Prayer, fasting and almsgiving. This is what the Gospel invites us to embrace as penitential practices, so I want to share some thoughts on the meaning of penitential practices.
The wisdom of the Church over the ages is that this season of Lent can be a powerful step in our spiritual growth if we use the time tested penitential practices of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, reading Scripture, attending daily Mass, depriving ourselves of some legitimate pleasure, etc.
First, a word of caution: whatever we “do for Lent” does not increase God’s love of us, nor do these Lenten practices make us more acceptable to God. We do not earn, gain, or lose our salvation by whether or not we “make a good Lent” by sacrifice, increased prayer, fasting, etc. What a good Lent can do for us, by using these kinds of penitential practices, is to make us more open to God.
God already loves us and “sends his rain down upon the just and the unjust.” The problem is not God; the problem is our own obstinacy. We build walls against God’s goodness, barriers to letting His grace flow freely into our minds and spirits.
Are we not all aware that we can get so caught up in daily concerns, problems, pleasures and the like that we give little attention to the Lover of our souls? If you were a hungry person who failed to see the banquet before you on the table set right before your eyes, you could go on complaining about your hunger yet never pick a fork and begin to eat. God’s grace is like that. Right before our eyes we have all the means available to us to leap away from fear into fearlessness, away from self-preoccupation into a high degree of compassion for the sufferings of others, away from a sense of being lost along the way into a sense of solidarity with the whole human race.
The biggest crisis facing humanity is meaninglessness. Yet the Source of Meaning is knocking at our door bidding us open to Him. Our lives, though, are so filled with clutter, noise and commotion that we don’t see the Feast of Life the Lord places right before our eyes. We’d rather complain about something, anything, than open the Bible. We’d rather keep walking the treadmill of same old, same old, than be lifted up by the Lord to a conversion of heart that can pack our lives with an ever increasing sense of meaning and purpose.
The penitential practices mentioned above are means to open the door to the One who is knocking, to draw closer to the One who loves us beyond all telling:
Prayer: how can we know Him unless we spend more time with Him?
Fasting: how can we hunger for Him unless we know hunger?
Almsgiving: how can we have a sense of solidarity with the have nots unless we give?
Sacrifice: how can we understand the sacrifice of Christ unless we know what it means to sacrifice ourselves of some legitimate pleasure?
Daily Mass: how can we grow in knowing the banquet the Lord sets before us unless we come to the Banquet?
So, “make a good Lent!”