March 20, 2024 // Perspective

Lenten Lessons: Practices to Keep All Year

Living liturgically means approaching Lent as a built-in annual retreat. For most Catholics, that takes a time-tested and traditional shape. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are, after all, the hallmarks of the season. So, we set aside more time to pray. We abstain from meat on Fridays, give up something we enjoy, and try to respond to the needs of others more generously.

The thought of doing “all that” for more than 40 days might seem impractical, even impossible. Yet, when Jesus was asked to identify the greatest commandment, His reply was clear: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt 22:37). We usually focus on what loving God with our hearts, souls, and minds looks like, but we rarely consider the “all” that Jesus places before every one of those words.

But I think there’s something about all this we often forget. Lent is intended to be a season for intensifying the disciplines of our faith, not the only time when we practice them! Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving should be part of our lives all year, and not just when the statues are veiled or the altar is dressed in purple.

Prayer is not optional when it comes to living the Christian life, and there is no substitute for spending time with God. Knowing this doesn’t make finding the time less of a struggle. We’re busy. But as St. Francis de Sales wrote: “Half an hour’s meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed.” If we want to embrace God’s will in our lives, we must learn how to see things (in addition to ourselves and other people) from His perspective. That’s how prayer changes us. Liturgical prayer in Mass and the Divine Office can help us join ourselves to the prayer of the whole Church. But it can’t take the place of personal prayer. God doesn’t need us, but every one of us needs God.

Fasting is and always has been part of the Christian life. Our forebearers fasted from all meat and dairy products for all 40 days of Lent, as well as during other times of the year. Eastern Catholics and Orthodox Christians still do. Contrary to popular belief, the Second Vatican Council did not eliminate fasting on Fridays all year (surprised?). Just as Catholics regard every Sunday as a “little Easter,” we observe every Friday as a mini-Good Friday. Penance should be a built-in feature of our lives. St. Francis de Sales has some good advice on this one as well. He recommended that we never leave the table without having denied ourselves something. It could be foregoing salt on those fries or simply eating what we are served, even though we don’t like it. Why? Because the sacrifices we make, even the small ones, help us to become more like Christ. Saying no to ourselves on a regular basis orients us toward God and others.

Charitable giving should also be a regular part of our lives. We are certainly called to be responsible in our use of money and other resources. Nevertheless, the Gospels clearly instruct us to give to those in need, and not simply from what is left over. Tithing is a good place to begin, as is opening a separate bank account for giving. But almsgiving isn’t just about money. When we give our time or labor to people in need, we serve something other than our own ambitions and build up the Body of Christ.

Faith is not an extracurricular, or even the primary focus of what we do. It is meant to be the ground we stand on, the foundation we build on, the lens we look through, and the purpose of our whole lives. Discipleship means letting Christ live in and through us by giving ourselves to Jesus completely. That doesn’t necessarily involve doing “more”; it might mean “doing” less. But it challenges us to stop trying to add God to our lives and begin learning how to draw our lives from God. Ultimately, that is the secret to living our faith in a sustainable way, or rather, in a way that can sustain us in this world until God calls us to the next.

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