Lent is a time of fasting, reflection and fighting our devils in the desert.
We enter into it with Jesus' own 40 days of fasting in mind. What sustained him? I cannot help but think it was his memory of what happened beforehand.
Right before Jesus was led into the silence and solitude of the wilderness for 40 days, he was baptized where he received an image and words. At that time He saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Him like a dove and He heard the Father’s voice say from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
Whether or not we're participating in a Lenten fast, we will come up against plenty of temptation, wilderness and desert seasons. What image or words will help us remember who is with us and who we are? For God knows all of us need something to hold onto.
If you do not have a sustaining image, pause in prayer and ask God for an image or memory to accompany you. "God, what image would you like to offer me in the quiet of my heart? I remain open to You, to whatever You would like to bring to mind, whether familiar or new. If nothing comes, I patiently wait knowing You will bring an image if it is needed. I go on with my day trusting you, for even the Cloud of Unknowing is an image of trust."
As to the words, perhaps you already have been offered a phrase like 14th century Julian of Norwich's "All shall be well" or a Scripture. It may be the perfect time to bring it to mind again. We can also remember that the very words offered to Jesus by his Abba are offered to us as well. We can pause to listen and receive the words, “You are my child, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Close your eyes and imagine them spoken to you. Receive them again and again, allowing these words to move from your eyes and ears, to head, heart and every cell of your body, like Mary, Jesus' mother did (and perhaps taught him to!).
God knows exactly what can and will sustain you in the times of wilderness and desert. Sometimes what is truest is not what is seen or heard with our physical eyes and ears but what is hidden within us, what has been treasured and pondered in our hearts. Lent invites us to return to and remember those words and images.
A blessing for the journey:
"May God-given life-giving images and words companion each of us in times we feel lost, alone, struggling, weary, thirsty and hungry. May we be reminded of our belovedness, a security that can sustain us. And in remembering, may our eyes be opened that we may see the belovedness of others and become life-giving images and words to all who are lost, alone, struggling, weary, thirsty and hungry."
Looking for a Personal or Family Prayer Practice for Lent? Try the Ancient Awareness Examen
While not mentioned in the Bible, Lent, a season of self-examination and penitence leading up to Easter, has been observed by Christians since the 2nd century. It evolved into the current 40 days beginning on Ash Wednesday in the 6th century.
When it comes to self-examinations, my favorite is the 16th century Awareness Examen by Saint Ignatius of Loyola (the founder of the Jesuit religious order). He thought examining the moments of "consolation" and "desolation" to be so instrumental to one's prayer life that during the Council of Trent when the Jesuits asked if they could skip their prayer exercises because they were so busy, his response was they could skip anything but the Examen. Noticing God's presence in their daily lives would help them best draw near to and follow God during such a busy time.
As we draw near to God though examining our daily life, we discover three gifts--balance, wholeness and discernment.
Rather than rushing through a day and labeling it all "good" or "bad," I can gently look back over it, discovering there was more than met my hurried eye. Moments I thought insignificant end up being full of meaning, at times offering a completely different or at least a more balanced perspective of the day I labeled.
Rather than being a product of my personality, the lens with which I view the world is offered a gentle corrective. Perhaps you're like one of my children who sees the world through a more negative lens, it's harder for her to remember her happiest moment in a given day. Or you may see the world through overly-positive eyes, ignoring the moments of anger and sadness. No matter what our lens, the Examen helps us consider parts of our day and ourselves we may not naturally see. As we do, we are reminded that God welcomes the whole of us and is fully with us in and speaking through every kind of moment.
Rather than letting life live me, regularly engaging the Examen and even keeping a record of my reflections offer keys for discernment from my own life to guide my life. Looking back over our moments of "consolation" and "desolation" we may see themes and patterns emerge. Clarity for decisions and callings become apparent in reviewing what has been life-giving and life-draining or where God's presence has been most experienced.
This prayerful look over one's day or week can be done daily or weekly after dinner-time or before going to sleep. We can practice it privately or communally. Both children and adults can engage the Examen which takes about 15 minutes. So find a quiet place, a family member or friend, and begin your time of reflection.
A version of St. Ignatius’ 16th century prayer by Kasey Hitt (2006-2007), Mark Yaconelli's Sabbath Retreat (2003), and Dennis, Sheila and Matthew Linn’s book, Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life.
You might choose to light a candle as a reminder of the Holy Spirit’s presence, take a few slow, deep breaths, place your hand on your heart, or pray this Psalm, “God, examine me and know my heart, test me and know my concerns. Make sure that I am not on my way to ruin, and guide me on the road of eternity.” (Psalm 139:23-24)
Events of the Day
Ask God to help you look over your day (or week) and bring to your mind & heart the following two questions. (Choose one set beforehand)
For what moment today am I most grateful?
For what moment today am I least grateful?
When did I feel the most alive today?
When did I most feel life draining out of me today?
When did I feel closest to God (or sense I was moving toward God) today?
When did I feel most distant from God (or sense I was moving away from God) today?
For young children:
When were you happiest today?
When were you maddest or saddest today?
What did you feel good about today?
What was your biggest struggle today (when did you feel sad, helpless or angry)?
Thanksgiving & Forgiveness
Hang out in your moment of thanksgiving, relive it in your mind's eye as a way of gratitude. Receive again the gifts offered to you in that moment and offer thanks to God.
Recall the moment you are least grateful for without trying to change or fix it; be open to receive from God whatever God would like to offer. It may be the invitation to repentance, forgiveness, comfort, instruction, the nudge to ask for help, etc.
Help for Tomorrow
In your own words, thank God for today and ask God for help for tomorrow, whatever the need may be. Or close with this prayer:
"God, thank you for the ways you are with us everyday, in every moment, loving us just as much in our best moments as in our worst. May we place this day in Your hands and trust that you will guide, teach and companion us through the day tomorrow. Help us learn to notice Your presence and invitations in our lives. In Christ's Name, Amen."
If doing the Examen with others, share your two moments and allow your prayer for one another to flow from the sharing. Whether alone or with others, I hope you'll try this prayer practice at least 7 times over the next 7 weeks and see what happens! You might choose to keep a journal so at the end you can look back and see what patterns emerge offering discernment. Blessings to you this Lenten season!
Kasey is a scarf, ball and club juggling spiritual director just outside of Nashville, TN. Play helps her Type-A, Enneagram 1 personality relax, creating space for poetry and other words to emerge. She also likes playing with theological ideas like perichoresis, and all the ways we're invited into this Triune dance.