By Chris McDonnell
The cycle of liturgical seasons continues and now we find ourselves a few days into Lent this year, days of reflection and remaking, a time to pause.
Through the coming weeks we will still have the daily chores, work to do, shopping at the supermarket and all the general concerns of family life. Day in, day out, the effort of being who we are continues unabated.
So what does it mean to talk of ‘a time to pause?‘ Naming the season that leads through to the Triduum gives opportunity of treating these days as a time that is special, in whatever way we wish to mark their passing.
We often talk about taking one step at a time or, as the Chinese proverb reminds us, ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’.
Maybe we should treat Lent in a similar manner. Setting out a grand framework of things to do can only lead to frustration and disappointment when we fail to reach our target. So how about taking the steps of this Lent one day at a time? Our experience of life can change so quickly and the strap line ‘Breaking News’ becomes a familiar adjunct to our television screen. Detail of worldwide events cannot help but affect our mood and emotions, whatever our intentions that day. A line of John Lennon is very pertinent, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans”. He wrote those words into the song “Beautiful Boy,” released on the album Double Fantasy. Although others had used a similar phrase before him, his name and those words from that song are forever associated. (Three weeks after the album’s release, Lennon was shot outside the Dakota building in Manhattan.)
So, one day at a time. Some of our days this Lent will be unavoidably hectic, the rush and scurry leaving us exhausted by late evening. We collapse into bed thankful for a still point in a turning world. A brief few words from Night Prayer might be all we can manage. “Save us Lord while we are awake, protect us while we sleep; that we may keep watch with Christ and rest with him in peace.”
There will be other days that are less jam-packed, where the treadmill slows down and we have unaccustomed time and space that is not determined by others, where time is our own. Maybe then we can reflect on our Christian pilgrimage, over a drink in the coffee house, over a book or when taking the dog for a walk.
The image of desert is always a part of Lent, the days of Jesus in the barren Judaic land, a time of separation and temptation.
It was a model taken up by the desert fathers in the first centuries of the Christian era. There are still communities that reflect those times. The ancient monastery of St Catherine in the Sinai desert can trace its roots back to the 3rd Century. From the early 7th century an accord reached with Mohammed has ensured peaceful co-operation between Christians and Muslims. In the US, the monastery of Christ in the Desert, some 18 miles from Albuquerque in New Mexico, is a monastic community that follows in the same tradition.
But that is only for a few; the vast majority of us live far from the desert experience, yet we also can find that odd moment of peace and stillness, a slip-away time that is valued, a time when we can be ourselves and breathe the solitude we rarely encounter.
How do we make the best of it? Not with grandiose plans and extravagant activities but in small, almost insignificant, ways. The open hand we offer to others, the time we take to listen, the simple words we give in response, all in their own way moments of prayer. A doctor once reported that Mother Theresa visiting children in a hospital, offered a quick prayer and started ordering nappies. His comment? ‘A practical saint.’
She also offered these few words ‘Before you speak, it is necessary for you to listen, for God speaks in the silence of the heart’. Above all, our Lent should be a time of listening.
In our western culture, listening is an acquired skill. We have lost the experience of quiet time, silence, that space between words, the opportunity to consider what we hear before we rush into making a response, is scarce.
So how about a ‘Listening Lent’ this year? Unhurried and meditative, moments without rush and hurry, time ‘to be’ in order that we might better understand ‘how to do’. When our light is dimmed, leaving only the sight of blind eyes and deafness of ignorance, it is time to start again.