What to do for Lent? That question reminds me of that old joke about the two seminarians. One of them asks the bishop if it would be okay to smoke while praying.
“No,” his excellency answered sternly. “When you’re praying, you should be giving your whole heart and attention to God.”
Seminarian walks out gloomily and sees another seminarian pacing up and down the courtyard with his breviary, puffing happily on a cigarette the whole time. The first seminarian tells him, “Don’t let the bishop see you smoking while you pray!”
“No, it’s fine,” the second one replies. “I just asked him if it would be appropriate to pray while I was smoking,” and he said, “Yes, my son. That would be most salutary. Pray all the time!”
There are a few different morals here. One is that many seminarians are punks, and there’s a reason they have to be in school for seven years before they’re released out into the wild. The second moral is that bishops . . . well, you don’t want to know what I think about bishops. Let’s move along.
The third moral is that both seminarians were pretty caught up in what they were supposed to be doing, with their hearts and minds and hands (and lungs), and neither one (at least in the space of the joke) is putting a lot of thought into what they are supposed to be . . . being. And even though I smoked my last cigarette 17 years ago, that part feels very familiar.
Even on a lazy day, I’m busy busy busy, accomplishing this, working hard at avoiding that, distracting myself with this, putting a lot of effort into putting off thinking about that, praying this devotion, avoiding that one. I was scrolling through Facebook on my distraction machine this morning, and came across a short essay that smacked me right between the eyes: A Not-So-Radical Proposal for Your Lenten Season: Do Nothing.
The author, Jake Braithwaite, SJ, describes how his life was jam packed with busyness. And he was busy doing good things: working, studying, spending time with friends. But, he says:
“When the rare slow moment came I would be overwhelmed by the range of emotions that might overtake me: wounds I’d let fester, exhaustion I’d ignored, difficult moments I’d refused to process.
“Where had all this been hiding? Had it been here all along?
“When starting to discern becoming a Jesuit, I was forced to take more time outside of my routine to pray. For me, the revelation of silent prayer was that I wanted something different than the life that, on the surface, was quite satisfying. I realised that part of the reason I filled every waking moment with activity was that I didn’t want to listen to that voice that was calling me in a different direction.”
Maybe the seminarians’ problem was not that they chose wrongly, either smoking or not smoking. Maybe the problem was that they went to the bishop in the first place, rather than just shutting up and going to God.
They were looking for some kind of distraction, some kind of mediation between themselves and God. The real issue isn’t whether it’s holier to smoke or not smoke while you’re praying, or whether to consider it praying while smoking rather than smoking while praying. The real issue is: Do we ever stop? Even when we’re actively praying, do we ever stop being busy, and be who we are in front of God?
It’s hard, very hard to do. So hard to stop that wheel of distraction. Even when we’ve turned off exterior distractions — internet, music, TV, podcasts, physical business — it’s hard to stop the mental wheel. I’ve spent entire hours literally, physically in front of Jesus at adoration, and I don’t even realise until the time is almost up that I’ve spent the whole time jabbering spiritually away, trying to phrase things right so I trick the Lord into giving me the answer or experience I’m looking for.
And He’s not mad at me, when I do this. He’s still glad I’m there. But He does think I’m silly, and is patiently waiting for me to shut up for a minute so He can do His thing. So He can just be God, and I can be who I am, in front of God.
Braithwaite describes spending time walking in a city alone. He says:
“With long days to walk and think, I was able to sort out the parts of my life where God was most active and the parts where it was hard to find God. As Ignatius puts it, I was able to name the consolations and the desolations.
“I noticed the parts of my life–even the challenging ones–that left me feeling energised and alive. On the other hand, I noticed the parts of my life–even the surface-level happy ones–that left me feeling empty and dry and used up.
“I didn’t solve everything in my strolling, but I started to notice some patterns. I was finally able to hear God’s voice because the noise was turned down. I couldn’t block it out with the distractions–parties and drinking and social media and to-do lists and podcasts and music and movies and shows and idle fretting about work—that were my preferred methods.
“Instead, I just had to be present to exactly what I was feeling at each moment. If I was sad, I just had to be sad for a bit. If I was excited, I just got to experience it rather than try to share it on an online profile. If I was worried, I lived through the worry instead of numbing it.”
Reading this, I thought to myself, “THAT PUNK!” Because he goes on to encourage us to take quiet walks through our own neighborhoods, to let the still, small voice of the Lord speak to us. Who has time for wandering around? Not me! I have kids! I have a job! I have dinner to a make and errands to run and emails to answer.
But. I do have time when I wake up in the morning. I have a few minutes where I’m coming into consciousness, and before looking at my calendar and checking all my various notifications, I can place myself in the presence of God.
I do have time in the car when, rather than turning on music, I can have some silence.
I have time when I’m cooking, when, rather than catching up on the news on my smart speaker, I can just do what I’m doing, make what I’m making.
I have time before bed, when I can lay down my novel and think through my day, with all its nonsense and joys and mistakes and frustrations and little triumphs, and, without even analysing or summarising or commenting on it, I can turn it all over to the Lord before I fall asleep.
For goodness sakes, I can go to the bathroom without bringing my phone with me. I don’t mean to alarm you, but if God can speak to Elijah on Mt Horeb, he can speak to you on the toilet. Ask me how I know.
In other words, I can have more . . . nothing. More time when I’m not doing anything at all, not even noisily yammering away in prayer, but simply being still before God. It’s true that I don’t have aimless hours where I can wander and meditate; but I have noticed that, when I seek out and lean into smaller moments throughout the day, longer spans of time do tend to open up, once I’m more open to seeing them.
“Ash Wednesday is just one week away. Before you decide to give up candy or french fries or even Facebook, I encourage you to take [author Jenny] Odell’s advice: do nothing. Rather than optimise your Lent with a waistline-conscious fast or a bold test of your willpower, simply take time each day to do nothing. Sit before the Lord, let God marvel at you as you marvel at God. Maybe even while you’re eating french fries.”
Or even while you’re smoking.