Presented with the imperative to “do something” for Lent, a familiar response is to “give something up.” In itself, this is a healthy enough instinct. Depending on your lifestyle, giving up alcohol, or even chocolate, can be a reminder of the nature of the season and a noticeable sacrifice. Alternatively, people think of giving up something bad, trying to overcome a habitual sin. This is laudable, but penance is the sacrifice of something good, not something bad. Catholics should be able to go beyond both kinds of “giving up.”
The imperatives of Lent in particular, and of the Christian life in general, are the eminent good works of prayer, penance, and almsgiving. These really are good works—works that earn us merit. These works will cancel out temporal punishment we would otherwise suffer in purgatory, and add to our glory in heaven, and we can offer them for the good of the holy souls in purgatory and for the conversion of sinners. Good works in this sense are possible only if we are in a state of grace (sanctifying grace), and they will themselves be done in and through God’s assisting grace (actual grace). When we do them, we may say with St. Paul, it is not we who do them, but God who does them through us (Phil. 2:13). They are in fact a gift of God to us—but when God gives us something, we really do possess it.
Accordingly, if we want to do something more than give up chocolate or habitual sins, the first thing we should think about is prayer. Three general principles should be borne in mind.
The first is the definition of prayer: of raising one’s mind and heart to God. This means that prayer is an action of the will, not of the intellect, the imagination, or anything else. If we are trying to pray, we are succeeding, because in trying, we will to raise our minds and hearts to God, and that is raising them to God. We can certainly use our other faculties in prayer, but they are secondary.
Connected with this is the fact that our prayers are not more successful or worthy if they are rewarded with spiritual consolations. If we feel comforted, or have a religious experience, or if our prayers have a tangible effect in ourselves or in the outside world, we should accept these things with gratitude, but prayers that are not accompanied by anything like that may be just as genuine and may be even more meritorious. God wants us to love him for himself, not for his consolations, so he won’t always give them to us.
The second principle is that the prayer of the Church is the most perfect prayer, because it is offered by Christ, the head of the Church. We unite ourselves with that perfect prayer when we take part in the “public prayer of the Church,” which is the liturgy, including the Office (the Liturgy of the Hours), and the rosary. This public prayer is continually raised to God by the whole Church, and it has a special character not possessed by private prayer.
The Church’s public prayer is perfect intrinsically—in terms of its inner nature. It is often imperfect in terms of our participation in it, and that of course goes for priests as well as laypeople. We should make whatever effort we can to make the extrinsic aspects of the Church’s prayer as perfect as possible.
The third general principle is the old adage, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” If a particular form of prayer is difficult for you, try something else, or try participating in it in a different way.
The life of prayer can be stimulated and enriched by spiritual reading. There is a vast literature of Catholic spiritual writings, from the great spiritual masters of long ago like St. Teresa of Avila to apologetic writers of more recent times, like Frank Sheed, and there are collections made from a range of writers. And then, of course, there is Sacred Scripture.
As for prayer itself, the best prayer of all is the Mass, and more frequent attendance at Mass is always to be recommended. There are also other forms of liturgical participation that may not have occurred to you, however, such as saying parts of the Office. In recent years, there has been a particular revival in interest in the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a devotion that goes back to the Middle Ages, which is well suited to the use of laypeople because it is short and easy to navigate, and it contains psalms and prayers of great beauty. There are various reprints currently available; it can be said in Latin or in translation; you can say it in whole or in part.
Moving on to penance, this is an indispensable part of the Christian life. It is simply a mistake to imagine that one can have a spiritually fruitful life without voluntarily sacrificing some material comforts and satisfactions out of a love of God. The love of God demands such sacrifices and is stimulated by them. Some kind of fasting and abstinence should be part of your life, and it is remarkable to see growing interest in how this works at a physical level. Serious penance of this kind is not impossible—all Catholics of the past did it—but for modern people in the West, some physical preparation may be called for.
The same is true of another traditional mainstay of Catholic penitential practice, which is having a revival today: walking pilgrimages. I have myself walked from Ely to Walsingham (about 55 miles), and from Paris to Chartres (about 60 miles), in my forties rather than in my twenties, and I can attest that a sensible amount of preparation has the effect of spreading the pilgrim spirit over several months: you need to do a lot of walking in advance. This can and should be done not to see the sights, to get fit, to make friends, or with some vague hope of “finding oneself,” but in a spirit of prayer and penance, and with particular prayer intentions in mind. Seek first the kingdom, and many of the other things will be given to you as extras.
Finally, almsgiving should not be neglected. It is easy today to donate money to worthy causes, but the very easiness of clicking on a donate button online separates us from human contact with the person one is helping. This may be inevitable, but the contact itself is a valuable part of almsgiving, for the giver, which can too easily disappear completely.
This is more difficult than before because of the professionalization of charitable work and the takeover of many aspects of it by the state. It is not impossible, however, and there are still many opportunities for volunteering, particularly in those areas of human needs in which the modern state is less interested: the cultural, educational, and above all spiritual needs of our fellow creatures.
St. Teresa of Calcutta remarked: “The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty—it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality.” It is this poverty which Catholics have a special gift to alleviate.