From Embrace Your Renewal
Back in the fifteenth century, in a tiny village near Nuremberg, lived a family with eighteen children. Eighteen! In order merely to keep food on the table, the father, a goldsmith, worked almost eighteen hours a day at his trade and at any other paying job he could find. Despite their seemingly hopeless situation, two of the children of Albrecht Durer, the elder, had a dream. They both wanted to pursue their talent for art; but they well knew that their father would never be financially able to send either of them to Nuremberg to study at the academy.
After many discussions, the two boys finally worked out a pact. They would toss a coin. The loser would go down into the nearby mines and with his earnings, support his brother at the academy. Then, when the winner completed his studies in four years, he would support the other brother at the academy, either with the sales of his artwork or, if necessary, also by working in the mines.
They tossed the coin on a Sunday morning after church. Albrecht Durer won the toss and went off to Nuremberg, Albert into the mines. For the next four years, Albert supported his brother, whose work at the academy was an almost immediate sensation. Albrecht’s etchings, woodcuts, and oil paintings were far better even than most of his professors’.
When the young artist returned to his village, the Durer family held a festive dinner to celebrate. After a long meal punctuated with music and laughter, Albrecht rose from his honored position at the head of the table to offer a toast to his beloved brother Albert for his years of sacrifice. His closing words were, “And now, Albert, blessed brother of mine, now it’s your turn. Now you can go to Nuremberg to pursue your dream, and I will take care of you.”
All heads turned in eager expectation to the far end of the table where Albert sat, tears streaming down his pale face, shaking his lowered head from side-to-side while he sobbed and said, over and over, “No, no, no.”
Finally, Albert rose and wiped the tears from his cheeks. He glanced down the long table at the faces he loved, and then said softly, “No, brother. It’s too late for me. Look, look what four years in the mines have done to my hands! The bones in every finger have been smashed at least once, and lately I’ve been suffering from arthritis so bad in my right hand that I can’t even hold a glass to return your toast, much less make delicate lines on parchment or canvas with pen or brush. No, brother, for me it’s too late!”
One day, to pay homage to Albert for all that he had sacrificed, Albrecht Durer painstakingly drew his brother’s abused hands with palms together and thin fingers stretched skyward. Albrecht Durer called his powerful drawing simply, “Hands,” but the entire world almost immediately opened their hearts to his great masterpiece and renamed his tribute of love, “The Praying Hands.” Whereas the joining of hands in prayer didn’t appear until around the ninth century, it had become a symbol of man’s submission and his lack of inclination to grasp a weapon.
Today, more than 450 years later, Albrecht Durer’s hundreds of masterful portraits, sketches, watercolors, charcoals, woodcuts, and copper engravings hang in every great museum in the world. The odds, however, are that most people are familiar with only one of his works – “The Praying Hands.” They’re a reminder that no one – no one – ever makes it alone. We all need to pray to acknowledge our dependence on God and one another. Lent is a special time to concentrate on prayer.
What to Pray For
What, then are we to pray for? One model is the nurse who taught a child to pray on his fingers. This was her method: Your thumb is the digit nearest to your heart, so pray first for the family and friends who are closest to you. Your own needs, of course, should be included in that. The second finger is the one used for pointing. Pray for those who point you toward the truth, whether at church or school – your teachers, mentors, pastors, and those who inspire your faith. The third finger is the tallest. Let is stand for the leaders in every sphere of life – those in authority (both within the body of Christ and those who hold office in various areas of government). The fourth finger is the weakest, as every pianist knows. Let it stand for those who are in trouble and pain, sick injured, abused, wounded, or hurt. The little finger is the smallest. Let is stand for those who often go unnoticed, including those who suffer abuse and deprivation.
Lent is a time when we concentrate our prayer on the double meaning of this season: turning away from our sinful ways and renewal of our baptismal promises by fidelity to the gospel. Private prayer, family prayer, and communal prayer all work together to deepen our spiritual life.
Prayers of Petition
God gets asked for things incessantly. Give me an increase of faith. Give me a job. Give me love. Give me health. Give me a special favor. Give me talent. Give me peace. God gets asked on behalf of others, too. Give my family financial security. Give my spouse gratitude. Give my mother-in-law humility. Give my dying father courage. Give my boss patience. Give my depressed aunt hope. Give my sick friend strength. Give my coworkers serenity. Gimme, gimme, gimme.
In other words, don’t just be there, God; do something!
Spiritual writers assure us that God welcomes prayers of petition. God wants to say, “Yes,” to whatever is truly good for us. Jesus said, “Ask and you shall receive.”
But may God not deserve an occasional relief from requests? You and I want to be loved for who we are, not for what we can do. And we’re in God’s image. So it stands to reason that the Lord may prefer less importuning from us and more adoration. God is love. There are people we love – family and friends and others we’re close to – and when we’re together, we don’t want them always asking us for a favor. If they did that, they’d be less loved ones than nuisances.
Other Forms of Prayer
Besides participating in Mass, there are many forms of prayer. A simple one that is especially appropriate for this season comes from the Eastern tradition of Christianity. It’s called the Jesus prayer. In it, the practitioner breathes in deeply while saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God,” and then breathes out while saying, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”
One good practice for Lent might be just to sit for five minutes a day and try to be conscious of God without asking for anything. Perhaps in that time we could thank God for our life, for our loved ones, for the whole human family. In fact, it would be good to make a special effort to think of the things we’re thankful for that we may never have thought of before. The mess I have to clean up after a party, because it means that I have been surrounded by friends. The taxes I pay, because it means that I’m employed. The clothes that fit a little too snugly, because it means I have enough to eat. The spot I find at the far end of the parking lot, because it means I’m capable of walking. My huge heating bill, because it means I’m warm. The lady behind me in church who sings off key, because it means I’m able to discern. The alarm that goes off in the early morning hours, because it means that I’m alive.
We could tell God of our gratitude for what happened over the years, both enjoyable and painful, that brought us closer to him. Maybe we could start the five minutes in God’s presence by reading the New Testament to put ourselves in the presence of the Lord. During this five-minute gratitude time, let’s not think or pray about what we need or want. Instead, let’s tell God that he’s already given us a lot, beginning with life itself, and including faith, hope, and love, and that we gratefully accept these wonderful blessings.