February 2023: Lenten Actions: Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving

Michael A. Marinelli, Ed.D. ‘76
Dear Friends,

Lent is a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Don’t we try to do all of these things all year as good Christians? So why the emphasis on them during Lent?
I am not sure of the answer to the question I posed, but I would make a conjecture that our complacency may be a part of the answer. When we do something for so long – the way we approach our jobs or our school day, the way we interact with our family members, the weekly menus we prepare for our meals, the routines that become monotonous and hollow – sometimes we can take them for granted and go through the motions.  
The forty days of Lent give us an opportunity to “bracket” that time and ask ourselves why we do what we do. Does it have the original purpose and meaning when we first began the ritual? Did we grow and evolve from the activity from its inception until now? Consider each: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. 
According to the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, there are many forms of prayer in the Catholic tradition, including meditation, Lectio Divina – the reading of Sacred Scripture, and special devotional prayers. However, “the life of the Church centers on the liturgy, the official public worship of God by the Church as the Body of Christ. . . . The [Second Vatican] Council pointed out that the spiritual life ‘is not limited solely to participation in the liturgy. . . . according to the teaching of the apostles, [the Christian] must pray without ceasing.’ Popular devotional practices play a crucial role in helping to foster this ceaseless prayer. The faithful have always used a variety of practices as a means of permeating everyday life with prayer to God. Examples include pilgrimages, novenas, processions and celebrations in honor of Mary and the other saints, the rosary, the Angelus, the Stations of the Cross, the veneration of relics, and the use of sacramentals. Properly used, popular devotional practices do not replace the liturgical life of the Church; rather, they extend it into daily life.” (United States Catholic Conference of Bishops: Popular Devotional Practices)
When we pray, is it always a prayer of “petition,” asking God for something? Or do we vary our prayers? Prayers of intercession might be our next most common prayer, asking God for something for others. Those make me feel good. Do we balance these prayers with prayers of adoration and praise, as well as prayers of thanksgiving and blessing? A simple table grace before meals can provide a moment in the day for a meaningful prayer of thanksgiving and blessing. Sometimes driving in a car to work on a beautiful morning evokes in me a prayer of adoration and praise to God for the beauty of creation. 
Fasting has been a part of many spiritual traditions over the centuries. It seems to be becoming more popular as a treatment regimen to assist with weight loss and reduce inflammation in the body that can help slow the progression of certain diseases, among other medicinal purposes. However, fasting can also cause unappealing side effects, including “hunger, fatigue, insomnia, nausea, and headaches . . .  which usually go away within a month.” (Mayo Clinic excerpt on Intermittent Fasting)

So, when Jesus was praying and fasting in the desert for forty days, I often wonder how the physiology of his body supported his mental focus for prayer. Being human, I assume that he experienced many of the negative side effects of fasting as described in the article from the Mayo Clinic, and then, perhaps, those feelings passed, such that the last portion of his time in solitary prayer was extremely intense and focused, his body strengthened and trained to manage the pain of hunger and his mind clear and able to find rest. 
Fasting is difficult for me, but I managed through Ash Wednesday and will manage through Good Friday, which are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence (not eating meat) in the Catholic tradition. My wife’s parents had the tradition of fasting between meals for the entire season of Lent. It was and still is common for many of my older Italian relatives to abstain from meat on every Friday of the year, which was once required by the Church, and other week days and holy days of fasting and abstinence were part of some family members’ religious traditions. 
Almsgiving is a year-round activity, and philanthropy – love of humankind - has been with us for centuries. Juan Luis Vives (1492-1540), a Spanish scholar published De Subventione Pauperum (“On the Subvention of Paupers”), an essay proposing that the government is responsible for providing help to the poor, in order to maintain peace and the social order. Spanish cities adopted the practice, as the paternal system of feudalism gave way to cities, trades, and commerce. No longer were the lords protecting and caring for those who worked for them. While this perspective included as its objective the stabilization of the social order, I also believe that the practice of caring for the poor had a compassionate motivation, as well. I believe that people, in general, have an inclination to help one another in need. We hear of countless stories throughout history of selfless acts of individuals and groups who have come together to help those less fortunate. 
How can we look more closely at our own generosity? Perhaps the most valuable thing we can offer others cannot be monetized. Perhaps what we give is our time, a helping hand, our sincere listening, or our friendship when someone needs it. Perhaps some of the greatest gifts we can give involve engaging ourselves in others’ lives to be a supportive presence. 
I am trying to use this Lenten Season to think about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in different ways. I might not always find something new, unique, or insightful, but just the intentional process is a worthwhile journey.

Have a Good Lent!

Michael A. Marinelli, Ed.D. ‘76
Head of School
Archmere Academy is a private, Catholic, college preparatory co-educational academy,
grades 9-12 founded in 1932 by the Norbertine Fathers.