The Women Who Pray

They live their lives in a building with very limited access to the outside world. They dress in a simple habit and crucifix. They wear sandals, plain leather shoes, or they go barefoot. They only go outside to receive medical care. They vote by absentee ballot. Their families can visit them twice a year and then only through a metal grate which separates them. Their groceries and other supplies are brought to them by volunteers who place the items in a turntable in the wall so that they can be retrieved without direct contact. Daily life inside is a rhythm of prayer and work in community and in private. There is very little talking, but a frequent sound heard is the ringing of a bell which signifies time for prayer, work, meals, sleeping and waking up. There are no radios or televisions, no computers or tablets, only the sound of footsteps on tile floors. All in all, it’s an atmosphere of peace and quiet. 

This is a very general description of what you might find in any one of the thousands of religious houses throughout the world. Catholic women enter different orders of sisters whose lives are dedicated to prayer. There are differences among the orders, but in general each sister lives in a very small and simple room, called a “cell.” It’s usually furnished with a bed, desk, chair and crucifix. The day begins at 12:30 a.m. when the bell rings for matins, or morning prayer. It will ring again for the six other times of prayer which comprise the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours. After about an hour of prayer, the sisters return to sleep until 5 a.m. when they begin their day. They attend morning Mass and then eat a simple breakfast, like toast and coffee. This meal is usually eaten in silence, and while standing. After more prayer, the sisters begin their work day. Some orders may sew vestments while others bake communion waferss to bring in money for their support. Others have no regular labor other than to pray. Of course every house has to provide for its own household needs such as cooking, cleaning, gardening, and sewing, etc. For all these sisters, their work is also prayer. 

Lunch is usually the largest meal, with homemade breads and soups and perhaps fruit for dessert. Meat is rarely if ever eaten. Then it’s back to work and prayer until vespers which is usually at 4 p.m. A light meal might be eaten afterwards while someone reads aloud from a selection of poems, news articles or books. Recreation follows where the sisters can play games, practice musical instruments and talk. Then they gather again in the chapel for Compline, which is the final prayer of the Church’s day. They retire to their cell where they might read and pray until lights out at 8:45.  

This way of life may seem extreme, but for the women who are called to live this vocation, it is a foretaste of what they imagine heaven will be. They care for one another, work together for the common good and offer every waking moment to the Lord. They pray for our world and for all our needs and requests. They pray for peace and for the Church. In their enclosed gardens, the fruit of prayer is a gift to the outside world. I believe these cloisters are like precious gems whose value is beyond our knowing. What a treasure we have in them and in their vocation of love.  

And He said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many ties more in this time, and in the one to come eternal life.”

       —-Luke 15:29-30 

Give and Trust God

Several weeks ago, Pope Francis said in an interview that Christians are obliged to help beggars on the street by giving them money. Even if we know that they may buy alcohol with it or otherwise spend it in ways that might not be the most prudent. Further, Pope Francis says that we shouldn’t just toss coins into their cup, but that we should take the time to look the person in the eyes and make a respectful and compassionate connection with them. This teaching is consistent with what the Pope did as an Archbishop in Argentina. He would “sneak out” of his residence at night to give money to the street people in Buenos Aires. Many of his efforts as Pope have been aimed at helping the poor and encouraging all of us to do the same.  

For some reason, though, the idea of giving money to beggars has been met with grumbling. And I think this may be born of pride. It’s as if we know what’s “best” for folks and so we don’t want to see our hard-earned money go towards a can of beer or a pack of cigarettes. We feel better when we know we’re helping by dropping off.a hamburger or a pair of socks and gloves. And these are fine, of course. But these gifts are our ideas of what’s best for the person. We make a decision that isn’t ours to make, even if we make it with the best of intentions. Does that make sense?

We’ve all probably heard of the “blessing bags” that folks carry in their cars to share with folks living rough. They’re plastic bags that have been filled with grooming and toiletry items, small snacks, tissues and other things. The point is that all those “blessings” that some kind person has gathered together in charity are the donor’s idea of what they want and need—not the recipient’s. 

