During my first visit to a foreign land there was an earthquake, but I was unaware of it until after the fact.
I was an exchange student, staying with a host family in Mexico City. Within the first few days that I was there adjusting to everything — change of language, culture, climate, lifestyle and landscape — the conversation at a family dinner turned to the event. I was asked if I had felt the tremors, if I had noticed the earth move. Only when prompted was I able to recall that I had felt something. Oh yeah, I admitted, but I assumed the ground was shaking from a jackhammer at the nearby construction site, I said. The earthquake was small, and nothing around me was familiar. I wasn’t surprised I that I didn’t notice the earthquake.
I’ve been in religious life for over 14 years now. It’s barely a scratch in the mystery of time. Compared to decades of love and service offered by my elders in community, who have lived vowed life for 50 or more years, I am a beginner. Yet, I am adjusted to the culture. I am familiar with the landscape. I am noticing the earthquakes.
On Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, I sat in front at my laptop in Chicago. Along with other members of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, I watched as our community president, Sr. Eileen McKenzie, stood at a podium in our dining room inside our motherhouse in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and read an announcement. Familiar sisters were at dining room tables in the room with Sister Eileen, listening in, and several of us joined the meeting virtually. Through the window near me, heavy fog encircled the bare trees.
Through my headphones, I heard Sister Eileen tell us that our 141-year-old shared practice of round-the-clock adoration was about to drastically change… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
I am struggling with my mental health and, almost before it begins, I am having a particularly hard day. Sitting in my chair, trying to get started, I call my counselor for help. I tell him, “All I have on my schedule today is an appointment with my psychiatrist. That’s all I have the energy for. Can I do that and nothing else? Can I skip eating?” He replied, “You have to eat. It could be just cheese and crackers or a peanut butter sandwich, but you have to eat something.”
So that’s what I did that day. I went to my appointment and I ate a simple bowl of ramen. I was practicing self-care in the best way I could.
On my spiritual path, through depression, anxiety, and self-harming thoughts, I sat in the darkness for a long time. And I discovered the God Who Stays. I didn’t know where I was going when I found this God who just stayed with me in the darkness. I also gained comfort from Psalm 139:
Where can I go from your spirit?
From your presence, where can I flee?
If I ascend to the heavens, you are there;
if I lie down in Sheol, there you are.
If I say, “Surely darkness shall hide me,
and night shall be my light”—
Darkness is not dark for you,
and night shines as the day.
Darkness and light are but one.
If I am having a good day, God is here. If I am unable to get out of the chair, if I want to drop off the ends of the earth, God is here. I love how brilliant this psalmist is! I can’t see through the darkness around me, but God can. God sees me! God knows me always.
Gradually, as I came to a little more light and love in my life, I began to discover the God Who Heals. This is an active, moving God who groans when I groan and who breathes life into my broken bones. Paul says in Romans 8:22, “We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now.” The God Who Heals knows my pain intimately, but she also knows light and helps me reach toward it.
This memory is a good example of the God Who Heals. I am journaling and working on my low self-esteem. I know that I hate myself and I want that to change. So I write down one small step that I can take to improve it. I decide I am going to make a commitment to brushing my teeth twice a day. This seems like a basic self-care that I don’t always practice. When I tell a friend of my commitment, she asks me why I chose that action. I say, “Because I don’t want to be so gross and I want to be cleaner for others,” to which she replies, “Oh, I thought it was because you are treating yourself as precious.” Whoa! I never thought of that reason, but yes, I am treating myself as precious.
The God Who Heals is the one who is with me as I slowly try to care for myself. He helps me to see myself as precious and is patient when I am incapable.
Now that I am in a steady place of recovery and have more joy in my life, I am becoming acquainted with the God Who Loves. I feel that love as I face a new challenge, as I reach out to a friend in need, and as I walk in nature. The God Who Loves helps me to see myself with gentle eyes and to hold compassion for the world around me.
Recently, I took a survey about myself that measured both my creative and reactive leadership characteristics. I then passed the survey on to 15 people with whom I have worked in a variety of capacities for their input. When I received the results, the data was reported as a graph. There was a clear pattern. For many of my creative abilities, I gave myself a low rating. Everyone else rated me much higher. The measurements for my reactive tendencies were the opposite. Negative traits were also assessed: I rated myself quite high while the others gave me a much lower score. It was a stunning picture in black and white of how my self-view varies from how other people see me. The facilitator who explained the results to me said that this was a quite common pattern, especially for women religious.
