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Lent, the 40 days preceding the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, is supposed to be a time of fasting, where we chocoholics take an “s” of out the word “dessert,” and are left with “desert.” I heard somewhere that Jesus wandered around in the desert for 40 days (and Moses for 40 years) because he is like every other man-he refused to ask for directions.
Actually, the opposite is true. This liturgical season is all about asking for directions-going into the dryness so that we can show up transformed at the spring of new life. I pray many different ways during this time of preparation, and most of them are quite fun. For me Lent isn’t about being somber or morose. I have enough of that in my life. It’s about using everything in my life to better connect me with God. Here are some of my paths into the desert of Lent.
1. Fold Your Hands
Some ways you can tell someone is lying: his arm and leg movement will be limited, stiff, and towards his own body; she avoids eye contact; he will touch his face, throat, and mouth a lot. I learned at a young age the power of body language. I was a clumsy girl, so my mom enrolled me in ballet classes, which I took for 14 years. My instructors pulled back my shoulders every two minutes-so that I would project the confidence that I didn’t feel. “Let your body lead,” they said. “And your mind will follow.” That is why I always fold my hands when I pray. I want my body to tell God that I’m talking to Him, even if my mind is off wandering elsewhere.
2. Say Thank You
Gratitude, they say, is the highest form of prayer. It’s also the most difficult when I’m in a depressive cycle or feel a panic attack coming on. During Lent, I try to pay special attention to all the small, wonderful things around me: that my kids aren’t using diapers anymore, that they don’t have disabilities, that my husband works around the corner and can come home for lunch.
My mom and dad told my sisters and me that when someone gives you a gift-no matter how small-you ALWAYS write a thank-you letter. It’s the polite thing to do. So, as I try to teach my kids the same lesson, I remind myself to say thank you to God, as well. That’s just plain good manners.
3. Light a Candle
Even though there is no “Lenten wreath” like an Advent wreath, I light candles in the same manner during Lent as I do in the days preceding Christmas. For some reason, I feel like God hears me better if I stick my face near a hot, glowing body of flame.
Is that because Jesus calls himself the “light of the world” (John 8:12)? Because Paul instructs the Ephesians to “walk as children of Light” (Ephesians 5:8)? Because Christians light the Paschal Candle on Easter as a symbol of the risen Christ?
Or is it because something about a flame on a candle soothes me in the same way that my son David’s ratty blankie comforts him. The scarlet blaze generates a feeling of hope, of fierce tenacity, that whispers: “Hang in there.”
4. Sing the Verses
I’ve been known to belt out the lyrics of “Be Not Afraid,” and “On Eagles’ Wings” in the shower. And I do admit, I get chills every time I sing the “Our Father” or “Amazing Grace.” In the church bulletin recently, I read that “singing is praying twice.” So if I sing a refrain three times, that’s like saying six prayers, right? Right?
5. Use Prayer Beads
You don’t have to be Catholic or even Christian to handle prayer beads. In fact, Christians were probably the last to use them, after Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims. I postulate that counting prayers was implemented out of practical necessity by all the major world religions to assist persons such as myself with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. For me, it’s simply an easy way I can keep track of my prayers, because when I say a rosary without one-like when I run-I always lose count (wait, this is my fifth decade, no, fourth, oh man, I don’t remember).
The rosary for me is also like Prayer for Dummies. I don’t have to compose any original prose to say it. And the prayers are there in my memory from second grade. On the good days, I remember to think holy thoughts (or at least consider the life of Jesus and Mary once) during the devotion. But most of the time the mouth is automatically moving with the beads, without tons of energy or effort. And that’s actually a wonderful feeling.
6. Yell Like Hell
I know this is controversial, but I condone yelling profanities at God if it helps release your anger and frustration at an imperfect world. Catholic author Ronald Rolheiser is with me on this (sort of). He writes in Forgotten Among the Lilies that wrestling with God is a form of prayer: “The refusal to accept the harshness of God’s ways in the name of his love is an authentic form of prayer. Indeed the prophets and saints were not always in the habit of simply saying, ‘Thy will be done.’ They often fought, challenged, squirmed and begged as a way of saying ‘Thy will be changed!’”
