It's hard to believe that Ash Wednesday snuck up on us like a thief in the night, but here we are ready to turn over a new spiritual leaf again. Lenten conversion is not a superficial renewal like cleaning an old painting or varnishing an antique chair. These are renovations but are not conversions! What the Lord wants is not just the change of bad habits and worldly vices; He wants a clean soul and no half-measures will do. And for that, we are given a forty-day discipline to train us to cleanse the insides of our souls and make them ready for the Lord.
Lenten house cleaning proceeds according to an age-old spiritual discipline of the Church: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Not ironically, the reason for a three-fold spiritual discipline is that we have a three-fold soul. The "faculties" of the soul are mind, imagination (i.e., emotions) and will, what St. Augustine called the "internal trinity" sixteen centuries ago. As such, the disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are directed toward converting and renewing our inner powers: prayer enlightens the mind, fasting matures the emotions, and charity strengthens the will.
First and foremost, take time each of the forty days of Lent to pray and don't miss a day. Whatever way you pray best, do more of it. Prayer purifies the mind and opens the intellect to the Truth. This does not mean that we have to enter a PhD program to be Christians. Prayer is a universal discipline and anyone can exercise his mind with it to great effect. Years ago when I was in a rural migrant parish, the little Guatemalan ladies who walked sometimes miles every day to the church to pray before the statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe would put me to shame by their intensity of prayer – their prayer was pure and devotional and, as a consequence, their minds were much more attuned to the Mind of God than that of their busy pastor!
Don't neglect this practice during Lent – in fact, do more than the minimum because it's good for the soul! The discipline of fasting aims to reorder the disordered emotions and appetites of our inner life. Eating less or missing a meal never hurt anyone – especially in food-abundant America. However, the benefits are enormous in chastened desires and a tangible sense of dependency upon God.
The human will becomes mature by learning to make sacrifices for higher goods and purposes, but the spirit of sacrifice is by no means a natural inclination to most humans. However, choosing to put the good of others first can be learned through training in selflessness which is what the discipline of "almsgiving" is about. Almsgiving trains us to think and act generously as our way of life. It is the training of the will to renounce self for the good of another, and Lent gives us forty days to practice it more intensely.
The truly magnanimous souls of our Church's history were those saints who knew the need for discipline in all these areas and practiced them heroically. Such a soul is not given at birth; it is cultivated through a deliberate striving for that inner integrity that we all desire. The Church has the formula to achieve it: prayer, fasting and almsgiving – nothing is more salutary – or more challenging – for that program of inner conversion, but it is the formula that makes us whole.
A blessed Lent to all!