It might surprise some Catholics to learn that fasting during Lent is not meant to be undertaken solely for one’s spiritual well-being. While self-abnegation can serve as a vivid reminder that our physical bodies should not rule our lives, the early church fathers thought that fasting needed to be connected to something else: almsgiving. St. John Chrysostom wrote that fasting without almsgiving was hardly praiseworthy; in fact, it hardly counted as fasting at all. Ironically, he compared it to gluttony and drunkenness, since it smacked of selfishness. For St. Augustine, fasting was avaricious unless one gave away what one saved. The practice, then, needs to be informed by charity, not simply a desire to attain spiritual perfection.
Fasting and almsgiving are, along with prayer, the pillars of Lenten practice. But as even devout Catholics might be surprised by the comments of Sts. John and Augustine, they might also be surprised by the new ways that these old traditions can help them—and others—as they prepare for the great celebration of Easter.
The three practices should be intertwined. Prayer can soften hearts and awaken compassion, making a person more likely to be generous to others. It also makes fasting more palatable. A deeper relationship with God leads to growing solidarity with the poor, a desire to imitate Christ in his poverty and a hope to be freed from the snares of our consumerist culture. Fasting aids prayer by reminding us of our dependence on God and can also, as St. John and St. Augustine knew, help us in a practical way by saving money for alms. Finally, almsgiving can deepen our prayer as we are brought into contact with our brothers and sisters who live in poverty, and it can prompt an important question: Am I consuming too much?
Can we say anything new about this Lenten triad? Many Catholics forego things like desserts or soda, noble enough goals to wean us from foods that might be unhealthy. But why not take up the fasting officially suggested by the church? Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of universal (that is, for everyone between ages 18 and 59) fast and abstinence. Fasting is defined as one full, meatless meal. Abstinence means refraining from meat. Fridays in Lent are also days of abstinence. Perhaps an entire day without food—health permitting—could also be added to this regime. This kind of voluntary fasting, difficult as it is, can remind us of the involuntary hunger that is the daily lot of millions of our brothers and sisters around the world, of all ages.
Second, try an alternative fast. Is there something we can forego that will wean us from a “disordered attachment,” as St. Ignatius said? For example, cutting back on our use of social media means more time for people face to face. In this way fasting might provide a kind of alms for our family and friends. How about fasting from family arguments? In this case, the alms we give could be greater peace.
Almsgiving may also benefit from some creative thinking. Giving to organizations like Catholic Relief Services’ Operation Rice Bowl, for example, is a superb way to help the poor, the hungry and the homeless across the world, as Jesus asked of us when he said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Mt 9:13). Almsgiving is a concrete form of this mercy. But can our alms include the spiritual kind? This may be as simple as offering the alms of forgiveness and reconciliation to someone against whom we have held a grudge. That offering is as valuable as anything we may put into the collection plate this Lent.
Creativity in fasting and almsgiving may encourage us to be creative in prayer. Lent is one of the best times to think about new ways of fostering a personal relationship with God. The biblical motif of dying and rising to new life that define Lent can help us identify with Jesus, who understood human suffering. Reflecting on those Scripture passages can be an entrée for us into his life and open doors for him to enter into our hearts.
But meditating on suffering is not the only way to pray during the days before Easter. For example, you might try to rediscover a spiritual practice. If you have not been to Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament recently, check out your parish’s schedule. If you’ve never tried Christian centering prayer, you could learn about this practice, which has roots in the apophatic tradition of Christian spirituality. If you’ve not been on a retreat in some time, why not see what a local retreat house is offering during Lent. For many retreat centers, Lent is a prime time for accessible and inviting spiritual programs.
This Lent, may prayer move us all to charity and asceticism. May our almsgiving remind us to consume less and pray more. And may we make St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine, not to mention Jesus Christ, happy by allowing our fasting to awaken a deeper reliance on God and move us to give to those in greatest need.