So Lent is here again. If you are like me, there is one thing that is guaranteed (well, other than Easter at the end). It is that you will hear about those three pillars—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—for the next six weeks, spoken by Christ himself as proclaimed in the gospel reading for Ash Wednesday. For those of us Catholics, we know that these pillars are intended on bringing us closer to God and to others through an elimination of what we don’t need, a focus on what we do need, and a reminder that we do not live for ourselves. But if we stop there, we are only getting part of the story.
See, if we go beyond the obvious spiritual and altruistic motives, these three pillars have an impact in the most subconscious of ways. Let’s start with almsgiving—the giving of ourselves and our resources. Research demonstrates that helping others may do more for the helper than we ever knew. Many people will say that helping others makes them feel better and appreciate what they have. We give, and gain something in return. But what if helping others actually worked to improve our psychological well-being and our physical health over the long-term? In fact, studies seem to consistently support this. It’s not that people who feel good simply volunteer more. Rather, the more you assist others, the better you feel. Studies indicate that those who give of themselves have lower mortality rates, less depression, and greater overall functional abilities. This seems to hold especially true for youth and older adults. Large scales studies of adolescents indicate that the more they volunteer, the more their outcomes improve. Those same individuals prove less likely to take risks, more likely to thrive, and better able to interact with adults outside their family. Individuals ove the age of 65 who volunteer show significant improvements in mental and physical health compared to the rest of the population, including a reduction in disease and isolation.
Moving onto prayer, large-scale studies have generally indicated that faith and a strong relationship with a higher power is associated with less anxiety, greater social support, increased relational stability, less substance use, and fewer negative behaviors. Greater religiousness was found to be associated with fewer symptoms of depression in a meta-analysis of nearly 100,000 participants. However, it appears the best predictor of whether faith is associated with less anxiety and better adjustment is when people have a strong relationship with a higher power. When we pray to God in a desire to grow closer to Him, it is not just our spiritual life that improves.
And when it comes to fasting, there are definite benefits when done responsibly. Positives can include a reduced risk of diabetes associated increased insulin sensitivity, decreased blood pressure, and improvements in cholesterol levels. Other studies have found that it may also improve immunity. Athletes regularly use fasting to improve endurance. Psychologically speaking, fasting has been shown to improve self-control in other matters, including unhealthy habits beyond overeating. Just like the other two pillars, giving up food regularly gives back in many other ways.
All of this suggests that the three pillars of Lent would not only make you holier, but also healthier. It is the essence of ““wholiness” that Catholicism has been preaching for over two thousand years, but of which we often sidestep or ignore. Greater health not used for vain reasons, but salvific ones is one more way we become whole in His eyes, and do His will on earth. As St. Iranaeus once said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” Nothing like the three pillars of Lent to provide even more life to these 40 days and beyond.