I keep a file for “Lent.” From it, last week, I pulled out something I once read and liked about the history of the pretzel, from a Christian cookbook by Evelyn Birge Vitz. “The pretzel is a very ancient bakery item, which traditionally was eaten only during Lent. It appeared each year on Ash Wednesday and disappeared on Good Friday. It goes back at least to the fifth century: there is a Roman manuscript in the Vatican library dating from that period which shows a Lenten pretzel. As to the shape: It is made in the form of two arms crossed in prayer. The word bracellae, “little arms,” became in German Bretzel, then Pretzel. These early Christians at no dairy products in Lent, so the pretzel was made only of flour, salt and water: It was as simple as it could be.”
I am attracted to simplicity. Recently I visited with another priest in town in his living room and noted, with envy, that it was completely without clutter. “Yes, I live a pretty simple life,” he said, “If I don’t use something for a year I don’t hang on to it.” How is it that I can envy this man’s simplicity so much and yet be so far from imitating it in my own life that features a living room full of magazines, dishes, clothes, and souvenirs from places visited long ago.
Maybe for Lent I’ll declutter the rooms I call home. Maybe I’ll give up Cheetos and replace them with pretzels. More important would be to simplify my heart.
I was gifted with a simple and powerful prayer experience the other day that I hope to keep with me for the forty days of Lent. I was trying to imagine St. Paul’s conversion experience and the love he encountered in Christ that was powerful enough to turn his life upside down in the direction of joyful service toward others. Then I tried to imagine how it must have felt to have been a leper, a blind man, a tormented man healed by Jesus—the joy, the gratitude, the freedom.
With this preparation it was suddenly natural and easy for me to see my own life as touched by the love of God. I recollected times when I felt close to God and knew that God was near. I felt deep gratitude for companions on the journey of life, for Church, for faith, and for life itself, for all of it, even the hard stuff. And then came my simple prayer.
Bubbling over with appreciation of God, and without thinking or searching for words, I said, “Help me be more for you.” I said this to God. It was simple, and it was the most satisfying prayer I have spoken in a long, long time. I have a strong hunch that if I pray this prayer every day of Lent, God will give me plenty of opportunities to make my wish come true.
Sometimes our faith lives can get complicated. We wonder why God allows good people to suffer so much. We wonder why the assurances of faith fall weakly to the ground without inspiring us and search for a way to reclaim a life-giving relationship with God. There is a time for this; it is part of the journey. There is also a time to be simple and pray simply with an uncluttered heart. Maybe you like my prayer. Maybe you like one of Anne Lamott’s three prayers: Thank you! Help me! or Wow! Maybe you will discover new depth in the Lord’s Prayer. Maybe you will find a simple prayer that is all your own. Then, when you find one, you can celebrate with a pretzel.