The God Who Loves sees me and knows me as I am. So do the God Who Stays and the God Who Heals. All of these images of God have been growing with me as I grow. God meets me exactly where I am and helps me to become more fully myself. As my spiritual path continues, all of these images stay with me and shape me. I am so curious.
Sarah Hennessy is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for her Franciscan community, poetry, singing, and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as a spiritual director at Franciscan Spirituality Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and is a Franciscan Hospitality House volunteer.
Years ago, at a family gathering with cousins and aunts and uncles rubbing shoulders and shaking hands, I uttered words for which I was shamed and even scolded.
We were in the hills of Iowa at my uncle’s pig farm. He was the eldest uncle. His children were at least a decade older than me, if not two. The toys that lingered in the farmhouse from their youth were minimal and seemed outdated. Although I loved my cousins, they had nothing new to offer me either.
“Mom, I’m bored!!!” I whined loudly, as if my pronouncement meant that everyone ought to resolve my discomfort.
My mother said nothing. Instead, she nodded and returned her attention to the nearby adults. Likely used to my outbursts, she knew when it was appropriate to correct my behaviors, when a response was necessary.
An aunt who didn’t know me as well chimed in. She was the wife of my uncle, the pig farmer. “No one is allowed be bored here! There is always something to do!” The tone of her voice and the scowl on her face told me that I had committed a mortal sin for allowing myself to become bored, and, even worse, to complain about it.
Ever since, I have struggled to hush her judgement.
My calendar has been crammed with all sorts of activity lately, all of it great. Yet, the buzz of service has me feeling spent. My mind and soul feel clogged by distraction and jumbled by excessive input. Although what I am going through has cramped my contemplative and creative style, I suspect that the pace I’ve been keeping lately is much more like the one most Americans maintain. It’s an accidental act of solidarity for me–a Franciscan sister with the privilege of poverty and prayer–to enter into the frenzy of noise and commotion that defines modern life for so many.
And, in this visit to the place of a-lot-is-going-on and every-screen-and-electronic-device-is-adding-noise, I have discovered that the spirit is inviting me into the sacred space of boredom, a place that my aunt shunned and I was taught to fear in my youth.
In his essay, James K.A. Smith, “In Praise of Boredom,” (Image Journal, Issue 99) writes. “In a world of incessant distraction, the way out might look like learning how to be bored. A little ennui could go a long way; it could be the wardrobe we need now. We need to learn how to be bored in order to wean ourselves off distraction and open ourselves to others and the Other—to make ourselves available for irruptions of grace.”
I agree. Boredom is beautiful. It’s a grace to enter into the sacred spaces where we not sure how to be with ourselves or what to do. The opportunity of being uncomfortable in the moment and of feeling lost in open space, allows a chance to listen deeper than the complications and distractions offered by our screens and devices and the repeated human habit of seeking pleasure and comfort. Instead, in the cracks and pauses, we can become open to the Spirit stirring in our hearts and minds. We can lean in to the loving presence of God. I have come to believe that boredom is actually essential to healthy spiritual living.
A few years ago, I packed up my high school classroom and moved to the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Here, I’ve been on staff at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center and savoring the quiet and beauty of the Northwoods, while helping to offer retreats, programs, and good hospitality. Before I arrived, I heard a repeated concern that I would be “bored” in the woods, that it could be too tough for me. It’s laughable now, of course, because my life here has been anything but boring, but I can understand how city-dwellers might make such an assumption about rural life.
In a few weeks, I will be packing up again, moving back to Chicago to begin an internal FSPA ministry: living alongside our novices as a finally professed sister. And the paradox of the path of my life is that I anticipate that entering into this new phase will actually allow me to be much more bored than living and serving at Marywood. For this boredom, and the graces it could open, I say, “Bring it on!”
I am alone in my bedroom, sitting cross-legged on the floor. I have set my timer, so I know when I must move. But for now, this is all there is. I light the candle nearby, then close my eyes and move my mind — my focus — into the rhythm of my breathing. On the other side of my eyelids I sense the flicker of light, the glow of what is in front of me. I feel the subtle heat emanating from the flame. My body is barely still, yet I try to say yes to the chance to truly “be still and know that God is God” as God encourages me to do. I resituate my hips, straighten my spine. I hold my hands in my lap, and press my palms onto my knees. Slowly, eventually, stillness and silence seem to surround me. A sacred word makes its way into my mind — a word or phrase or traditional prayer, depending on the day.
