Most people know that it is the custom of Catholics to make sacrifices during Lent. The typical stereotype revolves around giving up chocolate, or cookies, or some such thing. The idea is that sacrifice helps us to recall the need for repentance. In the Lenten season we are supposed to be especially aware of our sinfulness and the need to reform our lives to avoid the patterns of sin that dominate us in ordinary time. Our sacrifices are meant to strengthen our resolve to be converted by the Lenten season and to make those conversions permanent. Unfortunately, we rarely succeed.
At the mass for Ash Wednesday, the gospel reading comes from Chapter 6 of the gospel of Matthew, verses 1-18. In the reading, Jesus instructs his disciples on fasting, prayer and alms giving. This gospel passage, particularly the section on fasting, is the source for the custom described above. It is important to remember that we are called not just to fasting, but to all three of the practices described by Jesus in this passage. Prayer and alms giving are just as important as fasting and we must practice all three if we hope to experience a truly fruitful Lent.
Jesus specifically talks about not making your sacrifices known. I am going to directly contradict this instruction of Jesus (unwisely, no doubt) and admit to you that this Lent I have committed myself to making sure I complete my prayer routine every day. Each morning, before doing anything else, I make certain I fulfill this commitment to God and myself.
I am using the Jesus Prayer as the basis for my current prayer routine.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on me, a Sinner”
In the hope that I might maximize the effectiveness of this prayer, I have also been reading about the practice of the Jesus Prayer in the Orthodox Church, where it is much more prevalent than it is in western spiritual practice. I have several books on the subject in my library that I purchased over time but never read completely. As I set myself up for prayer, I read a few pages from one of the books to help clear my mind. This allows me to focus better on the prayer and the routine as I begin.
The Orthodox Fathers talk about the Jesus Prayer ultimately being “prayer of the heart.” The goal is to learn to pray unceasingly by repeating the Jesus Prayer over and over until it takes root in your heart and you find yourself praying without having to focus on it. There are certain skills that can be learned that help move prayer from the mind to the heart. This takes years and years of patience, practice, development and discipline and the texts emphasize that there is danger in doing so alone. They emphasize the need for spiritual guidance if you wish to take the practice of the Jesus Prayer beyond the most rudimentary steps.
I do not profess to have mastered the practice of the prayer in any way. I have just begun to use it and I try to confine myself to the theoretically safe lessons of the beginner, which focus on being aware of wandering thoughts as you pray. The first step is to discipline yourself enough to recognize when your prayer has strayed and to bring yourself back to the prayer. I am sure that anyone who takes their own spiritual life seriously is familiar with how easily the mind drifts and how hard it is to discipline it.
Most days I wander so much that I wonder if I will ever get past this initial step.
That said, confining myself to the lessons of the beginner is not easy. I find myself praying to Jesus and to St. Michael the Archangel for protection because of my impatience. I want to “work ahead.” I find myself considering what “prayer of the heart” might consist of and begin to think of my heart as a room inside myself where I might go and encounter Jesus. I have read that one of the powers of the name of Jesus as invoked by the Jesus Prayer is the ability to heal and cleanse ourselves from the debilitating effects of sin. I have been thinking of this room as being an old and abandoned barn, full of dirt and cobwebs, in dire need of a thorough scouring. As I pray the prayer, I think of the name of Jesus as a metaphorical tool I can use to scrub the room, helping me to heal from the effects of a life long dominated by sin.
Today, when the thought of this room surfaced in my prayer, it was immediately replaced by a completely new notion.
It began with a recollection of my grandparent’s house on a lake in Michigan that I used to visit as a child and teenager. The house sat on a hill that led directly down to the lake. If you stood at the back of the house, your view was partially obscured by a large mature tree halfway down the hill. You could see the pier just below a big limb that protruded on the left side of the trunk. The pier was maybe thirty feet long? To the left of it was a stand of cattails. To the right was a field of lily pads that had a little trail through it where we pulled the fishing boat up on shore at night. At the end of the pier, there was a bench facing the lake bolted to the right branch of a “tee” in the planks. The front view across the lake was to a steep hillside covered in trees. To the right, the shoreline extended out, narrowing the lake at a point that hid a large section of water around the corner. To the left, the view opened in a large vista and there was a bridge in the distance where the lake fed a river that led to Lake Michigan.
