Did you know that the tiny country of Holland is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, and yet they have figured out a way to grow food so quickly and efficiently, that they are a net exporter of food to other nations? Agriculturalists from all over the world go there to learn their techniques.
Basically, the Dutch grow fruits and vegetables in greenhouses through special drip techniques that they are constantly developing and improving.
Lent is a bit like that. It’s not so much a Dutch oven but a Dutch greenhouse in which we devote special care to the cultivation of our interior life. It’s a 40-day growth cycle in which I can acquire good habits and grow closer to God, while weeding out the things that are holding me back from Him. It’s an intense time, but it produces great fruits.
The best tools for working in that spiritual greenhouse are the perennial practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Most of us are fairly good at maybe one or two of those, but rarely all three. So a word about each.
First, prayer. The main thing Jesus instructs us about prayer is to be discreet about it, and not try to appear holy in front of others. He often teaches us to go and pray in secret, behind closed doors. Sometimes the “room” is not an actual room but a space entirely inside of us, the place of the heart. So, whether we are home or at work or at school, walking on the sidewalk or taking the bus in the city, we can pray to the Father in the inner sanctuary of our soul.
I frequently encourage everyone to spend five to ten minutes of prayer with God each morning, before turning on the phone, before leaving the bedroom. Begin with whatever fixed prayer starts your day. It could be a Morning Offering, the Our Father, the Prayer of St. Francis. But start with that and then read the daily Gospel and let the living Word nourish your mind and soul. Let it speak to you. What touches or challenges you? Respond. That is prayer.
Second, fasting. Jesus says try to keep your penances between you and God. But if someone asks you what you are giving up for Lent, don’t hesitate to share, to build one another up. True fasting is not just scaling back our excesses, but giving from what is right and just for us to have.
In that case, we are making real sacrifices, and it’s especially powerful when we want to overcome a particularly stubborn habit. When the disciples told Jesus they couldn’t dispel a certain demon, Jesus responded by saying that some spirits can only be cast out by prayer and fasting.
Third, almsgiving. The word sounds old-fashioned, but it refers to an evergreen practice that does great good for the soul in addition to the good it causes others. Beyond donating money, almsgiving can also mean donating time. It could begin by meaning helping out around the house. I once saw a sign that said “Everyone wants to save the world, but no one wants to help mom do the dishes.” Giving our time is an act of love.
So let’s consider prayer, fasting, and almsgiving as the three tools in our greenhouse, and ask ourselves how we are using them today. Let’s consider what needs weeding out of our lives, and what needs planting into our lives. As we tend our souls in this way, may we grow into strong trees that will bear much fruit for the world. Happy cultivation!