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A few weeks ago I was chatting with our parish life director, a wonderful woman who has given so much to our community. She was close to finishing up work on a major parish building project and was also finalizing a new stewardship communication to parishioners. And Lent is just a few weeks away, she said with a sigh, no doubt thinking of all planning and organizing the parish staff needed to do to get ready.I have an idea, I said. Instead of the usual set of activities, why dont we just do nothing.Nothing? she said, raising an eyebrow.Well if we have to do something we can just keep the parish open 24 hours so people can come in and pray. But thats it, I said.Not in this parish, she said with a wry laugh that suggested I had made my point.Over the last few years, Ive been struck by how much Lent has become something to do, something that requires action and energy from us, that requires thinking, planning, organizing, and executing. Ive seen some parishes where the handbook of Lenten activities looks like a prospectus for a graduate program in theology, with bible studies, book clubs, speakers, musical performances and the like.As a holder of a graduate degree in theology myself, I can hardly object to this. I often enjoy these programs. I like taking the opportunity to deepen my understanding of my faith and share my journey with others. Lent certainly is a good time to take a spiritual inventory of our lives.Nevertheless, there is something about the way we approach Lent these days that troubles me. There have been years in the past when I dutifully dragged myself to every Lenten event with the gritted determination of a parent forcing various types of enrichment on their children. I would set lofty goals for myself in terms of how much I would pray, read, fast and give alms. When the pressures of family, work, and other commitments interferedas they inevitably wouldI would end up feeling guilty that I had fallen so short of those goals.Perhaps Im just a guilt-ridden Catholic, but I dont think Im alone in sometimes feeling overwhelmed by Lent. At times it feels like we are merely reproducing some of the negative aspects of our culture: our tendency to prefer sound to silence, action to thought, and work to rest.The central disciplines of Lentprayer, fasting, and almsgivingare ultimately about doing less. They force us to slow down. I remember a few years back trying to fast completely for an entire day. To some extent, I will confess, this was an exercise in spiritual machismo. As my blood sugar dropped, however, I began to be conscious of how fast I was walking and moving and how I needed to slow down if I was going to make it through the day.Lately Ive been reading a book by Cyprian Consiglio, a Camaldolese monk entitled Prayer in the Cave of the Heart: The Universal Call to Contemplation. A constant theme throughout the book is reducing things to their essentials and recognizing the poverty of language, even the language of prayer.Consiglio tells the story of Abba Isaac, one of the Desert Fathers, who counsels the use of the simple phrase O God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me (Ps 70:1) as a formula for meditation. We are to use this phrase to cast away the multiplicity of other thoughts and reduce ourselves to the poverty of a single word. Consiglio concludes:

In meditation we choose the way of poverty, the way of renunciation. We renounce all other words, all other prayers, all other thoughts, and hardest of all, our imaginations and our daydreaming, as we restrict our mind to the poverty of one word or phrase.

Perhaps this Lent we might make it our task to do less and to say less so that we can create the necessary space in our lives where God can speak and give and we can hear and receive.

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Centering Prayer is a type of wordless and imageless contemplation. Extremely simple. Try Thomas Keating's "Open Mind, Open Heart" or "intimacy with God" to get started with it. No, it's not New Age nonsense. It's roots are in the early Christian contemplative writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Lay people seem to particularly like it.

This is SUCH a great post! I fervently wish the local parish church were just open to pray in and that the parish would ditch the "Walk to Jerusalem," "The Little Black Book," the fish frys (there will be no hush puppies this year), the contemplative yoga sessions, etc. etc. Many years ago, our old Episcopal priest gave a sermon, the gist of which was that Lent isn't about "giving up and suffering" but about cultivating a sense of gratitude with which we can meet the Risen Lord and asking each day whether we had followed his directive to love our neighbors as ourselves.For me, that means not making anything more than necessary purchases and going through drawers and closets for unwanted items that can be donated. It's one of the few things "religious" things my son participates in with enthusiasm. (Last year, he took a huge pile of his old elementary school books to his old day care center.) It means contemplating, after each decade of the rosary, on the people who have helped me that day--the office secretary, a store clerk, the vet, the doctor, someone who made me laugh. I don't like people much, and these six weeks force me to face the fact that I am not a self-sufficient little island, but need the help of others.Lent is so fraught with the "background noise" that Mr. Nixon describes that I wonder if individuals have the time or space to approach the mystery of Christ's death and resurrection by Easter.

