Here we are in the first full week of Lent. I think we’re all getting used to the idea of what this year’s Lent entails. As I mentioned last week, I am trying to organize my thoughts around the Lenten pillars of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving and incorporating those pillars with the tripod of my way through Cursillo of piety, study, and action. Something the priest said at Monday’s mass stood out to me, and that was that we are all presbyters, as opposed to proselytizers. Public prayer, not conversion. That was the word [presbyter] used in that day’s Reading from the First Letter of Peter, and defined in Father’s homily as someone who prays in public. We may recognize that word as the basis for Presbyterian, a Protestant sect of Christianity.
If we are all called to be presbyters as Peter exalts us to “tend the flock of G-d in [our] midst” [1 Peter 5: 1-4], how do we reconcile that with Jesus’ call to not be like the hypocrites and go to our rooms and pray in private [Matt 6.6]?
How should, how can we pray in public and not become like those hypocrites?
As I set this aside earlier in the week, I thought about the ways in which I was praying in public and yet hoping to avoid hypocrisy. I am definitely thinking more about prayer and ways to be closer to G-d during these forty days leading up to the Easter Vigil. I spent time discerning what actions and tasks were important to me and which ones I needed to give up to make my time more effective and positive, not only for me, but for those people I would be working with.
Sometimes prayer is a conversation between yourself and G-d and sometimes it is contemplative, thinking on a scripture passage or meditation. We ask for things – petitions, we ask for things for others – intercessory prayer and sometimes we just sit in the quiet and hope G-d can understand what it is we’re seeking even if we don’t necessarily know.
On Wednesday night, I participated in a centering prayer group. We met on Zoom. I had been to a workshop on centering prayer last month, and this was a good opportunity to put what I learned into practice with others. While we were each in our own spaces and muted, we were also all together, hearing the same reading, listening to the bell that started off our quiet, contemplative time, the screen sharing a single candle if we chose to keep our eyes open to see it. Solitary and in group at the same time.
Private and public.
Admittedly, I had some trouble focusing. My house was empty and silent. The group was silent, not even a buzz from the lights or clock in the room, no airplanes flying low overhead like they’d done all morning. And still, I needed to continue to draw on my sacred word to bring me back to my prayer. By the time, I felt settled, the bell rang and it was the end of the twenty minute sit (what the prayer time is called).
It reminded me of those early days of the pandemic, when the sun was out, the snow was gone, and the cold was bearable. I would take out my camp chair to the front lawn and just sit. On occasion I took a photo of the trees or the sky. I’d write in my journal. I’d pray the rosary.
But often, I would just sit, noticing each flutter of a breeze, each chirp of a bird, and before I even realized it, an hour had passed. I’d unconsciously been doing centering prayer a year ago, but didn’t have the language to name it then.
One way I can be a presbyter is to take my chair outside (when my lawn doesn’t have the mounds of snow that it currently has) with my prayer book and journal, my pashmina and just sit. Let myself be drawn into G-d’s world and let the nearby church bells lift me from my reverie and gently bring me back to this world refreshed.
Ash Wednesday has arrived. It feels so early this year, but I suppose everything feels a bit jumbled during this pandemic year. As my priest said at mass this morning, things are different, but they’re also the same. Less people allowed at mass. Ashes distributed with a cotton swab (my parish) or sprinkled over your head (others). I didn’t make this morning’s mass in person although I planned to, and registered to attend. The ice on my car made different plans. I was able to watch the mass livestreamed and stopped by the church later in the afternoon to pick up a small vial of ashes. It was a do it yourself for me today.
I would have thought a year into the pandemic that I’d be an expert on reflections on any subject that came to mind, but when I went to write this on Tuesday, there was nothing. Sometimes reflections feel like journal entries, and I’ve been not great at journaling this past year. I’ve tried to keep checklists – masses attended, rosaries said, writing accomplished, but even that little bit has been a failing.
I hadn’t even decided what I’d be giving up, and then I gave myself an extension. Not anything canonical, but I think sometimes when we force ourselves to do things without the impetus of why we’re doing them, they lose something in the translation.
I spend a lot of time worrying about what I’m going to give up as if forty days without chocolate or soda is a hardship in the big picture of things, but on the other hand, I think that sacrifice should also be a sacrifice of time. What can I do to grow in my relationship with G-d? What are things that I can do for these forty days that will stay with me for the next forty? And then the next?