Would we want to be told what would make us happy? I know I wouldn’t. As Pope Francis said, “(What) if a glass of wine is his only happiness in life?” Sometimes this will mean that the money we give may indeed be spent on alcohol or tobacco or something else we might think is wasteful or harmful. But that’s really none of our business. Just as that chocolate fudge cake we love isn’t good for us either, but it makes us happy for a few minutes. Or that ever-present bottle of Chardonnay in the fridge, which we don’t need but which tastes so good at the end of a long day. We get to make those choices for ourselves, but we don’t want to give that same freedom to the poorest among us.  

Certainly our support for the homeless should go much further than our occasional cash gifts on the streets. Our charitable gifts are a part of our Christian vocation. Our churches should actively provide support and assistance with food, housing, and employment. Local and state programs and agencies must help the poor as well. but the one-on-one, person-to-person help we can provide is also a human encounter that can do much more to provide dignity than a food voucher from a county office. When we give our money, we say,”You’re a human person like me and your choices give you dignity like mine do for me.” Maybe my $10 will go for wine or something else. I trust in the Lord to take my small gift and to help it bear good fruit. The giving is my part. I’ll leave the rest up to God.  

“In the shoes of the other, we learn to have a great capacity for understanding, for getting to know difficult situations.”

                  —Pope Francis. 

Breakfast With God

Many of my childhood mornings began with a breakfast of oatmeal. Warm and buttery, it was a comfort on cold days. And often, sitting on the bar where we had our breakfast, was the oatmeal carton. The Quaker Oats man was an old friend, with his rosy cheeks and wide smile. I’d sit and eat my oatmeal and look at his face. Because, in my child’s mind, this was the face of God.

I knew what Jesus looked like already. My grandmother had given me a framed picture of Him like the one in the front of my Bible. He had long brown hair and blue eyes because this was the 1960’s and that’s what Jesus looked like back then. And I kind of thought that the Holy Spirit looked like a dove (of all things) or maybe a flame (even stranger). But God the Father must surely look like the Quaker Oats man. This kindly, welcoming face was who I thought of whenever God’s name was mention in prayer. He was “Father.”

My relationship with my own father was a complicated one. He was a caring man, but was often emotionally distant and difficult for me to connect with. Daddy was a hard worker who was proud of his years of military service. He seemed most animated when he shared stories of those years overseas. I never doubted his love for me, although I rarely heard him tell me that in words. My mother was the one who lavished us with “I love you’s.”. As I grew older, I learned that my dad’s father had committed suicide many years before I was born. Daddy would never talk to me about that, but I knew it was his life’s deep and abiding wound.

As my child’s mind was trying to imagine how God was my father, I couldn’t reconcile my own distant and somehow sad earthly father with my loving Father in heaven. I know that, for several years, my prayers generally went out to a happy-looking Quaker gentleman. I’m telling you my story because I think many of us create God in an image that’s acceptable and understandable to us. And when we do that, things can get murky.  

For starters, our limited human minds can never truly grasp the splendor and majesty of God. As St. Augustine wrote, “…if you think you understand, then it isn’t God.” And this from one of the Lord’s closest friends. Our words (like “father”) limit our capacity to imagine the depth and grandeur of our Creator’s nature. We have a terrible time even trying to understand the Trinity as one God in three Persons. Remember how St. Patrick used the shamrock for this? We’re like little children, crawling around on the floor of a great library—trying to understand what’s in all the books around us without even being able to read.  

And that’s fine with God. He gave us Holy Scripture which is His love story for us. He sent us His only Son to reveal His face and His love. He gives us His Holy Spirit to strengthen our faith and guide us in holiness. We don’t have to be theologians to love and serve the Lord, however. Remember that He calls us to become like little children (Matthew 18:3-4) in our relationships with Him. We trust and obey and know that He will always be there with us through everything. Our understanding of a father’s love may be limited and colored by our earthly relationships. Lent is a season of invitation—a time to deepen our Scriptural reading, our time in prayer, and our service to others. Each Lent is an opportunity to repent and renew our relationship with the Father’s love for us.  

