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If a person went to Amazon.com and searched for books on prayer, they would find over a hundred and ten books to choose from. Over the course od a couple of centuries, I would suppose that there are over a thousand books written about prayer. I have read several books on prayer, attended several retreats on prayer and I have heard much of the same message repeatedly – there is no one set way to pray! Growing up as a Baptist, spontaneous prayer addressed to God, was the only way we had to pray. When I met Joyce, the woman to become my wife for fifty+ years, I learned also the value of devotional prayer, directed to God through the intercession of a saint. I am personally not a part of any charismatic prayer group, but some find great comfort and strength in Spirit-filled prayer. Some people pray standing, others pray kneeling. Some people pray with hands raised high into the air, waving to and fro; while others pray with hand folded together, head bowed. I suggest that all prayer, regardless of form or preference, is beneficial if the prayer initiates in a heartfelt desire to encounter God. We should find comfort in accepting that there is NO one way to pray.
Prayer is, for lack of a better metaphor, the extension cord that plugs us into the power of God’s love and mercy. It is through prayer that we connect our will with that of God’s. After his baptism in the Jordan River, Jesus went into the desert to pray. To pray for what? To pray for fame and riches? I don’t think so. Did he perhaps pray for power? I suspect not. The Scriptures do not tell us what Jesus prayed for, but I suspect that it was for the strength of fidelity; the strength in a relationship with God that would sustain him against the pressures of worldly pleasurers. Throughout Jesus’ ministry on earth, he continued his practice of prayer, of grounding his personal will in the fertile soil of God’s will.
Whatever we may hope to accomplish in our spiritual life, during Lent, Easter, or Ordinary time, we cannot succeed unless we are too are grounded, in the will of God. We cannot succeed in accomplishing the will of God unless we too are plugged into the power of God, through prayer. Over the span of even one year, the pressures of daily life can distract us from focusing our thoughts, our energies, our will toward the will of God; to love as God loves. Lent is a time to re-plug into the practice of continual prayer. Continual prayer is how we live as a people of God, not whether we stand or kneel, raise our hands or fold them. Continual prayer is how we love one another.
During the season of Lent, in the Catholic Church, there are only two days of obligatory fasting; Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. For those who have attained the age of fifty-nine years, or have other medical needs, the obligation of fasting doe not apply even on Ash Wednesday nor Good Friday. There is more than one way to understanding the concept of fasting. Technically speaking, fasting is a drawing away from; an abstaining from food. But I consider fasting as much an idea as a physical withdrawal from the intake of food. People fast as part of a weight-loss program (some diets incorporate fasting as part of a diet plan). Some people fast for medical reasons, such as a preparation for a test or procedure. Some people fast as a mental and spiritual discipline, a determined effort to channel one’s focus in a specific direction. It is primarily this latter understanding of fasting that I intend as the second of the Three Pillars of Lent.
When the Bible calls for a people to repent, the Bible is not confining its message to just Jews, Christians, or even Muslims. The call for repentance is a universal call to all human beings. Jews, Christians, and yes, even Muslims, are called by God to speak through word and action God’s universal love for his creation. The Lenten fast is a pulling away from, a withdrawal from the distractions in life, to remind ourselves just how dependent we are on God; on God’s love; on God’s mercy; on God’s wisdom. Fasting is a means of reconnecting to the world around us by recognizing how we have isolated ourselves from it. If the Hebrew word for REPENT – TESHUVA literally means to turn around, then before one can possibly turn around, repent, they must first come to a halt. Fasting is the applying of the brakes.
Fasting for the sake of fasting, for the meeting of an obligation or rule, is unproductive in the spiritual life. It is like speeding down the expressway and, for no reason other than an impulse, you slam on the brakes; only to speed up again. Nothing is accomplished except wasting some brake-life and tire wear. If however, we are speeding down the expressway and we see an accident or other obstruction in the roadway; slamming on the brakes may be lifesaving. The first Pillar of Lent – Prayer, helps our vision of the road ahead. The second Pillar of Lent – Fasting, helps us slow down to be able to stop and change directions – to repent.
For several years, my sister and brother-in-law, and their family lived in the Raleigh area of North Carolina, the city of Clayton. When we drove down to visit them, we would take Interstate 77 south as far as Interstate 40, and head east. Part of I77 in West Virginia is a toll road. Every so often, we would have to stop and pay a toll. The toll wasn’t much then, a dollar and a quarter every twenty to thirty miles or so. I have no idea how much federal money went into the construction and maintenance of that section of I77, I don’t really understand the “Toll Road System”, but I just pay my money and move on.
For some, and quite often myself, charitable donations are the cost of living, the tolls, along life’s road. I pay the tolls and keep moving down the road. Almsgiving, in a Biblical sense goes much deeper that simply giving to a charity. Almsgiving is a giving of self, not surplus. Almsgiving is making a connection with the person who receives. Almsgiving allows us to reconnect with our humanity, our common condition of interdependence. Prayer helps us see the road with greater clarity; fasting helps us slowdown, but it is almsgiving that gives us new directions. Repenting is not repenting if we come to a complete stop only to continue in the same direction. Repenting demands a new direction.
If we take a moment to think about it, sin separates us from God and sin separates us from each other. When Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, they immediately hid from each other (wearing of fig leaves), and they hid from God (Gen 3:1-8). When Cain killed able, he was banished to a life of loneliness. In Dante’s Inferno, the center of Hell is not a fire pit; it is a frozen lake, occupied by the Devil alone. Almsgiving connects us with others; melts the icy bridges between peoples; satisfies the will of God. Almsgiving reconnects us with human society at its most vulnerable level. If sin drives us away from God, then almsgiving is the beginning of repentance, turning toward God by caring for the poor. Any true movement back toward God must include almsgiving. Almsgiving is prayer in action.