Lent is a great time to deepen our spiritual selves through prayer, fasting and almsgiving: but all three must be done in balance and in harmony with each other. Every now and then I hear people say that “I’m not giving up anything for Lent, I’m going to do something extra” and this misses the point. If they do something extra, then the increase in charity is good – but the “extra” they’re doing is often for the sake of charity, which is just the almsgiving they should be doing anyway. Where has the “extra” gone now? We often ask “what are you giving up for Lent?” but almost never pose the question, “What’s your almsgiving this year?” or “what’s your extra prayer devotion this year?” Those who say they are “doing extra” instead of fasting, run the risk of only doing the almsgiving, or they end up doing a double dose of almsgiving and prayer, yet still no fasting. This is not good. The hardest thing to find in life in balance, and balance must be part of our spiritual lives too.
The reason why the three are important, are because they address the three fundamental relationships we have: our relationship to God, our relationship to neighbour, and the relationship we have with ourselves.
Prayer concerns our relationship with God – by deepening our prayer life, we come to have a better and more intimate relationship with God. (Although there are times when God may call us into a ‘desert experience’ when we seem to loose all contact with him).
Almsgiving concerns our relationship with our neighbours – it’s more than just giving money to the poor: we can come to love and empathise with our neighbour thorough many different works of charity. This includes giving money to poor, but it may be more helpful to support our neighbour who is not poor by giving them our time so that we can listen to them in their needs. Our neighbour needing charity is not just the homeless person we see on the street, but could be a friend who needs a shoulder to cry on, a family member who needs careers advice, or a work colleague who is stressed about some element of their job.
Fasting concerns the complex relationship we have with ourselves. How can we love our neighbour as ourselves, if we don’t know the “me” that I am loving, or even trying to love? Through fasting we discipline ourselves so as not to be fickle to the emotions, yearnings and temptations that blow us around every day. We learn that we can control our desires and temptations so as to live more freely for doing what is right. We often act on impulse without considering a situation, but fasting allows us to master the impulse so that we may more readily discern what we should do as a Christian response to a situation.
As we undertake our Lenten disciplines, let us pray for each other that we might find a balance in our prayer, fasting and almsgiving, so as to comprehend more readily ourselves, our God and our neighbour.