Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving: The Three Pillars of Lent

By Charles Johnston: 

Ash Wednesday is fast approaching, and with it the very Catholic anxiety about what we are “giving up for Lent.” Many of us focus so much on what we give up – a practice not made mandatory by the Church – that we neglect the three pillars of Lent; prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

Prayer

This one should be the easiest of the three. As Christians we are supposed to be praying anyway, so why make it a requirement? Because the sad truth is that many Christians do not pray, at least not with any regularity.

I myself was, for a very long time, a non-praying Christian. Sure I prayed when I went to church and the priest (or preacher, depending on how far back I’m going) said “let us pray,” and whenever I sped past a hidden highway patrolman. But just to give praise to the God who created me, or to adore His son who died for me? No I was too busy for that. It wasn’t like I thought of God and then just brushed Him aside, had I thought of Him I would’ve prayer, it’s just that I was so caught up in living my life that God became more of an afterthought than a savior. He became my divine security blanket, kept in the closet and only brought out when I was scared, or needed a favor.

I think if you honest with yourselves, you’d admit that at some point in your lives, you have done this too. This is the reason that the Church includes prayer in the pillars of Lent. It’s to remind us that prayer is one of the most important things we do in our lives, if not the most important thing.

This Lent I offer this challenge; increase your prayer life, for your own benefit, for your family, for the sake of the Church as a whole. You don’t have to do all of these, try picking one or two of them and do it for 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, and then look back and I guarantee you’ll see much spiritual growth

  • Pray daily. Try to start every morning with a prayer. Pray before you fall asleep.
  • If you are praying daily already then start adding a few more minutes a day to your prayer time.
  • Pray the rosary daily, it only takes 22 minutes (yes I’ve timed myself lol)
  • Pray the chaplet of Divine Mercy. This on is my person favorite, and about half the time of a rosary if you don’t have 22 minutes.
  • Try lectio divina. That is prayerfully reading and meditating on even just one verse of scripture.
  • Read a chapter of the Bible every day. What better way to get to know the heart and mind of God.
  • Attend daily Mass. “The world could survive more easily without the sun than without the Mass” – St Augustine
  • Pray for priests, your parish priest especially, but also all priests around the world.
  • Pray for your bishop, and all the bishops. They are the shepherds of Christ’s church, and successors of the apostles.
  • Pray for the Pope. I can’t even imagine the amount of pressure he is under, that’s why his first statement, after being elected, he asked us to pray for him.
  • Pray the stations of the Cross. This beautiful prayer can be prayed all year but you’ll find it available to be prayed with a group at almost every parish on Lenten Fridays.

I know it may sound like a lot, especially for this busy world we live in, but give a couple of those a try. Treat it like a workout regiment, try doing one for a week and then adding a new one in. Do what you can, but just keep working towards more prayer. 

As Saint Thomas Aquanis said, “if a Christian is not growing he is dead. There is no stagnation in Christ.”

(For more on this, see my post Grow in Faith )

Fasting

Believe it or not, there are only two days of the year that Catholics are required to fast. One is Ash Wednesday and the other is Good Friday, in fact both days are days of fasting and abstinence. What’s the difference between the two you might ask.

On days of fasting we are to eat only one meal, that can be breakfast, lunch or dinner. If needed, two smaller meals (not adding up to more than one regular meal) may be eaten at regular mealtime. No food is to be eaten between meals, this is a snack free day.

On days of abstinence, which are somewhat optional throughout the year (see my post about Meatless Friday for a more in depth discussion about this), we are to abstain from eating meat. Almost everyone knows that Good Friday is a day of abstinence, but a surprising amount of people forget that Ash Wednesday is too.

Also even though Fridays throughout the year have had thier law of abstinence loosened, in that you may replace abstaining from meat with some other form of penance or corporal work of mercy, during Lent all Fridays are days of abstinence. (This is the case in the United States, check with your local Bishop if outside the US)

13. In keeping with the letter and spirit of Pope Paul’s Constitution Poenitemini, we preserved for our dioceses the tradition of abstinence from meat on each of the Fridays of Lent, confident that no Catholic Christian will lightly hold himself excused from this penitential practice.

Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinance by National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Nov, 1966

Now that we know what we must do, let’s look at why.

Fasting goes very well with prayer. It’s like salt and pepper, they just work well together. One reason is that by fasting we deny our human appetites, both literally and figuratively, and can focus more intensely on our prayer. Another reason, for both fasting and abstinence, is to show solidarity with the poor. For many centuries the poor didn’t have access to meats on a regular basis like the rich did, so to skip a meal and/or abstain from eating meat lets us walk a mile in their shoes and learn to empathize with their plight. It has become somewhat ironic that in recent years you can buy red meat cheaper than many kinds of seafood.

Jesus spoke of fasting during the Sermon on The Mount in a way that assumes we are going to fast. He said, “when you fast.” He didn’t say “if.” (Matthew 6:16) Jesus also speaks about fasting many more times in the Gospel. He even told the Apostles that some demons can only be driven out with fasting and prayer.