When you say to God, ‘Our Father,’ He has His ear right next to your lips.”

       —-St. Andre Besette


A Long Way Off

If you’re a sinner like me, you’ve got to love the parable of the Prodigal Son. In the story, Jesus reveals to us the depth and eagerness of God’s merciful love for us. St. Luke is the only source that we have for this story, a parable Jesus told to some Pharisees and His disciples. It’s the last in a series of these stories including the Parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. Each is meant to illustrate the love and mercy God wants to give us and to show how much He values us. They tell us we are His family, and for Jesus’ audience, it was a revolutionary idea to imagine God Almighty as our Father.  

The parable describes a father and his two sons. The younger son is tired of life on the farm and tells his father that he wants his share of his inheritance now, so that he can get out of what he sees as a pretty boring life. It’s as if he says to his father, “I can’t wait for you to die, so give me my share now.” Ouch. At that time, the firstborn son would have received 2/3 of the estate and the younger son the remaining third. The father gives him his share and the prodigal son heads out for a distant, I.e. pagan country. “Prodigal” means “wastefully extravagant” and that’s how he goes about living his new life. He spends his fortune on wild living and, of course, he’s soon broke. On top of that, a famine strikes his new land and he’s forced to take work as a swineherd for a pagan master. This would have been absolutely awful work for a Jew. But he’s desperate. He’s so hungry that he wants to eat the slop he’s feeding to the pigs. That’s when he realizes what a mess he’s made of his life. He decides to return home to his father and beg his forgiveness. He doesn’t expect to be treated as a son anymore, but will be grateful just to be a hired hand. So he heads home.  

And then we’re told something that, for me, reveals the face and the heart of our Heavenly Father. Jesus says that “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him”(Luke 15:21). What a wonderful image of the Lord, Who waits for us, looks for us, and hopes for us to return to Him. Even when we are far away from Him, living a sinful life, degrading our humanity and squandering our inheritance as one of His children—He still desperately wants us to come home to Him. This parable gives me so much comfort. There was a time in my life in which I felt that God was very far away from me. Like the prodigal son, I had followed my own desires, which led me into darkness and despair. God was steadfast and faithful, placing people and situations in my life to help me see how I kept messing up. Finally I realized that I needed to repent and return to Him. “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare and here I am staring to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants. So he got up and went to his father”(Luke 15:17-20). That was me. And that is still me each time that I am convicted of sin by the Holy Spirit and return to the Sacrament of Confession. God is always there, waiting for me, anxious to embrace my contrite heart and welcome me home.

Lent is a season of repentance and reconciliation. It’s a time to prayerfully reflect on God’s presence and to allow Him to draw us home. No sin is too great for His mercy. No time away is too long, for we are not His hired hands, but His beloved children. He’s waiting for you. A great celebration has been planned—just for you. Come home. 

“God is waiting for us, like the father in the parable, with open arms, even though we don’t deserve it, no matter how great our debt is.”

           —–St. Josemaria Escriva


Do You Lent?

It’s time for Lent which is that 40+ day period in which we prepare ourselves for Easter. These days many Christians other than Catholics observe Lenten practices, such as the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. The practice of “giving something up for Lent” is well-known. Many of us wait until the last minutes to choose our penitential practice, so it’s pretty common to hear that folks might give up chocolate or doughnuts for Lent. I’m not saying those are necessarily bad choices, just that I think we could be a bit more thoughtful in how we embrace Lent. We could pray and ask the Lord to lead us to do what we need to do to become closer to Him. Lent is a gift from God, a time to do some spiritual housecleaning and to make our hearts ready for His Passion and Resurrection.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been jotting down ideas for Lenten sacrifices as I’ve thought of them or come across them on social media. There’s nothing much new in this motley collection. And, as a friend says, we should be doing all these things anyway. We should be praying each day and being charitable to one another. We should answer hatred with love. Mercy should direct our steps and our words. And everything we do and say should give glory and honor to God. Lent reminds us every day that God wants to be near to us, and our response should be to want to give Him the best “us” that we can be. I hope these ideas can help you make your Lent more meaningful.  

