Once again, it is Lent and many of us are still considering what our Lenten “sacrifice” is going to be for this year… Recently after listening to friends joke about giving up “…marriage, eating healthy, children, moderate drinking, certain family members, paying bills, Sunday Mass and yes, of course, prayer– for Lent,” I began reflecting on that last point – prayer. In my half pondering/half self reflection, I considered “…the sacrifices I have tried and now need to continue making in my prayer life…”
Let’s be honest: just attempting to build and trying to keep a daily prayer life is BOTH a time sacrifice and a self sacrifice of discipline and obedience, only made possible by God’s grace!!! Since prayer is often a sacrifice of praise – in the morning, to work and back home through the music of our hands and hearts – you might be asking, “What or how can one sacrifice in their personal prayer life to improve it?
Prayer is the first and most fundamental of all spiritual exercises. At its core, prayer is simply communication – the being with, sharing, giving and receiving between God and us, His children. Prayer can take many different forms, and like human communication we can grow by experimenting with new prayer devotions or practices.
By grace, we can empower and ground our prayer and spirituality more effectively, efficiently and powerfully in the Holy Spirit simply by making a few sacrifices in it. For example, many of the saints have written about and modeled how almost any prayer can be empowered with a simple, 24 hour bread and water (if that) food fast linked to it…
In regards to empowering prayer with willful sacrifice, I stand in deference to and witness with the saint’s testimony. Since, thank God, we have to eat (can you tell that I love to?), what other ways are there to make a healthy sacrifice in our prayer and spirituality?
Here are four of different sacrifices that I have, by grace, made and need to continue tweaking in my prayer life and spirituality. Please eat this list like fish: savor any meat found and spit out all the bones!!!
I. Sacrifice, give up and stop praying in monologues and begin to explore a richer Christian prayer grounded in dialogue with God.
We all know that person who talks a mile a minute and never allows others to get a single word or thought in the conversation. I suspect that many people are or can be like myself – ‘that person’ – in my prayer life with God!!!
My prayers can be filled with interceding for others, meditating on various Scriptures, praising the Lord for His many blessings, venting and sharing my feelings with the Lord about different topics, etc. Despite leaving these prayer times sometimes feeling like “I really got my praise and prayer on…” the reality and truth is actually closer to the opposite, especially if prayer at its core, is an open communication with another, aka a dialogue and not a monologue!
A great Lenten goal aimed at eliminating our monologues is to try giving God equal time every time we pray. Simply remembering to REGULARLY give God any time to speak can be a great challenge for most, and can probably take the whole Lenten season to become a normal practice for some. Give God either the first half or the second half of your prayer time – but do seek and try to give God half!!!! This act of spiritually shutting up is both a great prayer sacrifice and challenge; it will have a profound impact on your prayer life and also in each human relationship you are in.
II. Sacrifice and give up your need to always talk during prayer and begin learning how to hear and to listen to God when in prayer.
Since it is hard for most of us to shut up, even in human conversations where others will interrupt us, I know from experience that it’s even harder to shut up and to actively listen to God in our daily prayer lives, especially since God is the ultimate respecter of our freedom! God won’t force us to shut up or interrupt us; God will simply patiently wait for us to listen….
Since our personal prayer lives can often start with prayerful monologues, many of us have to sometimes retrain ourselves, strugglin’ to shut up before finally, by grace, arriving at the one or two moments when we are able to actually hear and listen to God’s responses.
Learning how to first hear God’s responses and then, eventually how to really listen to God in our heart and mind during prayer takes time. It’s a unique training in prayer that only the Holy Spirit can give us…and yes it is very humbling.
God will speak to us in a myriad of ways: in remembered images and memories, in scriptures that pop into our minds or hearts, in words or phrases that we must examine to find their true meaning, in pictures and images and of course feelings and emotions.
In your prayer time it will be helpful to have a pen and paper handy, where you can jot down in summary form the ideas and images that God will give you. Briefly record these spiritual gifts and come back to them later in the day to prayerfully reflect on them. However, during your prayer time don’t focus on examining them just yet, simply record them and continue learning how to hear, listen to and to wait on God prayerfully during His time.
III. Sacrifice and offer your private devotional time – secretly and intentionally – for another in need, who cannot pay you back.
The goals of this Lenten practice is to both concretize our prayer life by focusing it on a specific person in need and also to bolster our active prayer of service by responding to the needs of others in the community. In the same way that Jesus both prayed from the heart and in the Spirit as he also prayerfully responded to the concrete needs of others (the corporeal and spiritual works of mercy), we are called to imitate Jesus in our lives.
I personally like choosing a homeless person on the way to or from work whom I can bless regularly and in concrete ways. Not only do I try to actively respond to their need by proving for a meal, I respond to their real human need to be loved and respected when I remember their names, look them directly in their eyes as I talk and truly inquire about their day or their health – as I do with others at work – in that 1 minute at the red light. I have found that often, what is really needed and craved is simply to be treated with simple human respect and dignity!!!
We all have brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews and nieces, friends and acquaintances whom we are invited to both regularly pray for and to regularly assist in concrete and practical ways – without judging. The real sacrifice here is in learning to silence and to ignore the inner critic and Pharisee within each of us, who wants to question, blame or judge others for why they are now in need. Use this Lent to take advantage of these saints, who are most in need of our mercy and try to see them as invitations to grow in holiness by sacrificing your inner critiques when thinking or talking about them…
IV. Sacrifice your devotional status quo and add or explore a new prayer devotion to possibly add to your spiritual armory, like the Rosary. Choose a devotion or spiritual practice and use this Lenten season to begin exploring and learning about its spiritual benefits and history as you try to pray it regularly.
Let’s use as an example, simply learning about and struggling to begin praying the Rosary. Many of us have at least 30 good minutes on our drive to work in the morning and if we are willing, we can use 20 minutes of it as devotional time for spiritual growth.
First, purchase or find a rosary that you can carry on your person: since many of us carry smart phones, we can download the rosary as an app on it (if we are tech savvy enough). Second, go on Amazon and find a good devotional book which explains the devotion: the history surrounding the Rosary, how to pray it correctly and finally the many blessings that are associated with it. Buy this book – or find and read it online for free!!!
Third, begin praying that rosary – one decade daily as you go to or return home from work – and begin prayerfully reading the book that you purchased about it at night. Use the remainder of the Lenten season to experiment praying the Rosary and to spend time learning about it.
Go to YouTube and listen to the testimonies of others who have prayed and experienced miracles using the Rosary – or whatever devotion you are trying, for in listening to the testimony of others we are encouraged and can find many answers to our own specific questions regarding it. Journal about your new prayer experience/devotion and at the end of Lent, prayerfully reflect on what you have learned about yourself and our Lord from praying it…
Whatever you do this Lent, my prayer is that it will deepen your prayer life and your loving response to those whom you share your world with.
Also please remember that sometimes the greatest sacrifice is not that which we give up, but that which we add to the mix of our lives. Every Lent intention can be expressed either negatively or positively. For instance, we can state our Lenten goal as giving up red meat or we can state it as seeking to truly eat balanced, by limiting red meat and adding fruits, vegetables and water daily. I suggest prayerfully framing your Lenten intention in both ways, so you can begin to discern and live out of the deeper and richer spiritual meanings of these choices.
Whatever you do this Lent, be intentional about it. May you have a Blessed & Prayerful Lent!