Prayer is the essence of the Christian life distilled into discrete moments, as a friendship is crystallized into an embrace…
In less than two weeks, Ash Wednesday (February 25) and Clean Monday (March 2) will have come, on which days the two lungs of the Church, as Pope John Paul II had called western and eastern Christendom, will start breathing the spirit of Lent. Therefore, that we might truly participate in this most holy of seasons, I propose the following 10 Reminders for Lent, as a simple checklist of things we may do:
1. Examination of Conscience
2. Confession and Penance
3. Reconciliation with Others
6. Fasting and Abstinence
7. Holy Reading
8. Meditation on the Cross
9. Works of Mercy
10. The Divine Liturgy of the Mass
* * *
B. Strength for the Journey
In its largest sense, prayer comprehends all of Christian life, a mystical union with God through Christ in His Church that began in baptism (see I Corinthians 12:13) and, unless interrupted by mortal sin (see I St. John 5:16-17), will continue into eternity. What defines prayer in its smaller and particular sense is the fact that, during prayer, we are conscious of God’s closeness to us, where at other times we are only habitually aware of His presence. Prayer is therefore the very essence of the Christian life distilled into discrete moments, the way a marriage or a longstanding friendship is crystallized into the ritual or the embrace. And as with the Christian life, prayer is initiated by God1, Who places in us the desire to find Him, and is therefore at once God finding God, and God moving man to reach for Him.
Lent is a time set aside for penitential prayer2, the spiritual equivalent of an annual physical after a year of healthy living. At all other times we struggle to love God amid the distractions of the world; but as our Lord would at times step away from the crowds to pray to His Father (see St. Luke 6:12), so at Lent we should step back from the busy road to enter the upper room, there to spend time with God through Christ. This is especially necessary in these times of great and open temptation, and of widespread acceptance of sin, when our only shield against corruption is “constant prayer to God, asking for what we cannot do by ourselves because of human weakness.”3
We pray to thank God, to ask His help or His forgiveness, to listen to Him, or simply to worship Him. This is done with 2 broad kinds of prayer: the liturgy, which is the public prayer of the Church, and private prayer. Liturgical prayer is quite varied, with approximately 27 usages recognized in the Catholic Church (about 17 of which are still practiced, including 9 in the Latin Patriarchate), though taking relatively stable form within each Rite. Private prayer is even more diverse because it generally follows the particular spirituality, needs, influences, and preferences of individuals, families, and other groups. But whether we pray individually or in a small or a large group; with set words (see Acts 3:1), spontaneous utterances (see Mark 9:24), or singing, or in silence, we may do well to remember these considerations:
First, what matters in prayer is that we have the right disposition, which is love of God and humility before Him4. Humility, we must clarify, does not mean making oneself falsely low, but being obedient to the truth5. That He Is Who He Is (see Exodus 3:14), almighty and all-sufficient; that “in Him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28); that we sinned beyond all hope of our paying for our crime6; that, to paraphrase St. Augustine, He continued to love us and sought to make us worthy of love; that He took on our punishment on the Cross–these awe-inspiring truths, conjoined with the desire to glorify God and be with Him, lie at the heart of all true prayer.
In the early stages of our discipleship, when we’re still feeling our way through prayer, it’s best to follow models in praying. The prayers in Scripture, especially the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms, are always excellent guides, as is the Liturgy of the Hours, the mandated daily prayer for priests and religious. Also, in the course of 2,000 years of sometimes hard experience, the Saints have written prayers that we may follow even as we emulate their lives7. Likewise for Lent, there are devotions intended to help us meditate on the suffering of our Lord, such as, among Latin Christians, the Stations of the Cross, the Rosary‘s Sorrowful Mysteries (on which one may read Liz Kelly’s Seeker’s Guide to the Rosary), and the various devotions to the Sacred Heart.
To dedicate ourselves most fully to prayer during the Lenten season, it is especially good to join a retreat that is being conducted by a trustworthy priest, religious, or lay leader, for there we can spend ample time for prayer and reflection under the guidance of our senior in the Christian life. If we are prevented from joining a retreat because of our legitimate duties, then we may nonetheless approach the conditions of a retreat even in the midst of the world. Find a good guidebook on prayer and spirituality, and following its guidance, reserve time for quiet prayer.
“Set aside an hour every day before dinner, if possible early in the morning, when your mind is less distracted and fresher after the night’s rest. Don’t extend it for more than an hour unless your spiritual director expressly tells you to do so.”8
On this point it may be noted that the one true Church has a wealth of guides to prayer and reflection from its many schools of spirituality, such as the works of Robert De Grandis from a charismatic perspective. Among Latin Christians, the spiritual treatises of St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. Francis De Sales, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and St. Ignatius Loyola are acknowledged treasure houses of wisdom on prayer, though I think that those of the last 3 should be read under the guidance of an experienced spiritual director. For a deep understanding of the life of prayer, The Soul of the Apostolate by Jean-Baptiste Chautard (the structure of which is excellently summarized by Brother Charles) and The Three Stages of the Interior Life by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange may be read with great profit.
Also, if we belong to a community of religious or to a family, then we should spend some of our Lenten devotion praying with them. Christ is most fully present among people united in prayer (see St. Matthew 18:20), for by praying together we would faithfully mirror the loving communion of the Divine Trinity and of the Church, the Body of Christ.
May God bless us all.
1 Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2567 (Manila: Episcopal Commission on Catechesis and Catholic Education, 1994), p. 573.
2 See Code of Canon of Law, canon 1250 (Pasay City: Daughters of St. Paul, 2001), p. 218.
3 Pope Pius XII, Encyclical “Sacra virginitas”, no. 52, March 25, 1954.
4 Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2559 (Manila: Episcopal Commission on Catechesis and Catholic Education, 1994), p. 571.
5 See the homily of St. Josemaria Escriva, “Christ Triumphs Through Humility”, Christ is Passing By (Mandaluyong: Sinag-Tala, 1973, repr. 1977), p. 34-35
6 St. Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, I, xx-xxiii (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1959).
7 Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2683 (Manila: Episcopal Commission on Catechesis and Catholic Education, 1994), p. 571.
8 St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, trans. John K. Ryan (Garden City, NY: Image, 1966), p. 82.