We are well on our way into the 40 Day journey of Lent. The hearts, hugs and kisses of St. Valentine’s Day have been put away, the ashes from Ash Wednesday have disappeared, Rice Bowls are in the narthex, and our churches are dressed in purple. Lent is indeed here.
The 3 pillars of Lent - prayer, fasting and almsgiving - could also be called the 3 Pillars of Love. In fact, each of the 3 pillars of Lent are invitations to grow in and participate more fully with Love. As St.Thérèse of Lisieux said, “Do not imagine that Love can be found without suffering, for we carry with us our human nature; and yet, what a source of merit it is!” It is these 3 pillars that present us with concrete ways to enter into Jesus' own path to the cross, by helping us to overcome ourselves.
The Three Pillars
The first pillar, Prayer, unites us to Love, aka God. St.Thérèse reminds us that prayer doesn’t have to be complicated, just consistent. “For me,” she writes, “Prayer is a burst from my heart, it is a simple glance thrown towards heaven, a cry of thanksgiving and love in times of trial as well as in times of joy. Prayer is something noble, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites it to God.”
Prayer draws us into the life of God. If God is present, then Love is present. If Love is present, God is present. “To abide in love is to abide in God.” (1 John 4:8) To abide means to follow, to be a disciple. There is simply no way to abide in love without prayer, which puts us in close and constant contact with Love. Abiding in love, remaining in God and acting in accord with his will, is beyond our ability without prayer.
Fasting, the 2nd pillar, is a direct result of prayer. Although fasting is typically associated with refraining from food or drink, a deeper understanding of fasting is that it is a position of self-restraint, self-discipline, of reminding ourselves of our need for God. Fasting can be practiced with the body, in eating only certain foods or not eating other foods, but it also calls us to the deeper level of spiritual and emotional fasting. Fasting physically prepares us to fast in other ways, such as from behaviors and emotions that destroy and are not life-giving, that are not part of God. It calls us away from self-worship through inviting us to refrain. When we can fast, we can also see the needs of others. We become other-focused, one of the traits of true love.
The 3rd pillar, almsgiving, calls us to remember that all we have is a gift. Love calls us to use our gifts in the service of others, especially material goods. We learn to distinguish between needs and wants, and to remember those who are vulnerable. Sharing what God has given us with those who need it is an imitation, on a lower level, of what God does for us. Just as there is no lack or deficiency in God, but he gives us everything out of his own abundant life, so, too, we are called to imitate his generosity by sharing what we have ourselves. Another Doctor of the Church, St. Catherine of Siena, taught that God does not give every gift to anyone, because he wanted people to have to depend on each other. Our generosity to others is a small imitation of the total generosity Jesus will offer on Good Friday when he holds nothing back from us, not even his own life.
The 3 pillars of Lent teach us that True Love is healing, life-giving, self-giving and other-focused. It's certainly a challenge for us to give or even abide in this type of Love, which is why participating in prayer, fasting and almsgiving can act as a roadmap to find and realign ourselves with True Love. Let’s carry the words of St.Thérèse with us this Lent: “I know of one means only by which to attain to perfection: LOVE. Let us love, since our hearts are made for nothing else.”