A few weeks ago I was chatting with our parish life director, a wonderful woman who has given so much to our community. She was close to finishing up work on a major parish building project and was also finalizing a new stewardship communication to parishioners. “And Lent is just a few weeks away,” she said with a sigh, no doubt thinking of all planning and organizing the parish staff needed to do to get ready.
“I have an idea,” I said. “Instead of the usual set of activities, why don’t we just do nothing.”
“Nothing?” she said, raising an eyebrow.
“Well if we have to do something we can just keep the parish open 24 hours so people can come in and pray. But that’s it,” I said.
“Not in this parish,” she said with a wry laugh that suggested I had made my point.
Over the last few years, I’ve been struck by how much Lent has become something to do, something that requires action and energy from us, that requires thinking, planning, organizing, and executing. I’ve seen some parishes where the handbook of Lenten activities looks like a prospectus for a graduate program in theology, with bible studies, book clubs, speakers, musical performances and the like.
As a holder of a graduate degree in theology myself, I can hardly object to this. I often enjoy these programs. I like taking the opportunity to deepen my understanding of my faith and share my journey with others. Lent certainly is a good time to take a spiritual inventory of our lives.
Nevertheless, there is something about the way we approach Lent these days that troubles me. There have been years in the past when I dutifully dragged myself to every Lenten event with the gritted determination of a parent forcing various types of “enrichment” on their children. I would set lofty goals for myself in terms of how much I would pray, read, fast and give alms. When the pressures of family, work, and other commitments interfered—as they inevitably would—I would end up feeling guilty that I had fallen so short of those goals.
Perhaps I’m just a guilt-ridden Catholic, but I don’t think I’m alone in sometimes feeling overwhelmed by Lent. At times it feels like we are merely reproducing some of the negative aspects of our culture: our tendency to prefer sound to silence, action to thought, and work to rest.
The central disciplines of Lent—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—are ultimately about doing less. They force us to slow down. I remember a few years back trying to fast completely for an entire day. To some extent, I will confess, this was an exercise in spiritual machismo. As my blood sugar dropped, however, I began to be conscious of how fast I was walking and moving and how I needed to slow down if I was going to make it through the day.
Lately I’ve been reading a book by Cyprian Consiglio, a Camaldolese monk entitled Prayer in the Cave of the Heart: The Universal Call to Contemplation. A constant theme throughout the book is reducing things to their essentials and recognizing the poverty of language, even the language of prayer.
Consiglio tells the story of Abba Isaac, one of the Desert Fathers, who counsels the use of the simple phrase ‘O God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me (Ps 70:1) as a formula for meditation. We are to use this phrase to “cast away the multiplicity of other thoughts and reduce ourselves to the poverty of a single word.” Consiglio concludes:
In meditation we choose the way of poverty, the way of renunciation. We renounce all other words, all other prayers, all other thoughts, and hardest of all, our imaginations and our daydreaming, as we restrict our mind to the poverty of one word or phrase.Perhaps this Lent we might make it our task to do less and to say less so that we can create the necessary space in our lives where God can speak and give and we can hear and receive.
-- J. Peter Nixon (h/t Andrew Sullivan)