Lent, an “affair of the heart”

Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
Return to the Lord, your God.
Joel 2:12, 13

Lent is not an intellectual exercise, but an affair of the heart. Ash Wednesday comes around each year. We get ashes. We remember prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We say we’ll do better at something, or not do something else at all. Whatever sin or addiction has plagued us since the turn of the year, the one we have not yet managed to get rid of, despite our New Year’s resolution to somehow dislodge it at the roots, Lent presents us with another chance. But how?

We think and we think and we plot and we plan. If the use of too much Internet or salt or sleep is on our minds, like the three little pigs we huff and we puff until we blow those little houses down, unfortunately to no avail. We work away at our dependencies as if everything depends on us. It does not. Everything depends on our own dependence on God. And we cannot learn anything about that dependence by thinking and plotting and planning – by huffing and puffing.

We need to open our hearts. We need to be quiet.

But how?

Some time ago, when I was relearning how to pray for the umpteenth time, I realised that I was just plain talking too much. Everything was going on in my head. That was it. Just in my head, nowhere else. I’d built a wall between me and my emotions, a very practical thing to do if you want to maintain control over everything in life. It is not a very practical way to approach prayer, because it stifles the longings of the heart. I yearned for knowledge that I was really praying, that I was someway somehow connecting to the God I said I loved and who I said, at least, I wanted to follow in the way Jesus taught.

But, as I learned in graduate school, so long as I was talking – in graduate school in class or on an oral exam – there was no way I would be questioned, especially no way I would be asked a question I could not answer.

That may work in graduate school, but it is not a smart way to pray.

So here is what I have learned. Take it, or not, as you begin your own journey through Lent. Whether the ground around you is getting colder or warmer, whether the light outside is getting dimmer or brighter, I offer you the suggestion, at least, that the desire you carry in your own heart to listen to and love the Lord with all you are and have will be opened and answered if you offer first of all your own silence to the project.

That does not mean becoming a vegetable. There are many ways of being silent, and many aids to doing so. Of course, if you know what keeps your mind active on thoughts other than the thought of the presence of God, you should be able to become aware of when such thought presents itself. I hesitate to call whatever it is a “temptation”, for it may or may not be. But there are some things in our lives – food, music, conversations – that stick a little more firmly to the surface of our minds and form a sort of coating that keeps away the silence. I am not saying you need to give up all conversations or music, and certainly not all food for Lent. I am saying that as we become more and more aware of our need for silence, even throughout this holy season, one or some of these might pop up as a bit of a barrier to silence, and therefore as a bit of a barrier to our maintaining the type of silence we need so as to be able to hear the voice of God in our hearts.

Let me give you an example. I happen to like jazz. I kid around sometimes calling it my “liturgical music” because the syncopation and the words of some of the songs, especially the love songs, often fit my mood when I am trying to be alone at prayer. But sometimes, that very syncopation and those very words become an obstacle as they take over my mind. I think here of what is called “the Bolero effect”, the repetitive beating of a single strand of music that the French composer Maurice Ravel did on purpose. As the syncopation and words take over my mind, I find I am helpless to hear anything God might present or even to say anything to the Lord. So, sometimes – actually more than sometimes – I “give up” jazz.

Now, there is nothing wrong with jazz. For other people, for other people’s minds, the same thing might happen with Gregorian chant or with ABBA, or with the music of the Beatles. These are all wonderful creations, but they can each in their own way become distractions to the project at hand. Which is silence with an open heart. Which is silence with an open heart before the Lord.

This is an extract from Phyllis Zagano Sacred Silence: Daily Meditations for Lent Majellan Publications majellan.org.au

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Phyllis Zagano

Dr Phyllis Zagano is an award-winning author and scholar specializing in Catholic women's ministry past and present.

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