Time with God

Nature caught up with our Liturgical season this year, giving us the most challenging and stormy 40 days of Lent, followed by an Easter week ripe with the promise of spring. In the beautiful afterglow of the Resurrection we place our Lenten fast in the rearview mirror and look forward to the joy of the Easter season and the promise of the Ordinary time of summer. Before we get there, we will have many weeks in which we get to walk along with the Risen Christ and maybe discuss what we learned from our 40 days in the desert. 

My Lent was more like boot camp than a trip to the desert. I had allowed the frenzy of my schedule to take over my prayer life. I scoured the various Spiritual exercises to find the “10 minutes a day is all it takes” kind of prayer. When I joyfully found a book that cut daily prayer down to five minutes, I realized that I needed to do something about my “I have no time to pray” affliction. 

That’s how I arrived at my decision to add more minutes to my day during Lent to set aside exclusive time for prayer; not the time of prayer I shared with the drive into work, interrupted each time I passed a speed trap or negotiated the treacherous merge onto Route 24. This time I was going to do it right by adding an extra hour to my morning by waking up early. This, of course, led to going to bed earlier, which meant less time mindlessly watching TV. All of this discipline was going to make me a prayer champion.

When Holy Week finally came, and I faced the end of nearly 40 days of faithfully following this morning prayer regimen, a feeling came upon me that was totally unexpected: regret and sadness. The regret was over the recognition that my Lenten “special prayer time” may fade away into the ether of Ordinary time, but the sadness was more unexpected. I was surprisingly slammed with a memory that I had not dusted off in many years. 

More than 20 years ago I went through Clinical Pastoral Education as part of my contextual education for my degree. CPE trains people to become hospital chaplains, but it also prepares one for ministry because of its demands of self-reflection so that we can sit with people and hold their stories in a Sacred place. I had been assigned to the dialysis unit where outpatients came on a daily basis to have their blood filtered through a machine that did what their failed kidneys could not. The background stories of the people in this unit were as varied as the cause of their kidney failure. Some had inherited their condition; others brought it on by destructive life choices. None of that mattered as they all were bonded by their connection to the machine that kept them alive until transplant or death.

One patient stood out, as he was the epitome of grace as he endured the tedium of his regular treatments in the unit. We would sit together and talk; rarely about himself; often about the stories of patients who sat near him. He told me many of the details of the other patients’ lives, for he was a person who elicited from others their deepest fears and feelings about their suffering, yet revealed little of his own. The only tears he shed were when he spoke of his daughter who was born with a disability and had endured great suffering. I had other units to cover and didn’t always get to him, but when I did he would cheerfully say, “I was waiting for you!” After the Christmas break, when the next semester started, I went to visit him to tell him that my schedule changed and I was assigned to a different unit. I couldn’t find his name on the manifest, and was told that he had died a few weeks before. Just like that, my “special time” with this man ended. 

Anticipating the end of my special time with God jarred that memory from the recesses of my brain, and the 20 years it lie dormant allowed it to ferment and turn into the fine wine of Spiritual wisdom The 40 days spent performing heroic efforts of early rising and resolute devotions did not produce the goal I sought, but only revealed the gift that took me 20 years to unwrap. After all this effort the words to the Psalm came to life, “For in sacrifice you take no delight, burnt offering from me you would refuse, my sacrifice, a contrite spirit. A humble, contrite heart you will not spurn.” All that I needed to learn about spending time with God came from that dialysis unit through the simple words of that man years ago. “I was waiting for you.”

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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