We must also be aware that while abstaining from meat, we may be breaking the spirit of the law if not the letter, by eating extravagant seafood. I must confess that I loved going to a fancy fish house on Good Friday, and would eat tons of seafood, all while feeling like I obeyed the law of abstinence just because I didn’t have a steak. But if the point of abstaining from meat is to deny ourselves a legitimate good, in the grand scheme of things a very small sacrifice, in order to focus on the sacrifice of Christ, what good would it do me to eat lobster thermidore? I came to see this as the Pharisaical act that it was.

I gave some tips for growing in your prayer life, so what are some tips for fasting?

  • Drink lots of coffee
  • Don’t think about food

That’s really all I’ve got. I’m terrible at fasting, so I try not to think about it too much.

Use your hunger to focus more clearly one Christ, every time your stomach rumbles think about how hungry Jesus must’ve been during His forty days in the desert. How hungry was He while hanging on the cross. Allow it to become a prayerful exercise.

Almsgiving

Almsgiving is really just another name for charitable giving. Alms comes from a word that means pity, while charity comes from the Latin word “caritas”, that means love. That’s why some translations of 1 Corinthians 13:13 it reads “faith, hope, and charity.”

Giving to charity is showing caritas, love, for our neighbor just as Jesus told us to. St Francis of Assisi said, “in giving we receive.” This is very true. When you have love for someone, and you give to them, its better than any gift you could receive. Anyone that’s ever watched their children open a gift knows this to be true.

But just as with anything else we must take care not give for the wrong reasons, or not out of authentic charity. Three passages from the New Testament come to mind regarding giving. 

  • The first is from the gospel of Matthew and concerns giving to receive praise from others. This is not true charity and must be guarded against.

 ” Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.  “Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Matthew 6:1-4

  • The second passage is from the Gospel of Mark and it’s about proportionality. Jesus compares the giving of a widow and that of a rich man, even though her donation was a fraction of the rich man’s it was actually of greater value because it was all she had. It could be compared to a billionaire donating $1,000,000 and a homeless man giving his last dollar. Even though one is numerically greater than the other, in proportion to how much it cost them, the homeless man gave the greater gift.

And he sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.  And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.”

Mark 12:41-44

  • And the third verse about giving is from another letter of St. Paul. He tells the Corinthians to give with a generous heart, and not to give grudgingly. I’d say more about this point but St. Paul says everything I’d need to say here.

The point is this: he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work.
2 Corinthians 9:6-8

Minimum Requirements 

For how much people love to talk down about the Church, she really doesn’t put that much on us in way of requirements. During Lent we are to pray, fast, and give. How long, how intensely, and how much is up to us.

We can say one Glory Be, probably the shortest prayer I know. We can fast and abstain to the barest of minimums, eating every few hours but making sure that it stays just within the rules. We can give an extra $5 on Sundays. All these would satisfy the letter of the law, but would they satisfy the spirit of the law? Only you and your conscience can answer that.

I’d like to challenge myself, and everyone reading this, to go further this year. Sure we can still give up chocolate or sodas, but let’s also take on something from each of the three pillars of Lent. Let’s pray more fervently, fast more often, and give generously.

We Should Be Doing All This Anyway

The biggest thing that all thee of these pillars have in common is that we should be doing them already, they aren’t something special that we do only for Lent. We only increase these virtues during Lent, and hopefully it carries over for the rest of the year.

As an example, last year I attended an adult formation course at my parish and they encouraged us to pray for someone that we don’t normally pray for every day. We were supposed to pray for that person for the next few weeks during this course. I chose to pray for my pastor, someone I should’ve been praying for daily anyway! This has led to me including Fr Robert in my daily prayer life even until today. Like I said, I should’ve been praying for him anyway, but after getting into a habit of it I can’t have my morning prayer time without including him. Hopefully any virtuous habits that we commit to this Lent will also have a staying effect on all of us.

Let’s makes sure we do it all with the proper motives and remember the admonishment that Jesus gave concerning praying, Almsgiving, and fasting in Matthew chapter 6: don’t do it for the praises of men, do it for God. Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.

(Check out this podcast that I recorded with Pamela Q Fernandes about these same topics Podcast link )

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9 thoughts on “Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving: The Three Pillars of Lent”

  1. I love to read all that you write this reminds us all to prepare for lent but also to grow in our prayer life
    Thank you
    Catherine McDonald

    Like

    1. Thank you very much. The truth is that putting pen to paper encourages me probably as much as it does anyone else. I’m glad other people find it encouraging and enlightening, God gives us all the tools we need to evangelize and spread the gospel, it’s up to us to figure out what they are and put them to use.
      Pax Christi,
      Charles

      Like

  2. Thank you very much for sharing, it really help us to put into action the three pillars of lent more meaningful and hopefully to be worthy enough to do this for the greater glory of our dear God. All praises to Him and God bless!

    Like

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