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.

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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.

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!

The Transfiguration

“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.  

Jesus,

Show me the things

That lumber up my heart,

So that it cannot be filled

With your life and power.

–Evelyn Underhill


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. 

trusting the sequoia seeds

Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan
to be baptized by him.
John tried to prevent him, saying,
“I need to be baptized by you,
and yet you are coming to me?”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us
to fulfill all righteousness.”
Then he allowed him.
After Jesus was baptized,
he came up from the water and behold,
the heavens were opened for him,
and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove
and coming upon him.
And a voice came from the heavens, saying,
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” – Mt 3:13-17

In order for redemption to happen, John had to trust Jesus and let go of his own ideas. It seems to me that we all do.

When we’re Jesus people we have to trust in God. God keeps putting this in my face when I’d rather just keep doing my own thing.  In today’s Gospel story, John’s protest to Jesus’ Way reminded me of the challenge to let go all over again.

God keeps giving me lessons about this principle as I move through this messy world and wonder if any of the things I try to do are making a difference.  I once heard a peacemaker remind an activist group about the importance of taking sabbath frequently. If we don’t, it was said, our actions say that we don’t trust in God and think that the peace of the world is dependent on us.  I felt like someone had punched me in the gut and my pride was knocked out of me; I always try to do too much.

I am challenged over and over to turn away from my seemingly urgent to-do list and let God take care of things. Sometimes I am forced into it.  Sickness sneaks in and my body insists that I let myself rest and just be.  I squirm through fevers and aches because I am uncomfortable – not with being sick but with lack of productivity.  I feel better about myself if I feel like I am accomplishing stuff.  Why can’t I just allow God to take care of me and trust that everything is right on track?

Other times, God’s hints that I need to trust are a little more subtle. I need to clue in and really contemplate little things that I am introduced to.  My mantra at mass today was “plant sequoias, I hope I am.”  Random, I know.  It’s because I recently learned a poem by Wendel Berry, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, that includes this lesson:
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

It’s so hard, when the pain and division of humanity is also in our face and we want to respond. The sorrow in the news can be so discouraging. The news about the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona that left others dead is awful.  This story is another horrific example about the need for peaceful resistance to hate and violence.

At times the needs for reform can feel so urgent that we want to rush into action.  We know people are starving, cold, homeless and sick today.  We worry about global warming. We aren’t blind to the fact that children are dying on the streets right now.  It seems that our world is desperate to know the different Way of Jesus, and we need get going.

Yet, we have to “trust in the slow work of God” (Teilhard de Chardin, S.J)  as we each play our small part  in the Master’s plan.  Thank God we’re in this together and united as a Body of Christ.  As hard as it is, I think I am grateful that God’s design allow us to be small. Prophets and creation call us to let go and trust. When we try, then we taste freedom.

Did John the Baptist know what he was allowing when he followed Jesus’ plan?  Was it hard for John to accept that there wouldn’t be immediate results?

Was John okay with the fact that his choice to trust in Jesus would slowly unfold through all eternity?

And, what about us? As we work, hope, serve and pray, are we okay with the fact that we’re only participants in a greater plan?

Do we believe that our actions- and our stillness- could be sequoia seeds, blessing God’s Kingdom centuries from now? Do we trust in God?