Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

Lenten prayer

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

To read this column in Spanish, click here.

Throughout the season of Lent, we are given a good number of Scripture texts that help us come to a better understanding of prayer, which, along with fasting and almsgiving, is one of the penitential practices in these 40 days.

Prayer more often then not is portrayed as an invitation by which God takes us away from the ordinary, from the place we live our lives, so that a conversation with the divine can take place. For instance, God asks Abraham to leave the safety of his house and go outside into an area he cannot control. So too, Jesus takes his disciples to a mountaintop, away from the crowd. Those scenes remind us that all our prayer comes at God’s initiative, even though we may believe we are the ones who have come on our own to God with our concerns. Prayer is a moment to reflect how God has been walking with us, active within us, prompting us to enter into a conversation.

We also notice in many of these prayer moments found in Scripture that the conversation with God draws us into a new perspective in life. God tells Abraham to look up into the sky to better understand the promise that he will have many descendants, more than the stars in the sky, which are beyond counting. Jesus helps Peter, James and John to see that the concerns of life, while weighing on them so heavily, are so very small, just as are the activities they see as they look down from the mountaintop. He also brings them into another conversation, the one with Elijah and Moses, allowing them to see all that God has done and is doing, which makes all human activity and history tiny in comparison.

All of this has much to say to us as we dedicate more time to prayer this Lent. It suggests, first of all, the need to free ourselves from the ordinary rhythm of life and all that preoccupies us, so that we can be open to responding to the invitation of God. We can become so chained to obligations, tasks and habitual activities, many of which are just busywork that serves as a diversion from boredom that we close ourselves off to the promptings of God to enter into prayer. It is good to examine how much time we spend on the phone, the computer or idle conversation and entertainment and decide to carve out time just to be open to God’s invitation.

These Scripture scenes also warn us against being so preoccupied with worry about the future, or even shame and guilt about the past, exhorting us to allow God to remind us of the bigger story about our lives, especially all that God has done and is doing in our lives. Prayer can bring us back to those moments in which God stepped in during a crisis, suffering or temptation and pulled us back from the edge.

Michelangelo seems to have been sensitive to this experience. He depicted himself in the fresco of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel in a very dramatic way that gives expression to having been saved at the last moment. St. Bartholomew, as we know, was martyred by being skinned alive. An angel swoops down and snatches the skin of the saint, who bears the face of Michelangelo. As prayer brings us back to these moments of God’s saving work in our lives, the object is not to become overwhelmed with shame and surely not to become scrupulous, causing us to doubt God’s forgiveness. Rather, such memories should give rise in our hearts to a profound sense of gratitude about the past and also hope for the future as we realize that God is ever faithful to us.

Surely prayer should involve bringing our concerns, burdens and challenges to God. But the conversation of prayer must be a dialogue, not a monologue we control.

It is curious that most paintings depicting the Annunciation portray Mary as being in the midst of prayer when Gabriel the Archangel comes to her. That encounter is initiated by God’s messenger with the simple greeting, “Mary, the Lord is with you.” If we quiet ourselves in this holy season, accept the Lord’s invitation to step out of the ordinary routine of life, we too will hear the divine voice calling us by name and assuring us that God is, has been and will be with us.   



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