By Father Sergius Halvorsen
Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are not “Lenten disciplines” per se. Rather, they are essential to our basic health and wellbeing: they are fundamental to the Christian life. Yes, it is true that during Lent we place a much greater emphasis on prayer, fasting and almsgiving, but this does not mean that Lent is the only time we pray, fast and give alms. There are many facets of life that receive seasonal attention. At Thanksgiving we pay a great deal of attention to cooking: the turkey, the trimmings and the grandma’s special pumpkin pie. In the spring we tend to focus on cleaning, especially if we are moving out of a dorm room. Yet, Thanksgiving and springtime are not the only seasons for cooking and cleaning. Cooking and cleaning are fundamental to our day-to-day life; they are fundamental to our basic health and wellbeing. The same holds true with prayer, fasting and almsgiving: they are fundamental to our basic health and wellbeing.
However, we face a great temptation to pigeonhole aspects of our Christian life. Our culture certainly supports this: “When I’m in church I’ll look and behave like a pious Christian. When I’m in the classroom I’ll look and behave like a diligent student. When I’m out on a Friday night with my friends I’ll look and behave like a cool attractive person.” Yet, Orthodox Christianity is the non-pigeonhole faith. Jesus teaches, the Church proclaims and we believe that following Jesus Christ is a “full-time, full-contact sport.” St. Paul uses sports imagery when speaking about his ministry. He says that he does not run aimlessly, nor does he “box as one beating the air.” Rather, he “pommels” his body and subdues it. (1 Cor 9:24-7) More importantly, St. Paul encourages us to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Heb 12:1) because our goal is a heavenly prize.
St. Paul points out that athletes exercise self-control in all things in order to be victorious (1Cor 9:25). If athletic discipline was obvious in St. Paul’s day, then it should be even more obvious in our culture with its preoccupation with professional sports. The athlete cannot pigeonhole his or her athletic life. One cannot eat junk food and sit on the couch throughout the off-season and expect to make the team. Similarly, Christ challenges us to follow Him three hundred sixty five days a year, which means that we lead a life of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Comparing the Christian life to an athletic contest (and many Christian writers have followed St. Paul’s lead on this) how are we to understand prayer, fasting and almsgiving?
Prayer is the beginning. If one does not pray, one cannot follow Christ. For the Christian athlete, prayer is cardio-vascular conditioning. Some sports require more, some less, but every sport requires endurance and a basic ability to function under intense physical demands. In the same way that cardio-vascular conditioning strengthens the physical heart prayer strengthens our spiritual hearts. To pray means that we enter into the life of corporate liturgical prayer; we take time every day to intentionally still our minds and listen to the Word of God; we meditate on the holy name of Jesus in quiet solitude so that the love of God can penetrate our cold, empty hearts. But the heart is only half of the cardio-vascular equation. Prayer also allows us to breathe the Holy Spirit of God. The Greek word for “spirit” is pneuma the same root we find in words like “pneumatic” which means “air powered.” Prayer allows us to receive the Holy Spirit of God, that energizing, life-giving presence of God that enabled the Apostles to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ. Prayer opens our hearts and minds to the love of God, and allows us to be filled with the grace which God abundantly pours out upon us.
Fasting is strength conditioning. In the last thirty years or so, weight training has been embraced as an essential part of all athletic training. From dancers, to linebackers, all athletes require muscular strength and conditioning in order to perform well. Fasting is very much like weight training, however, instead of strengthening our physical muscles it strengthens our will. Nobody likes to fast, and nobody likes to go to the weight room and lift weights. However, making that decision, exercising our will to keep the fast strengthens our ability to be decisive and firm in other areas of our life. We all need to eat in order to survive, so the desire to eat—to fill our stomachs when we are hungry—is a powerful and fundamental instinct. Because the desire to eat and be satisfied is such a powerful desire, voluntarily abstaining from food is profound expression of free will. Feeling hungry, or feeling that twinge of desire for double chocolate malted crunch ice cream, but then choosing to use our God-given free will to say, “not now” is incredibly powerful. In the large scope of life, whether or not you eat a bacon double cheeseburger during Lent is relatively meaningless. However, as you choose to avoid the food you love during Lent, or on any Wednesday or Friday, you exercise and strengthen your will to say “not now.” While the burger means virtually nothing, the knowledge and confidence that you can say “not now” is invaluable when we are faced with much larger decisions that have immense ramifications for our lives. Fasting, saying “not now” is not a rejection of food, or our bodies, or the material life. Rather it is a conscious decision to exercise our willpower for the sake of Christ and the Gospel.
Now, an athlete who can run for miles and has perfectly toned muscles has a great beginning, but that is not the end of the story. Go into any gym across the country, and you can find countless people who fit the bill of having great cardiovascular ability and strong muscles. What distinguishes a star athlete from a dedicated fitness buff is athletic skill. A baseball player can hit home runs; a football player can catch the ball and run through a field of defenders; a dancer can weightlessly glide across the floor and leap through the air. At the end of the day, an athlete actually plays the game, and for a Christian, almsgiving is “playing the game.” Christ commands us to love the Lord your God, and to love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt 22:39) Almsgiving is a concrete act of love for the neighbor. When we give alms we offer ourselves to those in need. This does not have to be exotic and dramatic, like giving your college savings to an African mission. It can be as simple as taking someone out to lunch. Even better, taking someone out to lunch who does not have much money and who does not have many friends. It could mean giving an hour of your time to visit an elderly shut-in. It could also mean volunteering as a mentor for a young person. It could also mean giving money to the poor. Almsgiving is the way that Christians do the will of God in concrete terms; showing mercy and compassion to real people who are in real need. Fundamentally, we do this because Christ did the same thing for us. He gave Himself for our salvation, and in following Christ we give ourselves for the service of others.
Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the “holy trinity” of the practical Christian life. What does it mean to be a Christian? It means that we pray, fast and give alms, not only during Lent, but all the time. And we do these things not out of our own power, or goodness, or righteousness. Far from it! If we tried to pray, fast and give alms on our own power, we would certainly fail. However, we pray, fast and give alms by the grace of God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, as we follow Christ. Athletes only succeed if they train for endurance, strength and skill; athletic ability is the combination of all three. Likewise, the victorious Christian life includes prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Christians pray, fast and give alms in order to receive the prize that St. Paul speaks about: an imperishable crown (1 Cor 9:25). This imperishable crown is union with God, in Christ, and it is the source of true joy and happiness. For when we do the will of God, then we become truly human. In doing God’s will we discover our true calling, we discover our “best sport” and we find that as Christ works within us we can do better and be better than we ever imagined.