It is perhaps interesting to note that Christ never commands his disciples to read the Scriptures daily. Living in a culture which was largely illiterate and lacked the technology to produce books, it probably wouldn’t have done much good anyway 🙂 The vast majority of the people received the Word of God by hearing – not by reading. “But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? …So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.”1
Which is why, when Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount, he says to his audience, “You have heard it said…” not, “You have read…”
He doesn’t tell His disciples to read their bibles daily (there wouldn’t be a “bible” for another 400 years) because in Jesus’s time daily bible reading wasn’t the hallmark of a deeply spiritual life.
Rather, there were three things which were the hallmark of a profoundly religious life. Three things that were so foundational to a meaningful religious life that Jesus doesn’t even command them, but rather He presumes them, telling the crowd, “When you give, when you pray, when you fast….you are to do it in these ways.”
“When you give…”2
Did you notice that? Christ doesn’t command the crowd to give, rather He presumes that they are doing it already. We will see this same presumption repeated with each of these three practices. These practices are so foundational to spiritual life, so necessary, that the practice itself goes without saying. In a similar fashion, when discussing the practices which are necessary for physical life we could say, “When you breathe…”, or, “When you eat…”, or “When you sleep…”
These are the presumed necessities of a life which is spiritually alive, and giving is first on the list. No wonder I’m so bad at it. In my defense I’m Scottish. I prefer to think of myself as frugal rather than cheap, but either way, giving doesn’t come easily for me. And yet this is what the Christian life is to be characterized by. And almsgiving is only a very small part of what it means to give of ourselves. We are to give of our possessions, our forgiveness, our love, our very lives. We are to be people who give in a way that is as fundamental as breathing. Truth be told, I’ve got a long way to go.
But when we do give alms it is to be in secret – without asking for, or receiving, any recognition for our charity.
“When you pray…”3
Again, it’s not a question of if, but when. Luckily, we have the words of St. Paul to tell us when. “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”4 Other translations render it pray without ceasing. And, St. Paul claims that this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for us. Having been raised among Christians who emphasized constant bible reading, the practice of constant prayer has been much more difficult for me.
I also come from a background that viewed prayer in a very constrained way. Prayer was our communication with God and it was felt that it should be largely improvised by the one praying. Within the Catholic tradition I have found that prayer encompasses a much richer definition. Prayers can be improvised or rote, from the Psalms or the saints, entreaties to God or any of His Holy ones who are with Him, meditations on God, or even sung, for as the old saying goes, “he who sings, prays twice.” With this much richer definition, it becomes much easier to find ways to pray without ceasing.
But again, we are told by Christ to pray in secret and not for show. To pray with intent and not with empty words. And then we are given the great gift of the Our Father to help guide our prayers.
“When you fast…”5
This is a discipline that I have actually practiced with some degree of regularity throughout my life depending on the season. Of course you wouldn’t know it to look at me. Turns out when I’m not fasting, I’m more or less glutinous in my eating habits. This is why Christ reminds us that, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”6 Prayer is more important than eating and God’s words offer far greater sustenance than bread – hence the practice of fasting.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen once remarked that, “Fasting detaches you from this world. Prayer reattaches you to the next world.” I would suggest that the practice of giving also detaches you from this world. So we have two practices which help us to disengage from the things of this world and one which helps us to re-engage with the next world and the life to come. And again, there is the injunction of Jesus to fast in secret, “…that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”7
So Why All The Secrecy?
If these spiritual disciplines are so fundamental as to be presumed, so necessary to the religious life that they go unsaid; why all the secrecy? The answer is quite simple when we ask the question, “Who are you doing these things for?” If you are merely wanting to impress men with your deep spirituality and religious piety – congratulations! Job accomplished!
But, if you are truly wanting to please God and engage in a lifelong process of sanctification, then the acclaim of men will be very much besides the point, and may in fact lead to further difficulties – namely the sins of pride and hypocrisy. So, when you give, when you fast, and when you pray – do it in secret that your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Far from being just spiritual disciplines to practice during the lenten season, these practices are absolutely essential to our spiritual life in the same way that breathing, eating, and sleeping are absolutely necessary for our physical life.
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