“Beware of practising your piety before people in order to be seen by them” (Mt 6:1). At the beginning of every Lent in the gospel reading, we hear Jesus caution his disciples: “Do not practice your piety publicly.” What might be less obvious is the unspoken expectation: “But do practice your piety.” What does it mean to practice one’s piety? As we look to make Lent meaningful, perhaps practising our piety is our best option.
The piety Jesus is speaking about is the traditional Jewish triumvirate of, “Pray, fast and give alms,” and as one writer notes, we shouldn’t forget the comma. “Pray fast and give alms” is not quite what is intended. But that the three go together is part of our tradition: St. Peter Chrysologous points out, “There are three things by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant and virtue endures. They are prayer, fasting and mercy . . . these three are one and they give life to each other. Fasting is the soul of prayer; mercy is the life blood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing. So, if you pray, fast; if you fast show mercy” (Sermon 43).
How are we to interpret Jesus’ command to practice our piety in today’s terms? A lenten practice of prayer might take its cue from Matthew 6:7-18 where Jesus instructs his followers on how to pray. “When you are praying,” he says, “do not heap up empty phrases. . . . You think the more you say, the better you will be heard.” He reminds them that God already knows what they need and then he teaches them the Our Father.
His warning is about excessive wordiness. Writer E.M. Forester comments on “poor little talkative Christianity.” Too often our prayers are something we “say” and the danger is that in our verbal outpouring, we seldom take time to listen. Perhaps our lenten practice should be to spend some time each day in silence, sitting quietly, ready to listen to what God might want to say to us. It involves letting go, relinquishing control and trusting in a God who loves us.
The pious practice of fasting often starts with the question, “What will I give up?” But the mere act of abstaining or fasting from something we like merely to say we’ve made a sacrifice is not the purpose of the practice. The real question we should we be asking is, “What do I need to let go of in order to make room for God?” The purpose of fasting is to get in touch with our deepest hunger, the hunger for God.
Here in the First World, we need to fast because we are full. A recent radio show speaking about the North American diet was unabashedly entitled Stuffed. But it’s not only our bodies that are stuffed. Our lives are jam-packed with possessions, activities, things, people and work. Our hearts and minds are preoccupied, busy and distracted. We are over-full of everything.
A lenten practice of creative fasting might ask, “What are you full of? What do you rely on, depend on? Where do you need to experience hunger of a different kind in your life?” Rather than candy or sugar, it might be “junk habits” we need to give up, the things that keep us busy, distracted from life, others, self and God. It might be things like shopping as a leisure activity, surfing the net, snacking unconsciously, reading trashy novels, or timewasting computer games.
Fasting might mean to make room in one’s life by removing things, uncluttering and simplifying. It can be applied to the food we eat, the things we do and the stuff we have. We can fast one day a week and remember those who are hungry not because they are dieting. We can go through cupboards and closets and give away not only out of our extra but out of our substance. We can practice the fast called for by Isaiah: to loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, share our bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into our house (Isaiah 58:6-7).
Such fasting ties directly into almsgiving, the third pious practice. In today’s language we would say “works of mercy” and they are, Pope Francis reminds us, what we are about as a church. The practices are linked: “Fasting bears no fruit unless it is watered by mercy,” says St. Peter Chrysologous. Fasting is meant to open us up not only to our own deepest needs but to the needs of others. Fasting must translate into service and sharing, not only through acts of charity but also acts of justice.
A lenten practice of almsgiving will involve action, moving one’s feet and hands. The acts can be both personal and political. We respond personally by meeting the needs of those around us: searching out the lost, welcoming a stranger, visiting a shut-in, donating generously to a charity. Responding politically means we take up a cause, sign a petition, write a letter, protest a systemic injustice, advocate for positive change.
Practising our piety is not, as Jesus warns us, about letting others see how holy we are. We pray, we fast, we give alms so that, by the grace of God, our hearts are softened, our minds are changed, our lives are transformed. By these practices, we pray, we might be open to what God desires to accomplish within us. Now that’s a Lent worth living!
Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.