To begin for the readers waiting with bated breath, I’m not going to make my decision on what I”ll be offering to G-d for Lent until the first Sunday of Lent although I have a good idea what it will be and it wasn’t even on my original brainstorm list. By Sunday, I will have had some time to discern what I can accomplish from giving something up or trading it for something that is more positive and/or spiritual.
Lent is a forty day period where prayer, fasting, and almsgiving take the center of spiritual life. Despite being given dispensation from holy days and Sunday masses during the pandemic, I have still gone almost every week to the livestream mass. I was happily surprised to find it just as rewarding as going in person. In the summer, I began to attend Monday’s daily mass in person and I will continue to do that. Our church has done a great job of keeping things safe. I am very lucky with both my church and my children’s school.
In addition to the three pillars of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving since I’ve become a Cursillista, I try to incorporate the tripod of piety, study, and action into my everyday life, but moreso during Lent when our time is spent in communion with Jesus, and of course, ourselves.
I have some tools and links that I’d like to share with you to assist with your own Lenten journey. The first three I will be doing throughout Lent.
Prayer of Spiritual Communion (this is what my parish uses for communion during their livestream masses for those of us participating at home):
I wish, my Lord, to receive you with the purity, humility, and devotion with which your most holy Mother received you, with the spirit and fervor of the saints. Amen
In addition to some of these, I am also going to praying the Rosary on Mondays and the Stations of the Cross on Fridays as well as committing to submit a reflection to my Cursillo group’s weekly digest. I will also (finally) begin reading A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith by Timothy Egan. This was recommended a couple of years ago and I bought it then, but haven’t found the right time to start it. I’ve decided to make that time now.
I also intend to recommit to my writing, both spiritual and secular. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve kept consistent with this website, but my other writings have fallen on the wayside. I hope to rectify that over the next forty days.
I hope to bring you more in the coming days. Have a meaningful Lent.
Last weekend I attended a writing retreat. Three days of prayer and a choose your own writing adventure retreat.
It was wonderful.
This was the second year of a January weekend writing retreat, although I’ve gone to two other retreats with this director, and they are all special in their own ways. Last weekend was also very unusual. It was entirely on Zoom, and while that sounds daunting, it was nothing but fantastic all around. I think we’ve all adapted nicely to our technological advancements during these pandemic times.
On the very last morning, our subject was inspirational writing.
As it happened, prior to the weekend, I had been trying to write a reflection on the insurrection at the Capitol the week before, and it just wouldn’t come out. I’ve been told in previous writing classes that for the free write, if you can’t think of anything, just start writing. Something will come.
So that’s what I did, and I thought I would share it with you as we begin another weekend in a new era of this new full-of-potential year.
Inspiration writing is hard.
How do I conjure just the right balance of motivation, spirituality, and reflection on any given topic?
Am I supposed to inspire you?
Tell you what I find inspirational?
Be more subtle than that?
Johnny-on-the-spot and the spot is quicksand.
I made breakfast. It was terrible. Except the tea. The tea was good.
There are times when things don’t work that should and you more or less know that they don’t work even though you also know they should, but you can’t figure out why or what the problem is. Or how to make it better.
We know the opposite too.
This holds true for many things, both tangible and un- , but for me this week, it was a pair of pictures, both Mary, both by the same artist, my friend, Brother Mickey McGrath.
I had attended a weekend retreat under his direction in 2019. His retreats always include his artwork related to the weekend subject.
One of the pictures that I was drawn to was Mary, Queen of the Prophets. It was blue and yellow-gold and swirly and I was perfectly captivated by it.
I ordered a print, framed it and hung it in its place.
Every time I looked at it I got a twinge of unease. Nothing specific. Nothing sinister. Just something not quite right.
The feelings I was getting made no sense.
I had wanted the picture for some time. I knew exactly where it would go when it came. But I don’t know. There was something undefined and uncomfortable when I looked at it despite its beauty.
And I lived with it even though I considered trading it back with the picture that originally hung in that space. I think I thought I would eventually change it.
Recently, Brother Mickey created a new Mary art. This one was Mary, Untier of Knots. Our Lady, Untier of Knots is my personal favorite of Marian devotions. I feel an overwhelming devotion to her. I have cards, coins, and medals of this devotion.
