The Lenten urge to give, fast and pray runs deep. Hazel Sillver takes a closer look at these enjoyable disciplines.
During Lent, it is traditional to echo Christ’s time in the desert by committing ourselves to a discipline. Since his 40 days and 40 nights consisted of fasting and prayer, Christians usually vow to stick to one or both of these; but giving alms to the poor is yet another discipline associated with the Lenten period.
It is stereotypical to think of these three Lenten choices as strict and severe. Perhaps the word ‘discipline’ makes them sound intolerable. But are they really so bad? In the spirit of the Beatitudes, we can see them in another light. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God,’ Christ tells us (Matthew 5:8).
The function of these ancient disciplines, which are found in most of the world’s religions, is to purify the heart. If we give only to ourselves, we cannot be aligned with God in heart; if we fill ourselves with stimulants and soporific food, we dull the spirit that longs for God; and if we allow our minds to be busy, we will never hear God speaking.
Instead of being intolerable, these blessed disciplines bring us the joy of having a centered, steady heart, within which devotion can soar. Let us look at each of them in turn.
According to Paracelsus, ‘Fasting is the greatest remedy, the physician within.’ Many modern doctors and nutritionists agree; the theory being that constantly consuming food that challenges the digestive system (such as fat and refined grains) prevents the body from dispelling toxins and recuperating.
Whilst some Christians like a true fast of going without food during the day (and eating in the evening), such an approach is not recommended by health experts. Instead, consider a ‘rice fast’, eating nothing but brown rice during the day; or, even better, consume nothing but very healthy food (predominantly vegetables, rice and vegetable protein such as beans and quinoa). Being hungry and numbed with headaches is not a helpful aid to prayer, but this healthier approach will feed body and soul.
In the wider sense, fasting can refer to giving up anything that keeps us from God. St Clare of Assisi referred to such holy fasting as ‘blessed poverty’. If giving up unhealthy foods doesn’t suit, perhaps we could give up unhelpful emotions (such as depression, guilt or anxiety) that hold us back from God. Perhaps we could even give up intellectualizing God – instead of thinking of God, defining God, talking of God and reading about God, during Lent we might instead vow to only seek, love and treasure God via the mysterious silent depths of our hearts.
Far from being punishing, such ‘poverties’ can bring us great joy.
In 1 Thessalonians (5:17), we are told to ‘Pray without ceasing’. How easy that is to say! Modern life is full of distractions, but the dedicated period of Lent can help us to focus our prayer and feel all the better for it.
Christ went to the desert in order to dive into the holy depths of prayer without interruption. Amid the vast silences of the desert, beneath the stars, he was immersed in a paradise of prayer. But what about those of us who only have a 10-minute window for prayer each day?
During Lent, thinking of Our Lord in the desert, there is an urge to go much deeper in prayer. How is this possible? Perhaps, during Lent, we might vow to follow the way of ‘The Practice of the Presence of God’, defined by Brother Lawrence.
‘The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer,’ wrote Brother Lawrence, ‘and in the noise and clutter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquillity as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.’
After several years of persevering to remain ‘in His holy presence’ at all times, via ‘an habitual silent and secret conversation of the soul with God’, Lawrence found it became hard for him not to think of God! Prayer at its simplest is a union with God in the heart and how wonderful that can be. As Lawrence found, this can become as habitual as breathing. It is vital for our wellbeing, which is pummelled by the stresses of day-to-day life, to be with God; we need that support, peace and nourishment.
‘It is more blessed to give than to receive,’ the Bible tells us (Acts 20:35). The Lenten tradition of giving alms to the poor will make us much happier and freer than spending money on something for the house or the wardrobe that we don’t really need.
But giving does not have to consist of donating money; after all, not all of us have pockets of gold to give. Instead we might give our time, energy and love. ‘You give but little when you give of your possessions,’ said Kahlil Gibran. ‘It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.’
This might be the obvious local volunteering, such as helping to pick up litter, baking a cake for a fundraising event or running a race for charity. But one does not have to help physically in order to give. ‘It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving,’ said Mother Teresa. Maintaining a kind mind and a kind tongue is an enormous way to give; it is so easy for our egos to jump to judge another, or to join in with unkind gossip.
And, last but not least, prayer is a mountainous form of giving. We can all rest safe, knowing that all around the world, at this moment, nuns and monks are deep in dedicated prayer. As soon as we stop, like Brother Lawrence, and remember to hold God within our hearts, we are flooding ourselves with love and sending it out into the world.
QUOTES ON FASTING
‘Prayer brings us halfway to God, fasting takes us to the gateway of heaven’ – Muhammad
‘Fasting is the soul’s nourishment’ – John Chrysostom
‘Oh blessed poverty that gives eternal riches to those who love and embrace it’ – St Clare of Assisi
QUOTES ON GIVING
‘When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do’ – Matthew 6:2
‘Whatever a man has in superabundance is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance’ – St Thomas Aquinas
‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ – Acts 20:35
QUOTES ON PRAYER
‘Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his face continually’ – 1 Chronicles 16:11
‘The Lord is near to all who call on him’ – Psalms 145:18
‘Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul’ – Mahatma Gandhi