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 

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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

              (1845-1937) 

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

                    (1902-1975)