Breath, light, heat, stillness, silence and words: these are my touchstones as my mind wanders, taking tours of the past or dreaming up the future. Each time a… [This is the beginning of a reflection I wrote for Carl McColman’s blogat Patheos. Continue reading here.]
I am a Franciscan, yet much of Carmelite spirituality resonates with me. Perhaps it’s because I am inspired by the depth of the tradition. Maybe it is because the wisdom offered reads like poetry. Or, it could be because the beautiful images and metaphors feel right to my meandering heart and mind: Flower, Castle and Mystery. Most likely, it is because a devotion to God’s love is also my intention.
Yes, I love Carmelite spirituality just as I love my own Franciscan tradition. Even so, I can admit that I have a lot more to learn. That’s is why I am excited about a new book from Paraclete Press.
From the Foreword to Holy Thirst: Essentials of Carmelite Spirituality (Paraclete Press, 2019). The foreword is written by Adam Bucko.
I can still see the light of the moon reflected on the snow-covered ground outside. It was a quiet winter evening in 1985 when my mother gathered us together— she, my dad, and I—and we knelt down as a family to pray. Martial law, which had been instituted by the totalitarian regime in Poland to destroy the opposition, had just ended, but the images on the news of people in the streets run over by tanks were very present in our memory. As we knelt, we faced a small picture of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and mom held a typed booklet with a shiny red cover that had been produced by an underground association of the faithful. We began to pray the novena.
Our lives were about to drastically change. I had just found out that my father was about to leave for the US, after having been granted permission from the American consulate. My parents had known for a while but were afraid to tell me in case I, with the innocence and eagerness of the small boy that I was, shared it with my classmates. They feared that government officials would show up and confiscate my father’s passport, preventing him from leaving. I understood that now that I knew, I had to keep quiet. Our nightly novena to the Little Flower of Jesus gave me a sense of reassurance during this scary time, that the motherly presence of God would hold us securely, not only now, but in the years to come.
The Poland of my childhood was a place of violence and tragedy, but also hope. When our government was eager to keep us in check by any means necessary, we decided to live our lives with our invisible—but all too real—holy friends, who strengthened our resolve not to…
[Read more from the Foreword of Holy Thirst: Essentials of Carmelite Spirituality (Paraclete Press, 2019) HERE.]
Adam Bucko and Sister Julia have become close friends since they were introduced to each other. Adam is an activist and spiritual director to New York City’s homeless youth. He grew up in Poland during the totalitarian regime, where he explored the anarchist youth movement as a force for social and political change. Adam emigrated to the United States at 17, but his desire to lead a meaningful life sent him to monasteries in the U.S. and India. His life-defining experience took place in India, where a brief encounter with a homeless child led him to the “Ashram of the Poor” where he began his work with homeless youth. Upon returning to the U.S., Adam worked with homeless youth in cities around the country. He co-founded The Reciprocity Foundation, an award-winning nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of New York City’s homeless youth. Adam is currently based at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, where he is helping to launch the Center for Spiritual Imagination.
I was 10 when it happened. I fell in love with silence.
I was looking for my own church. My mom would drop me off at places of worship for different denominations — Catholic, Presbyterian, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. I think I also went to the synagogue. I would attend a service and no one would talk to me or even notice I was there. One day I went to my friend’s Quaker meeting. It was a group of about six-to-eight people that met in the living room of a house. The worship service was purely an hour of silence. If someone felt lead they could speak a simple message, but a meeting that small was mostly filled with a lot of silence. At the end of the meeting, one of the men rose from his seat and started to shake hands. Then everyone shook hands, exchanging a peace, breaking the silence.
And an amazing thing happened. Adults looked me in my eyes. I felt seen. I felt recognized as a spiritual seeker. I found my spiritual home. I stayed and became quite active in the Society of Friends. I served on committees as a teenager and helped to plan a national gathering. I attended Quaker camps, a Quaker boarding school and eventually a Quaker college where I majored in religious studies. All along, I was falling in love with silence and learning to pray beyond words.
Today that continues. Silent contemplative prayer is part of my daily life. As a Catholic and a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, I am now immersed in a prayer form similar to what I discovered when I was 10.
Since August 1, 1878, FSPA has practiced the constant prayer called perpetual adoration. In the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed, we sit in silence and pray beyond words. We adore. We give thanks. We feel our own littleness. We find a peace in our heart that remains with us long after we rise from our seats. We bring that stillness and burning love we find in adoration into our daily lives and all we do.
