Since the early church, prayer, fasting and almsgiving have been the cornerstones upon which spiritual health and growth is based. These three disciplines are outlined in chapter six in the Gospel of Matthew. Just before giving the disciples the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught on the importance of praying sincerely and discreetly:
“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Mt 6:5-8)
To pray is to enter into communion with God with the realization that it is God’s providential care that sustains us and is in no way dependent on the number of words we say or how much effort we expend to be “heard”. Prayer, at its essence, is a conversation with God. There is, of course, communal prayer to be considered. Instead of an “either/or proposition, private prayer and public prayer must be viewed as “both/and”, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
In secular terms, fasting usually means abstaining from food or drink for health reasons, or perhaps for a particular political cause. When viewed through the prism of Christian Spirituality, however, there is much more to consider. The discipline looks beyond self to God and neighbor as a means of reconciliation and the practice of charity. Jesus offers this advice in the Gospel of Matthew:
“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to others to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.” (Mt 6:16-18)
Almsgiving can be defined as something like money or food to relieve the poor. In Christian terms, the meaning can be expanded to include all acts of charity performed in God’s name for anyone’s relief.
“[But] take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them;otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites[b] do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. (Mt 6:1-4)
Let us pray for the grace and strength to pray, fast and give alms in a manner that conforms to the direction of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives.