Homily for the First Sunday of Lent, 2013
Lent is a time when the Church encourages us to intensify our spiritual efforts, particularly by undertaking the time tested disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Today, as we hear of Christ’s journey into the desert for 40 days, I would like to focus for a bit on our efforts in prayer during our 40 days of Lenten desert.
For all of us, who live in what might be described as a technological jungle, prayer is a challenge. Go to the restaurant, you can hardly hear yourself think. Sound piped into the stores. Even pumping gas, the thing starts squawking at you. Tvs are often on at home. Music or talk radio in the car. It is a noisy and distracted world that we live in. And we can almost become accustomed to this and think that people have always lived like this, that only monks and hermits live in silence.
But until modern times, most every person on the planet would have lived with long periods of silence in their everyday lives. Working out on the fields or in the woods – they did not have boom boxes or ipods. It’s not like they could play a troupe of musicians to follow them around. At home doing chores – perhaps they whistled from time to time or sang songs to themselves, but that would grow older after a while. While studying or working in various trades – really in most every human activity until recently, most people experienced long periods of silence.
But we live in a different world, a world that seemingly never stops, never just sits and listens.
And it is easy to fall into the trap of becoming habituated and even dependent on an environment of perpetual noise, to the point where we become uncomfortable with quiet and immediately find ourselves turning something on so that we never have to be alone with the silence. And this is a great danger to us, and a tendency of our modern life that we need to fight to resist.
Because a reasonable amount of silence and solitude is not something that the Christian can avoid without peril. We cannot live a perpetually distracted life, only allowing God to break in now and then as if he were yet one more distraction in the long line of distractions. There are fundamental conversations that God needs to have with us that can only happen in the silence, in deep prayer. Just as you would never take your spouse out on a valentine’s date sitting in the middle of the highway if the relationship was important to you, so we cannot pretend that our relationship with God is important to us if we do not set aside time to be with him quietly in prayer. If we do not enter into the desert.
Of course the question soon arises: but what do we do in the desert? What do we do in the silence? Many of us suddenly find ourselves overcome with distractions. It can be worse than the noise: all of a sudden all of the things that we need to do, all of the concerns and worries about the day and about the future come pouring through the flood gates. And furthermore, it is often in the desert when the wiles of the evil one are unmasked. When all of the distractions have been cleared away and we are forced to face our demons, we have to face our sins, our insecurities.
The scriptures teach us how to respond when we encounter distraction and temptation in prayer:
In the first reading, Moses tells the priests that when offering sacrifice they are to recount the good deeds of the Lord, to remember what God has done for them. And this is most profoundly done when we turn to the scriptures, as our Lord did when he found himself tempted by Satan. We too, when we come to prayer, to silence, can find great help in avoiding distraction by focusing on God’s word, on the scriptures.
One of the most sure methods of prayer, called lectio divina, or sacred reading, is based on this experience. In lectio divina we begin with a passage of scripture, perhaps the readings from the day. After thinking about them, we work to then apply the meaning to our lives, to hear the lesson that God is trying to teach us through his word. And then finally this reflection leads to a conversation with God himself, to a dialogue of prayer.
The rosary or other devotional prayers like the divine mercy chaplet can also help us to enter into the posture of prayer before God, provided that we do not become narrow in our focus, just trying to get our rosary or other devotion in for the day. We need to remember that each decade of the rosary invites us to contemplate an aspect or mystery of Christ’s life, and to be open to hearing what Christ wants to teach us through these mysteries.
Simply accomplishing a prayer, whether it be the rosary or the divine mercy chaplet, or the liturgy of the hours, can never be the goal. The goal is an openness with God, a time of listening to him and speaking with him as we would speak with a friend. If we are in the middle of prayer and feel ourselves wanting to just sit with God, to just be with him in silence, listening, then we should not be afraid to let our words pause for a moment. Again, the goal is to be open to Christ.
Christian prayer begins and ends with these intentional and necessary times of uninterrupted and intense prayer that we incorporate into our morning or evening routines, but we should all seek to live prayerfully throughout the day. We are called to live in a way that is recollected, that is open to God, in situations where we are not able to sit down and read or without a rosary: we might be in the car or working on some project, shoveling snow… something like that. And yet in all of the different circumstances of life, we are invited by the Holy Spirit, especially in this season of Lent, to make every effort to keep our eyes fixed on God.
1600 years ago, St. John Chrysostom spoke to his parishioners about this kind of daily practice of prayer. He told them “Our spirit should be quick to reach out toward God not only when it is engaged in meditation; at other times also, when it is carrying out its duties, caring for the needy, performing works of charity, giving generously in the service of others, our spirit should long for God, and call him to mind, so that these works may be seasoned with the salt of God’s love, and so make a palatable offering to the Lord of the universe. Throughout the whole of our lives we may enjoy the benefit that comes from prayer if we devote a great deal of time to it.”
Prayer is essential. Christ was able to resist the temptations of the evil because he was united to his heavenly father in prayer. His miracles were all worked in prayer. He prayed from the beginning of the day to the end, and he taught his disciples and all of us that we should strive to pray without ceasing. To be mindful, really is what that means, to be aware and mindful that our Lord walks with us, and to be quick to turn to him.