“Abba Poemen said of Abba Pior that every single day he made a fresh beginning.” — from the “Apothegmata Patrum,” the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers

Michelle Francl-Donnay

The ashes have long been washed off our faces, and despite the stacks of bright yellow peeps and chocolate bunnies in the grocery aisles, Easter seems immeasurably far off.  Time seems to have been sucked into a black hole in these middle weeks of Lent; my prayer feels stale and frozen. I struggle to get out of the sludge that trips me up.

It is said that St. Simon the Stylite spent 47 years living on a pillar in the desert, praying and offering spiritual counsel to those willing to climb 50 feet up a ladder to speak with him. In some ways, I suspect that remaining constant in prayer, day in and day out, is harder by far than spending 47 years on a pillar in the desert. And I think the desert mothers and fathers knew it. Inevitably our attention wanders, we lose our resolve, our energy flags. What then?

Abba Poemen said about Abba Pior, a disciple of St. Anthony the Great and an early desert solitary, that every single day he made a fresh beginning. The famously persistent Abba John Colobos, who in watered a piece of dry wood every day for three years until it sprouted green leaves said, “When you arise at dawn each day, make a fresh start in every virtue, with great patience.” We need, says Abba John, to be patient with ourselves.

In an audience with high school students last year, a young man asked Pope Francis for advice on his struggle to live a life of faith. Walking is an art, the pope told him candidly. It is the art of looking up to see where you are going, to grasp what your destiny is. It is the art of being attentive to the ground you are walking on, so you don’t stumble, and so that you understand the countryside you are walking through, and know the people you are walking with.

But above all, suggested the pope, the art of walking isn’t so much having the skill to stay on your feet as it is the art of getting up again, and again, for we all will fall. Pope Francis ended by saying, “You won’t be afraid of the journey?”

“Be careful about praying for patience,” a friend advises, “lest God give you chances to practice.” Stuck in the mud of Lent’s middle, I’m praying for patience, practicing standing up. Each day a fresh start, I am unafraid of the journey.

To read from Scripture:

The Israelites feel forsaken in the desert, they grumble, but God sends them manna to eat.  Exodus 16:1-15

To pray:

Psalm 130, the De profundis, named for the first two words of the psalm in Latin.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord,
Lord, hear my voice!
O let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleading.

If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt,
Lord, who would survive?
But with you is found forgiveness:
for this we revere you.

My soul is waiting for the Lord.
I count on his word.
My soul is longing for the Lord
more than watchman for daybreak.
Let the watchman count on daybreak
and Israel on the Lord.

Because with the Lord there is mercy
and fullness of redemption,
Israel indeed he will redeem
from all its iniquity.

To listen:

Composer Michel Richard Delalande’s setting of the De profundis opens with a dark baritone solo, then gradually spirals up into an exquisite harmony.


Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, Bryn Mawr.