A lifelong friend and I are at the mouth of the cave, about to embark on a guided tour with a naturalist. Along with people we never met before, we’re entering Mystery Cave near Preston, Minnesota.
Before this moment several years ago, we had studied the history and geological displays in the nearby welcome center. I was in awe when I discovered the cave expanded for miles, stretching underneath farm fields through the limestone landscape. Without the signs, maps and indicators elsewhere, I never would have known about the expansiveness hidden away beneath the surface of Earth.
It is the same with humans: Much of what is hidden below the surface is often unknown, unmarked.
I am not surprised to feel the chill of dampness upon my skin once we cross the threshold, as we make our way forward into the dark. What I am surprised by, however, is how the space feels like a cathedral. A sanctuary. The giant stalagmites and stalactites seem like the pillars ascending and descending I’d find in church.
I want to fall to my knees, to reverence what feels holy, real. I am amused that… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
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 The toys that lingered in the farmhouse from their youth were minimal and seemed outdated.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.]
In the stretch of some days, we switched over from Resurrection joy and fiery feasts to ordinary time. (At least, according to the Church calendar that guides my contemplation.)
Holiness, light goodness, hope, love, transformation: all these energies are offered to us on this side of linear thinking and time. Yet, the God we know and love is bigger than the limits of our human understanding. This love invites us into a mystery that remakes us each moment, through each breath.
The Psalm (104) says: When you send forth your Spirit, they are created and you renew the face of the Earth.
The Spirit is being sent upon us constantly. Over and over we are created. Again and again, the face of the earth is renewed. The nature of the Spirit doing all of this is fire, wind and the flight of doves. It’s forceful, fierce, and moving. Not still and rarely subtle.
Yet, we are stalled by our lack of faith; by our fear of the Spirit’s fire and force, it seems.
Our faith in God’s power is corroded and corrupted by the world’s lies, by matters that are unGospel: security, strength and an obsession to protect our things. This is the trouble I encountered in a quick conversation with a man before worship on Sunday. As I aimed to prepare my heart for Pentecost Mass, I heard a suggestion that I ought to carry a weapon when I go to the margins of society, into the corners where street violence is a regular thing.
Such suggestions are due to the stalling to truly change our ways and steward the sacred gift of life and Earth we’ve been given — as named by the prophetic and powerful voice found in Greta Thunberg.
If we truly allowed the Spirit to change us — to create us — we would be burned by the fire, I believe. We would wear the scars of our transformation, just as the Risen Jesus and Body of Christ bears the scars of our salvation. Our flesh wounds would influence how we carry our bodies around each day. Feeling the impact of our faith in the Spirit’s power would mean we’d really believe in the Gospel:
“Lay down your life.” (John 15:13)
“Put down the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)
“Love your enemies …” (Luke 6:27-36)
“Take nothing …” (Luke 9:3)
“Whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39)
For as Jesus said, “I have come to set the world on fire, and how I wish it were already burning.” (Luke 12:49).
I am convinced, dear friends, that in these evolving (and yet ordinary) times we must trust and pray and have strong faith in the Spirit — with the possibility alive that good faith is the stuff of orthopraxy, not so much orthodoxy. For like the Spirit, our faith is shown through movement and bold acts.
If we are totally alive in the Fire, we will be formed by a type of freedom that makes us wild and brave. We’ll be weapon-free peacemakers fiercely giving our lives and acting boldly as instruments of true hope.
Let us do this, Church! Let’s act as instruments of the Fire, for as Greta Thunberg has said, it is through our actions that change is made: “The one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.” Amen!
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.
Psalm 80 is often read in churches all over the world during the Advent season. Throughout this psalm of yearning we pray, “restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”
I live in a neighborhood that shares rhythms of prayer each day. We are a community of persons with all sorts of abilities, limitations and gifts, attempting to welcome one another into the reality of God’s presence with us, here and now. We seek to proclaim this reality through our daily lives of mutual care and friendship among persons with and without developmental disabilities.
