By Sister Marissa Butler 

Most Christians are familiar with the three pillars of Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Through these pillars, the liturgical season of Lent offers numerous messages, opportunities, calls to prayer and good works. On Ash Wednesday, the symbol of the cross that is an integral part of our lives is brought to the forefront and takes on a penitential spin. What would happen if we took some time to consider prayer, fasting and almsgiving as formative rather than penitential? What if we use the three pillars of Lent to review our lives and discover ways to follow Jesus more closely? 

The first pillar, prayer, grounds us in our relationship with God. Catherine McAuley wrote in her Retreat Instructions, “No occupation should withdraw our minds from God. Our whole life should be a continual act of praise and prayer.” What if we took time throughout the day to notice God in the ordinary activities—kids laughing, folding laundry, admiring the sunset or listening to the birds singing? Perhaps a whisper of gratitude when our feet hit the floor in the morning gives us another opportunity to do something beautiful for God. Lent can be a time of expanding our regular prayer routines to experience God’s love in new places and spaces.  

I have re-imagined the second pillar, almsgiving, to be much broader than financial donations, though these are significant. In the Familiar Instructions of Catherine McAuley we read, “There are three things the poor prize more highly than gold, tho’ they cost the donor nothing; among these are the kind word, the gentle, compassionate look and the patient hearing of their sorrows.” As a Mercy community, we are invited to give of our spirits and listen to our neighbor to be the compassionate presence that the world desperately needs. In doing so, we encounter the living Christ and our hearts are forever changed.  

The third pillar is fasting. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, we commit to eating two small meals and one larger meal with nothing in between. On Fridays throughout Lent, we abstain from eating meat and many Lenten promises involve giving up some type of food or beverage. What if our fasting instead focused on behavioral choices? We could fast from negative self-talk, anger, second guessing others or compulsively scrolling through social media. We are all aware of the things in our lives that we could do without. This would be in line with Catherine’s instruction to, “Be always striving to make yourself like Him—you should try to resemble Him in some one thing at least, so that any person who sees you, or speaks with you, may be reminded of His Blessed life on earth.” 

For a moment, let us remember that Ash Wednesday is not the first time our forehead has been marked with the cross. It seems that Lent provides an invitation for us to recall the moment we were born into the Christian environment by being marked with the cross. During these days we ponder how to embrace this mysterious symbol, not just now, but every day of our lives.  

Baptism is a joyous moment when we die and rise with Christ. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving is another dying and rising that leads to the Easter Vigil when we embellish the Paschal Candle with the victorious cross: another joyous occasion. Rather than depriving ourselves through these days of Lent, we are given time to seek conversion, a change of mind, heart and spirit that will give us the courage to walk more closely with Jesus. Catherine encouraged, “Behold your cross” and Lent can only transform us if we cling to the Cross daily and with full realization. 

As we begin this Lenten journey, may we experience the blessings and graces God has ready to reveal to us.