Over 25 years ago, I was a bruised and bug-bite-dotted scrawny girl, wonder-eyed and singing loudly in the middle of an Iowan prairie with a crowd circling a glowing fire. The day was dimming around us, crickets chirping through the tall blades of grass, the stars slowly becoming visible in the navy-blue night sky.
Then and there, sitting on a log, I encountered God. I felt God present in the beauty of evening, the energy of community, the rhythm and vibrations of our songs. The light of Christ seemed to pour from our hearts. Joy, peace and awe overwhelmed me. That night, I fell completely head-over-heels in love with God.
I was at EWALU in northeast Iowa, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Bible camp not too far away from the farm I called home. I was singing loudly, proudly, enjoying the hand motions and dances right along with the songs. All the other young people around me seemed to be genuine in their prayers, authentic in their worship. I felt loved, accepted, secure; I wasn’t worried about whether I fit. I felt a sense of belonging and freedom. All this helped me sing and dance for God with gusto.
Yet I started to have questions, questions that became… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
My priesthood? What priesthood do I have? It doesn’t make any sense. Yes, I am a Catholic sister who is deeply committed to Christ and the Church. Jesus is my center. But I have no desire to be a priest.
The words came as I was preparing for a 30-day silent, directed retreat. This is part of your priesthood. I put the phrase away and concentrated on the details of the retreat: a journal, a Bible, and good snow boots for walking in the winter woods of January. And then I began the rhythm of the retreat. Prayer, prayer and more prayer. Slowly, as I walked with Jesus from before his birth through his childhood, through the waters of baptism and his friendships and healings, his own friendship with me began to deepen. Praying through the crucifixion was different this time. It was to be witness with a close friend. I mourned with the women at the tomb. I sat vigil in the emptiness of death. And then the sun rose again. Jesus rose. My surprise and wonder were fresh and new. My love had returned. He had conquered death and the whole world was changed.
I sat with the disciples in the upper room. We were waiting. We were praying. My prayer time with the disciples blurred with the shared silence with my fellow retreatants. Gathered around the fire in the evening in total silence, a deep reverence grew, one which I had never known. We were from all walks of life and we were truly just being ourselves. I opened my Bible to the assigned reading, John 20:19-23, and my body stirred as I read these words:
“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. [Jesus] said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’”
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.
In that moment I knew that we are all sent. We all have a priesthood to share the mission and love of Jesus in the world wherever we are. All life is holy. And Jesus is the center of so many people’s lives: whether they are married, single, ordained or religious. We are sent.
The Church refers to this as the universal call to holiness. Especially since the documents of Vatican II, we speak of all the baptized being called to be priest, prophet and king. We all participate in the one priesthood of Christ.
I pray with those, especially women and married men, who feel a call to ordination within the Catholic Church. I pray for their wounds and for their healing. I hope not to diminish their journey. At the same time, I know in my bones of the holiness of each unique call, the consecration of life itself by our God who calls us and loves into being every day.
Sister Sarah Hennessey, FSPA 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.
Recently I had a conversation with another sister. During the chat, we realized we had a common experience on our different retreats earlier this summer.
We had each gone to opposite corners of the country and were looking forward to some sacred one-on-one time with God. He found a way to sneak in–to surprise and enlighten both of us.
My friend shared an account of how she had gone to a chapel, hoping to pray in silence in order to spend time with the One Who Loves her (and loves everyone, for that matter), only to be distracted by all the people and the happenings inside: chatting, rosaries prayed aloud, and fussy cleaning and tidying.
Then I told her about my retreat: to a busy lake over the 4th of July weekend, where I foolishly hoped for some solitude and silence in nature. I kept trying to find quiet corners in God’s creation. Instead, I became a little irritated by the noise of speedboats, jet skis and people whooping and hollering as they had fun.
The other sister said she eventually calmed and realized she was actually in an appropriate space to savor God’s presence. God was totally present in the people distracting her silent prayer in the chapel. She felt a sense that God was there, loving each of them. In this awareness she was overcome, suddenly, with a deep sense of joy and gratitude because she felt connected to God’s love for her and everyone else in the room.