Go ahead and give up chocolate or meat or fast food. You’ll gain control over your body and self-denial is the foundation of spiritual growth. In the same spirit, don’t eat the last bite of food on your plate. Leave out the salt and pepper. Give up those energy drinks you love. Don’t buy anything at Starbucks. If you drink coffee, leave out the sugar and cream. Don’t snack between meals. Don’t talk about your diet to get attention. Watch what you wear so that your clothes don’t draw attention to yourself. Skip the massages and mani-pedis. Don’t use technology during meals or anytime after dinner (phone, television, computer, gaming, etc.). Give up your Instagram filters. Stop trolling other folks online. Don’t Google yourself. Don’t post on social media or check your phone more than twice a day. Stop being a backseat driver. Don’t listen to music in the car. Start using your turn signal. Don’t tailgate. Don’t curse at other drivers. Stop angry driving. Stop complaining. Pray for humility. Pray to go through each day, unnoticed. Give something away each day during Lent (one of my personal favorites). Stop putting things off. Don’t gossip. Stop playing the victim card. Stop trying to be an expert—on anything. Be honest about your limitations. Don’t pray only when you need something. Don’t use “God” or “Jesus” as an exclamation. If you find yourself judging someone, stop, and say a prayer for them instead. End every day by asking God to show you how you sinned that day. Stop pretending that you don’t have the time to pray.

I hope these few ideas can help you to discover those parts of your life that you feel led to change during Lent. Developing good habits take daily practice and the weeks of Lent will help you to make those changes. Pray for guidance and enlightenment. Be open to being surprised at where God may lead you this Lent. Let the Holy Spirit change you. Let every day be a new way to love and serve the Lord.  

Lent is a time of grace, a time to convert and live out our Baptism fully.”

                —-Pope Francis 

Invisible Tears

She’s in front of you in the checkout line at the grocery store. She’s the treasurer of your son’s PTA. She teaches piano to your daughter. She and her family sit behind you at Mass. She’s your boss, your best friend, your sister, your mother. She’s you. And she’s had an abortion.

I’m not going to talk about statistics. Abortion isn’t about statistics, it’s about babies. I’ll let the other side talk numbers if they want to. Let’s just say that everyone in America is related to a baby who has been aborted. A baby you never got to hold or feed or play with or watch grow up. That little sister you didn’t have. That older cousin who never drove you to the mall. The uncle who didn’t teach you how to cheat at cards. The tapestry of our life loses another thread. Bit by bit, baby by baby, it comes unravelled. All of us are made less. We all lose. Think of your family at Thanksgiving, gathered around the table to share a meal and give thanks. Now imagine the empty chair (or chairs) of the family that was never born. How much fuller our hearts and lives would be with them in it.  

Why a woman has an abortion is as personal as her own heartbeat. But surely only a very few made the choice without torment and despair. Did she see no way to support her baby? Did she have to hide her baby’s coming from her parents or boyfriend? Or did they pressure her into having an abortion? Was she too ashamed to find another way so her baby could live? Did her husband drive her to the clinic so she could abort their child? It’s never a simple medical procedure, no matter what she’s been told. She’ll never forget the smell of the disinfectant or that the nurses laughed at shared jokes. She’ll remember the sounds of the machines they used and how cold she was, trembling under the thin, blue sheet.  

How many times over the rest of her life is she haunted by that day? Is there a single week that she doesn’t remember it and think of the life that once lived inside her? I don’t believe that most women “celebrate” their abortions, like some on the other side try to do. I believe they remember their babies. I believe they love the baby that wasn’t born. I believe that love is how they hold themselves together on those nights they can’t sleep and they try to imagine what their child would look like and what their baby would sound like when it laughed. I believe the wound of their abortion never fully heals.  

