Three Lenten practices: Prayer, Almsgiving, and Fasting
While waiting for Mass to begin, I saw myself in a cathedral of the middle ages: Notre Dame de Paris, now sadly defaced by fire; Rheims, where Joan of Arc witnessed the crowning of the Dauphin and the restoration of French supremacy; Chartres, where virtually no surface remains bare but is covered with intricate sculptures of saints and holy events. I remember being taught that statues and stained glass windows were meant to teach scriptural truths to the unlettered of that era. I wondered whether today’s faithful would find these adornments either distracting or inspiring.
King Solomon supervised the construction of a temple that would give due honor to the Lord their protector. The first Book of Kings provides details, but as early as the book of Exodus, the Israelites had completed phase one: the construction of the Ark which contained the two tablets of the Mosaic law. It was written in stone to be a permanent reminder of the agreement between God and his people: God would guide and protect his people always and his people would always obey God’s Law. The Ark was designed to be portable so that wherever the Israelites went, the precious Law would always be with them, scrupulously obeyed.Isaiah foresaw a time when the Temple would be open to all:
Many peoples shall come and say:
“Come, let us go up to the Lord’s mountain . . . to the house of the God of Jacob,
That he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.
For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (Isaiah 56.7)
Solomon was well aware of the huge distance between God and his creatures. He stretches his hands to heaven and says:
“Can it indeed be that God dwells on earth? If the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain you, how much less the temple which I have built?”
Despite the physical splendor of the building, the God it praises remains elusive and inscrutable:
When the priests left the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord so that the priests could no longer minister because of the cloud, since the glory of the Lord had filled the house of the Lord. . ..The Lord intends to dwell in the dark cloud.
Indeed, a persistent cloud blocks our understanding of God. St. Paul repeats this metaphor: We see now as through a glass, darkly; but then face to face. (1 Corinthians 13:12)
Christ’s Teachings on Prayer
In the sermon on the mount Jesus teaches us how to pray. The prayer Jesus describes is contemplation. He invites us to seek intimacy with God by entering our private room, our temple, our heart, this private and sacred space. It is about opening our heart to God, joining God in a spirit of companionship.
Once we have welcomed the Lord into our quiet space, what do we say, how do we pray?
With few or even no words: “Do not babble as the pagans do.” How very different from the formal, showy, and formulaic prayer of the Pharisees! The mindless repetition of many words, whether ours or another’s, cannot substitute for one personal word of love that comes from the heart and is directed to the Lord.
To contemplate is to enter into the quiet and intimate temple of our very being. In the Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila writes: “The important thing is not to talk much but to love much and to do that which stirs you to love.”
Contemplative prayer is a quiet, wordless connection with God within the temple of our heart, the God of our life.
Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? . . for the temple of God, which you are, is holy. (1 Corinthians 3:16, 17b)
It puzzles me to hear someone say they don’t feel at home in a particular church building. And yet, maybe that’s the way God wants us to know that he is not to be found in bricks and mortar, nor even in representational art, but in the human hearts of those within the building. For the human heart is the preferred temple of God, the House of Prayer where we do not know how to pray as we ought, but where the Holy Spirit comes to our assistance, praying within us with unutterable groanings. (Romans 8)