In this liturgical season of Lent, the Church calls us to
focus in a heightened way on acts of interior penance – on prayer,
fasting, and almsgiving. This commitment reflects a threefold call to
conversion in relation to God (prayer), oneself (fasting) and others
(almsgiving). (See CCC 1434).
involves three central expressions: vocal, meditation and contemplative
(CCC 2700-24). Vocal prayer recognizes that we are embodied creatures
who communicate with one another through language. It enables us to pray
in community. Jesus taught His disciples to vocally pray the Our Father
and embodied vocal prayer in the synagogue, in the Garden of Gethsemane
and on the cross.
Meditation indicates a deepening of our
interior prayer, engaging our imagination, feelings, thoughts and
desires. It reveals our deep thirsting for God. The “book” of our life
is confronted, challenged and consoled by the books of sacred wisdom.
The Christian tradition offers a wealth of meditation methods: Lectio
Divina (reflection on the scriptures), the Rosary, icons, reading the
spiritual masters, and many more.
Contemplation, as St. Teresa of
Avila suggests, is “nothing else than a close sharing between friends;
it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves
us.” If meditation emphasizes human seeking, contemplation is more like a
resting in the good. It is a silent, loving union with Christ, who
shares his mystery with us. In the words of St. John Vianney, “I look at
him and he looks at me.”
days of fasting and abstinence is one of the five precepts of the
Church. Fasting gives us the strength to order our desires, to master
our instincts, and to experience an interior freedom of the heart. It
units us to the mystery of Jesus in the desert — the high priest who is
able to sympathize with our weaknesses and who has been tested like us
in every way, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).
As Pope Emeritus
Benedict XVI reflected in his last Ash Wednesday audience as pope, “the
wilderness to which Jesus withdrew is the place of silence and poverty,
where man is deprived of material support and faces the fundamental
existential questions; where he is driven to the essential and for this
very reason can more easily encounter God.” Even in these troubled
times, Benedict added, “The Lord never tires of knocking at man’s door
in social and cultural milieus that seem engulfed in secularization.”
Fasting with Christ in the desert creates the conditions for discovering
God and offers us the strength to resist the temptations of our age.
Thomas Aquinas defined almsgiving as an act of charity performed
through the medium of mercy. Hence, Aquinas distinguishes between two
kinds of almsgiving: spiritual and corporeal. Spiritual almsgiving
includes such acts as counseling, instructing, consoling and forgiving.
Corporeal almsgiving involves feeding the hungry, clothing the naked,
and visiting the sick, and many other acts that address the bodily needs
of our neighbor.
Reflecting on her experience of being
imprisoned, Dorothy Day turned her heart to the marks of Lent: “I am
convinced that prayer and austerity, prayer and self-sacrifice, prayer
and fasting, prayer, vigils and marches, are the indispensable means.
And love. All these means are useless unless animated by love.”
Lent starts on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 14) and continues through Holy Saturday (March 31).
The Pope and the American bishops outline obligatory fast and abstinence as follows:
Wednesday (Feb. 14) and Good Friday (March 30) are days of abstinence
for all Catholics over the age of 14. On these two days, fast, as well
as abstinence, is also obligatory for those from the ages of 18-59.
Abstinence means refraining from meat. Fast means one full meal a day,
with two smaller meals and nothing between meals (liquids are
permitted). No Catholic will lightly excuse himself or herself from this
All Fridays in Lent are days of abstinence from meat.
Here again Catholics will not hold themselves lightly excused, but if
there is a serious health problem, this obligation would not apply. We
should strive to make all days of Lent a time of prayer and penance.