The Praying Habit: Catholic Week

This was the week I was most looking forward to doing when I made this Lent commitment. Catholicism has been an ongoing presence in my life despite not being raised in the faith myself. Many of my friends and classmates growing up were Catholic—I was extremely jealous of their beautiful First Communion dresses (I got a practical purple jumper). I was fascinated by the saint medals at a local religious gift shop, especially those featuring Saint Joan of Arc (thanks for teaching me about her,  Wishbone!).

In college I lived with an observant Catholic woman and made friends with a few Catholic students who opted to hang out with those of us involved in the Protestant ministry. Now I’m working for a Catholic nonprofit, where I’ve had the opportunity to learn about theology, canon law and liturgy.

Between choir performances, weddings, funerals and attending Mass with friends, you’d think I would have picked it up, some of the basics, like how to do the sign of the cross, but congregants cross themselves very quickly, so I was never able to figure it out on my own.  Thankfully, this fellow did it slowly enough that I was finally able to. It felt a bit strange at first, mostly because I was uncertain if I was doing it correctly, but I appreciated it after I got used to it. Much like kneeling during  Mormon week, making an outward, physical movement helped me focus on an inward dialogue.

I also prayed to a few saints. I got a ton of suggestions and ended up focusing on three:  Saint Joseph,  Saint Francis of Assisi and  Saint Birgitta of Sweden. I was expecting to connect most with Saint Birgitta. A  recent column in The Tablet described her as “not an obedient girl. She is a forceful, intelligent – and merciful – woman, a counsellor for human souls at the court of Christ,” who spent her time on earth “influencing politics, scolding kings, popes and cardinals.” On paper, Saint Birgitta is a great fit, yet I found it difficult to figure out how to approach her. In fairness to Saint Birgitta, this was probably more due to some latent Lutheran discomfort than to her specifically. I don’t think praying to saints is idolatrous, but it felt strange to be asking for her intercession in the same way I’d pray to God.

I had much better luck with Saint Joseph, which was another surprise. He seems like a nice enough person in the Bible, but I didn’t find him terribly interesting compared to say, Mary Magdalene or Judas. So why was he such a great saint to pray to? Because he’s the go-to guy to check in with about labor and your vocation, which I’ve been obsessed with lately, so being able to ask for some extra help with this puzzle was meaningful to me.

I prayed to Saint Francis of Assisi at the very end of Catholic week. I didn’t click with him as well as I did with Saint Joseph. His life made me feel a bit guilty (now you really know it’s Catholic week!) about how I live mine, which probably means that he’s a saint that I most need to connect with. I’m not rich, but I could certainly look at my finances and consider how to better allocate the resources I have to charity. I recycle and turn off lights when I leave a room, but am not as committed to environmentalism as I should be.
And of course I prayed the rosary. I was really looking forward to this. When I was 12 or 13 my mother explained to me that Mary was probably just a few years older than I was when she got pregnant. This made me annoyed with the Lutheran church for ignoring her. If Jesus was so important, why weren’t we giving more credit to the woman who would have faced stigmatization and isolation for being pregnant outside of wedlock, and would later face the unimaginable grief of seeing her child die before she did? Praying the rosary actively recognizes her role in Jesus’ ministry and sacrifice

I borrowed a rosary from a friend and after some hunting around, found  a how-to pamphlet from the Knights of Columbus and a list of the different mysteries you’re supposed to mediate on when praying. I didn’t know the Hail Mary, Glory Be, Fatima Prayer or Hail Holy Queen, so my first attempt was clumsy. I kept alternating between the pamphlet for the prayers and the list of mysteries. My second attempt was a bit smoother and was done right before I went to sleep. At this point I’d memorized the Hail Mary and Glory Be, and found it much easier to relax and fall into a more contemplative state. While my mind would sometimes wander while contemplating the mysteries (I focused on the sorrowful ones), I did appreciate the physicality of fingering beads. This seems to be a theme for me this Lent: If there is some kind of ritual or movement I can perform my prayers are likely to be more focused.

Next week: Jewish prayer! I’m anxious about this one already.

Carolyn Browender is an activist and seeker living in Washington, D.C. She was raised Lutheran by a practicing Christian mother and secular Jewish father. You can also find her on Twitter.