Fr Billy Swan
Dear friends. On this first Sunday of Lent, I share a few thoughts on the three traditional pillars of Lent - namely prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Notice how all three are things that we do – we pray, we fast and we give alms. They are practices. This is what distinguishes us from people who, for whatever reason, do not observe Lent. Therefore, Lent has a very practical side to it as a time when we pray, fast and give alms. It is worth noting too how the 40 days of Lent are based on the forty days Jesus spent in the desert where the Spirit drove him as we read in today’s Gospel. There alone in the wilderness, he also prayed, fasted and prepared for his mission of charity. So as we take up these practices of Lent again, we unite ourselves to him in order to become more like him.
First the practice of prayer. Thomas Merton was once asked what was the most important advice on prayer he could give. His response was ‘take the time’. If we want to pray better this Lent then take the time. Prayer, as St Teresa of Avila describes it, is a conversation between friends. It is the time when God’s thirst for us meets our thirst for him and when we can deeply listen to the Spirit that moves in our lives. Recommitting ourselves to prayer this Lent means going back to basics and asking ourselves some important questions. How can I pray more and better this Lent? Do I make a conscious effort for times of prayer each day? Is there a new method of prayer I can learn this Lent? Will I take the initiative and suggest to my family that we pray grace before meals every day or at least once a week? Now that it isn’t possible to gather for Mass, can I visit my local Church once a week and spend sometime before the Lord present in the Eucharist? Perhaps we might do the Stations of the cross? Or prayerfully spending time with the daily readings. These are just some practical ways in which we can pray more and better this Lent and cherish our personal relationship with the Lord.
The second practise of Lent is to fast. From the earliest of times, Christians have fasted at key moments. This is not because we are puritans or were against the pleasures of the body. Rather because fasting disciplines us in a way that purposely allows our deeper hungers to arise. It is a type of training that unites all of our desires and needs under the single desire to do God’s will and serve his purposes. The traditional days of fasting are Wednesdays but especially Fridays when we unite some sacrifice to that of Jesus’ passion. This could be to refrain from eating meat or giving up a meal. It could mean us fasting from a desire or attachment that has become too dominant in our lives. We know what they are. Fasting from them restores the balance and restores us to freedom.
The third practise of Lent is almsgiving or charity. We live now in close proximity to each other. The needs of humanity come pouring into our living rooms each night with the news. So many needs, so little we can do it seems. But if we can do something, then let’s do it. If someone asks for help this Lent, give it. If a need presents itself before us, don’t turn away. Respond, even if it is only by a smile, our time, a letter, a 5 euro donation or whatever it might be. Do something, give something and give it with all the love we have. Do without something we like so that someone can do with what we might give. This is the spirit of charity that Trocaire depends on and that saves lives around the world. Remember that while we are giving up things for Lent, others may be close to just giving up. May what we give up for Lent help others not to give up.
And so as Lent begins, we go back to the basic things we do together in this season of preparation for Easter – we pray more and better, we fast and we give what we can. It is a time of training and discipline when we join with Jesus in his desert experience when he too fasted, prayed and prepared for his beautiful life of charity given over for us and for all.