By Fr. Michael Manos
As we enter the period of Great Lent, we are called to three spiritual disciplines in particular: fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. We are encouraged to leave certain foods behind, to give away some money, and to spend more time in dialogue with God. The question is, why?
Why should we? There is something in us that rebels against the idea of being told not to eat this thing or that, or what to do with our money, or with our spare time. It’s our life; these are our decisions. Even from childhood we need people to hear: “You’re not the boss of me!” Maybe the Church needs to hear it too!
Certainly, if things were different, this might be correct. There is indeed something noble in our negative reaction to restriction. Freedom is part of God’s own design, and it makes sense that we tighten up when we think that it is being threatened. What we must realize, though, is that our spiritual disciplines are not, in fact, threats to our freedom. Quite the opposite. Fasting, prayer, and almsgiving are designed not to diminish our personal freedom, but to engender it—they are tools not rules. We take them up voluntarily, and we use them to break chains, not to strengthen them.
St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, says: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate, I do.” This statement makes one thing clear: we are not yet free within ourselves. What we want to do and what we end up doing are not always the same thing. At times, we eat more than we want to, give less than we want to, and pray less than we’d planned to. It is here exactly, in this tension between who we want to be and who we currently seem to be, that our spiritual disciplines come in to close the distance.
Fasting and almsgiving teach us that neither food nor money is true happiness; prayer teaches us that knowing God is.
This Lent, let us see our spiritual disciplines for what they are: not rules to diminish our freedom, but tools to give it wings. Forgetting the shallow and ever-changing desires of the moment, may we seek instead that deepest and most noble desire of our heart—to know God and to live in the way that He created us to live. Seek true freedom, and settle for no forgery.
Father Michael Manos is the Assistant Priest at the St. Nicholas Church in Troy, Michigan.