In the first of this series on Lenten practices, we covered the special purpose of Lent and also discussed the importance of living Lent with a good spirit, a sporting and generous spirit of sacrifice. We also covered the first – and arguably the most important – means of practicing Lent well, the use of prayer.
In the second article in this series we will cover the means of fasting and sacrifice.
Fasting is first and foremost a form of prayer. It is secondly a tried-and-true means of self-mastery, of learning how to put our emotions, desires, and preferences at the service of our will and our intellect. It is a way of practicing and improving temperance, which is one of the cardinal virtues. The more virtue we develop and possess the more we will be able to serve God and others. Lent is a great time to improve our virtues.
Dietary fasting and abstinence is perhaps the most well-known and practiced form of temperance; it is sometimes referred to as an act of mortification. When we fast from food and drink we are using the body’s natural reflexes to remind us of God and our constant need for Him. These exercises of the will can help us maintain a more constant presence or awareness of God throughout the day. Our body’s hunger pangs are in a sense an opportunity to call out to God, thanking Him for all that He has done for us or for our family members. We can also use these pangs to ask for forgiveness for our defects, our selfishness, or our moments of un-love.
When we fast it is very important that we remember that “we should never fast alone”. We should fast with Our Lord. We fast in conversation with Him. We should ask Him to accept our little sufferings as He offers Himself to the Father in the divine Liturgy that is going on in heaven all the time. Appropriately, fasting, abstinence, and other acts of mortification have been referred to as the “prayer of the senses.”
Once we’ve gotten into the Lenten rhythm of prescribed fasting and abstinence we could consider other, smaller practices of “fasting”, detachment and sacrifice. Why let our love for the presence of God “be minimal”? So here are some other ideas and examples of fasting and sacrifice:
- “Fast” from the internet, resist the desire to constantly check on the news or the weather, or the sports scores.
- Fast from your favorite music, food, free time activities.
- Eat a bit healthier, eat just a bit less, taking the smallest or least attractive portion, quietly. Consider not taking seconds. Eat slower, reasserting your will in how you eat or drink. Resist commenting about food or drink.
- Practice not letting yourself be “pushed around” by your feelings or emotions.
- Get up a bit earlier or with a bit more initial spark. Don’t hit the snooze button.
- Take shorter or slightly cooler showers.
- Offer up “little sufferings” for various intentions: your lack of generosity, your irritability, the sins of all Christians, for all expectant mothers, etc.
- Exercise just a bit more. Exercise with a slightly more cheerful spirit of sacrifice. Don’t complain about exercise. Try smiling more when you’re exercising. Hold the door for others when you come out of the gym all hot and tired. Greet them with a sincere smile.
- Smile a bit more, especially when you don’t want to, or smile at people you don’t particularly like. And perhaps we could work more at liking the people we don’t already like! This can be a wonderfully generous sacrifice to offer to God.
- Accept more cheerfully the many small annoyances or contradictions that happen to you during the day: the series of red lights you catch on your way to work, the crashing computer, the flat tire, the assignment you’re handed at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon.
- Minimize interior complaint. This takes practice, but such complaints can be tamed. And we should offer to God the effort and energy it takes to do this.
- Perhaps during Lent we could work with greater attention, finishing our tasks well, to the last detail. Helping others quietly with their work, etc. And we can offer this work to God quietly for any number of intentions. Our work becomes beautiful prayer in this fashion.
These are just a few simple ideas about fasting and self-mastery that we might consider practicing as we move into Lent. They are designed to help us remove or detach from the things that keep us from closer union with God, and to strengthen us for acts of service to others. The last article in this series will be about almsgiving and other acts of charity.