money to the poor, usually through organizations devoted to caring for those less fortunate. Catholic Relief Services is always a good choice as are sponsorship organizations like Christian Foundation for Children and the Aging. Local charities and food shelves always need help, too.
Almsgiving, however, is about more than giving money. We are called to give of our time and talent along with our treasure. Giving of our time can mean volunteering at Church or in the community or perhaps visiting seniors, fellow parishioners, or even friends going through difficult times. It can mean taking time to send a letter, a card, or an email or making a phone call to someone who could use a friendly hello. It might even be something as simple as just giving a family member your undivided attention for a few minutes.
Has God given you a talent that you might share with others? Do you sing or play an instrument? You might consider contributing to your Church's music ministry. Do you excel at working with children? Volunteer to teach Faith Formation classes or tutor children who need special help. There are endless opportunities.
Finally, we come back to the idea of treasure, but this doesn't have to refer to money. How long has it been since you cleaned out your closets? Are there things you haven't looked at in months or even years that someone else might use? Many local thrift stores accept donations and contribute part or all of their profits to charity. Do you have any collections packed away instead of on display? Ask yourself if you could part with any of your valuables. Catholic Charities holds annual fundraising auctions and appreciates quality contributions.
The third of our three pillars is prayer. Lent is a time to intensify our prayer lives. This doesn't necessarily mean adding more prayers although I would suggest praying the Stations of the Cross frequently during Lent. What we really need to do during these forty days is to increase our attention and devotion during prayer. Does your mind wander? Make an effort to pull it back. Do you dash through your prayers so you can move on to the next item on the agenda? Slow down, relax, and remember you are talking to God. Prayer is all about strengthening your relationship with God. It isn't so much about getting something as getting Someone. Try to make that the focus of your prayer during Lent.
Fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Denying ourselves, helping others, and strengthening your personal relationship with God. That's what Lent is really all about.