What to do for Lent?

I have often struggled with the question: “What should I do for Lent?”

The road that I’m most likely to take each year is to refrain from reading new books (that is, books that I have not read before) for the duration of Lent. For me, this is a considerable mortification, since I love to read; but this practice also involves no great physical feat or social inconvenience (since I cannot always plan my social commitments and “doing Lent” is not a commonly understood excuse here in Thailand). I think this has its advantages in my own case.

But in reality, exterior mortification and penance should always be at the service of interior mortification and penance. The goal is to increase in virtue and humility, including our own understanding of ourselves, our limits, and our defects. In other words, it’s a bit like what Pope Saint Leo the Great said of Lent:

What a Christian should be doing at all times should be done now [in Lent] with greater care and devotion.

We do not aim to add something extra to our load (which would certainly be hard to separate from pride in our abilities), but simply to deepen our practice of the Christian life.

 

Pursuit and Anguish in the Dark of Night

From this pursuit of God (and of the soul who seek each other) keen anguish results. When a man is plunged into this anxiety and becomes aware of this pursuit of God in his soul, it is then without doubt that Jesus comes and enters into him. But when one does not feel this pursuit or experience this anguish, Jesus does not come.
Johannes Tauler OP (1300–1361)

Three Kinds of Attention in Vocal Prayer

There are three kinds of attention that can be brought to vocal prayer: one which attends to the words, lest we say them wrong; another which attends to the sense of the words; and a third which attends to the end of the prayer, namely, God, and to the thing we are praying for. This last kind of attention is most necessary, and even uneducated people are capable of it. Moreover, this attention, whereby the mind is fixed on God, is sometimes so strong that the mind forgets everything else.
Saint Thomas Aquinas

Long Prayer and Words

Sometimes we have trouble praying for long. We know not only distractions but simply an inability to pray. Or so it seems. Perhaps, though, the problem sometimes arises by seeking only one kind of prayer, rather than being open to a larger variety of prayer. I think this really happens to us.

I think Saint Augustine touches on this when, in one of his letters, he writes:

To spend much time in prayer is to knock with a persistent and holy fervour at the door of the One whom we seek. This task is generally accomplished more through sighs than words, more through weeping than speech.

When the saint says “words,” here he means both vocal words and mental words; he also means imaginings, pictures painted in the mind, and distinct thoughts about different aspects of the mysteries of salvation. It is not by these that, in the end, long prayer can be sustained. It is by a different kind of prayer, where words are (so to speak) surpassed after having been tried. We sigh or weep, for we cannot express all that an infinite God is, yet we wish to remain with him.

VanMarcel Văn might add to this that it is not only sighs and weeping that may extend prayer, but simply and also desire. If we weep without a real desire, felt or unfelt, for God, it is just tears. If we sigh without a real longing for the One we week, it is just a sound. But when desire to approach God the more and to continue to do his Will (in all the aspects of it which are known to us) is united to an inability to form words or, to concentrate mentally on one aspect of salvation after another, then we are talking precisely about the transition from meditative prayer to contemplative prayer.

When God makes that transition possible for us, by simplifying our mental prayer to the point that it seeks only to stare at God with love (and its sighs and weeping, as they occur) then we have every right, and in some sense a duty, to accept the offer. This contemplative prayer is better. It throws us deeper into God to obtain more virtue and love for God and neighbour. Not only that. But as Saint Augustine says, this contemplative prayer is the kind that lets us stay the longer with our God.