When I was younger, I had a heroic view of talent. I thought the finest talents, the most worthy of praise, were those that needed no refinement. It’s a romantic sort of view–that those who are truly talented are those who are natural geniuses at what they do, or at least self-taught. But, of course, that’s just silly. No pianist, even of the greatest natural talent, is able to play Beethoven without determined practice. The ability to make such exquisite music is only within reach of those who commit thousands of hours to playing scales and agility exercises. The same is true of baseball players and painters, engineers and NASA scientists who land rovers on Mars. Anything worth achieving takes practice.
We also might think of the great Saints and mystics of the Christian tradition this way. St. Augustine, St. Benedict, St. Hildegard, St. Paul, even, or maybe Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr. We might be tempted to think that these holy people were naturally talented in living out their Christian faith. But all of them recognized that Christian wisdom and holiness–growing in faith, hope, and love–takes practice; it takes attention and, frankly, effort. Just as there are no natural artists or scientists, so also there are no natural Christians. We enter into the Christian life in baptism, dedicating our selves to the way of Jesus. We make promises to grow by dedicating ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. We make promises to strive for peace and justice among all persons. In short, we promise to practice our faith.
Most of us do not have the natural talent to play Beethoven, or design rockets. But we have all been created with the capacity to delight in God and to be transformed by God’s love in the dedication to living God-ward lives. That’s the main difference between our talent for music or art or scientific discover and practicing our faith: both require practice, but you don’t need any talent at all to pray. Children, when given the space and the opportunity, sink into prayer more naturally than most adults I know. Because being a saint, drawing near to God, is not fundamentally our work. All our practice in the faith is not our own achievement, but simply making ourselves available to God. Our practice in the faith–in prayer, in the giving of alms, in fasting, in meditating on Scripture–all of these efforts do not create the music of our life that soars to God. Rather, through these practices, the music of eternity echoes in our daily times of prayer, maybe even ringing in the coffee cup on the armrest. As we are transformed day in and day out by the practices of our faith, we open up our hearts to more generous living, to greater kindness and mercy and love.
The Season of Lent is not a time for feeling bad about ourselves, but a time for wonder that God invites us into the way of the Cross, not to punish us or weigh us down, but to unburden us. Lent presents us an invitation to begin again. To enter again into the practice of being Christians, to sing again, as we are able, “I come with joy to meet my Lord, forgiven, loved, and free.” And while Christ can certainly find us in any circumstance, as Jesus met Paul on the road to Damascus, the Season of Lent is our invitation to practice our faith and find that Christ was always waiting for us.
Instead of asking what you can give up for Lent–haven’t we all given up enough this year?!–let’s ask how we can make room for our beautiful Savior, how we can become more like him, how we can practice our faith. Throughout Lent, I will be offering reflections in “Our Common Life” on various practices of the faith–prayer, almsgiving, meditating on Scripture, fasting, and the like. May these reflections help us to practice our faith, to renew our faith, to draw closer to our God in joy and wonder and thanksgiving.