My transformation happened gradually. Eventually I realized my attitude had shifted, though. All the people screaming in joy and speeding along on boats began to seem precious to me. I realized I felt happy for them as they had a great time. And, in one sacred and fleeting moment, I felt totally in touch with how God loves each and everyone one of them just for who they are.
Both my friend and I had certain hopes about how our prayer time would go. We had gone into contemplation seeking union with God and anticipating a certain outcome and experience.
Instead, we experienced little conversions and learned great lessons from God about love. One of the most awesome ways to be in union with God is to love others as God loves them.
We have entered the holy time of the O Antiphons. Like a mysterious extra holiday something is special and different today. Expectation is heightened. The glory is near.
For you, O lord, my soul in stillness waits.
My soul may be still, but the world is not. The chaos only seems to grow. A parishioner shared this morning that it is hard to enter the joy of Christmas with so much sorrow and tragedy in the world.
I am holding an image in my heart that speaks to me of persistent hope in this darkness—freshly washed hair neatly combed and a crisp clean dress.
I returned yesterday from 10 days in a rural province in Bolivia. With several of my FSPA sisters I went to present a retreat on Franciscan love and humility to 24 Bolivian and Austrian sisters. My heart was stretched and the world became wider as I entered into their rhythm of life in the Bolivian jungle. Every night we gathered in the church for mass. Twenty-two altar servers assisted the priest in perfect precision. Teenagers played the violin and guitar and drums with great joy. And everywhere there were children. This is the Bolivian daily mass where children come with consistency to practice their faith.
Every child was prepared for church. Every head of hair was freshly cleaned and smoothly combed. Every face scrubbed and every shirt clean and pressed. I noticed it even more because it was 95 degrees out, hot and sticky, and I felt like a mess. Sr. Janeira pointed out to me that many of the children have no running water in their homes and no washing machine except for the river. The chaos of daily life in a remote village in the jungle could not stop them from preparing to be in the presence of Jesus.
This is the indomitable Advent spirit. Jesus is the good news and we are getting ready!
“Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, ‘Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’” (Mark 9:5).
When I went hiking with a group of junior high students, we were going up a pretty steep mountain and we were having a hard time finding a place to camp. Finally we came upon an old railroad grade. It was the only flat land we had found. So we tied up our tarps and settled in to sleep. In the middle of the night, it started pouring rain. The rain came right down the side of the mountain, across our flat railroad grade like a river, and straight down the mountain again. We spent together a long sleepless night, fortunately, with a lot of laughter and good humor.
I get Peter.
Can we just stop for a moment and pitch a tent?
In this crazy 4G-speed world can we rest and stay and be?
I’ve been tired lately, Bone tired, Take-a-nap-on-my-lunch-break-cause-I-cannot-keep-my-eyes-open tired. My friends and parishioners have noticed my tiredness and told me to take it easy. So right now I am in the middle of a five day retreat. I am finding restoration. And I am reflecting on being tired.
I think a lot of us are tired: from justice work and daily work, school and jobs and family. The speed is relentless and the expectations are never-ending. I remember making a list of Holiday stressors and writing down, “existence.” Sometimes, just this living wears us out.
Show me the things
That lumber up my heart,
So that it cannot be filled
With your life and power.
What lumbers up my heart?
Lord, show me the logs of attachment and self-criticism, of pettiness and envy, of over-analysis and just pure flight that keep me from filling with your love. Help me, my Jesus, to rely on you. To rest in you. To be wholly in you. Help me to find a little more interior space to be who I am just as you made me, and to be okay with that. I cannot do it without you. I cannot do anything without you.
Peter came down from the mountain. He asked to put up a tent, but he followed Jesus back into the daily healing work of the world. Eventually, he picked up his own cross. I think maybe it is okay to be tired for a while. It is okay to rest. And also I know that the greatest rest will not come to me on my own. Jesus is my rest.