Recently, after we read Psalm 80 as part of our morning prayer, one of our wise sisters, Amy Lynn, offered this plea:
“Jesus I want you to see me. I want to see you. I want to see your face. I want you to come close to me and hug me. I want to see you all around me. I want to see you in the people walking around; people I know and people I don’t know. I want to see you and I want you to be close to me.”
I sprinted home to jot down this longing for a holy vision of the world because I surely didn’t want to forget it. We were led by a tender prayer of yearning from one seeking to see and be seen by God: a picture of Advent.
Over the last several years, I have gradually learned to see prayer as an encounter of discovery. In his book “Into the Silent Land,” Martin Laird offers a framework for the spiritual life by distinguishing between discovery and acquisition.
Much of my life, I have been formed to imagine basically everything as an opportunity for achievement – a chance to prove, to compete, to gain something. But in the gift of prayer, we are invited into a different way. We are invited into a discovery of what is real and true and beautiful through no merit of our own. In the gift of prayer we are invited to discover a new vision of the world; God’s vision.
God alone is the Holy One, abundant in mercy and loving-kindness. We are at union with God in Jesus, and we are the beloved of God in Jesus. This is a reality we cannot acquire on our own. It is a gift in which we participate through discovery in the Holy Spirit.
And discovery has a pacing to it. I certainly know the pacing of acquisition. There is a necessary speed inherent in reaching for self-promotion or organizing my schedule based on efficiency. This pacing is often frenetic and hasty in its certainty that there are better things to do (or, at least, other things to do right when this thing is finished). The pacing of achievement is pretty fast. This pacing, though, can be destructive; steamrolling organizations or people or ways of life that can’t keep up. The pacing of achievement can creep into the our spiritual life, bolstering the illusion that practices of prayer are meant to merit something not already there. This pacing can even diminish our capacity to rightly see and encounter Jesus coming to us in the form of the one who is vulnerable and in need of care. But the pacing of discovery is a bit different. Thank goodness I am surrounded by friends and neighbors who remind me to receive time as a gift and to release my tight grip on the idol of busyness.
But discovery takes time.
In Advent, we receive the gift of time as we wait and prepare and learn to eagerly anticipate the coming of our Lord. One of the reasons I appreciate celebrating Advent each year is that it is a season of discovery. In Advent, we wait anew for the coming of Jesus – the same coming we celebrated last year and the year before. Yet each year, we are invited to enter Advent with an openness to being changed by new beauty.
In Advent we unearth our own little obstacles to the transformation of the coming of our Lord who reigns over all the earth. In Advent we excavate our true identities as participants in the very life of God through the birth of this little one – baby Jesus. And yet, Advent isn’t Christmas … so we wait and we sit and we still ourselves and we receive time for silence in order to receive and respond to the one true word of God, Jesus Christ.
Amen, there is a pacing at the heart of Advent. In this, the first season of the church calendar, we are reminded to slow down. This slowing down allows us to remember Christ’s first coming as a baby in Bethlehem, Christ’s final and ultimate coming in all glory in the redemption of the world, and Christ’s coming in each moment of our lives here and now through the Holy Spirit. In Advent, we are beckoned to hesitate in front of God in prayer and in front of one another in our relationships. Hesitation makes room for us to wonder at the presence of God in the other and to anticipate in openness the coming of our Lord in unexpected ways. How often does our quick pace cultivate patterns of enclosing ourselves in inattention to God’s presence around us? How often does our haste enclose us in predetermined formulas for God’s activity in our life?
When Psalm 80 framed Amy’s prayer, it was laced with longing. This Advent, may we cultivate a longing for God’s coming. May we gain a vision to see all the tiny ways God comes to us each day.
