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.

Nourishing community with good food: An instrument of mercy

“When you eat a meal, thank the farmer who harvested it and think about their livelihood. Food is something that connects all of us as a community, wherever we live.” Oxfam Fact Sheet

This statement is from a farmer and my sister, Ellen Walsh-Rosmann. It helps me remember that something as basic as eating food and sharing it with community influences how I contribute to the reign of God.

I am from a food family. I grew up in a rural, agricultural, Christian community that taught me to understand that caring for Earth and neighbor is an issue of social justice. Our neighbor is the land as are all creatures large and small that also claim the land as home. As a child I would help…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Cabbage in the FSPA organic garden. (Photo by Jane Comeau)
Cabbage in the FSPA organic garden. (Photo by Jane Comeau)

Hearts on fire for the good of all

Soon after I decided to ask to make my perpetual vows and was approved to do so, I became a bit obsessed with fire.

It’s not a dangerous obsession or anything, it’s more that I am paying attention to all the ways that fire images and metaphors are incorporated into our culture and faith. I quickly became fascinated by what I was noticing and how often I heard popular song lyrics and ordinary conversation casually incorporate words like “fire,” “burn,” “spark” or “enflame.”

It got me thinking about all the different ways we use the idea of fire – like in St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of Creation, where he offers praises to God for “Brother Fire,” for being so bright and lively. I saw a print once that showed…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

“Hearts on Fire” was painted by Peter Neel (my brother-in-law) especially for the occasion of my Perpetual Vows. Peter’s art can be found online at www.saatchiart.com/peterneel and www.zazzle.com/peter_neel
“Hearts on Fire” was painted by Peter Neel (my brother-in-law) especially for the occasion of my Perpetual Vows. Peter’s art can be found online at http://www.saatchiart.com/peterneel and http://www.zazzle.com/peter_neel

God likes hearing from us

At the start of each school year I have my students fill out a survey in order to get to know them quickly.  It’s a long survey with all sorts of questions about their families, what they like to do for fun, their favorites, and, most importantly, their faith. I’ve done this for at least five years, and the results are always interesting. Plus, it really helps me know my audience.

This year something in one student’s response stood out. The student admitted to believing in God. But then, in the section where they check the prayer types they do, there was a hand-written statement: “I’ve never really prayed before.”

I was fascinated. I don’t want to single out the student and cause embarrassment, so I have not asked any follow-up questions. They seem prayerful during our class prayer time now, so I’m hoping they’ve prayed some now!

Here’s the deal. We may over-complicate a lot of things, but prayer doesn’t have to be complicated or long.  God just loves hearing from us. And, it’s really good for us. Here’s a video about a sister in my community and her zesty prayer life. I love what one of the other sisters says in the video about not knowing how many times a day she prays; that’s totally true for me, too.

Prayer is powerful. And, it’s effective. This blog post summarizes some of what I was thinking, about God hearing our prayers for peace for Syria. We have to keep praying. God always hears us and responds. Although we might not like the response, we can keep in mind that it is God, who sees the big picture and is a Great Parent, can make the best judgment about how to take care of us.

If you don’t know how to pray, here’s a tip:  Start simple. Tell God hello. Say thank you. Acknowledge something beautiful. No matter what you say or how you say it, God will be delighted to hear from you.  And, remember that God is always with you and loves you very much!!

The saint and the sisters of St. Rose

Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration Affiliate Emily Dawson works at St. Rose Convent in vocation ministry. She was asked to write about the correlation between St. Rose of Viterbo, the patron saint of the FSPA (whose feast day is today), and life in the convent.

When I asked a FSPA in the know about St. Rose of Viterbo and how the saint relates to life in St. Rose Convent, she gave me one of those deep, quizzical looks that made me question every ounce of my education. Then, after sharing a brief historical synopsis; the knowledge that the patron saint was bestowed (not necessarily chosen); and the promise of literature in an email, she sarcastically wished me luck with making this connection and bid me on my way.

Oh, now it’s on. Now it’s more than just historical reflection. This is a battle of the minds, people, and I am no theologian (so please be kind).

