Lent: The Catholic Practice of Prayer

March 16, 2012

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A low snicker rumbled through the Word on Fire conference room.

Father Steve, Rozann Carter and I were seated for our weekly editorial meeting and discussing who should write about which facet of Lent—fasting, prayer or almsgiving—for our blog.

“Kerry, I’d like you to take on ‘prayer,’” Father Steve said.

Uhhhh, what?

I nodded in agreement as he explained the role of prayer in Lenten formation, and suggested ideas for how I might explore the tenet to my advantage during this assignment. He suggested churches I might visit, and gave me pointers on possible photo opportunities.

But all I heard were clicks and beeps.

Full disclosure: I returned to my desk, fired up the ol’ Google machine, and keyed in “how to pray.”

“How to pray”? What sort of heathen idiot are you, Kerry? You simply, as Reverend Lovejoy once said, “drop down and put your knees together,” clasp your hands, bow your head and, you know, ask for stuff.

Bada bing, bada boom. Prayer.

Even I know there’s more to it than that, but I was at a loss as to where to begin. Do I refer to the wealth of spiritual knowledge with and for whom I work, or do I keep my trap shut and quit embarrassing myself? It reminded me of the time I asked Father Barron, “Wait, what is the Incarnation again? Is that the feast day when Mary gets pregnant?” Poor Father Barron. He just stared a moment, blinked, and then gingerly explained it all.

Remembering his benevolence and lack of (outward) judgment, I caved and asked Father Steve about how I might learn about prayer, and he suggested I revisit the CATHOLICISM episode on the matter.

So I did. And I learned a thing or two.

Yes, I am Catholic, and with 18 years of Catholic education under my belt. I did quite a bit of praying growing up, but usually in unison with my classmates during Mass or after the Pledge of Allegiance, before the occasional meal, as my teachers were handing back graded research papers, or as my orthodontist would wrench the wiring on my braces to a jaw-numbing tightness.

But earnest, extracurricular prayer in my life is somewhat rare, usually urgent, and quite short-lived. It comprises pleas for continued health and happiness for my daughter, thanksgiving for my blessed lot, beseeches for sick relatives or a crisis that only divine intervention can allay.

Prayer is infrequently (if ever) a ritual. It doesn’t achieve the “rhythm, discipline and practice” of which Father Barron speaks. There rarely is that “calming of the monkey mind,” a byproduct he attributes to the Buddhists. I may start with a “Hail Mary,” but usually it winds up with me mentally shuffling through my spring wardrobe.

It’s “Planet of the Apes” up there.

There is some muscle memory when it comes to my prayerfulness, if atrophied. The first time I took part in saying a decade of the rosary with my coworkers (an incongruous, foreign experience in its own right), I heard myself reciting the “Glory Be” from memory, erupting from the depths of my grey matter and dislodging the theme song to “Mr. Belvedere” as it bubbled to the surface. To say I was smug about it was an understatement. “Did you hear that?” I hissed to a coworker, the pride and genuine shock over my latent holiness carrying me well into the afternoon.

But miracles aside, in my research I learned that prayers lead to prayer, as Father Barron said, quoting Thomas Merton. The “Our Fathers” are a gateway—the novenas, a portal. True prayer is achieved when we become vessels for God’s will for us. God knows what we need more than we do, so prayers are answered in ways that are oftentimes unexpected or unsolicited.

Say what, now?

Bearing both that simian brain and a dire procrastination problem, I decided I needed to get going on this prayer thing the day before this blog post was due. I would head over to a church near work with borrowed rosary in hand and await spiritual renewal. Father Steve talked me into going instead to Marytown, the national shrine to St. Maximillian Kolbe situated about 30 miles north of the Word on Fire offices. There they offer perpetual adoration, he said.

Adoration? Paging Google again.

Craving a partner in prayerful crime, and more importantly, a witness, I swung by my parents’ house to pick up my 15-month-old daughter, June, whom they watch a couple of days a week when I work. I told her we were going on an “adventure” and we hit the road.

“Adoration” is, admittedly, a Lenten ritual I was wholly unfamiliar with (or forgetful of) so I was unsure what was awaiting June and me. Marytown, in Libertyville, Ill., is staffed by the Friars of St. Bonaventure and is a retreat house and conference center built around this shrine to a Polish priest killed in Auschwitz. The grounds are dotted with statuary and homemade birdhouses, and the main buildings comprise offices, conference rooms and a chapel.

I was expecting something quaint, small, homespun. We instead beheld a gorgeous sanctuary festooned with frescoes and murals and all those other things I’ve since forgotten from my college art history classes. The colors, the textures, the vaulted ceiling, the windows, were unexpectedly beautiful. Even June, normally a great enthusiast of noisily exploring areas of high traffic and
gravity, clung to me as we surveyed the silent space. 

Candles flickered, the faithful’s heads were bowed in quiet reverence of the Blessed Sacrament, and we slid in an empty pew with a thud. June spotted the car keys in my purse and lunged for them, their jangling sending a cacophonous, discordant racket through the chapel. 

I extracted the rosary I had borrowed from work, which she promptly snagged just as I was about to launch into my old standby, “Glory Be.”

Like so many moments in parenting, I resigned that this was not going to go as hoped, and happily watched my girl straddle the kneeler and move the beads from floor to pew, back to floor again. Sensing (perhaps projected) the disturbance to the dozen or so present, I scooped June and held her in my lap while I kept count of the 10 “Hail Marys” chugging through my head.

To my great surprise, June sat still, grasping the wooden rosary and examining the spectacular art looming over us. I felt our breathing sync up, and watched her chest rise and fall to the cadence of my own. A few short minutes passed when I realized my monkey mind had been stilled. Was it the prayer? The chapel? I’m not sure. But the vital life force, the vessel for my love and, yes, adoration, sitting peacefully in my arms didn’t hurt.

Just at the moment I was starting to feel some sort of transcendental quality take shape, June sprang from my lap and dropped the rosary in the pew in front of us.

Clang.

Aaaaand scene.

Rome was most definitely not built in a day.

June and I took a quick spin through the gift shop, where I purchased an inexpensive child’s rosary. We then made our way to a bench outside, where I unwrapped the pastel beads from the velvet pouch and handed them to her.

She was delighted. Sure, she thought the rosary was some fancy piece of mom’s jewelry, even draping it over her wrists while uttering “aaaaahhh!” but I didn’t sweat that.

I watched my daughter move the rosary between her hands, and lean in close to watch the beads refract the sunlight into twinkly prisms on this freakishly warm late winter day. June looked up and flashed me a gummy grin, lifting the rosary to show off her exotic new wares.

I’ve got a lot to learn about this prayer stuff, I thought. The discipline. The rhythm. The practice.

But watching the wind rustle the curls on my baby girl’s head I realized that my prayers, however infrequent, however amateur, had been answered.

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