“Don’t give up chocolate for Lent. Do something else, like pray more, or do something positive.” How many of us have heard this — even from our pastors and trusted Catholic sources?
The tradition of the Catholic Church is that there are three special “works” that we should engage in during Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. It is obvious (or should be) that we need to deepen our communion with God through more diligent prayer. Many of us try to engage in “almsgiving” (works of mercy, especially the corporal works of mercy) during Lent by giving assistance to the poor.
But fasting: why does fasting matter? St. John Chrysostom (and other Church Fathers) taught that these three works must go together. Prayer without fasting is sterile. Neglect of almsgiving keeps the first two from bearing their full fruit. Think of it like this: if you plant beautiful flowers in your garden, is that all you need? For flowers to grow, we need three things to work together: good soil, sunlight, and rain. For our souls to bear fruit in a life of holiness (and ultimately, to come to eternal life), we need to have the good soil of prayer, the sunlight of fasting, and the rain of works of mercy. All three matter.
When we engage in fasting, we deny our bodily wants and needs. Why do we do this? As we weaken our body (in hunger), we increase the hunger in our souls for the Word of God — for Jesus Christ who is the Eternal and Incarnate Word of God. We are more hungry for spiritual nourishment through the reading of Sacred Scripture, for learning from the Fathers and Saints of the Church, and, above all, for the nourishment of the Holy Eucharist.
This Lent, try to choose one way that you will deepen your life of prayer, one way in which you will fast and practice mortification of your senses, and one way in which you will engage in works of mercy. In all of them, go one step further than what you have already been doing — every Lent should take us deeper in our journey of faith, hope and charity on the path to eternal life in Christ Jesus.