By Deacon Charles Rohrbacher
March 2015 Southeast Alaska Catholic
We are at the mid-way point of Lent and I hope that your Lenten retreat is proving to be fruitful and life-giving. For me, at least, the challenge of Lent is not to become a functional Pelagian as I seek to embrace the Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Pelagius, as you may recall, was a fifth century monk from Britain whose teachings all but denied original sin and our fallen nature and discounted the necessity of grace for our salvation. He argued, instead, that having been endowed by God with reason and free will, it is possible for men and women to resist temptation and sin and achieve holiness by their own efforts.
Because we live in a culture that extolls self-help and individual achievement, it might be tempting to think that the spiritual life, especially during the Lenten season, is about what we are able to achieve through our own efforts. That we can, as it were, somehow spiritually “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” Nothing could be farther from the truth! Not because our own efforts are not vitally necessary during Lent and in living as a disciple, but because a spirituality of self-help and self-reliance fundamentally misunderstands the nature of our redemption in Christ.
As I have come to understand them, the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are less actions that I undertake to please God and make me a better person, but rather, prayer, fasting and almsgiving are an oblation, a gift that I offer the Lord. Writing in her book, “The Essence of Prayer,“ Ruth Burrows, OCD, notes how fruitful it is to meditate on the prayers of the Mass and in particular on the easy-to-overlook “Prayer Over the Offerings.”
Here is one from Saturday of the Fourth Week of Lent:
Be pleased, O Lord, we pray,
with these oblations that you receive from our hands,
and, even when our wills are defiant,
constrain them mercifully to turn to you.
Through Christ our Lord.
Our Lenten prayer, fasting and almsgiving, despite their defects and poverty, are offered up sacrificially with our gifts of bread and wine in the confident hope that they will be taken up and transformed by Christ for our transformation and sanctification.
This is in keeping, of course, with the traditional language of our Lenten observance. We speak of making Lenten sacrifice and of ‘offering up’ various foods and activities during these forty days. But, I think that this has come to mean less oblation than simply giving things up.
Here I think recovering a richer understanding of sacrifice might be helpful. The law of Moses (particularly the Book of Leviticus) outlines in excruciating detail a whole system of animal and other sacrifices. Without going into the details, what strikes me is that the Israelites were enjoined to offer to God their first-fruits and/or the best that they had.
So for me at least, I have been trying to approach my Lenten practices, and in particular, prayer, in that spirit of offering God the first-fruits of my day. The most costly gift, in my busy life, is time. As I prepared for Lent, I realized that I’d fallen into the frequent practice of shoe-horning prayer into whatever time was left over in my daily schedule. Predictably, inevitably my prayer life suffered because of this.
My part in this has been three-fold. First, I’m committed to setting an hour aside every morning to pray and to keep anything else (short of an urgent demand of charity) from preempting it. Secondly, I’m striving to be attentive and to struggle against laziness and distraction. Thirdly, I’ve slowed down the pace when I pray the psalms and read sacred scripture.
The wisdom of slowing down is a pattern that I have observed with the Terre Haute Carmelites during the times I’m with them to teach icon painting. When they pray the psalms of the Divine Office, either together or individually, they slowly recite the verses, pausing briefly in the middle and at the end of each line, which enables them to listen more deeply to the Word of God while praying it.
It might not seem like a big thing, but slowing things down in prayer has certainly made a difference. But it’s important to stress that prayer is not something I do, much less accomplish. Rather, it’s God’s activity of prayer within me that I join myself to.
More and more, I find myself thinking of prayer as placing my time, attention and intention as my gift on the altar of my heart. I simply need to trust that God will consume my offering in the divine fire of His love. It is His love which He freely gives to those who desire to know Him — that life and love that is salvation. And, which I can only receive and never attain.
Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Office of Ministries Director for the Diocese of Juneau. Phone: 907-586-2227 ext. 23. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org