There’s an old adage that life events come in threes; some good; some bad. Lent also comes in a three-pack: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Many cradle Catholics can look back on a lifetime of giving up those physical vices that usually center around candy and alcohol, only to end in a veritable orgy of indulgence on Easter Sunday. Many others make Lent a time to carve out time from their busy lives to go to daily Mass, or spend more time in prayer. After Easter the Spiritual practice falls away and the mundane creeps back in. We might need to give our Lenten practices a restyling.

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are ways to deepen our relationship with God that Jesus gave to us as a sure path to discipleship. Jesus taught His disciples that prayer was meant to be a combination of private refection, praying with others, and keeping the Commandments. Fasting was more than just an ascetic practice that showed off to everyone how pious one could be. 

Jesus admonished His disciples to look joyful during their fast; don’t draw attention to the inner transformation that was happening. Almsgiving was more than charity for the disciples of Jesus. Giving without seeking justice would be only half of the formula for having a preferential option for the poor and suffering. The three pillars of Spiritual life are meant to be transformative; not just seasonal sacrifices that suspend on Sundays and end in 40 days.

If we are going to derive any benefit from our Lenten exercises we might want to make a slight adjustment to align them with what Jesus intended. Jesus led His disciples through Spiritual transformation that would prepare them for work in the Kingdom of God. His Spiritual exercises were not meant to be momentary expressions of piety, but were directed toward a specific goal of changing us for the task ahead. Each one of us has a true purpose that is buried within. St. Teresa of Avila said, “We find God by uncovering our own true selves; and it is in the search for God that we can discover who we are.” Perhaps the best way to approach our fasting, prayer and almsgiving is to ask, “What do these reveal about myself?”

What we give up or choose to do during Lent reveals a lot about our self-image. When we give up wine, or sweets; swearing or Facebook; and many practices that are too numerable to count, we reveal to ourselves our deepest yearnings to be better people. We give up things so as to save ourselves from gluttony, time-wasting, unkindness or some other vice, so that we will look or feel better in our own eyes. Jesus showed us, however, that what matters more is how we look in God’s eyes. Our giving up is only part of the sacrifice; the rest is more transformative. The more we strip away the things that keep us from being our best selves; the clearer our image of God will be revealed.

Aligning our Spiritual journey with the path Jesus set out requires only a slight adjustment of motivation. If we want to give up eating our favorite treat, rather than using this as a way toward a full body makeover we might want to learn more about the economics of food. In our own country the poor spend more than 35 percent of their income on food. We might look into our own household budget in comparison. Knowledge is the first step toward transformative action. Catholic Relief Services (CRS.org) has recipes on its website to teach us what a meal looks like in the poorest countries so that we can eat in solidarity with their people. Our fast from food might have the desired effect on our bodies, but at the end of 40 days we might also be more aware of the needs of the poor.

Fasting from Facebook is another common trend among social media adherents who find it absorbs too much of their time. These social media sites are not going to be impacted by our fast; but they might be transformed if we spend our Lent spreading joy rather than division. 

Giving up wine is a noble exercise, but we might transform this fast by praying the Serenity Prayer in solidarity with those who struggle with the pain of addiction. When we give alms during Lent we might deviate from the places where we usually send our contributions. We might consider giving to a cause that makes us do a little research. The more we learn about our community, the better the chance that our presence there will be transformative. Whatever we do for Lent, it must always make us joyful people in the end. As Pope Francis told us, we must not be Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter.

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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