Prayer beyond words

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.

four-women-in-chapel
Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration Sarah Hennessey, Julia Walsh, Eileen McKenzie and Linda Mershon

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!  

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sarah Hennessey, FSPA

Sister-Sarah-Hennessey-cake-face

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 Chapel tour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.

Praying onward, with more longing

Yesterday, some of my elder FSPA sisters and our prayer partners rang in the celebration of 140 years of perpetual adoration at St. Rose Convent in La Crosse, Wisconsin. They collectively chimed the bell 140 times plus, to mark the beginning of the 141st year of non-stop prayer, once more. This is a sacred anniversary that we celebrate with joy and gratitude. (You can watch the ritual of bell ringing here.)

What is our tradition of perpetual adoration?

Since August 1, 1878, at least two people have kept vigil in front of the Blessed Sacrament exposed, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For most of my congregation’s history, this practice was maintained by us FSPA. Now, over 175 prayer partners help us pray for the needs of the world, including the requests that people send to us.

Here’s a nice picture of Sister Sarah and I praying in our Adoration Chapel. (You’ll have to trust me that those are the back of our heads!)

When I lived and ministered in La Crosse, my adoration hours were the most sacred, grounding part of my routine.

Now that I am “out on mission” and ministering hours away from the Adoration Chapel, the rhythms of this prayer happening in the background of my community life remains a grounding force that enlivens my service and motivates me to be bread unto others. Praying in our chapel when I am home in La Crosse is a touchstone for me, a sacred communion that helps me steadily respond to God’s constant invitation to love.

I like this infographic that summarizes our tradition, even though it’s a bit outdated. (Last year, we prayed for over 30,000 intentions from all over the world!)

prayer infographic

What do we do during our adoration hours?

Well, we pray! In all sorts of ways. Some of us pray rosaries, some read the Bible or pray the Divine Office.

We start and end every hour with a particular prayer:

O Sacrament Most Holy,

O Sacrament Divine,

All Praise and All Thanksgiving 

Be Every Moment Thine.

Eucharistic Heart of Jesus,

Furnace of Divine Love,

Grant Peace to the World.

This prayer is then followed by the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi before the adorers enter into silent prayer side-by-side.

There are prayer books at each kneeler in the chapel that many of spend time with, including prayers that are written particularly for adoration. We pray with the list of intentions near the altar, compiled and organized by Sister Sarah, who is our perpetual adoration coordinator. We meditate and listen to God and enjoy his holy presence.

Sister Sarah has created several excellent videos about prayer, and adoration in particular. The series, called “Adoration Talk,” does a great job of explaining our practices and teaching the tradition.

Here’s a sample, a video that outlines and explains what we mean by adoration.

One of the things that Sister Sarah says in the video is that “in adoration, we become both very intimate with the mysterious presence of God and, at the same time, we are longing for more.”

Prayer is an energy of longing. We pray because we long for peace, for healing, for miracles. We pray because we are filled with an energy of hope — with belief that Christ’s resurrection continues to transform all of creation. We long to be closer to God, and we long to be healthier and holier humans who reflect God’s light and love in our actions and being. We long to transform, into better parts, images of the Body of Christ for today’s hurting world.

And so, at the start of the 141st year, the vigil of perpetual adoration continues onward. 24/7, hour after hour, we will cycle through the chapel. We will kneel and bow. We will pray and listen.

As we do, we give God all the longing in our hearts and open up to be transformed.

around the world, being different

Several years ago I was very blessed to have the opportunity to do some traveling in South Africa.  I traveled in a way that was probably not atypical for other world travelers in their early 20s.  I met people who were interested in exploring the same places and seeing the same sites and then we would join together and share the expenses.

One day, for example, another American student and I rented a car with two other young women from the UK.  We drove from Cape Town to the Cape Point National Park and encountered some of the most strikingly beautiful scenery that I have ever seen in my life.

Cape Point
Cape Point

One of my most vivid memories from the day was a moment I had with one of these strangers from the UK.  We were walking down the path and sharing a bit about who we were.  She told me that she was a Christian, and I surprised myself by saying “I thought so! I could tell!” And she said “I can tell you are one too!” Together we marveled at how we could tell.  We realized we could only guess. Perhaps it was the presence of the Holy Spirit, perhaps it was our attitudes, perhaps we were who we hoped to be and we were greeting others with the warmth and unconditional love of Christ, perhaps we were radically counter-cultural like the Gospel compelled us to be.

What we also realized is that one of the other women who was traveling with us also proclaimed to be a Christian even though she wasn’t really much different from anybody else.  Her obsessions and attitudes didn’t demonstrate that she was in love with the Gospel and Jesus.  She didn’t seem to be living a counter-cultural life in any sort of way; she just seemed like a regular person. And, as far as recognizing another Christian by some sort of feeling, we weren’t really sure if she would get what we were talking about.  Certainly it wasn’t our job to judge her faith, but we were probably making that mistake.

Faith, after all, is a struggle for most people in our incredibly complex and secular world.

Not too long ago, as you probably know, I was blessed to have another international travel experience. At the World Youth Day in Madrid, Spain, I was crammed into crowds of literally a million young Christians from around the world.  These youth were much more attached to the specific Christian classification of Catholicism.  No matter the flavor of faith, though, for Christians we’re all rooted in the Love of Jesus and good news of the Gospel.  And, what happens in our hearts and prayer should compel us to act, look and live differently from what is common.

At the end of the World Youth Day experience, two million people gathered in a old airfield for an evening of prayer.  We hiked there in the boiling heat on Saturday, set up our camps, and tried to stay hydrated and cool (which seemed practically impossible, considering how hot it was).

When I went in search of water that afternoon, I had an interesting observation.  A million teens and young adults, no matter how they kneel in prayer or study the Catechism, are still a million teens and young adults.  The same temptations hover over good intentions as they would in any other huge crowd of young people.  Then, when people are thirsty and there are language barriers and other frustrations, a spirit of compassion, kindness and helpfulness may not be natural.  In fact, when things are really tough, people naturally look out for themselves, it seems.  In one situation, for example, I had to remind some teenagers to allow an elderly man to get a drink of water.

I realized I had to set aside my idealism for a bit and just pray that everyone would fall in love with Jesus and the Gospel and be the people God made them to be.  Is that what it takes for Christians to really be different?  Is that what it takes for kindness and concern for others to be our directive?

Despite heat-induced mistakes, the young people still blew me away.  Upon my return to the  United States I’ve been asked what my favorite part of the trip was.  After we survived heat, crushing crowds, and a fierce storm together we shared a moment of extreme reverence.  Imagine two-million people kneeling on the ground in silent adoration before the Blessed Sacrament and the power, energy, and awe vibrating into the earth. Imagine the peace that moved around the world because of that prayer.  Imagine the blessing! That was my favorite moment of the trip.

During that profound moment I learned a great lesson.  In addition to kindness and our counter-culturally living, praying makes us different, too.