Jerry explained to George once on “Seinfeld” that the make-up sex you get after a fight with your girlfriend is reason alone for the argument. I’m not sure I’d go that far-as I hate all confrontation-but, yes, those conversations with God after I’ve yelled at him for something, are especially intimate. The squabbles mean we’re in a real, organic relationship.
7. Stare at Something Holy
In college I took a religion course called “Exploring Beauty,” mostly because I thought I could get an easy A. In the class, Professor Keith J. Egan, a prominent Carmelite scholar (and friend to this day) taught us the importance of art to spirituality, what it meant to “take a long, loving look at the real.”
The late theologian Henri Nouwen explained his love of icons this way: “Gazing is probably the best word to touch the core of Eastern spirituality. Whereas St. Benedict, who has set the tone for spirituality of the West, calls us first of all to listen, the Byzantine fathers focus on gazing. . . . An icon is like a window looking out upon eternity. Behind its two dimensional surface lies the garden of God, which is beyond dimension or size.”
8. Repeat One Word
As a person with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, I LOVE mantras! During several months when I felt suicidal, I repeated four words: “Jesus, be with me.” And that mantra was enough, at times, to beat back my fear and sadness. I didn’t have a clue as to if God heard me, but by repeating the words over and over and over again, they became part of me-which meant that death became less and less of an option.
Is laughing allowed in Lent, in the desert? You bet! In Proverbs 17:22, it is written “A merry heart is a good medicine: but a broken spirit drieth up the bones.” I believe that God wants us to laugh because laughter heals in ways traditional and alternative medicine can’t.
According to a recent article I just read, a growing body of evidence suggests depression and stress makes people more prone to illness, and more likely to experience suffering. In one study, researchers asked 20 healthy men and women to watch clips of two movies-the violent battle scenes in “Saving Private Ryan” or a humorous scene from a comedy, like “Kingpin.” Blood flow was significantly reduced in 14 of the 20 people who saw “Saving Private Ryan,” while blood flow increased in 19 of the 20 people watching the comedy. If laughter can do that to our blood flow, think of what it can do for our spirits!
10. Eat and Drink
This one might get me in trouble with the bishops, but eating and drinking is what the Eucharist is all about: gathering together with friends and families to eat bread, dark chocolate, pepperoni pizza, spaghetti with meatballs, dark chocolate (yes, that was intentional) and to drink wine, sparkling apple cider, orange juice, and milk.
When we do this during Lent, we celebrate Jesus and each other just like he did at the Last Supper. I especially like this form of prayer since eating and drinking come so naturally to me. So then, gaining weight is actually an exercise in holiness.
11. Talk to the Saints
Yes, as a typical Catholic I’m crazy about the saints. Why wouldn’t I be? They have every neurosis and insecurity covered! St. Joseph takes care of those prone to panic attacks while traveling. For twitching, Bartholomew the Apostle is your dude. Those roaming the house in their sleep can call on Dymphna. The venerable Matt Talbot is patron saint to those struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction. And, of course, St. Jude covers the hopeless causes.
Personally, I pray a novena to Saint Therese every day–during Lent and every other liturgical season. Maybe it’s because I was named after her, but this saint’s “little ways” to God are much more appealing than the heady theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas. In reading words by Therese, I’m comforted because she experienced the same annoyances and distractions that I do. And she’s a saint!
I also have a special devotion to Mary. Now that I’m a mom, I can appreciate how much she must have suffered watching her Son be crucified. I also know if I beg her to deliver a message to her boy, she’ll be sure it gets there. She’s a mom. She’s responsible.
12. Give Something Up
I return to the desert with this last one. Why is fasting important? Why must we give up something we enjoy to be enlightened?
I don’t know. But I do think the lines of communication between God and me are better on the days I’ve abstained from a desired object. I noticed that after I gave up drinking in high school. I like the clarity of thinking I get by being sober 24/7. It’s a small way of saying to God every day, “I really, REALLY need you.”
My mom feels that way too. I can always tell when someone in my family is in trouble. She starts fasting. “Mom, are you worried about me?” I’ll ask. “Who’s pregnant? Come on, I won’t say anything.” She told me she fasts because she gets better results. It’s like going from a one-bar connection on a cell phone to five bars.
“Can you hear me now?”
“I most certainly can.”