The season of Lent is a time of transformation – metanoia in the Greek – which means a conversion of heart. This can only happen when we open ourselves to the transformative and healing power of Christ. God’s grace always precedes conversion. The Apostle Paul comes to mind, who moved from the greatest persecutor of the early Church to its greatest evangelist. How did this happen – St. Augustine might say – “sheer grace.” Both of these sinners moved from living outside of God’s communion to extraordinary discipleship. Having been forgiven by God of their significant transgressions, each of these saints experienced personally the mercy, healing, and restoration of God. This, in part, fueled them to be untiring and undaunted in their proclamation of the Gospel.
For the past four years, my morning prayer has been a true gift to my priesthood. I say this not with personal pride but great gratitude to God. Four years ago this Lent I asked God for the gift of sustained and consistent prayer. Several years ago on retreat, a wonderful and insightful Jesuit told me that I had the capacity to be praying at least two hours a day and thus he encouraged me to do so. It is certainly understandable that most people do not have this luxury as they are attending to their daily lives and responsibilities. It can be challenging for me as well as morning meetings, travel, and other responsibilities present obstacles to maintaining my prayer commitment. For example, since beginning at the Basilica, I have not had an early daily Mass for several years as a pastor. A 7:00am Mass goer said to me last summer, “the word is that you are not an early riser.” I tried to not sound defensive when I said, “actually I wake up between 5:00 and 5:30am and I am often in prayer when you are at morning Mass.”
Certainly as a priest I know that our spiritual habits need to be balanced with the needs of the parish and the parishioners. My first responsibility is to serve well and with generosity of spirit the good people of the Basilica of St. Mary, with the knowledge that this service must be grounded in a rich life of prayer. The season of Lent calls us to embrace prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Each of these disciplines comprise a movement which brings us beyond ourselves so that we can focus on God, the needs of our neighbor, and our ultimate goal of heaven. My first several minutes of morning prayer are spent in quiet contemplation. I then move to praise and thanksgiving of God. Finally, I end with morning prayer which includes prayer to several saints whose virtues and charisms I hope to emulate in my life. The saints are such a gift to us as Catholics – who are your favorite saints – are they part of your daily prayer life?
For each person, the approach to prayer is different, according to our particular personalities, needs, and temperaments. I share my own experience of prayer because it has been a great gift which has added richer meaning to my life, depth to my relationship with God – and I hope has made me a better priest and person. I firmly believe that increased and intentional prayer is one of the keys to a happy and fulfilled life. Each of our modern popes, including Pope Francis, whose tenth anniversary as pope we celebrate this month, have spoken beautifully from the depth of their own experience, of encountering the living God in a transformative way. Where does this encounter with God occur – in our service to the poor, in generously using our gifts to build up the Church and minister to the world, and most definitely in our solitude and time with God in prayer.
Lastly, all of us are invited to reach out to Christ for greater healing in our lives, in our communities, and in our world. As I praise God in the mornings, I invoke Christ the healer and divine physician who seeks to heal and restore his beloved creatures and indeed all of creation. The reality is that all of us – you and I are wounded. We carry with us wounds from our families of origin and our life experiences. While life is also filled with beauty, light, and joy, sometimes our wounds weigh us down and can be a burden and source of harm to others, particularly if we are not on a path of healing. In the years I have been working in restorative justice, the image that has accompanied me is Christ on Holy Saturday – Christ who goes down into the pit of death to raise up and restore a fallen humanity. As we continue to journey through Lent to Easter, I invite all of us to an increased commitment to prayer and to intentionally reach out to Christ for greater healing in our lives and in our world.