I would like to 'second' Ann's recommendation. Centering Prayer, sometimes known as the 'Prayer of the Heart', an ancient Christian form of prayer was popularized in our time by Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Basil Pennington and others. In fact, Merton's 'last book' (it was published posthumously), which he worked on during all his years as Trappist monk, "The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation" is a great introduction. We read of our Lord in the Gospels "spending the night alone ... absorbed in prayer" ... and my hunch is that He was praying contemplatively ... alone in the presence of the Father, forgetful of self and totally focused on the invisible presence of the Father.

That formula, "God, come to my assistance / Lord, make haste to help me" opens each Hour of the Liturgy of the Hours. It does seem to encompass a different spirituality than what prevails today - it's good for me to recite or chant those words.Btw, Peter, you probably know that Cyprian Consiglio is also a prominent composer of liturgical music.

It occurred to me, Peter, after I wrote my post above, that Fr. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest from New Mexico, has written a number of books on contemplative prayer. He has a gift for explaining things in a way that is very accessable and understandable. Merton can get a little deep sometimes. Rohr is very practical. There are also some excerpts from some of his talks on YouTube that you might enjoy.

Merton's "Inner Experience" was published posthumously because Merton stipulated that it was not to be published as a book but the indefatigable Monsigner William Shannon managed to get around that stipulation. It is an unfinished work (especially the final chapters) and far from his best. IMO one should go to "New Seeds of Contemplation" since it can be read here and there but the opening chapters are brilliant; those chapters should be read and then one can go ad libitum for the rest of the work. I am also very fond of "Thoughts in Solitude".

