Understanding Our Church

A Treasury of Arkansas Writers Discussing the Catholic Faith

Through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, our hearts should yearn for God

Published: February 16, 2002

By Eleanor Henley

Lent is the time of year when the Church calls us to conversion of heart, to find out who we truly are before God. We are called to amend our lives while realizing that when God calls we are given the grace to respond.

We strive to pattern our lives after the life of Jesus Christ through prayer, fasting and works of mercy or almsgiving.

Lent offers many opportunities for individual conversion. I offer some suggestions which expand upon the traditional observances and which will perhaps provide a new way to focus on faith during these 40 days preceding Easter.

In Matthew 6:2, 5 and 16 we are cautioned against behaving as hypocrites when we give alms, pray and fast. The word “hypocrite” is derived from a Greek word that refers to an actor who plays a part but who does not reveal his true self. We cannot be content to go through the motions of putting on a good performance during Lent. Instead, we should concentrate on practices which will bring about a change in our interior selves. We must approach Lent with a heart that yearns for God.

Since Vatican Council II the Church has relaxed many of its demands for physical penance during Lent. This is not because we no longer need self-discipline but because we need to focus more on our relationships with others. We live in an individualistic and materialistic society and the self-control we need to practice is that which increases our ability to be concerned for others.

A good gauge of holiness is the degree to which we have served others rather than how much weight we have lost because of fasting.

The following suggestions for doing penance expand the traditional ways.

The first is a willingness to be of service, being attentive to the needs of those around us. What can I do to make the lives of my family, friends, co-workers and even strangers better? A helpful person is responsive to the needs of another in a way that does not make that person dependent. Our willingness to serve others should move them toward self-sufficiency as much as possible. Otherwise we will be serving ourselves. This is an expansion of the practice of almsgiving, except we are giving of ourselves rather than giving our money.

Another form of penance is practicing patience by putting up with the minor inconveniences of life, enduring the unexpected interruptions in our daily plans. Practicing patience means realizing that the world does not conform to our time schedule. We must learn to put up with interruptions as we acquire the form of self-discipline called patience.

A third form of self-discipline is a respect for the environment. The decisions we make each day should take into consideration consequences broader than our immediate comfort and convenience. Most of the earth’s natural resources cannot be replaced once they are depleted. We may argue that one person’s efforts at conservation may have little effect, but when everyone cooperates we can make a difference. We should treat the earth as a beloved friend and try to support efforts to maintain it in beauty, balance and abundance.

The power of Lent lies in its observance. God placed goodness in the world so that we can rejoice. It is self-giving rather than self-denial that is required of us. Lent is an opportunity for us to focus on our world and others as we live out the daily circumstances of our lives.

Eleanor Henley is pastoral associate of Holy Cross Church in Crossett.