I have to admit; sometimes I do not want to go to my hour of adoration. Sometimes I am tired or bored. It isn’t always all sweetness and light. But that is okay. That is the practice. I get there. I settle in, and slowly I become still. Every hour is different. It is a relationship. I am spending time with my beloved. Nothing stays the same. Sometimes the hour flies by and I find I have spent the entire 60 minutes in total stillness, have not moved a bit. I might be really involved in praying for others, or start to read a prayer, get caught on a word and the whole world opens up. It is a very intimate living time that changes with each experience. Somehow it never gets old.
Thomas Merton says that “Contemplation knows God by seeming to touch him. Or rather it knows him as if it had been invisibly touched by him … Touched by him who has no hands, but who is pure reality and the source of all that is real! Hence contemplation is a sudden gift of awareness, an awakening to the real within all that is real.”
It is this awakening that I appreciate in those moments of quiet. Here is a video in which I describe seven simple steps to practicing prayer beyond words.
May you be blessed to discover this awakening in your own life!
Sister Sarah Hennessy is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became a Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for the Hispanic community, poetry, singing and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapeltour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.
A little over a week ago, I got to be near the ocean. I didn’t get to see it. I didn’t get to tuck my toe into the salty fluid; I wasn’t able to wade upon the sand and rocks and contemplate the depth beyond the shore.
(I was near the ocean because I traveled to South Carolina for an incredible interfaith retreat, which I will likely write about later. For now, though, I feel compelled to share a meditation about God as ocean.)
I was less than 20 miles from the expansiveness of the ocean, from the habitat for more species than I can ever encounter in my lifetime. I was only 20 miles away, and I didn’t get to feel the force of the waves. I didn’t get to hear the crash of the water upon the solid rock. I didn’t get to see the movement of water or taste the salty breeze. Not even 20 miles away, I didn’t get to encounter the mystery and might of the sea.
(Lament is a sacred sound, for it makes manifest our longing for the bigness that is beyond us. I am a lover of the Incarnation and I pray with my feet, my flesh.)
Although I am Midwesterner and live over 1,000 miles from the ocean, I have encountered its vastness many times before. I was born about 40 miles from the ocean, in Bangor, Maine. I have looked down into the waves from a plane 30,000 feet above the blurry blue. My travels have permitted me to dip my body in both the Pacific and the Indian. I have entered the Atlantic over and over. I have waded into the water from the west and east coasts of North America and the west and east coasts of Africa. I have walked to the tip of Spain, thought to be the end of the world in the Middle Ages. There too, I stared into the sea.
You might say that the ocean and I have been in a relationship for as long as I have been on Earth.
I have understood God as ocean for years, but it has mainly been a metaphor I’ve kept in the quiet of my heart. I really started to think of God this way when I was a new novice with my community and my contemplative life started moving me away from the shallow water and into a depth that was over my head. During those days, I found myself praying God, I want to swim in the deepest parts of your love. I wrote in my prayer journal, God, I want to swim with the creatures that glow in the dark.
On a “hermitage day,” I visited the Shedd Aquarium and sat in a dark room beside panels of thick glass, where I gazed at the beauty of bioluminescent sea creatures. In the quiet and dark, I meditated and prayed. Among the glowing life, I embraced not understanding God’s mystery.
“Artists of the world, may your many different paths all lead to that infinite Ocean of beauty where wonder becomes awe, exhilaration, unspeakable joy.”– St. Pope John Paul II
Apparently I am not the only one who knows God as an Ocean. Evidently others have experienced how many paths of goodness can lead to encounters of beauty, wonder, awe, exhilaration and joy. This, I am learning, is the stuff of saints.
This is what swimming in God’s love does: it opens up waters so deep that we can only rejoice. This is what communion with God’s Spirit is: a love so expansive that we cannot explore all of it in our lifetimes. I am not an oceanographer, but I suspect those who are would say the same about this planet’s great seas.
St. Pope John Paul II’s message is meant for everyone, not just those of us who might claim the title artist. All of us are called to be creative; we are children of God, who is infinite creativity. We all get to washed by this love, transformed by its power.
And, all of us are called to contemplate the goodness of God, to experience its expansive mystery. We are invited to dive to the depth of God’s mystery; this is a universal call to holiness. We all are invited into depths that are over our heads, where we can swim with mysterious creatures. Our discoveries and encounters in the Ocean will change us, awaken us.
I am learning that as we get farther from the shore, we will realize that we have always been swimming. No matter if we are in a land-locked place thousands of miles away from the ocean, the Ocean is where we came from and it is where we always are. The Ocean is our true home.