Embracing the Three Disciplines of Lent

This post originally appeared in Renewal Ministries’ February 2018 newsletter.

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Dear Faithful Friends,

Can you believe it?

Lent is here!

I must admit, for most of my life I’ve had mixed feelings about Lent—understanding it was “good for me,” but not really looking forward to the self-denial. This Lent is a little different, because the Lord has been helping me with self-denial.

It started a few years ago when I realized I wasn’t really responding to all of Mary’s requests at Medjugorje. We aren’t required to adhere to private revelation, but in this case, they really are only the requests of the Gospel and Church Tradition. I was good on prayer, the Eucharist, and daily Bible reading, and reasonable on Confession, but fasting was hard. I’m not a good “faster,” but several years ago, I realized there was no reason for me not to fast—apart from the weakness of my flesh—no medical reasons, health concerns, etc. So I started trying to fast two days a week. For me, fasting on bread and water was too distracting—I was eating way too much bread! And thinking of it too much! So, except for a morning cup of coffee, I only consumed water, from after dinner one day until dinner the next day. There have been some weeks in which I’ve only been able to fast one day a week because of travel circumstances, etc., but most weeks I have been able to fast two days a week. My spiritual director at the seminary, who is an expert on the early Church, told me that all the early Christians fasted two days a week, somewhat similarly to what I do. So what may seem special to us today was actually fairly standard for those in the early Church.

Another factor motivating me to take up fasting again—I had attempted it with varying degrees of success in the past—was my sense that some people I was praying for needed more than my prayer; they needed fasting as well. As Jesus said in Mark 9:29, some things that have a bad grip on people are only released by prayer and fasting. I must say, while I had been praying for some people for years, I saw very visible results after adding fasting to my prayers for them. I don’t know exactly what it is, maybe the Lord wants to see that we have “some skin in the game,” or are willing to pay a little price—virtually nothing compared to the price He was willing to pay—to join our fasting and self-denial to His for the salvation of souls. When I’m fasting, there seems to be a little more depth to my crying out to God for others. Consider giving this a try this Lent!

I know people with medical conditions or other needs may not be able to fast from food and drink, but everybody has something they can renounce to add some intensity to their prayer, whether it be entertainment, desert, some non-essential comfort, etc.

I must also say that my resolve to continue this pattern has been greatly strengthened by my recent “encounter” with the depth of the message of Our Lady of Fatima and the profound response of the three children. (See the November 2017 newsletter for more on this.) And I am not skipping the daily rosary as I once did; if I do miss a day, I make it up the next day by saying two. I want to do my part in responding to Mary’s call to pray the rosary daily for peace for the world, the conversion of sinners, and reparation for sin and offenses against the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

The three traditional disciplines of Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. I try to increase my prayer as much as I can during Lent by adding extra prayer times or visits to the Blessed Sacrament. We talk about prayer a lot at Renewal Ministries, and I know my book The Fulfillment of All Desire: A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints has helped many thousands to deepen their prayer life, as have many of Sr. Ann’s books and CDs.

Recently, though, I gained an insight into almsgiving that has been pretty inspiring. It began with encountering one of the Mass readings that mentions almsgiving.

“But as to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you” (Lk 11:41).

Jesus said this to the Pharisees. Sometimes it is translated somewhat differently, but our Renewal Ministries’ consultant, Dr. Mary Healy, a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and a colleague at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, says this about it:

“I think Jesus here is referring to literal almsgiving, not an analogy. In the context of the previous verses, the Lord seems to be saying that almsgiving has to come from a heart full of generosity and kindness (as opposed to the extortion and wickedness of the Pharisees).”

I feel that I’m getting a new insight into how these three “disciplines,” which the Church focuses on in a special way during Lent, but which are good practices as a regular part of our life, move us out of a tendency to organize our lives around comfort and convenience. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving require a regular pattern of self-denial, turning to the Lord, and trusting in Him that is really important for “keeping our edge” and remaining alert to the Lord and eager for His kingdom. These disciplines help us not settle down into a pattern of comfort and convenience that dulls our ability to hear His voice.

Anne and I are experiencing a new joy, a new eagerness, and a new freedom in almsgiving and are indeed finding “you can’t outdo God in generosity.”

So let’s continue, in the midst of the normal pain that self-denial brings, picking up our cross with joy this Lent in increased prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, so that sinners may be converted, mercy may be granted to the world, and reparation may be made for sin—both our sin and the sins of others who may not be aware of their need to do penance.

It’s good to be in this together.

Your companion on the journey,

 

Ralph

Ralph Martin

Ralph Martin is president of Renewal Ministries. He also hosts The Choices We Face, a widely viewed weekly Catholic television and radio program distributed throughout the world. Ralph holds a doctorate in theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome and is a professor and the director of Graduate Theology Programs in the New Evangelization at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in the Archdiocese of Detroit. He was named by Pope Benedict XVI as a Consultor to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization and was also appointed as a “peritus” to the Synod on the New Evangelization. Ralph is the author of a number of books, the most recent of which are The Urgency of the New Evangelization, The Fulfillment of All Desire, and Will Many Be Saved? He and his wife Anne have six children and sixteen grandchildren and reside in Ann Arbor, Michigan.