Here is my final calendar for Lent. Some days I worked the program as I had planned–a full blown meditation and prayer on each word. Other days I chose a word and drew hastily with a scattered mind and spirit. In spite of my inconsistent discipline, I learned at least one thing about Psalm 51: It is full of rich, multi-textured words. There were so many words to choose from, I made it through only fifteen of the nineteen verses.
I think I understand why this Psalm is quoted, sung, and studied so often. The wide variety and depth of words form a lexicon of our salvation history. Even with just the forty-six words on my calendar, I could tell a version of my story and the Great Story all culminating in the only missing word–JESUS.
Praying Psalm 51 has been a great way for me to focus my Lenten attention and intention. I like honing in on one word a day. Many of the words convey my/our alienation from God: transgressions, iniquity, sin, evil, sentence, guilt, judgment, guilty, sinner…. Other words focus on God’s graceful removal of those things: cleanse, blot, wash, love, mercy….
Another benefit of sticking with one psalm is memorization. The words on the calendar are like a prompter on the side of the stage reminding me of my lines. Psalm 51 is not one of the psalms I know by heart, but I can almost recite the first six verses now. 1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. 5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. NRSV
For this year’s calendar I decided to use only gray, black, red, and purples–colors I associate with Lent. The limited number of colors prevents me from getting too hung up about the product rather than the process of prayer.
P.S. Nap count 3.5 /24–ugh!
Lent seems to be the time when I try to cram in a year’s worth of Bible study or prayer into 40 days. This year I decided to make my spiritual discipline small enough so I can “savor rather than stuff” as I described in my March 4th post. On Ash Wednesday I sat in church and listened to an exquisite musical version of Psalm 51 called Miserere Mei by Gregorio Allegri. Although it was sung in Latin, I followed along in English. For me, the words of Psalm 51 are some of the most beautiful and rich in the Bible. So Psalm 51 will be my Scripture focus for Lent this year.
Each day I choose a word from the Psalm and reflect on it in two ways. First I write the word on a piece of paper and start brainstorming. Everything that comes to my mind about the word ends up on the paper–whether it’s spiritual or silly. This stream-of-consciousness writing helps to clear my mind of everything I already know or perceive about the word. It makes room for my mind to receive something new about the word.
Then I write the word on my calendar and start to draw. This time I don’t consciously think about the word. I ask God to tell me what I need to hear. I listen to the word as it tells me new things about itself and I listen to God through the word. If I hear something new I write it down. This is a way of initiating a conversation with God using a single word from Scripture.
Below is the first week of my calendar and an example of what I did with one of the words: abundant. It has been a whole week and I’ve just started on verse 2 of the Psalm.
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. (Psalm 51, NRSV)
When I read articles about millions of barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico and see pictures of oil-drenched birds and satellite images of an encroaching oil sheen, I can’t help but pray the confessional and cleansing verses of Psalm 51 :
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. (NRSV)
This is my prayer. Maybe it’s BP’s prayer, too. Maybe it’s even the prayer of the Gulf itself.
Drawing: Sybil MacBeth 2010
Most of my praying happens outside of a church building. But I don’t want to underestimate the power of a sacred physical space to create for me an intense experience of prayer.
I arrived at church at 7:30AM today to receive a smudge of ashes on my forehead–the symbol of my mortality and sin and the big black starter button for Lent. The morning sun shone through the stained glass.The congregation recited prayers in unison. The familiar words of Psalm 51 circled my head and rose towards the rafters. My woolen-garbed neighbors passed the sign of God’s Peace with a handshake.The priest swiveled his blackened thumb on my forehead and said the words from Genesis 3: ” Remember, you are but dust and to dust you shall return.” The bread and wine woke my sleepy taste buds and slid down my throat. This was whole-bodied prayer. It invited my taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell into the experience.
Couldn’t this have happened somewhere else? Maybe. But the specific physical space where I worshiped this morning set the stage for this special time of prayer. My prayers joined the millions of other full-bodied prayers offered in this place for almost 170 years.
Sybil MacBeth ©2010