During Lent, prayer has been their answer

Religion: These four people turned their attention toward creating a dialogue with God during the Easter season.

March 29, 2002|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

In the beginning, Barbara Lazzati thought the idea of quieting herself in a chair each morning before prayer was nothing more than hocus-pocus. She decided to try anyway. A stickler for order, she even set the alarm for 10 minutes, the time suggested by a priest at St. Ignatius Church in Baltimore to clear the mind and prepare for prayer. She sunk into a comfortable chair in the living room, near a window where the light was bright. Then, when the buzzer rang, she read the Bible passage selected for that day in her six-week prayer program.

One day the reading was about Zachaeus, a short man who climbed a tree so he could see over the crowds following Jesus. She imagined herself climbing a tree. "Could I do that?" she'd asked.

The next day's reading was about the Good Samaritan. In her mind's eye, she was still perched in the tree when she spotted the story's victim, bloody and beaten to a pulp, on the road. She found herself wanting to come down from the tree to help him.

During this Lenten season, Lazzati and 30 other people returned to St. Ignatius for personal retreats based on a centuries-old prayer and personal examination method developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola. As the spiritual exercises and the season draw to an end, Lazzati, like others, realizes she has been changed.

Before this type of contemplation, she says, she would have been frozen in fear in her tree post. But she began to think: "Here is a guy who looks like me, a sleepy middle-aged guy, a man beaten and bloody, laying there. I can do that."

What happened next is going to sound trite, she says. Sometimes, coming from lunch at the Center Club - a premier spot for corporate consultants like herself to do business - she'd pass homeless people on the street. She began to make a point of saying "good afternoon" or "hello" to the people she saw - something she never did before.

"There are so many people I know who do wonderful things, big things. I am a believer in God in unseen events, in people, He is there. Take a minute to say hi."

Now she also brings a weekly scripture to women in prison.

Prayer "energized me," she says. "Rather than think, `I'll put it in the Lord's hands,' as my grandfather would say, if you read scripture, you've got to take action, got to move, to know you are in partnership with other people."

A new ritual

Other people have been changed, too. Sue Cesare doesn't pray in church, though she goes many mornings, but in her living room, sitting on the couch after dinner, with a few candles burning. "It is not hard to have 40 minutes go by when you get lost in thought," she says.

The Ignatian method she follows requires reading and reflecting on scripture for 30 to 45 minutes a day. There is a weekly theme.

Sometimes she meditates on a single word or phrase that jumps out because it carries some personal meaning, and sometimes she puts herself into the scene. One need only smell the straw in the manger to imagine themselves a character in the scene, she says; from there, the questions begin.

Once a week she meets with others to share prayer experiences.

"One week we were talking about sin and God's forgiving role. It's not a self-whipping thing. Instead of saying, `This is how bad I am,' you say, `God has created me to love, how have I not loved?'"

The story of the Prodigal Son another week raised a set of questions: "When do we feel forgiveness in our life? It leads you to, who do you need to forgive? How do you feel when you forgive? Is there someone waiting to be forgiven?"

The questions she finds often remain in the back of her mind all day and affect what she does. One week she was thinking about patience, "so I was very aware during the day when I was or was not [patient] and aware of how I felt when people were impatient with me."

The day her computer failed at work, where she sells heating and air conditioning to hospitals and research labs, her reaction caught her by surprise. "Instead of being in a rotten mood the rest of the day," she said, "I remember saying, `This doesn't happen to me all the time.'"

"I thought, `Where does this attitude come from?'"

A reading of the Beatitudes early in Lent forced her to ask anew the question, "How am I serving the poor?" Already bringing food to homeless people on Saturday nights, she decided to spend 45 minutes each morning of the season in coffee and conversation with a homeless man in a nearby park.

As Lent draws to a close and her retreat ends, she finds herself asking: "Why don't I make this a way of life all the time, not just for six weeks?"

Planning for prayer

Even a one-week prayer experience changes things.

Joseph Melchor-Heinlen used to pick up the newspaper first thing in the morning, but reading about murders and violence in the Middle East cast a pall over his whole day.

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