May the Holy Spirit lead us into a humble openness to discovering and participating in the Word made flesh – Emmanuel … God is with us. May we receive the time to hesitate in front of one another and to kindle desire for God as we echo the prayer of our dear friend, Amy Lynn … Jesus, we want to see you, we want to see your face, we want you to come close and hug us. Amen.
ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER
Greg Little is a husband to Janice and father to JoyAna, and he has a home at Corner House in Durham, North Carolina. He has learned from various schools, including several Christian communities seeking justice and peace (a Catholic Worker home inspired by St. Francis, Durham’s Friendship House, and Haiti’s Wings of Hope), and is committed to a life ordered by daily communal prayer and littleness. He works at Reality Ministries, a place proclaiming that we all belong to God in Jesus through fostering friendship among people with and without developmental disabilities. Greg and Sister Julia recently met in the wonder of an interfaith dialogue about monasticism and the contemplative life at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.
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.
The trees: companions in my neighborhood, definers of the landscape, manifestations of God’s goodness, creativity, and strength. Towering oaks, maples, aspens, birch, all tucked between the pines. These wide-reaching wonders now expose their bark, limbs and brownish cores. Orange-tan leaves that once defined them, now cover the ground and create a crunch underfoot.
It’s a stripping.
And, a great modeling of love.
Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.
Michael Krueger first met Sister Julia in La Crosse, Wisconsin, as an undergraduate student at Viterbo University and dishwasher at St. Rose Convent. She was the only sister who didn’t leave a generous tip. (All joking aside, the one and only tip he actually received was the priceless call to FSPA affiliation in 2009). He credits that “top-notch Franciscan education” for putting him on a path to La Crosse’s Place of Grace Catholic Worker House (where he lived for two-and-a-half years), SOA peace vigils, work with developmentally disabled adults (inspired by Jean Vanier and L’Arche), commitment to social justice and a chance dinner with Roy Bourgeois. He currently lives near Madison with his wife and young daughter, and recently joined efforts to begin a Catholic Worker community there.
By day, guest blogger K.P.—a good friend of Sister Julia’s—reads, writes, and has conversations about literature for a living. By night, she devours theology, sits silently with God, and pursues her calling as a lay order Franciscan through affiliation with FSPA. Each month she will share a favorite selection from her “Franciscan Bookshelf.”
For 25 years, Verena Schiller spent a life cultivated from quiet at the edge of the world. She lived alone in a weather-beaten shed on the precipitous edge of Llŷn Peninsula in Wales, battling both the elements and overpowering roar of her own silence. A member of the Anglican Community of the Holy Name and a consecrated sister, she shares her story in A Simplified Life, a book that rewards its reader for the slow turning of every page with a deeply felt sense of the holy struggle of solitude.
In prose that is as difficult and as raw as her salt-grimed cove, Schiller nudges her reader towards gentle insights about the interconnectedness of our inner and outer landscapes. The book winds together three complementary narratives: the rich spiritual history of the peninsula itself, overlooking Bardsey Island; the natural history of Schiller’s new habitat; her discovery of companion plants, animals, and tides; and the personal history of her journey from consecrated sister to solitary hermit. For readers interested in the ecological obligations of the Christian, the possibilities of practiced silence, or the structure of a life that is voluntarily secluded and driven by prayer and survival, Schiller’s story will be achingly beautiful, meditative in its rhythms and depths.
Two words that have drawn me, slowly but surely, onto my Franciscan path are the following—simplicity and solitude—and Schiller delivers a thought-provoking account of both. Silence … what a bonus that would be! But sadly, I think even at the edge of the world, I’d be pouring forth in conversation with the wildflowers, the gulls and the seaweed—as Schiller occasionally finds herself doing, actually.
This is not a journey white-washed for those (like me) who occasionally luxuriate in the idea of becoming a hermit: Schiller’s story makes clear that this is a life of struggle, but also of incredible purpose and beauty. I left these pages feeling extremely grateful for the sacrifice of these sisters and brothers whose quiet prayers animate the abandoned corners of our world.