This week, after an extended Ordinary Time, the Church initiates the penitential season of Lent. The season begins with the austere celebration of Ash Wednesday. It is a holy day when believers have ashes placed on their foreheads and are given a stirring exhortation to reform their lives for death comes to us all.

As our mortality is placed before us, we are given some guidance in ordering our Lenten practices. Opening the Sacred Scriptures, the Church gives us the teachings of the Lord Jesus on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Drawn from the Sermon on the Mount in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, the three simple ascetical practices serve as the internal outline of a life that seeks to live the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ.

The spiritual life is not wishful thinking, warm sentiments, merely a moral system, or a political agenda. The spiritual life is about integrity. It’s about having the strength and transparency to discern, recognize, and accept who we are, and then cooperate with grace as we seek to allow ourselves to be internally transformed by the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus.

The process of integrity and transformation requires discipline and asceticism. It calls for the three-ring standard of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The Lord gives us guidance and addresses these very practices in his famous sermon. He gives us practical instructions on how to live and incorporate them into our lives.

In terms of prayer, the Lord Jesus exhorts us not to pray as the hypocrites do, namely, do not stand and pray in public so that others can see you. He is exposing pride, vanity and a fallen desire for human respect. The Lord reminds us that when we pray, our focus should be on God and not on what our neighbors are thinking about us. He tells us that those who indulge in public displays of prayer merely for themselves have already received their reward.

Prayer is meant to be life-giving and an opportunity for freedom and adoration of God. As such, the Lord Jesus summons us to go into an “inner room,” behind closed doors. Such privacy helps us to retain a purity of intention. It keeps our minds off those around us and helps us to stay focused on God. As we observe this counsel, prayer becomes an oasis in the desert, a place of rest and refreshment. We are safe and so we can be vulnerable. We are rejuvenated and so we have the strength to examine our lives and make resolutions for change.

The Lord Jesus sees fasting as intimately connected with humility. He tells us not to neglect our appearance so that others might know we’re fasting. The Lord instructs us to wash our hair and wash our face so that no one will know that we are fasting. He explains that when we fast, we should not look gloomy. The Lord sees fasting as a place for discretion. It’s something that’s done for the Lord and preserved as something known only between him and us.

In terms of almsgiving, the Lord gives us his strongest directives. We’re told not to blow trumpets before us when we give to others. He commands that we should not perform good deeds so that other people can see them.

Such counsel is almost figurative in our contemporary world, but the point is still given, namely, that we should keep our charitable outreach between ourselves and God. Our almsgiving is to be done without fanfare or a desire for public recognition. The Lord tells us candidly: “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” It is to be as much a gift to the Lord as it is to our neighbor.

Therefore, in these ancient Christian ascetical practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we are able to open our hearts to the labors of integrity and allow for the hard work of transformation to happen.

As we begin Lent – ashes and all – we are invited to humble our pride, bring down the bastions of delusion, discard the facades of pretension, and allow God to see us as we truly are and then to cooperate with his grace so that we are purified and molded, shaped and regenerated into the likeness of God in Jesus Christ.

Join Father Kirby for Holy Lent, a series of daily reflections throughout the penitential season.  Follow Father Jeffrey Kirby on Twitter: @fatherkirby