watercolor illustration of woman sitting in corn field behind mountain underneath rain clouds

Prayer is listening to my heart’s longing

“Well, what do you want? What do you desire?” 

At the start of my final year as a student at a Jesuit University, I felt like a spiritual mess.

I had recently returned from studying abroad for four months in El Salvador through a service-based educational program that effectively upended what I knew about myself and my faith. I was looking for guidance and was sitting in a spiritual direction session with a Jesuit priest.

I spoke about my spiritual confusion in great detail and the priest simply responded, “Well, what do you want? What do you desire?” 

I felt a tightness in my chest. Without saying a word, I looked at the floor, the painting on the wall, the window — anywhere to avoid making eye contact. Before then, no one had ever asked me those questions so directly. I stammered out a response, realizing that I did not know what I wanted, what I desired.

pencil sketch woman sitting in the rain
“Seasons of Sadness,” original artwork by Annemarie Erb Barrett, aebart.com

I was uncomfortable because I did not know the answer to his question, and without that knowledge I did not feel that I had a fundamental basis for an authentic spiritual life.

Years later, once I decided to no longer identify as part of the Roman Catholic Church, I realized that I didn’t know how to define God either.

Uncertain about who God is, I remembered that In the realm of Catholic radicalism, I had come to know God as feminine. Through the lens of Liberation Theology, I was introduced to God as One who identifies with the working class and those who were economically impoverished. Through Franciscan spirituality, I got to know God as alive in our entire ecosystem and among the most marginalized in our society. 

I have thrown out scripts of how I thought prayer ought to be and surrender instead to a felt sense of mystery.

Throughout my spiritual journey, my definition of God evolved according to the contexts and communities that surrounded me.

Yet I was still unsure to whom I should direct my prayers. In discovering that deficit, my prayer life essentially unraveled.

I missed prayer as part of my life. I knew I did not want to discard it altogether. So, along with my image of God, the meaning of prayer and its practices changed for me too.

The questions posed to me in that spiritual direction session from nearly a decade earlier resurfaced.

“What do I really want? What do I desire?”

Not as a self indulgent inquiry, but one of greater awareness. Not as an individualistic experiment, but as a move towards greater spiritual alignment and connection.

Now I set aside the intellectual definitions and the stacks of theology books that accompanied me for years. Instead, I sit in silence. In moving beyond my once highly-intellectualized faith life, I now experience my prayer life renewed in the practice of contemplation.

pencil sketch of woman sitting in the rain behind mountains in a farm field in prayer
“Seasons of Sadness,” original artwork by Annemarie Erb Barrett, aebart.com

As Richard Rohr, a Franciscan spiritual teacher who founded of the Center for Action and Contemplation, explains, “Contemplation is the practice of being fully present — in heart, mind, and body — to what is in a way that allows you to creatively respond and work toward what could be.”

Rohr also says that “Mature spirituality offers ‘not consolation but devastation, not entrenchment but emptiness, not complacency but explosion, not comfort but revolution.’ Rather than bolster our habitual patterns of thinking, it radically transforms our consciousness.”

Interested in developing a more mature spirituality, I have decided to make contemplation a daily priority.

After putting my toddler to sleep, in the darkness of my bedroom, I now unplug from distractions of modern living and commit time to contemplative prayer. I have thrown out scripts of how I thought prayer ought to be and surrender instead to a felt sense of mystery.

In the stillness of laying down and putting aside my long to-do list, I find solace in a daily practice of pausing. I have no agenda and instead hold space for complexity.

In the silence, beyond the realm of the intellect, I am finally learning to listen to the longing in my heart.


annemarie barrett

Annemarie Barrett grew up in Minnesota, becoming a dual citizen of the United States and Bolivia after moving, originally as a Franciscan lay missioner, to the South American country in 2013. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and solidarity. She is also learning everyday from the experience of growing up in Western, capitalist culture in the U.S. and becoming an adult in the much more communal culture of the Andean region of Bolivia. Today she lives with her partner and young daughter and works as a watercolor artist, selling prints of her original art online under the name AEB Art.

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