Just about a year ago this week, local pastors and laypeople in my immediate orbit were joking about what to give up for Lent. As I recall, coffee creamer routinely topped the list. This wasn't meant to be flippant or to denigrate little acts of self-sacrifice, but was rather a sign that, in the carefree and prosperous pre-pandemic America, we were definitely pressed for ideas as to what we would tolerate on the scale of daily suffering.
Well, as we all know, God had the last laugh. We gave up toilet paper, breathing freely and access to frequent sacraments. I gave up the reassuring presence of my Mom in my life, as well as too many other things to mention now. Besides, as we are 'all in this together', I don't need to say more about it.
This year, it was decided we'd start Lent off with a bang------to wit, the sounds of power transformers and trees going down under a burden of historic ice. Ash Wednesday Mass celebrated in a chilly church lit by a few candles certainly set the mood, and the subsequent days spent nearly free of electricity and internet was like a mini spiritual retreat. I say 'nearly', because we had a sturdy generator and some phone data. This meant we were faced daily with a Sophie's Choice regarding toaster vs. coffee maker, and whether to hit the power company's website for updates or instead skim the national headlines to commiserate with our fellow Americans in other hard-hit regions throughout the country. We really were all this together, yet again.
Needless to say, these circumstances provided us as a family, and myself as an individual, with plenty of opportunities to practice patience and trust. Also, to draw together closer as a family, whether we wanted to or not. For warmth, if nothing else. It has also been a time in which to think more deeply about prayer. Just as we're driven in Spring to clean out our closets and re-evaluate certain items for usefulness, we can also cast a more critical eye over our prayer life and see where it might need adjusting.
In pursuing this goal, I must confess that I am not a fan of rote prayer. I think this is largely because I was never really taught the different types of prayers, or how to practice them. I am still educating myself in this very important area, and am studying articles like this one in order get some clarity. For myself, I have a lifetime of bad habits to overcome and I find repetitive prayers like the rosary, and even the much shorter Divine Mercy Chaplet, often leave me feeling frustrated and unsatisfied. So often, the practice ends up as a meditation on my grocery list. Or a sombre contemplation of that mysterious stain on the rug near the coffee table. And a protracted opportunity to glare at the squirmy ones who are clearly more interested in decking themselves out with rosaries a la mardi gras beads then in even pretending to pray. And then of course, there's the burden of guilt over these distractions. So I admit to not being as in love with the rosary as I'm led to believe I should be.
An alternative is the Divine Office, a collection of scripture readings and prayers that can be almost effortlessly worked into the rhythm of your day. There are many apps and tutorials online to help, and once you figure out the structure, there is something truly soothing about the cycle of the prayers, the psalms, the readings and the petitions. It's convenient way to get some structured Bible reading into your daily routine. It's also a direct connection to the very ancient past: When I attended a bar mitzvah, I was delighted to walk into the synagogue and hear the exact psalms I had been praying at home few hours before on that Saturday morning. More times than I can count, have I opened my Office to read the spot-on scripture passage, frequently from a psalm, that I needed to read at that moment; receiving the perfect advice for a particular issue or question, understanding something as if hearing it for the first time, so fresh and clear.
Overall, during my stock-taking, I trace a progression: Away from repetitive prayer towards more engaged and mindful prayer and study, yet on a set schedule throughout the day. Looking back, it seems like moving from a child's understanding of repeating words because they please the grown-ups, to reading correspondence from an exciting writer who's addressing me personally.
And what happens when it's time to stop just reading, and to really work at contacting the Writer directly, on a regular basis? Several years ago, during a week-end trip to the coast, I conducted an experiment. I consciously and deliberately started a running commentary, a sort of monologue, directed towards Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. It was easy to envision Him enthroned in our local Adoration Chapel, yet aware and interested in everything my family was doing. Within a crowded, chaotic minivan, I was able to concentrate on and carry a clear conversation with Our Lord, including Him in all the details of our road trip, thanking Him for the weather and the beauty of the scenery, consciously NOT complaining or obsessing about anything.
It was amazing. It really felt as if He was there--- listening, interested, deeply involved. It was a beautiful, exhilarating, reassuring experience. And it was also a pure GIFT, not in any way dependent on my own merit or skills, because when I tried it again----nothing. Total. Failure. But that was okay, because I believe the lesson of that gift was: Yes, God is always there, and always listening, but don't expect him to answer when you want, or in the way you expect. That would be too easy, we wouldn't build any spiritual muscle if we were carried everywhere.
That's a lesson that I seem to have to be taught every few months, if not every few days. Another is that we do not always get to choose the manner in which God wants us to draw near to him. An example: For most of my adult life, I have resisted the invitation to follow in my mother's artistic footsteps and seriously commit to painting traditional icons. Now that she's gone, it seems as if I have no choice but to at least take a few steps down that path. Currently, I find myself engaged in creating a work intended for another family's prayer life, and the responsibility is sobering. With the snow lying thick outside my (very cold) studio, I am now able to live out a weird fantasy of being a Russian Orthodox monk in some kind of Dostoevsky-ian scenario. Not that I ever had that fantasy, but here we are. And given that my temperament is much closer to Ivan Karamazov's than Alyosha's, I'm uncertain if I'll make it very far.
And yet...and yet... Recently, I have been implementing the Jesus Prayer from the Orthodox tradition, into the quietest hours of my life; when falling asleep, when killing time waiting during errands, during the restless and anxious stretches in the middle of the night, and when forcing myself out of bed in the morning. This particular short prayer ('O Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner') is meant to be recited in time with one's own heartbeat, but I doubt I'll ever achieve that level of coordination. It seems to match more readily to the rhythm of my panicked breathing, or with the tears that flow during my deepest moments of feeling overwhelmed or abandoned. Or more peacefully, with each brushstroke as I paint.
And lest anyone recoil at the idea of reciting a mantra that refers to themselves by the outdated term 'sinner', remember that being a sinner means to 'miss the mark'. If someone has a problem admitting that they, ahem...occasionally miss the mark in their daily thoughts, words, actions or omissions, then that's a good indicator they may need to do some serious inner reflection. And the irony that this is probably the most 'mindless' of all rote prayers is not lost on me. Life moves in cycles, and information presented at one point in someone's journey may not be comprehended until it comes around again, after more of life is experienced. And invitations extended may not be accepted until they extended yet again, in patience. So as I undertake the previously rejected responsibility of painting an icon, I find this particular prayer to be refreshing in that it encourages my to shut off my beaten, over-burdened mind and focus on my heart, which has an extremely calming and comforting effect.
And if that brings me closer to God, than that is the most valuable fruit that prayer---whether rote or more conversational---can bring, especially in this season of my life.
(c) S.Kirk Pierzchala, 2021. A version of this piece was originally published on the blog “Beauty and Belief”.