Our Lenten practice of penance is all about conversion. Personal conversion is never a once and for all experience. The entire Christian life is a process of conversion—turning towards God and meeting Him as he comes to us each day.
Lent is an opportunity for us to focus more closely on this work of personal conversion and making ourselves open to change. The three disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are age-old practices that have consistently helped members of the Church grow closer to the Lord. The fundamental purpose of Lent is to help us love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our strength (Mark 12:30).
Every year people make the conscious decision to break patterns of sin and old ways of life. We pray, fast and give alms because those are the direct instructions from Jesus in Matthew 6 on how to grow closer to our father in heaven.
Prayer is one of the most easily recognizable practices for people of faith, but it does not mean it comes easy. Distractions, worldly calamity and the pressures of daily life can interrupt the prayer habits of the most devout person. Lent is a time when we recommit ourselves to frequent and regular prayer.
It’s also an opportunity to enter into any number of prayer practices that can help us in the process of conversion. Daily Mass, eucharistic adoration, stations of the cross, the rosary, chaplets, vocal prayers, meditations, Lectio Divina, Liturgy of the Hours, and simple short prayers and conversations with God throughout the day are all magnificent ways to pray. One of the most holy people I know only prays the words “Jesus, mercy” all throughout the day. What is most essential for the Christian life is to pray each day.
Fasting is a Lenten discipline that is easily misunderstood. In the broad sense, fasting is any act of self-denial and a decision not to give in to the whim of the moment to our desires, appetites and passions. Fasting is an exercise of freedom from our senses, which helps us grow in our dependence on God who is the source of our strength to avoid temptation.
The Church requires very little of us in terms of fasting. Two days a year, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, are technical days of fasting. That means we have only one major cooked meal in the day. In addition we abstain, which means not eating meat on those days. We also abstain from meat on Fridays in Lent to sharpen our resolve to be converted.
Fasting for spiritual renewal throughout Lent can include making the resolve to simply eat less, and when we do eat, choose basic and simple foods. Cut out expensive and unnecessary snacks. Make yourself uncomfortable by buying generic foods or the cheap stuff. This has the added benefit of reminding us that there are plenty of people in the world who do not get the luxury items we take for granted.
Almsgiving helps us shake off selfishness. Think of all the money you might spend on hobbies and non-essential items. Make the resolve this Lent to take that amount of money and give it to the poor.
Almsgiving is a great way to repent for sins. One time I was battling a specific grudge, and I was so disgusted at my own selfishness that I drove to the Missionaries of Charity convent and just gave the sisters all the money in my wallet. I did not have a lot of money at the time, but I wanted to be converted so badly that I would rather be broke than have money and be selfish. This Lent do something radical to give alms to the poor and break the old patterns of selfishness in your life.
For my parishes this Lent, I am encouraging a special kind of fasting—fasting from screen time. The modern world provides plenty of temptation for time wasting with our digital devices. I have observed how much screen time on the phone, television and computer is affecting our families and our Church as a whole. Having served in the city and now in the rural parts of the diocese, there is no escaping the temptations that come from too much screen time with digital media.
The connection to phones and digital devices may be one of the more difficult things to separate yourself from this Lent. Be bold and ask Jesus to help you and your family put family time and prayer time ahead of screen time. God will help you fall deeper in love with him this Lent and shake off the sluggishness of sin and vice.