It turns out that St. Rose wasn’t a theologian either. Well, how could she be? She was 17 during her mid-12th century heyday and a woman to boot. There was very little text meant for her. Yet, she was dangerous.

Real life image of Rose of Viterbo
Contributed by FSPA

And, might I add, seemingly crazy. I actually mean no disrespect. Crazy is a subjective term we give to things we don’t understand. And St. Rose was so mystical, so obstinate and so progressive that people didn’t quite know what to do with her. So, they stuck around to watch.

Her danger came in her ability to organize people—but not the right people. She organized women publicly (!!!). She taught others the road to salvation: something heavily debated at that time (with little theological background) which made those scholars nervous. She taught from the heart and had this intense passion for God that had to be shared with others.

Despite threats to her family, their eventual exile, the cold they embraced living in the snow and her unexpected death, St. Rose’s short life and ministry—while not entirely documented (due to a fire that destroyed several documents)—made enough of an impact to live on for centuries. Her body did too, apparently (blech!).

Rose of Viterbo window2-LZ-crop
Photo by FSPA

But no, I don’t know how there would be any similarities between Rose–an obstinate, progressive, mystical young woman; and the FSPA of St. Rose Convent–a group of (lovingly) obstinate, progressive, mystically minded, lovable wave makers. These women are theologically grounded yet continue to reach out to teach the way of salvation to God’s people—all because of this deep-seated passion for God. Nope. No idea.

I guess all that’s left is to embrace my little rebel St. Rose inside and defy defeat. Happy Saint Rose Feast Day everyone!

Note: In my first paragraph, I’m being facetious about my “FSPA in the know,” Sister Jean. She’s a fabulously sassy Sister whom I very much admire. Thank you, Sister Jean, for your insight into St. Rose!

still in God’s presence

Today marks 134 years of Perpetual Adoration in my community’s chapel.

I am honored and amazed that I have had a small part in upholding this sacred tradition.  In the past year, I was also thrilled to play a role in the development of this book:

I will never understand how Christ is present in the Eucharist. I don’t really want to understand. Mystery and wonder seem to increase my faith, somehow.

What I know, though, is that Christ is present.  I experience a hushing presence of God in our adoration chapel that causes me to be still and pray.  It’s awesome and powerful.

I love God. And, I love the opportunity that adoration provides to uphold the ancient God-given order:

Be still and know that I am God!

I am exalted among the nations,

exalted on the earth.   Psalm 46:11

Thanks and Glory be to God! Amen! Amen!

coming home

Guest blogger: Sister Sarah Hennessey

Family life is messy.  If you are part of a family you probably know what I mean.  To be church is to be family.  To me this means that we are more than some institution or club to belong to; as family we belong to each other.  Our lives weave in and out of each other through birth and death, joy and sorrow, sudden tragedy and daily victories. 

I recently celebrated my perpetual profession as a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration.  My Franciscan sisters were joined by family and friends from across the country to celebrate a mass I had been planning in my head for years!  Secretly, I had been afraid that if my crazy quilt of a family and my FSPA community and my parish came together in one place that world war three would break out or at least a minor explosion. But instead it was an explosion of joy. 

My five year old niece carried flowers down the aisle with me as I carried a precious lard light.  My home priest presided in joy and song.  Friends sang a psalm I had composed.  I professed vows to the leadership team, received my blessed ring, and signed the official papers.  We processed out smiling and clapping to “This Little Light of Mine.”

To me the day was a homecoming.  As Sister Eileen McKenzie said in her reflection, in Jesus and my FSPA sisters I have found my home.  Home as you know is a complex place.  The people we love the most are often the people we hurt the most.  And as we come to forgive each other we love each other more. 

Henri Nouwen comments on this characteristic of home when he says:

                Community is characterized by two things: one is forgiveness, the other is celebration.   Forgiveness means that I am continually willing to forgive the other person for not being God- for not fulfilling all my needs…

                The interesting thing is that when you can forgive people for not being God, then you can celebrate that they are a reflection of God.  You can say, “Since you are not God, I love you because you have such beautiful gifts of his love.”

