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Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will pass by.
Preparing for Lent. This bible verse, from 1 Kings 19:11 is the phrase the Lord God spoke to Elijah. Today we probably would say that Elijah was depressed. And why not? Despite being the powerful mouthpiece of God, despite the magnificent ways in which he was able to demonstrate God’s great works, the people wanted him dead.
What more could he do? He is the only prophet left. And he knows his weaknesses and his limitations. He is worn out. He is fed up. He is empty. As we embark on this Lent, we might find ourselves feeling the same way. After all, the pandemic is still with us. Many are feeling like Elijah. And even if we do not feel this way, I expect like many we just want things to go back to normal, whatever that is.
But maybe God is calling us to something far better than normal. Lent is not just a time where we hope to get back to the way things were. Lent is a time for us to seek to change our hearts so that they are more welcoming to Jesus. Just like cleaning up our house for a guest we seek to clean up our hearts for the Lord.
Except we don’t clean our heart. God cleans our heart. And instead of our preparing a place for Jesus, he is preparing a place for each of us. All we need to do is to place ourselves in the best possible place to meet him. We just need to turn our hearts away from sin and towards the Lord himself.
Preparing for Lent Novena
A novena is nine days of prayer. The nine days is the time between the Ascension of Jesus until the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It was for the apostles and Mary a time of waiting for the Spirit to come. To realize that their wildest dreams were simply not wild enough!
Lent is a time when we focus upon three aspects of the Spiritual life. We focus on prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Each of these form a foundation, like legs on a stool that put us in the best place to meet and welcome Jesus. The this three part cycle of prayer, fasting and almsgiving will form the ways in which we pray together each day.
In some ways, this will be a mix of prayers, like a novena, but also it will feature reflections so that we can till the soil of our hearts so that the seeds of faith will grow. Too often I find myself just kind of being surprised when Lent starts and falling into something. I did not spend the appropriate time in reflection and prayer to ask the more important question. What does God know I need to do in order to grow closer to Him?
It is amazing how often we stress the importance of prayer without actually helping people to pray. We know it is important, but we do not always know how to do it. And when we do try to explain it, it often does not contain many practical suggestions, but instead is just a vague collection of stories or pithy sayings.
So what does it mean to pray? While I do not have a neat and tidy definition or method, in my years as a priest and as a Catholic, I think there are elements that need to be present if our prayer life is going to be successful.
I do not know how it is possible to pray without cultivating time for silent prayer. We need to carve out time where we just sit and listen. What happens? Well, on some days, maybe even many days it can be the case that little or nothing seems to happen.
But do not let this discourage you. When we pray, we are not seeking to let our emotions influence our prayer. Nor are we making the time we pray like being at an amusement park where there are wonderful things happening all around us.
No, when we pray we are simply just placing ourselves into God’s presence to let God do whatever God is going to do. This does not always happen quickly, and at first be patient. There are many things to overcome.
We live in a world that emphasizes being busy and active. Even as a Dominican I fall prey to the notion that too often what is worthwhile is what I do and not who I am. And so if silence is not part of your regular prayer life, at first you might find your head racing with a million thoughts. Not to worry.
What you need to do is acknowledge them (not fight them) and simply return to the desire to have this deeper relationship with Jesus. As we gradually become more accustomed to the silence, it will get easier.
And as you think about silence, think too about being realistic with having it enter your life. If you have never engaged in silent prayer, do not expect that you will be able to start with an hour a day. You might have the discipline to do so, and if so, that is great, but you may not either. Don’t get discouraged. God always meets us where we are at in our lives.
It can also be that restlessness is a struggle against boredom. In some ways it seems to me that the modern day question is, “How can we avoid boredom at all costs?” We have a seemingly endless supply of electronic gadgets to keep us distracted. We can become so distracted by these gadgets, or other amusements, or our job, that we can forget who we are.
And yet, there is a very powerful place for boredom. Boredom is not useless. Often when we are bored great ideas strike us, insights are suddenly gained, and we can become really creative. Ever wonder why sometimes you remember that thing you had forgotten when you are in the shower?
And so boredom can have a very good place when we pray too. Sometimes boredom is simply the process we go through to clear our minds. We can find that by allowing ourselves to be bored there can be the beginning of discovering clarity in our lives.
