What am I going to give up this year? We’re all familiar with questions like this one. They come up every year around Ash Wednesday.
What am I going to give up this year? We’re all familiar with questions like this one. They come up every year around Ash Wednesday. “What should I give up? What can I give up? Is it enough? Is it too much?” Of course, these are good questions to ask, but all too often, they can be limited, and we forget to ask, “Why am I giving up these things?”
In this special Lent issue of The Word Among Us, we want to look at the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In this article, we want to establish a basic spiritual framework. The next article, then, will be dedicated to the topic of prayer, focusing mainly on intercessory prayer. The third article will be dedicated to fasting, with a focus on how fasting can help us put off the “old self” and put on the “new self” in Christ. And the final article, which is dedicated to almsgiving, will focus on attitudes like generosity and compassion more than on specifics of giving to those in need.
Three Keys to Growth. As a way to set the stage for these three topics, let’s step back and look at an overall philosophy for spiritual growth. To put it simply, the Church has always asked us to pay attention to three specific areas in our lives: the upward, the inward, and the outward.
The upward aspect has to do with our relationship with Jesus. It involves our commitment to prayer, reading Scripture, receiving the Eucharist, repenting of our sins, and trying to stay close to the Lord in our everyday lives.
The inward aspect has to do with the state of our hearts. Scripture often describes this aspect as the place where we face the struggle between, as St. Paul says, the “old self” and the “new self” (Ephesians 4:22, 24). It’s in our inward lives that we say yes to the new self by embracing virtues like love, kindness, care, forgiveness, and compassion. And it’s in our inward lives that we say no to sinful patterns like anger, moodiness, hatred, resentment, and deception.
The outward aspect has to do with the way we care for the world around us. It focuses on our relationships with our friends and loved ones and our relationships with the poor, the suffering, and the needy. It focuses on evangelization and caring for those in need.
Of course, we really can’t separate these three aspects as neatly as we have just described them. But it’s helpful to identify them so that we can make sure we are paying attention to the different ways God can work in us—as well as the different ways we can seek him out. As we become more aware of each of these aspects, we’ll find ourselves becoming closer to Jesus, more aware of our behavior, and more alert to the needs of those who are less fortunate.
Questions to Ponder. We examine all kinds of things in life—our health, our budget, our weight—because we want to make sure we are heading in the right direction. So let’s examine our spiritual condition as well. Let’s look at each of these areas—the upward, the inward, and the outward—and ask how we are doing.
In reference to the upward, we might ask, “Can I set time aside to pray or go to Mass more regularly this Lent? Can I make it a point as I pray to quiet my heart and try to sense God’s love?”
In reference to the inward, we might ask, “Can I make it my goal to win the battle for my mind, or will I let my old self drag me down into sin today? Will I try to forgive people today, or will I let resentment get the upper hand?”
In reference to the outward, we might ask, “Can I become just a bit more loving toward other people today? Can I try my best to act like Jesus by offering kindness, support, and encouragement?”
Keep these questions in mind as you read the articles that follow. The insert located in the middle of this magazine can also help you.
As we enter this Lenten season, let’s ask the Lord to fill us with his love (upward). Let’s ask him to confirm all the good in our lives and give us the grace to resist sin (inward). And let’s ask him to give us a heart for the poor so that we can become like Jesus and answer the cry of the poor (outward).