Happy penitential season, everyone!
I’d like to offer a few lines on the three disciplines (prayer, fasting, and almsgiving) that I’ve been finding helpful.
The first is that the three disciplines are a direct response to the Fall of man. When we as a race fell, through the actions of our original parents, we lost our original harmonies: we were first created in harmony with God, with our selves, and with our neighbors and the rest of creation. When we fell, we were no longer in sync with God—we disobeyed Him and no longer trusted Him to be our loving Father. We also became disordered within ourselves—instead of asking “What is the good that I am to do?” we started asking, “How can I maximize pleasure and minimize pain?” And we became disordered in our relationships with others and the world—I heard it put once that we started to love things and use people, instead of the other way around.
The three disciplines act against the Fall—in order to pray, we need to turn to God in trust; in order to fast, we need to put away our desire for pleasure and our distaste for suffering to do the good; in order to give alms, we need to love people and use things. These three disciplines are not just hard, they are literally impossible without God’s grace. And with God’s grace, they are the signs that we are becoming as we were meant to be.
The second thought on the disciplines of Lent comes from Matthew’s sermon on the Mount, chapter 6, where Jesus gives us these three disciplines as a mark of the Christian life. In all three disciplines, Jesus tells us to do them “in secret”—why does He tell us that? One reason, I think, is that by their nature they are secretive to the rest of the world. They are like an indecipherable code. The messages we’re used to getting throughout our days are, traditionally, from the world, the flesh, and the devil. These three disciplines go under their radar.
- The world tells us to get, get, get—Jesus tells us to give. The world doesn’t understand that.
- The flesh tells us to seek comfort—Jesus tells us to pick up our crosses daily. Of course our flesh is confused when we don’t immediately do its bidding.
- The devil tells us to worship him, or to worship any of the idols we’ve set up (money, sex, and power tend to be common ones)—Jesus tells us to worship the one true God, and to open our hearts to Him for Him to work on us. The devil definitely doesn’t want us to know that that’s an option, and can scarcely understand it himself.
When we practice these disciplines, we’re practicing secrets that the culture around us doesn’t comprehend. We’re not obeying the loudest voices; we’ve quieted our hearts so we can hear the still, small voice of God, and communicating back to Him in the secret code that He has given us.
And lastly, these three disciplines are not practiced alone. All of them, Jesus tells us, are being done under the watchful eyes of God. He sees us. He knows our struggles. And in practicing these disciplines, He is giving us the chance to see where we are right now. Part of the grace of the season of Lent is the grace to practice these disciplines, and another part is the grace to repent when we’ve failed, and to amend our lives. We are clay in the hands of the potter, and in order to be wet clay, sometimes we need the tears of repentance, which are themselves a gift from God.
Have a great rest of Lent, everyone!
Parish FOCUS Missionary
P.S. If you liked this, my wife and I did a three-part series on almsgiving, prayer, and fasting on our podcast, “A Word from Our Outpost”—you can find it right here, or wherever you find podcasts.