Prayer, Fasting, and Alms Giving
There are three practices that a Christian needs to develop and have in his or her life: Prayer, fasting, and alms giving. Each brings us closer to God and each helps to strengthen us in our efforts to live out the vocation that Jesus has called us to in this world. How do they do this?
Prayer, first and foremost, opens our hearts to God. We may not think of prayer this way often, or at all, but prayer is a response to the small whisper of God that eddies through our souls in every moment. For the truth is that God is always speaking to us. If you think about it, prayer is quite simply a conversation. It is not one sided. Because it is a conversation, it is a two way street, or to use the proper word for it, it is a ‘dialogue.’ One usually enters a conversation to expresses one’s needs, one’s sorrow, one’s sufferings, or one’s joys, with another person. It may be because one wants to get something ʺoff one’s chest,ʺ to share some matter of personal importance with the other, or to elicit their help. We do this out of the hope that the other will ʺlistenʺ attentively, that they will ʺseeʺ what we mean, or need, and that they will respond compassionately, lovingly and purposefully on our behalf. Well, this is what prayer is. It opens us up to this kind of relationship with God. God is always there, ready to listen, to care for us in ways that no other being can, and to help us through his graces. At the same time, prayer opens us up to listen attentively to God speaking to us, to hear his voice supporting us and, yes, challenging us too. When we say that prayer opens our hearts to God, we are saying that we wish to welcome Him into our hearts, that we want to be in relationship with Him with our whole hearts, our whole minds, our whole souls, and with all of our strength. At the same time, we know that God, too, wants that relationship with each one of us, with all of His Being.
Fasting is important because it helps us to know that our deepest hunger is for God. The world wants us to hunger for something else, anything else, but God. Our attention is constantly being drawn to the material things of the world, the things that appeal to our senses, that offer us immediate pleasures. This is not, by itself wrong. God gave us our senses to be able to enjoy the things that he created. The key is to enjoy them properly and in balance. Sometimes, though, we get too caught up in the sensual pleasures and lose focus on both what is important and what is good for our own health, and our own souls. It happens in so many ways, some leading to decadence and others to ill health. Fasting, when used as a form of prayer and self-sacrifice, brings us back into balance, brings our focus back to where it belongs. Where does our focus belong? It belongs on God and on His purpose for our lives. Fasting, of course, can be useful as a prayerful penance, but it can also be done as a willing sacrifice to God for the strengthening of our souls and focusing our purpose as men and women called by God to serve others. Fasting helps us to recognize our hunger and need for God who is the bread that nourishes our souls for eternity. It is good to develop the habit of fasting, just as it is good to form the habits of prayer.
Prayer and fasting have their private, inward dimensions in that they bring us intimately into the immediate Real Presence of God. But prayer has an outward dimension too. Almsgiving is a form of that outward dimension. Almsgiving directs our hearts beyond ourselves to the needy other. We give alms because we see, and are moved by, the sufferings of our brothers and sisters. We give alms out of our substance, not just out of our excess. We are moved to do this because we recognize our fellowship with the suffering other, because we see the suffering other as our brother or sister. Almsgiving is personal. If we give only to reap certain income tax benefits, this is not almsgiving. Rather, we give because we have looked the poor man or woman in the eye, come to know their names, and have chosen to walk with him or her for a while. We understand that almsgiving is not just about money, but includes our time and our talents as well. The best form of almsgiving is that in which we enter into the suffering of the other and, with him or her, transform his or her hopelessness, not just by meeting his or her immediate needs, but also by finding ways to transform the failures in society that create and even sustain the conditions for poverty and homelessness. If one owns a business, for example, one might ‘fast’ by sacrificing a little of one’s own profit to provide meaningful work for someone who is in need. It is work, after all, that gives men and women dignity and the ability to find their own ways in the world. When we fast in this way we find ourselves in the Real Presence of God as well. For we know that this is what Jesus came to do for all of us. In this much grace abounds.
Finally, it is important to remember that prayer, fasting and almsgiving are not to be done for ʺshow.ʺ Prayer, even in its public dimension, is not to be done to draw attention to ourselves. When we fast, no one else needs to know about it. That is between ourselves and God. When we give alms, all that others should see is our love, not our pocketbook, or our bank account. Love is, after all, the only reason for any of these things. And love is the only power worth pursuing. Amen.