When the visions came, right before the beginning of Lent, I was neither surprised nor upset by them.
There would be a change in the way my day was laid out. No longer would there be periods of prayer throughout the day. No time would be given to morning prayer, blended with the first period of contemplative prayer. Or for the playful time that I called noon prayer: listening to scripture, reading thoughtful bits by a wide range of writers, listening to music. No rosary. No compline. No Thomas Merton.
Instead, there would be study. One of the studies would be forgiveness, with an emphasis on those people for whom I carry unforgiveness like stone pillars encircling my heart. Then there would be an even more intense, more focused, more disruptive study.
Instead of prayer this Lent, I got to plow up my soul.
And so, I thought, there it is. Something different. But it’s Lent, so what does one expect?
And with this shrug, I began my two studies.
It took a little bit, but when it took, after this little bit, I felt the shock profoundly.
A discipline of prayer, it seems, isn’t just about commitment or surrender or discipline, even. It’s about having a blanket of warmth and love wrapped around you throughout the day. God’s arms. I discovered that even the intercessory prayers I made at morning and evening prayer (and sometimes noon prayer, and even now and again at compline) were prayers that I was deeply attached to. It turns out that, for me, they weren’t just exercises of “doing something for these people and God,” but that they were whispers of love.
Please God, watch over. . . .
Please God, heal. . . .
Please God, stop the. . . .
And without these regularly breathed connections to those I love, to those I pray for because I have been asked to pray for them, and to those suffering around the world and even to the world herself, my heart began to break. I could feel the separation become more and more real as the long days of Lent elapsed.
One day, I looked down and realized that I still kept all my prayer material (the prayerbooks, the Bible, the notebooks and binders of prayers, the book of poems) exactly where I had always kept them. Right there, on the right side of my large work table, where I could put my hand down and pick them up whenever I needed them.
But I was brave. I didn’t cry as I reshelved them all, put them back in their official places. If I weren’t using them, then they belonged with the other books that I wasn’t using constantly through the day.
I didn’t cry then. I was brave.
The notebook that held the material for one study, and the book on forgiveness took their place. They seemed so modest compared to the former pile. So streamlined. So empty. Empty of solace. Empty of beauty. Empty of warmth.
Study for Lent.
I never imagined how difficult it would be to set aside those things that wrapped me in the arms of God. In fact, I used to complain, inwardly (and sometimes outwardly, to be honest), that when I prayed a noon mediation that began with the suggestion that, breathing deeply, I should come into the awareness of how the love of God surrounded me, I could never feel it. And yet here it was. The absence of certain, specific words revealed what I thought I hadn’t felt since I was a child. It had been there all along. The presence of God’s love, and my feeling it.
Perhaps there are feelings that we don’t perceive. Don’t allow ourselves to perceive. Or have become so part of us that we no longer can identify them.
It was only to be for 40 days. But each day started to feel like 40 days. Long steps. Behind the plow. Pushing with all my might. Gaining very little ground.
The study on forgiveness went from a dedicated pond of reflection and meditation, to a drip of annoyance and short-tempered harrumphs here and there.
The other study became a strain. An effort that I pushed through, easily letting myself off the hook when it took of shape of incomprehensibility and I just let it stay at that. I had plenty of time when I could go over the material again and again. But, no. There were other things I could do now. Other parts of my life I could pay more attention to.
My eyes saw the material. They recognized the words. Knew that they were reading a language that they knew. What did it matter that the combination of words became a surreal dance of ideas that only teased me with their meaning and mocked me with their intensity and obscurity?
Pushing the plow in my soul. Finding the seemingly immovable rocks embedded in the soil. Feeling even more deeply my frailty and stupidity. Not really knowing what was expected of me.
And all because I stopped saying my daily office and took up two spiritual studies instead.
So it came as no surprise to me when one day I just started to cry. Because I had had a passing thought of the prayerbook I used. And a sweet melody of one of the intercessory prayers I said every morning drifted past me. And I knew that I could not reach out and grab it and hold it to my heart. That I had put it aside for just a few days.
I have, from a very early age, been surprised by who I am. How I function so completely differently from almost everyone around me.
But nothing surprised me so much as feeling this grief.
Nothing has allowed me to see my own shape, to know the lay of my heart and soul.
It was a fast. Nothing but a fast.
A fasting from certain, well-worn forms of prayer.
But more than food, even, perhaps more than anything else, it was a fast from who I am. What I do.
Painful and long.
Lent may be over now, but the studies continue. Because I neglected the study on forgiveness, it still lies before me. And the other study was extended. It will last through the weeks of Easter.
But, slowly, like a victim recovering from a serious accident, I start to pray again. I am doing one period of contemplative prayer. It feels like being allowed to bathe again after traveling in the desert.
More will come slowly. Like a blind man finding himself in a new room. Working out how the furniture is arranged. What sits where.
And wondering what to do next.
I imagine I’ll recover from the shock of the loss.
And perhaps I’ll one day even recover from the shock of realizing how shocked I was by such a little change.