But we can help. We can try and understand that there are situations leading up to every abortion that we don’t know about. We can’t know their struggle. So we’re called to be merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful (Luke 6:36). Being pro-life also means being pro-mercy. Listen to her story and show her the same acceptance and encouragement that you’d want to be shown. Honor her suffering. Offer her a chance to feel loved and not judged. Pray with her. Help her to find the help that she needs. Rachel’s Vineyard is a post-abortion healing outreach that offers women a path to recovery (1-877-HOPE-4-ME). These women are our daughters, our sisters, our cousins, our co-workers and our friends. They’re not statistics. Their tears are our tears. 

“Thus says the Lord: In Ramah is heard the sound of moaning, of bitter weeping! Rachel mourns her children, she refuses to be consoled because her children are no more. Thus says the Lord: Cease your cries of mourning, wipe the tears from your eyes. The sorrow you have shown shall have its reward, says the Lord. There is hope for your future!” 

         —Jeremiah 31:15-17 

Sweet Silence

You might think I’m a little crazy for saying this, but here goes: I can’t wait for Lent to get here. It’s late in coming this year because Easter is late as well. We already have daffodils blooming this week, but we won’t begin Lent until March 1, which is Ash Wednesday. There’s something appropriate about Lent in late winter, when it’s still cold and icy and nothing seems to point to spring. Lots of folks experience Lent as a time of deprival and withdrawal, which goes along with those dreary winter days. But this year things will be different, at least here in the South. It looks like we’ll be making our Lenten journey wearing flip-flops.

And maybe that’s what we need this year. Maybe we need a Lent that seems a little less of a forced march and a little more like a walk in the garden. I think we deserve it after the last few months we’ve had, don’t you? This year, I’m seeking silence. I want and need time to shut out all the noise of the world and rest. I need interior silence; silence of the heart. I’ll be making some changes to insure that I get that silence, too. More unscheduled time, less online time. More prayer time, less social time. More alone time, less “busy-ness.”

There’s a wonderful quote by St. Augustine (354-430 AD) that helps me keep my focus each Lent: “God means to fill each of you with what is good, so cast out what is bad! If He wishes to fill you with honey and you are full of sour wine, where is the honey to go? The vessel must be emptied of its contents and then cleansed.” Each Lent we’re tasked with examining our hearts, and our lives in order to seek out that “sour wine” which is keeping us from receiving the fullness of God’s grace. That’s why some people give up their attachments to favorite foods or drinks or other distractions from God. They hope to use these little sacrifices as a way of decluttering their lives.  

For me, the surest way I know to hear the voice of the Lord is to spend time in silence. These days, that’s so very difficult. It’s easy enough to turn off the television but harder to disconnect from the phone and the computer. Even more difficult is finding the quiet inside our hearts, which can be pulled in so many ways by the demands of family, work and our other commitments. Cardinal Robert Sarah calls these “the dictatorship of noise.” Our modern lives are often ruled by the chatter of media and we rarely allow ourselves to be immersed in solitude and quiet. Unless we enter into that interior silence the whisper of God’s voice is too-often lost in all that background noise. That’s the gift of Lent—a season given to us each year which invites us to slow down, take time, turn off, and listen.

Lent is coming and I pray that my journey to Easter will be like those warm, quiet afternoon walks that Adam and Eve shared with our Lord in the Garden. I need to spend time in silence with God, to pare down everything in my life that distracts me from Him. My vessel has become full of sour wine and I long for the honey of His consolation and friendship. I pray that everyone reading this will embrace the gift of this Lenten season and make the time to walk in silence with the Lord. Springtime is here and your flip-flops are waiting. Don’t miss it!

“The greatest difficulty of modern man is to search for God in silence.”

     —-Cardinal Robert Sarah 

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