Commerical time (yes, I know that this counts as "doing things", but these are well worth the doing, attending and all in the Bay Area are most welcome --- Peter; Ed):Most Holy Redeemer Lenten Vesper Services 2011: An Interfaith Prayer Experience7:30 p.m. in the Church, 100 Diamond @ 18th Streets, San Francisco, CA 94114Scheduled Readings and Speakers:Ash Wednesday, March 9, 2011Reading: Ezekiel 11: 16-20Speaker: Rev. Elizabeth Welch, MDiv, BCC is a priest in the Episcopal Church and a Board Certified Chaplain (BCC) with the Association of Professional Chaplaincy (APC). She has served as Coordinator of Programs for Sojourn Chaplaincy at San Francisco General Hospital since October 2006. Prior to coming to SFGH, Elizabeth completed a 4-unit residency in Clinical Pastoral Education at St. Francis Hospital in San Francisco. She has also served in prison and jail settings. Elizabeth currently serves as a Pastoral Associate at All Saints Episcopal Church in San Francisco and is active in the interfaith community.Wednesday, March 16, 2011Reading: Mark 6: 41-42 & Udanavarga 27.1 "The faults of others are easier to see than one's own; the faults of others are easily seen, for they are sifted like chaff, bot one's own faults are hard to see. This is like the cheat who hides his dice and shows the dice of his opponent, calling attention to the other's shortcomings, continually thinking of accusing him."Speaker: Jordan Thorn, is a Zen Buddhist priest in the Japanese Soto tradition. He began Buddhist practice at the San Francisco Zen Center more than 35 years ago, was ordained as a priest in 1977, has received Dharma Transmission (permission to teach), and lives in San Francisco with his wife and two children. For the past five years he has held the position of Head of Practice at the San Francisco Zen Center.Wednesday, March 23, 2011Reading: Leviticus 19: 1-2; 15-18 (Holiness Code & Love of neighbor)Speaker: Rabbi Shelley Waldenberg is a Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at Holy Names University in Oakland, and Principal Educator of the American Jewish Committee's C-JEEP Program (Catholic- Jewish Educational Enrichment Program), lecturing at Catholic high schools throughout the Bay Area. Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, he served as a U.S. Army Chaplain, and taught at the University of San Francisco and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Rabbi Shelley earned his Bachelor of Arts at New YorkUniversity and his Master of Arts and Doctor of Divinity degrees, as well as Ordination as a Rabbi, from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.Wednesday, March 30, 2011Reading: Matthew 5: 1-12 (The Beatitudes)Speaker: Bishop William Justice was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1942 and moved with his family in 1946 to San Mateo, where he graduated from St. Gregory Elementary School and Junipero Serra High School. He graduated from St. Patrick Seminary and University in 1968 with a masters degree in divinity. He was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Joseph T. McGucken on May 17, 1968. As a young priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Bishop Justice served as parochial vicar at St. John the Evangelist and St. Paul in San Francisco, and All Souls in South San Francisco. He also served at the Chancery as director of the Permanent Diaconate, vicar for Spanish-speaking, and head of Pastoral Ministry for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.In July 1985, Bishop Justice was named pastor at St. Peter parish in San Francisco, and six years later he became pastor of All Souls Parish in South San Francisco. In July, 2003, he became pastor of Mission Dolores Parish in San Francisco. In March, 2007, he was appointed vicar for clergy for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. On April 10, 2008, he was named an auxiliary bishop by Pope Benedict XVI. On May 28 he was ordained a bishop at St. Marys Cathedral by Archbishop George H. Niederauer.Wednesday, April 6, 2011Reading: Reading: Luke 15:1-32 (Prodigal Son Parable)Speaker: Vivek Anand is a spiritual student of Vedanta, Hinduism and other spiritual philosophies and religions, is a Hindustani classical singer, and has worked as an architect in the Bay Area for the last thirteen years, specializing in healing and spiritual design. His spiritual learning has been synthesized from rich sources: a Krishna centered Hinduism from his paternal grandmother, an old form of South Indian Christianity from his maternal grandmother, a respectful relationship to all religions derived from his parents'home in Bombay, a twenty year study of the ancient philosophy of Advaita Vedanta in Bombay and the Bay Area, a twelve year friendship with a San Francisco discussion group called Queer Taoists, and an ongoing relationship with the Catholic Church through his Irish-American partner. His immersion in Indian and Pakistani spiritual music through Bay Area teachers is another facet of his love for the inner life. He has offered this music at inter-faith gatherings. His award winning designs in healing and spiritual architecturalprojects is another service aspect of this path. He is also drawn to mythology and Psychology and is about to embark on an education in Clinical Psychology so that he can more fully engage with people and their inner lives.Wednesday, April 13, 2011Reading: Luke 6:27-38 & Koran 5:8 "Oh you who believe! Be consistent is your devotion to God, bearing witness to the truth in all equity, and never let hatred of others lead you to deviate from justice. Be just for this is closest to righteousness, and remain conscious of God, because God is well aware of all you do."Speaker: Ameena Jandali, Ameena is a founding member of Islamic Networks Group (ING). She has delivered hundreds of presentations in schools, colleges, universities, churches, and other venues on Islam and related subjects, and has appeared on numerous television and radio programs. She has also been a frequent guest at conventions, seminars, and other forums, speaking on a variety of topics relating to outreach, family, and Islamic behavior. Ameena is an editor of ING training handbooks on outreach for American Muslims, as well as author and editor of training modules for public institutions on developing cultural competency with the American Muslim community. She currently team teaches a class on Islam at San Francisco City College. She received her M.A. in Near Eastern Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, and B.A. in History from the University of Illinois. Ameena lives with her husband and four children in Berkeley.Special Holy Week Speaker [No Vespers]Wednesday, April 20, 2011Reading: Reading: John 12: 23-26 (Losing one's life)Speaker: Alice A. Hoagland, Ms. Hoagland is a writer, speaker and researcher on the issues of aviation security, terrorism, and Islamist fundamentalism. She is a retired flight attendant for United Airlines. She has been privileged to speak on many occasions in the aftermath of September 11 on television, radio, and before live audiences. Her son Mark Bingham died fighting alongside a handful of other passengers aboard Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. She petitions the federal government and the airlines to commit to higher standards of aviation security. She works to strengthen Americas bonds with its Muslim neighbors worldwide: to work with Israeli and Palestinian mothers to help heal wounds which have divided their peoples, and help create a loving, lasting solution to the root cause of Islamist fundamentalist terrorism. She has been vocal on the issue of Guantanamo and the trials of terrorist detainees.

Amen..... Peter. Word