In our traditional liturgical calendar, the three Sundays before Ash Wednesday bore unusual Latin names: Septuagesima, Sexagesima, Quinquagesima meaning simply Seventieth, Sixtieth, Fiftieth. This was because these Sunday are roughly that number of days before Easter Sunday. This year Easter comes rather early, March 27th, and Ash Wednesday falls on February 10th. Today then is Septuagesima Sunday.
In the “old liturgy” or today’s “Extraordinary Form” (offered in the Chapel every Sunday at 12:30 PM) these Sundays marked a sort of “pre-Lent” in which while the Lenten penances, fasting and abstinence from meat were not yet in force, the vestment color was violet and the Paschal Alleluia dropped from the Liturgy to return only at the Easter Vigil. Among the reasons for this ancient time of preparation for Lent was to remind the believer that Lent was coming and it was time to give thought to one’s practices and resolutions BEFORE Ash Wednesday.
There were, and are, three main traditional Lenten practices: Prayer; Fasting; and Almsgiving.
This Sunday I would like to draw your attention to the first of these.
Prayer was simply and beautifully described in my childhood’s Catechism as “the lifting up of the mind and heart to God.”
Both intellect and emotion are involved in prayer.
There is a classical distinction between vocal and mental prayer that corresponds to this two-fold side to prayer.
Vocal prayer is as the name implies “saying” prayer(s). We use words, either others’ or our own, to express our adoration, petition, and praise of God. We use our minds and wills to utter, either aloud, whispered, or consciously thought, words to God. Common examples are the Rosary, Liturgical prayers, prayers from books, etc. Here we use words and formulas handed down from various sources and eras.
Mental prayer is more of a sense of presence: we are aware of God’s presence to us, and our presence of quiet receptivity to Him. This, of course, is not just holy day-dreaming, but involves more of a “resting in God” as we read in the Psalms “Be still, and know that I am God!” An anecdote from the life of the Cure of Ars, St. John Marie Vianney, sums it up well. He noticed an old man spending time in the parish church every day, merely sitting in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. The Saint asked him what he was doing and the man replied: “I look at Him, and He looks at me.”
For Lent then we might think of how we might enrich our “prayer life”. Some of us might be beginners, others more advanced, but all of us regardless of our state of prayer can benefit from a good Lent.
Maybe I need to get back to “saying prayers” in the simplest everyday form.
Maybe I need to make a better effort of paying attention to what I am saying in prayer and check my tendency to rush my prayers.
Maybe I need to prepare for prayer better, recollect myself, quiet down before beginning my prayers.
Maybe I could, in fact, find time for daily Mass, either here or in another parish or closer to where I work.
Maybe I could attend the Stations of the Cross on the Lenten Fridays.
Maybe I could “pop in” to “see Him” as I pass by the church, if only for a few minutes.
These are just a few suggestions we might consider.
Next week I will speak about Fasting as part of Lent.
Blessed Septuagesima Sunday!