Lent is not a self-help program

Morning Prayer at Bread for the World on Friday was about connecting to the heart of Lent.  I often find it useful to remind myself of why the Church began to practice Lent each time the season gets underway.  It’s NOT about losing a few pounds, or a time to kill bad habits, or even helping us to gain self-control over sins and failings.

In short, Lent is NOT a self-help program.

Lent is about GOD helping us.

In every aspect of our prayer, our alms, and our fasting we are reminded of this reality.

  • Our prayer connects us to God: the source of our being and the sustainer of life. By giving space to an awareness of God, the door of our heart is opened to God’s grace and transforming love.
  • Our alms remind us how dependent each of us is upon the gracious gifts we have been given by God, and by our neighbor, and unite us with the God who is by very nature an image of self-gifting.
  • Our fasting reminds us that one does not live on bread alone, but that our lives are always gifted and sustained by God.

Lent is the place where we recognize that we can’t do it alone. We struggle to be faithful in simple things. We fail. We are in need of help.

In spite of our weakness, however, we are called to lift up the name of God in prayer.
In spite of our weakness, we are called to lift up one another in acts of service and love.
In spite of our weakness, we are called to imitate Christ who fasted for us.

How can we, who are so weak, hope to do these things? God has chosen to join us in our weakness, even to the point of becoming weak Himself.

On Friday, my colleagues and I joined in singing “I Need Thee Every Hour.” I had never thought of it as a Lenten song before, but it fits so well. Take a moment to listen to this creative and beautiful rendition, and think about how this perspective might deepen your Lenten journey this year.

Pray by doing

I’m taking a course this fall which marks my first return to the classroom in several years.  During the shopping period, the week when professors give an overview of their courses before you have to register, this professor spent the 40 minutes explaining to us why, if we were crazy enough to sign up for the course, we would hate our lives over the next three months.  Someone seriously had to raise their hand at the end and ask if there were any benefits to taking such a grueling course.

As an employee of the university I get a great discount on tuition, but there is some paperwork involved.  After completing some of this paperwork with the professor’s assistant, I asked her if she had any advice for me.  This very kind woman sat there with a pensive look for a moment, and then with a laugh asked, “Are you a praying man?”  She was only half kidding.  It was also the only counsel she had for me.

While she didn’t do much to help calm my nerves, I did reflect on the way out that, had I answered her question honestly, I probably would have had to say that no, I am not a praying man.  I worship, and I articulate the Creed, the Our Father, and all the other prayers with the rest of the congregation at Mass, but I can’t really say that (despite being an Irishman) I spend much time in conversation with the Almighty.  I much prefer to pray by doing.

There’s too much to do in this world to sit still, but it’s not as if I never spend a quiet moment in prayer.  When I cook for myself I make a point to say grace, and now that I’m a homeowner with a backyard and a grill I am doing more of that.  Not much, but more.  I find that it makes me much more appreciative of the meal, the backyard, and the grill than when I eat ice cream from the tub and drink beer in my recliner and call it breakfast.

While I am not about to become a flagellant, I discover more meaning from employing redemptive suffering than contemplative prayer.  When I give platelets, for example, I always offer it up for a college friend who is battling cancer and receiving transfusions.  I know that my blood won’t end up in his veins, so accepting the pain of needles in both my arms and uniting it with the suffering of Christ in the Crucifixion is about all I can do for him from several hundred miles away.  Likewise when I run, I often offer up various miles for people and intentions that are important to me.

As St. James tells us, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?”  What good is it indeed?  St. Augustine said that he who sings prays twice, and I think the same could probably be said of he who does.

The course I am taking is in applied data analysis, and it is the applied part that intrigues me.  Come December, I’d like to be able to take a bunch of data and actually be able to use it, as opposed to simply knowing how to work out the mathematical formulas.  I think it is much the same with prayer.  I’d rather go out and feed the hungry and clothe the naked than pray for an end to hunger and poverty.  Then again, if this class is half as tough as the professor made it out to be, I’ll likely end up on my knees at some point during the semester.  St. Jude, pray for me.

An earlier version of this article identified the author of the linked biblical quote as St. Paul instead of St. James.

When it’s Hardest to Pray, we Must

Sometimes events happen that are so beyond our scope of understanding that we become frozen. At work, all we can do is stream a live-feed of the events unfolding, ignoring work that should be done. We text and call friends living in the area of the incidents just to feel connected, to feel as though we are doing something by offering a comforting word or a friendly voice. We wonder why it happened, how someone could wish to inflict so much pain. Frankly, I’m glad I don’t understand. I don’t want to know how it would feel to be that filled with something that is the so poisonous to the soul. If I understood, that would mean it was ‘normal’, and that just is not acceptable.

During these times it is my habit, my gut reaction, to turn to prayer; to try to find comfort in familiar prayers or just enter into dialogue with God and find refuge in His being. Sometimes, though, when I turn to prayer, I don’t know how to begin. I become numb, as though I have forgotten how to pray. This happened to me this morning. After a long night of following the Twitter newsfeed and the “latest, breaking news” of the story in Boston as it was developing, I turned to prayer. However, I simply did not know how to begin. It was like writers block, a blank state of mind. It was almost as though something that was once so flawless, so simple, was now one of the most difficult tasks. There were so many questions and emotions that it was hard for me to truly process just why I was turning to God.

Do I pray for the city of Boston as a whole? A city that is so close to home, where so many of my friends reside and that holds so many memories for me. Do I pray that we as Americans can come together to show our support for the victims? Perhaps I should pray that the victims and their families, together with all the people of Boston, are able to find peace within their hearts, that they are able to come out on top after such tragedy. Or do I pray that these young men, who are responsible for so much fear and grief, somehow move past their hatred and seek forgiveness for their actions? Or maybe, do I just offer up a general prayer for peace, for understanding, for love? Love between neighbors, friends, families, strangers. But a prayer for love, at a time like this, seems so trite, so unimportant. Does prayer even matter in this situation?

Yes, it does. It has to. It is times like these, when it is hardest to form a prayer, hardest to even think of what I am turning to God for, that I know I have to. That even if I sit in silence and offer my scattered thoughts up to the Divine, it means something. I have to trust that my prayers, the silent prayers especially, are able to do something. Because, at a time like this, what more can we do?

Kat O’Loughlin is the Assistant Director of Campus Ministry at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in New York.