We celebrate the gifts of God in one another, while continually forgiving each other for not being divine and omnipotent.  My family, my true home, is this circle I know of the People of God.  It includes my birth parents and siblings, ninety-six year old nuns, and fourteen year old parishioners.  My family holds a place for the immigrant and the resident, children and prisoners, the suicidal and addicted.  Whatever label sticks to some part of our life, we are all children of God.  Day by day we learn to forgive and celebrate and forgive again.

Santa Chiara praying

This is a poem I wrote and published here last year, on the feast of St. Clare:

pregnant with poverty

she stands up boldly

holding Truth

with “always” piercing her lips

the pure Truth-Light

shields and embraces

her back

covered with brown like earth

she beckons

community to

the table

breaking open Bread

of union

and dialogue with difference

the lesson she teaches

challenges and encourages

us today

we can still seek

to understand

the power

the privilege of poverty

— S. Julia Walsh, FSPA 8/11/10

Have a blessed feast day everyone!!

“Done Made My Vows to the Lord”

Guest blogger, Sister Sarah Hennessey

Sister Thea Bowman sings the old spiritual song.  My vows have already been made to the Lord.  When I was around 12 I first began to really experience God.  That led me to become an active Quaker and to seek God through silence and service.  Somewhere along the way I had a distinct moment when I knew I had fallen in love with Christ and then when I knew I had fallen in love with the People of God.  Both have been essential to my journey.

Quakerism has been described as a religion which is communal mysticism.  Community is essential and I found my love for community soon shaping my choices.  From a Quaker college, to a year as a lay volunteer with Catholic sisters, to teaching at a Quaker boarding school I lived in small groups, prayed together, and sought God through communal means.  My love of Hispanic culture led me to Mexico, from there to the Franciscans and then into the Catholic church, which I experienced as a wider and more diverse community.

Sister Sarah at Mexican Orphanage
Mexican Orphanage with Sister Joyce Blum (I am on the left)

Fishbowl Not Pedestal
At times I feel that formation has turned me inside out and then left me in my confusion to put myself back together again.  Now I look at it differently.  Incorporation demands conversion, but I am not alone.  My sisters are with me, at varying levels of intimacy and personal skill, to both challenge and support me.

Sisters Deb, Corrina, Joanne and Sarah
Together with Sisters Deb, Corrina and Joanne

I entered my Franciscan community after only being a Catholic for two years.  I struggled with the title of “sister,” the public notice and appreciation, and centuries of baggage that were all new to me.  A distinction during novitiate helped me name how I felt about becoming “a religious.”  Being on a pedestal is not helpful to me or to anyone else and some of this relational model still hangs over from our past.  However, I am called to be in a fishbowl.  I have made public vows to Christ and the church and people should be able to look at me and see that I am at least trying to live how I say I do.

Fear and Awe
I feel a prior claim to religious life.  I also believe that this commitment is my free choice.  I am coming home to Jesus, the People of God, and these particular FSPA women through my “yes.”  I believe to make perpetual vows is to live them and repeat them on a daily basis.

I find religious life to be deeply intimate.  Like the cross, the horizontal plane of relationship with others and the vertical call to deep union with God intersect daily.  I need to pause and listen deeply before making this lifetime commitment and I know that listening needs to happen in relationship.

Sister Sarah in Mary of the Angels Chapel
"Listening" inside Mary of the Angels Chapel, St. Rose Convent

When I meet other new members of Catholic orders I am always struck by how there is no fear around diminishment.  Yes, religious life will change drastically in my lifetime.  We have many losses, particularly at every funeral.  But I firmly believe that this is a dynamic opportunity for religious life to remain fed by its source which is Christ.

In making vows I feel my emotions most intensely, particularly fear and awe.  There is no little amount of fear as I commit my life not only to God, but to this community of women and this church.  But I have voiced my fears and they have heard me and they still want to journey with me.  Together “we done made our vows to the Lord.”

Sister Sarah will profess her final vows with the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in 2011. This is her fourth guest blog entry.