“Do you wish your prayer to fly toward God? Give it two wings: fasting and almsgiving.”
Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the traditional three pillars of Lent and also monastic life. We can look to the practices of religious communities in this area to help us understand what the goals of such practices are.
Fasting and Almsgiving should be closely connected to one another. They should be the fruit of our prayer and the “wings” which reveal how deep our prayer is really meant and not merely spoken. Fasting and abstaining from food should enable us to serve (give alms) with what we have fasted from and help us to feel compassion for those in need; leading us to a giving of ourselves and not only money.
We see this kind of service in the different orders of religious in the Church. For example, in the lives of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, we see a giving of oneself in service to the “poorest of the poor,” a fasting from not only food, but comforts and security—these actions being supported through a life of prayer. Similarly, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal were started in New York in a drug infested neighborhood of the South Bronx. They live among the poor and destitute, sharing in their lives and bringing the Gospel to them. Traditionally in the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches there are no “orders,” no special charism separates one monastic community from another. The monasteries engage the local community in which they find themselves and serve their neighbors in the best way they can.
So, what can we learn from monastics, and how can we better practice fasting and almsgiving in our own lives? A clearer understanding of these practices can be a step in the right direction.
“We were and still remain completely uninterested in programs and trendy ideas that promise spiritual renewal. Real renewal means daily conversion, and this is a long, painful road. The holy Gospels are our map, the saints are our guides, and the sacraments are our strength for the journey.”
-Fr. Glenn Sudano, CFR
Trendy ideas and promises of a great new spiritual renewal are not needed. Holy simplicity and keeping to the tried and true traditions of our faith is. I also want to emphasis the need for fasting and almsgiving to be a communal act. We should not undertake these practices alone. The growing of our faith together as one Church is absolutely necessary.
At Holy Resurrection Monastery the fasting discipline that is kept is the traditional Eastern fast during four specific times of year and on most Wednesdays and Fridays. Ideally this fast is a vegan one for the entire church (not just monastics) but is adjusted as needed for individuals. The purpose of this fasting is to learn to discipline oneself and tame the passions. Going without the luxury of meat and dairy products is a discipline which takes years to become a good habit, especially in a culture like Americas where we have an abundance of food and rarely go without. Fasting should make us view our relationship to food in a new light. Being hungry should make us grow in realization of our dependence on God and knowledge that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”(Matthew 4:4)
Through fasting we should give alms out of our cutting back on food and also out of compassion. Having made ourselves go hungry we should identify with the poor and needy and give out of gratitude. A true hunger for God should result from fasting; true charity for our neighbor should grow out of our lack of contentment and satiety of our bellies. The poor must fast all the time from lack of food; Christians should voluntarily go without, out of love of God and neighbor (read more on fasting in the East here and find vegan recipes here).
Almsgiving does not mean simply writing a check. It can include giving money, but a giving of mercy, of oneself in service and love should be our goal too. Most of us will not serve the dying and destitute in India, or if we do, it will not likely be our lifelong work. But just like in many convents and monasteries, we will first serve our community—our family, friends, and church members.
A real giving of one’s self through service to your family, friends, and community is not easy. It can be much easier to serve a stranger, or someone you see rarely, or are not very close to. Just like writing a check can ease our conscience, and can be easier than a real giving of ourselves in friendship, mercy, and kindness.
One of the blessings of being a part of a small community is genuine relationships are forged over time. I don’t mean perfect and always pleasant relationships but honest ones—whether we like it or not! We can be very good at hiding from ourselves but we cannot hide who we really are from those closest to us, whether family, fellow monastics, or fellow church members. This is one reason real Christian friendships and family are invaluable. In them we love, fight, and sand the edges off of one another—this is how we grow together in holiness. It is in the daily acts of service we truly come to know our own hearts.
Whatever acts of charity and fasting we each undertake will vary as much as these things vary in religious orders. But what remains the same is the necessity to pray, fast, and give alms. The liturgical seasons of the Church allow us to focus on these efforts together as one Church, as do the traditional Wednesday and Friday fasts throughout the year. Fr. Moses of HRM recently mentioned visiting a Catholic college campus and seeing an ad for “Meatless Mondays” a global movement to quit eating meat on Mondays for health and environmental reasons. Not a bad idea, but Fr. Moses’ thought was, “Why not return to the traditional fasts of the Church and you will have meatless Wednesdays and Fridays as well as meatless fasting periods during the year? We do not need to reinvent the wheel and our own Christian traditions are certainly not lacking.” Wednesday is the day Christ was betrayed by Judas and of course Friday the day He was crucified; this is why we fast on these days. As a Church we can look within our own traditions to find ways to better live our lives instead of to outside sources.
Purity in our deeds and relationships will be the lifelong work of all Christians. We can easily get caught up in the externals of our faith—getting caught up in the rules of fasting, in our prayer routines, and patting ourselves on the back for our good deeds. These are certainly temptations we all have and things we fail at from time to time. This doesn’t mean we should disregard these practices. As in all ascetical efforts, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are not ends in themselves. They are the means to reach the goal of a deepening of our relationship with God and neighbor; love is always the goal.
“This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own” (Is 58:6-7).
The love, and acts of mercy mentioned in the book of Isaiah can and should be the result of any efforts we undertake to eat less. We can give more bread to the poor if we fast and have food to give, we can shelter the homeless when we identify with their pain through our own acts of self-denial and discipline, and we can cloth the naked from our fasting from worldly desires and goods. We can grow closer to one another, not turning our backs on those around us, through acts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Parents know what it is to sacrifice for their loved ones, even in the smallest of things. These things do not go unseen—God knows and sees all. Individuals can make an impact on their parish, local community, and in the lives of those they know in the simplest and most loving ways as well. The religious of the Church have their own charisms, but they serve through acts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These three must be the pillars of every Christian’s life, and not just in Lent, but all times of the year.