This morning, as I recalled this scene from my childhood, I was once again in the back yard looking down to the lake. When I looked at the bench, someone was sitting there with their back to me and I knew Jesus was waiting for me to come down to Him.
Then the vision changed. I found myself sitting on a bench in a park. This scene was unfamiliar, but there was a small clearing in front of me. There was a path that led through the clearing and continued into the trees off to my left a little. I was looking down the path, this time waiting for Jesus to come to me.
And then, all of a sudden, Jesus was there, sitting next to me. He did not have to come down the path to be with me. He was there the entire time. I just had not seen Him because I was too preoccupied with trying to figure it all out.
Perhaps this inner place where I might meet Jesus is not a room? In fact, even though this place is still interior, it can be any peaceful place that I can imagine or recall from my past? It is often described as a temple, but a scene from nature can be a temple as well?
I know, based on my reading, that I am not supposed to “work ahead.” But I pray that in this instance, Jesus was giving me a glimpse of what might be possible if I extend my resolve beyond this Lenten season. He was only there on the bench next to me for an instant. It was not the type of full encounter that I long for and that the Orthodox books on the Jesus Prayer say is possible, but I hope He meant to encourage my persistence by letting me know such a meeting is possible.
Now I have a scene to familiarize myself with that will help me experience the encounter when I am otherwise ready for it?
One of the things that I am coming to realize through the practice of the Jesus Prayer is that it is important sometimes not so much to seek knowledge as to seek encounter. If you read much of this blog, you know that I am always searching for an explanation or a revelation. I rejoice when my prayer over a scriptural passage unmasks something that I did not comprehend or recognize before. I get excited about the Jesus Prayer as I read and learn about it. I like knowing the potential benefits it could have in my prayer life. It is necessary and important to learn about Jesus and the things He came to Teach us. Knowing Him and about Him is part of having a full faith life.
But the importance of simply hoping to encounter Him is growing in me. Full knowledge of Him is not necessary for my relationship with Him to be fertile and an obsession with such knowledge might even get in the way. Sometimes, it needs to be enough to simply be with the One you love, separate from any human need to understand it all.
I need to invite Him, unceasingly, to occupy my interior and to expand my ideas about what interior means and what is possible there not just from the standpoint of knowing, but also from the standpoint of encountering.
I need to invite Him, always, to help clear away my private clutter so that there is a pristine place within me where He can dwell comfortably, not surrounded by my sinfulness, but instead secure in a place of His own making where I can go and be with Him, away from the damage I have done to myself by my sinfulness.
I need to pray that He might penetrate and permeate me, that He might fill me completely and make me His own separate from any knowledge I might long to acquire about Him.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the place He would create within me is not a room at all. Walls cannot contain Him. Even a room scrubbed as clean as an operating suite prepped for a surgery would not suit Him. He needs a place that is boundless. It makes sense that His place within me would evoke the perfection, pristineness and vastness of His Creation before sin began to taint it. He would want me to experience that.
Perhaps it makes sense that the most likely place to encounter Him is a lake or a wood where I cannot avoid the sensation of awesomeness beyond what a human being can ever know. The sensation of something deeper in the woods that I cannot perceive, or something just over the hill beyond the limit of my intellect, or something across the water and out of reach of my sin weakened awareness teaches me about Him as well. Even as I experience intimacy with Him, I need to remain aware of the unfathomable differences between my Creator and myself, His creation.
Surely He delights in my quest for knowledge about Him. He wants me to seek Him beyond my current limits. If I say yes to His invitations and embrace the courage and strength He is ready to lend, He will guide me on a journey into the woods, over the hills and across the waters to whatever He deems me ready to experience next.
But surely He also delights in just being with me, in resting silently in the love that He steadfastly bestows on me and the love that once in awhile, when I manage to distance myself enough from my own sinfulness and my own need to know, I manage to return to Him unconditionally.