It seems that Lent has flown by at lightning speed, and now we are at the threshold of Holy Week. But if you haven’t quite lived up to the promises you made at the beginning of our penitential season, don’t count this Lent as a loss yet. There is still time for conversion of heart.
Lenten conversion is not a superficial renewal like removing residue from an old painting or putting a coat of varnish on an antique chair. Those are renovations, not conversions! Lenten conversion is a matter of cleansing the soul, and no half-measures will do. So let’s consider what we can do right now to prepare our hearts for His coming at Easter.
The age-old spiritual disciplines of the Church – prayer, fasting and almsgiving – corresponds to the three faculties of the human soul: mind, emotions, and will. St. Augustine called these the “internal trinity” that makes us into the image and likeness of God. They are inner disciplines: prayer enlightens the mind, fasting matures our emotions, and charity strengthens the will.
Prayer purifies the mind and opens the intellect to the light of Christ’s truth so, above all, whatever way you pray best, do more of it. “Doing more” in prayer doesn’t always mean spending more time praying. Prayer is not another project on our list of things to do. It is fundamentally a simple act.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.” (2559) And this is done simply in the circumstances of our own vocations and occupations.
The best prayer is the kind that takes a little time out of the business of life to ask God for what we need and imbue our lives with a divine perspective. Praying in your real-time circumstances of your life is a very personal and sincere act, and the Lord promises us that “your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Mt 6:6).
Don’t neglect this practice during Lent—in fact, do more than the minimum the Church requires because it’s good for the soul! The discipline of fasting is valuable because it reorders the disordered emotions and appetites of our inner life.
Fasting literally makes us more spiritual men and women because when our stomachs complain that we are not feeding them, we are reminded that God is feeding us with His grace and mercy. And, as St. Teresa of Avila used to say to the nuns of her order, eating less or missing a meal never hurt anyone.
While it’s good to “symbolically fast” from negative behaviors as a form of self-restraint, don’t let yourself drift too far from the practice of actually depriving yourself of food every now and then. Humans are a body/soul unity, and physical fasting has a powerful spiritual effect on the soul.
The Lord Himself fasted. He knew that deprivation of food was hard on the body. It’s supposed to be. But don’t worry: “Your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you” (Mt 6:16-18).
We mature spiritually by making sacrifices for higher goods and purposes. Charity is not just giving material gifts to others, it is a matter of training the will to sacrifice our own attachments for the sake of others. Almsgiving/charity trains us to think and act generously as a way of life and to get away from an obsessive concern about our own needs.
The truly magnanimous souls of our Church were those saints who practiced prayer, fasting and charity to heroic degrees. That’s why they’re saints. We’re not, but we’re striving to be, and the discipline of Lent helps us grow in spiritual strength.
Ultimately, the spiritual life is the inner life, and strong souls like the saints are champions at prayer, fasting, and charity. Nothing is better than a program of inner conversion like this. It is the inner discipline that makes us whole and prepares us for the feast of the Resurrection to come.