“Let me just finish what I’m doing, ” my husband says. “I’ll let you, ” I say grudgingly, knowing I have little power to stop him in his tracks. In his own good time, he shows up, and I’m by and large grateful, unless I was in a hurry. I’ve often mused on this “let me, ” which feels like stalling or stubbornness, despite its lighthearted promise that my husband will indeed saunter my way. And, you might well ask, what does this have to do with prayer?
It’s linked by this frequent invitation in Catholic ritual: “Let us pray. ” Do those assembled expect actual prayer to follow? Does it? I confess of myself: not always! I have come to the assembly intent on prayer, but I stray, I idle, I dream, I waver, I focus, I fiddle. You may be much better at this, but I’m grateful if prayer has occupied the larger part of my time in a place of worship! Alone in my space for personal prayer, it’s much the same.
Let Us Do the Desert
On the cusp of Lent, I echo the nursery chant: “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down. ” My personal plague is falling down and failing any resolutions I make. When I lamented this to a confessor, he suggested short-term resolutions, a day or a week or some shorter span I might be able to manage.
I now realize that managing isn’t the idea at all. I’m not meant to manage Lent, but to slog through, to intend, to hope, and, most of all, to remember. I am remembering that Jesus wandered in a desert, wanting to face up to the mission that lay ahead. He was gathering courage, practicing self-discipline, acquainting himself with loneliness, and facing the devils of distraction, desire, and desolation. Not to put too fine a face on it, but me too.
I’ve come to believe that Lent is not about doing. It’s about not doing. It’s not about trying, but letting ourselves take that ramble through the desert. Prayer is the backbone of Lent. I reject Satan, however evil manifests itself in my desert. I affirm my belief that I can make it through, and that prayer is that way. And prayer is not primarily doing; prayer is letting, allowing, even embracing the mysteries.
Let Us Skip Sandcastles
When I traveled through the Mojave Desert, I saw firsthand that deserts are far from empty. Jackrabbits and Joshua trees abound near caverns, abandoned silver mines, and prickly pears. My own Lenten desert has a large population of distractions and delights. My prayer is similarly populated. My current motto: Let it be. Let me begin. Let me finish.
This year, I am wandering the Mojave in my mind and heart. If you’ve experienced the Judean wilderness or Jordan’s Wadi Rum, go there. Just go. Jesus stayed for 40 days. I’m staying just one day—actually one fragment of a day—at a time. I’ll sit down. I’ll be quiet. I’ll stay. No timers, no music, no script. I just mean to stay until I know where I am. I may be in a cavern. I may be in a field of wildflowers. I may be lost in a barren sandscape. When I know where I am, I may say, “Let me finish, ” or I may say, “I’ve got to rush off. ” But I will have been in the desert of Lent, a place where Jesus has been and where the divinely human awaits.
I’m not asking for insights or visions or comfort. I’m just repeating: “Let us pray. Let me pray. Let me finish or refinish. ” Or I may be silent. The less of a rule I make for myself, the less likely I will fail to observe it. I don’t want to box out any possibilities. I want to be open to uncertainty. I want to be in the desert, but not be deserted, please God.
Let Us Not Look for Statistics or Accomplishments
What am I doing for Lent? I blush to say, “Nothing. ” This is so hard. I love to do two things or more at once. It offers me a kind of dizzying pleasure. But let us pray that our Mother Church repeats and repeats.
This Lent, I’m planning to respond. I’m going to allow nothingness to reign in my desert of prayer. I’m going to hope to run into Jesus in my Mojave, but I’m not counting on any revelations. I have realized that let and Lent are two words separated by a single letter. Or not.
Prayer in the Desert
God of the desert’s wildness:
Let me linger with you. I am here. I bring no baggage, no petitions, no worries.
I ask you to continue what you have begun in me, to forward my faltering self,
to strengthen my irresolute self, to sit here with me in this desert. Amen.
Finding Your Way
1) If you are an introvert, you may need a different invitation in Lent. Thomas Merton had a revelation on a street corner in Louisville, Kentucky, where he realized that he was one with all the people. For you, a place that is not isolated, a place filled with people may be the greater effort. Allow people to grace your life.
2) Some of us need more props as we picture ourselves in a desert. Seek out a photo book of the desert or a moonscape. Open it randomly for your prayer time. For others, a miniature sandbox in which you can trace a path can be a tactile invitation to enter a place of prayer.