Wednesday 13 March 2024

A Week of Prayer

The Church requires all priests to make a spiritual retreat each year — a week away from pastoral work to give some attention to their own spiritual lives, to pray and to rest. Christ took the disciples away from their public ministry to rest (Mark 6:31), and often escaped himself to be alone with his Father (e.g. Matt. 14:23, Mark 1:35).

A week-long retreat in a monastery will not be possible for those who have work, studies or families to take care of. But the busier we are, the more essential it is that we take time in the course of the year to give our relationship with God some more than ordinary attention. In many ways, the Church builds this time into the year for us, by encouraging us not just to attend Mass on Sundays and major feast days, but also to rest from our usual activity on those days and devote the time we save to extra prayer, study and works of charity.

In the fourth century, when the Roman Empire became Christian, the emperors suspended all law courts and businesses from functioning during Holy Week so that all the faithful would be free to spend the week in church. That practice continued in Christian countries even into the nineteenth century. All Christians were given time off to devote the whole week leading up to Easter to more intense spiritual activity.

Lent is a time of preparation for Easter. That preparation takes the form not only of prayer, fasting and almsgiving but also of planning. Without a plan, Holy Week and Easter may pass us by like any other ordinary days. The thought of Easter rapidly approaching should remind us to make some more practical plans for the Sacred Triduum. The full schedule for the liturgies and other devotions taking place that week in church is now available on our website. Do we know what time we will spend in church? Do we know what else we will do in those days? Will we make sure in advance that the house is clean, the shopping is bought and the laundry is done so that we are free to focus on God during those days that he was so especially focused on us and our salvation?

Fr Walter Ciszek, in his book He Leadeth Me, speaks of the retreats he organised for his fellow prisoners in a Soviet prison camp. They managed to spend their days in prayer without any break from their work in some of the toughest conditions human beings have ever faced. Fr Ciszek and his fellow priests made this possible by the rigorous planning they put in ahead of each period of retreat, in order to make the most of the little time they had available to them. It is possible for all of us to grow in our love of God — but we need to plan how we are going to do it.