For Christmas, I decided ot use a little of my gift money to order the print. I bought a frame and it arrived very quickly. Having nothing to do with the Queen of Prophets in particular, that spot was where it would hang – behind the chair in my corner office. It was time for change and Mary, Untier of Knots was *my* Mary.
As soon as it came I hung it on the wall.
The first time I looked at it from across the room, I felt a calmness wash over me.
There was serenity and feelings from deep within me.
I brought the other picture up to my bedroom. The walls are yellow and I thought it would fit with the blues and the yellow-gold and the swirls of the print. I propped it up against the wall on the floor beside my bed, intending to leave it until I could figure out where in the room exactly it would go.
Then something happened.
I looked at it – Mary’s face, Mary’s hands, the swirling of the background.
Even resting on the floor, it was home. I was full of emotion seeing it in this temporary place, but still…its place.
Wherever I would hang it in my bedroom it would fit; it would be perfect.
Things have a place and when they’re in the wrong one, you know it. Even if you don’t actively know it or the reasons for the discomfort, you feel something real, and eventually with a little nudge, these things can be righted.
Tonight is a unique opportunity to see the conjunction of the planets, Saturn and Jupiter, looking in the sky to some people like a large star, perhaps the same Christmas Star the three wise men (kings, shepherds) saw that guided them to Jesus’ birthplace.
In my neck of the woods, the Northeast USA, sunset is at 4:25pm, and the best time to see the star/conjunction is an hour past sunset looking towards the southwestern sky. With binoculars, you may also be able to see Jupiter’s four large moons.
Some links to read about this special sight while you’re waiting for sunset:
As we come to the last Sunday of Advent, I have finally decided to recommend an Advent book. The book itself begins with Advent but continues with daily readings throughout the Christmas season. What I have really come to share with you is the author, Michelle Frankl-Donnay.
I have been reading her reflections for a few years now, and she is by far my favorite person to read their reflections. They are a wonderful blend of spirituality and real life with the enormity of the universe for perspective. Professor Frankl-Donnay teaches chemistry at Bryn Mawr College and her science background gives an entire feeling with the mixing of the scientific and religious. Whenever I am reading her books durng the holiday seasons, I am wonderfully surprised at my reactions and how much I get emotionally from her reflections.
There are many ways to inspire this month. It starts somewhat in darkness as the nights get longer and the days shorter, but my birthday was last week, so there were birthday candles. Advent began a few days before that and the church has their advent wreath with two of the four candles lit now. In two days is the first night of Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, and it also marks the anniversary of my mother’s death when I will light a Yartzeit candle for her, and then of course, Christmas two weeks after that.
There are many ways to bring light into our lives in this darkest season in what seems to be a very dark year. It may be that the older we get, the more we notice that our childhood heroes keep dying. I remember my mother making comment on that many years ago when she was in her fifties. I am noticing it now, but I don’t know if it’s my age or the year that 2020 has been.
In some ways, the year has stood still, or at least it’s seemed like that with how slowly it’s passing by, and it seems that every week is a new loss: Childhood heroes like Curly Neal of the Harlem Globetrotters, Chuck Yeager, Little Richard, actors that I enjoyed watching on my own and with my mother: Stan Kirsch, Kirk Douglas, Fred Willard, Phyllis George, James Lipton, Orson Bean, and Olivia de Havilland to name but a few.
And those that really hit me hard, whose deaths I still carry with me in some way or form: Jerry Stiller, Grant Imahara, Tomie de Paola, Chadwick Boseman, John Lewis, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and so many others including a dear friend who died just last week.
And yet, we continue on, as we do.
I am attending a three week Advent program on Zoom that includes music, prayer, reflection, journaling, and breakout groups. It is affording me the time, the facilitator calls it the gift of time, the ability to sit still, in quiet, and reflect. Contemplate.
And so I will pass that on to you right now.
Take fifteen minutes. Set a timer if you need to, and just stop. You can come back to this post after the fifteen minutes are finished, but take the time and sit with yourself (and with G-d if you like, but you don’t have to).
– – Fifteen minutes of quiet – –
Did you light a candle? Listen to music? Pray? Think? Draw or color?
This morning, I did all of these things and I was inspired, even just a little, to finish this post.
Some things that inspired me this week:
“Always keep your eyes open. Keep watching. Because whatever you see can inspire you.”