Lenten practices designed to foster relationship with God, which brings true happiness

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, 

At the start of the new year just a few weeks ago, many people made resolutions that they have already forgotten. More important than New Year’s resolutions are the resolutions we should make as we begin the season of Lent, which should not be vague or idealistic pipedreams that are quickly abandoned because they are unrealistic or impossible to attain.

The best practices for Lent are those suggested by Jesus himself in the Gospel that we read at Mass every year on Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18), namely, almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. The whole point of each of these practices is that God the Father “who sees what is hidden will repay you.” The purpose of our Lenten observances is not to bring us human praise, but a heavenly reward. Almsgiving, prayer, and fasting are designed to foster our relationship with God the Father as disciples of His son, Jesus, and as stewards of His creation.

By fasting, we limit our intake of food and drink to help us to be spiritually hungry and thirsty for God.

By praying, we engage in conversation with God to discern more clearly His will for us and strengthen our commitment to live in accord with His divine will.

By giving alms or gifts of charity as an act of virtue, we move beyond our self-centered desires to expand our generosity to embrace love of God and love of neighbor more fully.

The practices of fasting, praying, and almsgiving have their greatest effect on our spiritual well-being when they are done not out of obligation, but out of love, although a sense of duty is often a helpful starting point. Father Robert Spitzer, a Jesuit priest who speaks of the four levels of happiness, points out that we achieve true happiness when we move beyond level one happiness of pleasure-seeking and level two happiness of personal achievement, to the more fulfilling experiences of level three happiness of self-giving and level four happiness of union with God.

So our Lenten practices are intended not to make us glum, but are designed to bring us true happiness!

In addition to almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, it is also beneficial to foster the practice of the virtues and eliminate the vices in our lives. Virtues and vices are both habits. Virtues are good habits. Vices are bad habits. As habits, they are often done without thinking about them. A person who has mastered the virtue of telling the truth does not have to begun the day thinking, “I wonder if I should tell the truth today.” Veracity will come naturally to that person. Conversely, a habitual liar will tell unpremeditated lies on a routine basis. Mendacity will come naturally to that person.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends towards the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions” (CCC #1803). St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God” (De beatitudinis, 1: PG44, 1200D).

Alasdair MacIntyre, one of the great moral thinkers and philosophers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, taught at several universities in Britain and the United States, including Oxford, Boston University, Vanderbilt University, Duke University, and the University of Notre Dame. MacIntyre wrote a book in 1981 called After Virtue, in which he drew parallels between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. He wrote: “A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set out to achieve instead — often not recognizing fully what they were doing — was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict” (After Virtue, 2nd ed., [Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984], p. 263).

We must therefore make a conscious and deliberate choice to live a moral life grounded in the virtues, not only for our own personal well-being, but also for the survival of civilization.

May God give us this grace. Amen.