In all of this silence, waiting for restless to fade, and staying in our boredom, it is in those instances that we can discover that we are waiting on the divine to come in and enter our lives. It is in the moments when we can forget our cares, not because they are not cares, but rather because we learn that Jesus is right there with us, just as he was with the disciples as they were tossed about on the boat and he was asleep on cushion.
How often do you hear someone say they are starving when they really mean they are hungry? How often do I say I am exhausted when i am really just tired? How often do I think I have made a great sacrifice when in reality I might only have done something I did not want to do?
The hard part of fasting is that it looks different for everyone. There is no one type of fasting that works for everyone. But fasting is an effort, an attempt to identify those idols in our lives that take our focus away from God and onto only ourselves.
When we are focused only on ourselves, then what happens is that we think too much depends upon us or is a about us. When we turn inward, if our only focus is on ourselves then we look to only ourselves to be fulfilled. And this can never be the case. On a human level we cannot focus only on ourselves, and on a divine level we most certainly cannot focus only our ourselves.
What fasting does, then is that it helps us to go without something in order to discover how we can better fill ourselves with God. And so to this end, there are many ways we can fast. We can choose to embrace what we normally think of and we can skip a meal.
But there may be other ways to fast when we think about what keeps us from God. It can be the case that our phone, for example, can keep us from God. Maybe we need to set it aside at times, and use the time we would have spent on our phones for prayer or some volunteering, or even simply spending more focused time with our family.
We could fast from the snooze button, or from hot water in the shower, or from the internet. It takes a little reflecting and praying, but if you engage in that you can discover what keeps you from God and how it is that fasting from that thing can keep you focused on the direction God wishes to take you.
Fasting can work this way too. Don’t have time for prayer? Think about the ways you do find time to do a whole bunch of things. Not sure what is taking up your time? Keep track of what you do. You might just be surprised how much time you spend on things of very little consquence.
Are you able to give 10% of your income to charity? Or is there any money you give to charity? It can be the case that we can find ways to help others by keeping track of what we are spending our money on. Or maybe instead of money, you look around the house to see if there are things you could give away. Most of us have too much stuff, and if we really look at the excess we have, it can be a way to fast.
I know I can be more generous. I know I have been blessed with much more than I need. And I know there are times that I want to buy something not because I need it but because buying something takes my mind away from something not so pleasant at a particular time.
I also need to do better to allow myself to be uncomfortable in being generous. Maybe I am skittish about giving away money, but perhaps I could donate something like gift cards. Or even better, maybe connect with a charity that helps the homeless and the poor. (I hear clean socks are always a helpful item.)
Conversion is about turning towards God. Almsgiving helps us to turn towards God because it reminds us to turn towards others. In many ways conversion happens when we are taking the same path as God, knowing he is all around us. It is when we allow our faith in God to so change us that we can see the needs of others in ways we could not before we repented.
Put another way, it is about whether we are going to be the one who builds larger barns, or are we going to be the one who trusts God so much we are like the widow who put in the small coin, all she had? Lent is the time to find the holy balance that God is having us to have been greed and selfishness on the one hand, and reckless spending on the other.
And so perhaps you can think about what you could do without for the purpose of seeing the Christ in the poor and the marginalized. How can we free ourselves from our attachment to things? How can we try to do way with the stuff that keeps us from being open and generous to God who can never be outdone in generosity?
And so let’s get rolling. On Monday, February 22, 2022, we will start the novena. Join us. Tell your friends. Better yet, subscribe so that you do not miss a thing. The who purpose of Lent is a project for conversion. So take these days before Lent to bring God into your prayer and discern what it is he wants you to do.
In our culture, it is too often the case that we want to do all these things ourselves. We want to be in control. But that’s backwards. It is not that we are in control., but rather that God is in control. So pray. Fast. Give alms. And in so doing you will turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.
There are resources that you will find helpful for Lent 2022. We will have reflections as in previous years. We will continue the reading of The Confessions of Saint Augustine, as well as adding two additional selections: Mediations for Time of Retreat (and some of his homilies) by Saint John Baptist de la Salle, and the Companion to the Summa by Walter Farrell. These three selections will be part of the Friar Book Club.
In addition we will have homilies, and as in past years reflections from students for the season of Lent. And this year we will also try something new. Our Lent section will also have a daily selection of something to pray about, sacrifice and be generous to others. Hopefully there will be plenty of opportunities to not only grow in conversion, but also in entering into that deep and loving relationship with Jesus himself.