Today is Shrove Tuesday, also known as Fat Tuesday (“Mardi Gras” in French) or Pancake Tuesday. Like New Year’s Day, Shrove Tuesday is basically a day set aside to gorge ourselves on all kinds of naughty foods filled with fat, butter and eggs (hence the pancakes) before we go into a solemn six week Lenten period of reflecting on all the excesses in our lives.
As a way of sobering us right up and setting us on the straight and narrow as we begin Lent, the Ash Wednesday reading is Matthew 6:1-6,16-21. In this reading Jesus says:
So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others (Mt. 6:2).
And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others (Mt. 6:5).
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting (Mt. 6:16).
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Mt. 6:19,21).
This reading can be summed up in just a few words: Don’t be self-absorbed, self-righteous, or stingy; instead be a contemplative.
So, what does it mean to be contemplative?
Contemplation is defined as “the action of looking thoughtfully at something for a long time” or “deep reflective thought.” In a spiritual context, contemplation has been defined as simply prayer, meditation, or reflection. However, as a contemplative myself, this definition seems limited and shallow to me. What most contemplatives know is that prayer – in a spiritual sense – is not a noun; it’s a verb. Contemplation without action is, at best, incomplete, at worst, dangerous. St. Teresa of Avila, a 16th Century Carmelite nun and Spanish mystic, said, “Prayer is not just spending time with God. It is partly that – but if it ends there, it is fruitless. No, prayer is dynamic. Authentic prayer changes us – unmasks us, strips us, indicates where growth is needed. Authentic prayer never leads us to complacency, but needles us, makes us uneasy at times. It leads us to true self-knowledge, to true humility.
Nearly all religious leaders who have led (positive) social change movements are deeply grounded in prayer and contemplation. St. Francis of Assisi prayed in small caves on the side of hills/mountains for days and weeks at a time. However, his prayer life always compelled him to engage with the needs of the world in the marketplace and on the streets, and his ministry in the streets/marketplace drove him back to his prayer life in the caves. Dorothy Day, a journalist and prominent figure in the Catholic Worker Movement, rose every day at dawn to pray the daily office. Her prayer life compelled her to embrace radical hospitality on a daily basis. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life was so steeped in prayer and contemplation, he said, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”
Especially today, contemplation should never equal complacency. Our world could use many more contemplatives whose prayer lives are driving them to action rooted in a radical, biblical sense of compassion. Whether it’s allowing unbridled wealth while millions starve, not confronting political boasting and divisiveness, or not confronting hateful or discriminatory words and actions – whether it be in the grocery store or in our own churches, we have our work cut out for us.
So, enjoy Shrove Tuesday today and grab a few pancakes for lunch or dinner. But tomorrow, I invite you to grab your prayer shawl and join me in authentic, life-changing – world-changing – prayer. In the words of St. Teresa of Avila, may our prayer this Lent “make us uneasy and lead us to true self-knowledge.” And may this self-knowledge move us to make the world a better place for all.
Lenten peace and prayers,