We are now in the Christian season of Lent, the forty days of preparation leading to Easter. During this time, Christians are called to contemplate Jesus giving himself up to suffering and death on the Cross for the salvation of the world. To help in this contemplation, Christians are to engage in three religious practices: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
These three practices are not unique to Christianity, of course. In fact, Christianity inherited them from Judaism, out of which it was born. The religion of Islam also embraces the importance of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, particularly during the season of Ramadan. Other religions also stress the value of these practices. Why do so many faiths emphasize these three activities in particular?
Because together they are the best weapon in the most important battle we each face: the battle within.
The Pull of Self
Whether or not we want to admit it, we all face a fundamental problem: we are self-centered. Any parent will tell you that every child is born with this affliction, and even after growing into adulthood we still battle it. Christians see the origin of this problem in Original Sin and the
Some people today might argue that self-centeredness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, many successful people become successful because they put their own desires and needs above anything else. Yet deep down we all know that we were not created to serve ourselves, but to serve God and those around us.
Although we are tainted with Original Sin, the truth in our hearts urges us to face outward, to find our fulfillment in others. If we were not designed to find joy and peace in others, the human race would not have lasted, since marriage and family are the building blocks of society. Of course, our fulfillment in others is never complete; true and lasting fulfillment can only be found in The Other, God himself. Many spiritual writers, in fact, have noted that Hell is the place of utter alone-ness, without God and without others.
So we need to defeat our self-centeredness. How do we do that? Through the traditional practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Prayer: We Need Help
If most of us know that we are too self-centered, why don’t we just fix it? Why don’t we just wake up one morning and say to ourselves, “Self, let’s not be self-centered anymore”? St. Paul wrote of the difficulty of doing that:
I do not understand my own actions.
We are simply incapable of fixing ourselves. No self-help guru, no diet, no fitness program can solve the most fundamental problem we have. We need help, but where do we find it? From the only one with the power to assist us: God. That is why we need to pray: to ask God to cure us of our disease of self-centeredness. Prayer begins the process of turning away from ourselves. The more we pray, the more we begin to realize that the world doesn’t revolve around us, but it does revolve around God.
The first step toward overcoming self-centeredness is to go to the only physician who has medicine for the disease.
Fasting: Controlling the Passions
The human person is a body/spirit composite. Unlike the animals, we are not just physical beings; unlike the angels, we are not just spiritual beings. These two aspects must work together to find harmony and peace in life. Not only must they work in harmony, but they must recognize that there is a hierarchy between them: the spirit should control the body, not the other way around.
Yet we find in practice that the opposite often happens. We are slaves to our passions, doing whatever feels pleasurable at the moment. Our disease of self-centeredness particularly afflicts our physical bodies. Left to its own devices, the body would only seek out ways to satisfy its constant (and growing) cravings, as can be seen in the animal kingdom. But we are not animals; we must find a way to have our spirits establish control.
This is where the practice of fasting comes in. With fasting, we deny ourselves something good temporarily in order to receive something better. By denying ourselves food for a set period of time, we put our bodies on notice that they are not in charge. We can control them. It breaks the bonds of slavery to the passions of the body. Fasting thus takes our thoughts and desires away from self and points them toward greater realities, like the life of the spirit and service.
The second step toward overcoming self-centeredness is to exercise self-control over the most basic of bodily needs, which can best be done by fasting.
Almsgiving: Looking Outward
Have you ever known someone who was completely focused on their health and fitness? They work out all the time, only eat certain foods, and usually spend a lot of time in front of a mirror. That’s not exactly someone who has overcome the disease of self-centeredness, is it?
The same thing can happen in the spiritual life. You can establish a dialogue with the Divine Physician and exercise a great deal of self-control, but still be self-centered. Your every thought is focused on how you can improve yourself through prayer and fasting. Yet that’s not the fulfillment and peace we are called to. That’s where almsgiving comes in.
Almsgiving is giving to those in need. What we give can
The third and final step toward overcoming self-centeredness is to give of oneself so much that one forgets oneself. As Jesus said, “whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16:25).
In order to defeat the fundamental human sickness known as self-centeredness, we must turn our eyes away from ourselves and our passions, and direct them to God and to those around us. The most proven way to do this is through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Whether it’s Lent or not, give them a try—you won’t regret it!