The Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent this year is a succinct summing up of the whole Lenten season. We don’t hear the stories about Satan tempting Jesus to turn stones to bread, or whisking him to the top of the temple or showing him all the kingdoms of the earth. Instead we hear, in 64 words, how he lived in the desert without food after being driven by the Spirit to go there — and then emerged ready to proclaim the Gospel.
Thus the story is stripped down to the three marks of Lent: Fasting, prayer and almsgiving.
To see these three Lenten actions through Elizabeth Ann Seton’s eyes, I gathered together some of her most-loved quotes. For her, fasting, prayer and almsgiving are not three separate exercises — they are one integrated act.
FASTING is the first mark of Lent; a strict fast is observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but many Catholics offer an extra fasting practice by giving up something in Lent as a devotion to prayer and penance.
“The gate of heaven is very low; only the humble can enter,” said Elizabeth Ann Seton.
Humility is one of the first reasons for fasting. Fasting forces us to cut our selfishness down to size. True freedom is the ability to do what we truly know is best for us — but many of us are too committed to pleasing ourselves to do what’s best for us. Fasting gets us used to the idea that we are not so special.
“God is with us — and if sufferings abound in us, his Consolations also greatly abound, and far exceed all utterance,” wrote Mother Seton.
Here she is showing another reason for fasting: Faith. These are words Mother Seton sent to her sister-in-law Rebecca, recounting her advice to her children while facing her husband’s illness. Fasting builds our faith that earthly pleasure is not the most important thing in our lives — because one day we will have to realize that earthly life is not the most important thing, either, as Seton had to tell her children. Our life in eternity is.
“My own troubles will teach me I hope how to comfort others,” Mother Seton said.
Service is the final reason for fasting. Persevering in suffering helps strengthen us so that we do not make our own comfort paramount, but instead, put others before our own selfishness. Fasting from something expensive — eating out, alcohol, or unnecessary shopping — can even give us the material resources to help others.
PRAYER is the second mark of Lent.
The Church recommends using Lent as a time to learn the art of conversing with God by adding something new to our prayer routine.
“Let your chief study be to acquaint yourself with God because there is nothing greater than God, and because it is the only knowledge which can fill the Heart with a Peace and joy, which nothing can disturb,” was Mother Seton’s advice.
Peace is the first thing we get from prayer. When we look at life from the wrong perspective, it is filled with worry and anxiety. Think of it like taking a drive through the mountains. The shell around you, your car, dominates and limits your view. It’s only when you step outside the car — when you interact directly with God — that you can see how small your shell really is.
“Jesus is as a fire in the very center of our souls ever burning. Yet, we are cold because we do not stay by it,” Mother Seton said.
Urgency is the next thing we get from prayer. God wants to have a deep personal relationship with all of his creatures. But many ignore him. The more we learn to turn to him, the more we will want to draw others into the light of His fire.
“Does the life of our Jesus animate us? Do we indeed give him the true service of the heart without which whatever else we give has no Value?” asked Mother Seton.
Effectiveness is the next thing we get from prayer. Not “efficiency,” mind you, but effectiveness. Prayer doesn’t make us more talented or successful, exactly, but it does increase the “effect” of what we do, because it gives it a supernatural value as we allow Christ to work through us rather than relying on our own efforts.
ALMSGIVING is the third focus of Lent.
It is a Catholic custom to find something extra to do for others in Lent — giving money or time or both.
“The nearer a soul is truly united to God, the more its sensibilities are increased to every being of His Creation; much more to those whom it is bound to love by the tenderest and most endearing ties,” Mother Seton wrote.
Sensitivity is the first thing we get from almsgiving. Prayer helps us see the needs around us with God’s eyes, and not look selfishly past them. Almsgiving puts that prayer into action. When we pray and act, together, we will see our loved ones and what they need in a whole new light.
“Take every day as a ring which you must engrave, adorn, and embellish with your actions, to be offered up in the evening at the altar of God,” Elizabeth Ann Seton advised.
Intentionality is the next thing we get from almsgiving. Once our spiritual goals improve from self-improvement to serving others, our day changes from “our time” to “time to serve.” But notice that you need all three to make this happen: Prayer to see your life as an instrument in God’s hand, fasting to have the self-discipline to serve Him, and almsgiving to put it all together.
Finally, “The first end I propose in our daily work is to do the will of God; secondly, to do it in the manner he wills it; and thirdly to do it because it is his will,” said Mother Seton in her often-quoted advice.
Union with God is the last fruit of almsgiving. It comes from fulfilling the two chief commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This brings prayer, fasting and almsgiving together into one.
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.
Image: The Temptation in the Wilderness (1898), Briton Rivière