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

praying plus living

When I was a kid I learned that I am supposed to pray without ceasing. Naturally, I scratched my head and wondered how I could and still have a life.

Now I am a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, which permits me to do just that–to pray always and still have a life, a really great life!

I can’t easily explain how it is that I pray always, but I’ll try.  It’s really a mystery, though, and it totally rocks.

My community is always in prayer.  For over 133 years, 24/7, two adorers have been praying before the Blessed Sacrament.  Our adoration chapel in La Crosse, Wisconsin is one of the holiest places on earth.  There’s so much power there.


 

Yet, I’m not there, technically. I mean, my body isn’t.  I am off  “on mission” teaching high school in a foreign land (Chicago’s south side).  The work I do gives me life and energy; it is a true blessing to get to know God at work in the hearts of youth.  Miracles are ordinary and I am so used to the devotion of my students that I forget to be inspired by their faith.

At times, the work I do wipes me out.  I become envious of those who are able to truly work eight-hour work days and have time to do the things in life that shouldn’t seem like extras:  growing and cooking one’s own food, making art and crafts, reading novels, writing letters.

Fortunately, I keep finding time for the “extra” of prayer.  The  rule of this life that I have committed myself to insists that I never get so busy that the spirit of prayer is extinguished.  It’s a mystery to me how that works, in the mess of all the labor and to-do lists.  I pause several times a day to just lift my heart in praise. I go to daily mass and read the ancient psalms out of the divine office.  And, I unite with my community in the adoration chapel in La Crosse.  Whether I am conscious of it or not, I am connected and this blesses me.

Last Saturday I went home and prayed with my sisters and, again, the power of the prayer blew me away. It was a different type of prayer this time, it was a huge commitment party. Sister Sarah, who also blogs here, professed her final vows. Congratulations Sarah!! 

Gathered together to celebrate Sister Sarah: Mary of the Angels Chapel, Sept. 24, 2011

I think every eye was dropping tears during the mass. I am pretty sure every heart was moved, inspired, and in awe.  God is so good, and it is so exciting when people say yes to the goodness with their entire lives!

And, I believe that many people were healed.  It’s a mystery to me, but it is a mystery that I shall cling to.  One of the great powers of prayer is that it heals and gives life.  On Saturday I went to mass with a back ache, yet during the commitment celebration I realized my back felt completely better.  It’s a simple thing, but I am so, so grateful!

Turns out, having a life and praying without ceasing is not too tough after all.  The powerful prayer heals me and blesses me, and leaves me in awe. It’s a mystery how it works but it’s a mystery that I’ll hold.   As I hold the mystery I remain aware: I am really glad to be part of it all.

“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.