The Life: In prayer, sisters find the unconditional love of God

(Unsplash / Zack Dowdy)

The panelists shared a variety of approaches that help bring them into union with God: eucharistic adoration, poetry, Scripture, yoga, dancing, drawing, and centering prayer. But all approaches ultimately involve a personal encounter of love, a contemplative experience with the Divine.

They described unique individual encounters with God as they responded to this question:

What is your favorite type of prayer? Why?

______

Judith Anne Zielinski, a Franciscan Sister of Sylvania, Ohio, is an award-winning television writer, producer and filmmaker. Formerly communications director for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men in Washington, D.C., she also worked for Family Theater Productions in Hollywood and now directs faith and values programming for NewGroup Media in South Bend, Indiana.

Against all odds and to my complete surprise, I think I am becoming a contemplative.

No, I am not levitating or subsisting only on the Eucharist. Nor am I wrapped in a cloud of divine intimacy for hours on end.

Instead, I live a hectic life as a television writer/producer, often on the phone or on the road for location shoots, doing interviews and hammering out scripts against pressing deadlines. I am far closer to Holly Hunter in "Broadcast News" than Teresa of Ávila.

So then: how a contemplative?

I am coming to understand contemplation not by its classical trappings, which I learned were for a "special few saints" of rarefied holiness, but as a sense of powerful divine intimacy; a growing surrender to that seduction; and a mindfulness that I am cherished, safe and chosen. I didn't earn this or work to achieve it. Instead, I believe it is a grace that is emerging as I discover the joy of a coherent universe where I can surrender my ego-control and let God be God.

My prayer is quietly evolving into an awareness of God that rises to meet me as I move through my days. No longer compartmentalized, prayer now bubbles up from events upsetting and inspiring, delightful and disturbing. "Pray always," said Paul, and this feels like it. In painful moments, I can now find a deep peace, knowing God is in the messiness, that all is evolving, that at its core, all is well. I am learning to stop counting, worrying, earning, "saving my soul" and, yes, the world's.

Sr. Judy Zielinski, center, and her film crew stopping for "contemplative coffee" on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota during a location shoot. The project is a documentary film on the life of Lakota Servant of God Nicholas Black Elk and his journey toward sainthood. (Photo courtesy of NewGroup Media)

No need. I can relax and rest in immense Love: In God I live and move and have my being. I take time to sit with this mystery, to breathe connection in and out.

Do I live and pray this way every day, all day? Of course not! I often react as manically as Holly Hunter. But my awareness of God's presence surfaces more than it used to, and I am growing happier being rather than doing.

No visions? No levitation? No problem. If you notice God nesting in your own soul, begin to truly encounter the people and events around you, feel seduced by a strange intimacy and charmed by so much love and light, you may be a contemplative, too.

It happens.

Mercy Shumbamhini belongs to the Congregation of Jesus. With a background in accounting, social work, administration and finance, she has held leadership positions in community development and lectures at university level in social work and theology. She is regional director of her congregation and was president of the Conference of Major Superiors in Zimbabwe through Jan. 10, 2019.

My favorite prayer is eucharistic adoration. I feel loved and accepted as I am with my brokenness and littleness. Jesus invites me: "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). I find great consolation in these words. As I kneel before the Blessed Sacrament, I am filled with great joy and gratitude for God's unconditional love. I rejoice and praise God with great joy.

Eucharistic adoration is an encounter, an exciting experience as well as a challenging time for me. It is a time when I am able to adore God, who became human for us, "who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:6-8). I contemplate and meditate on the Word that "was made flesh and dwelt among us"(John 1:14). As I kneel before the Blessed Sacrament, I am moved and thrilled and am also challenged to follow Jesus' way of life.

Sr. Mercy Shumbamhini at prayer (Provided photo)

For me, Eucharist is about giving life, life in its fullness. "I have come that they may have life and that they may have it more abundantly"(John 10:10). This is what I experience, the presence of Christ and giver of life. As I adore Christ, I bring other people, the world and the whole creation before God. I renew my commitment of giving hope and life to others. I bring the brokenhearted, the suffering, the unloved, the marginalized, the poor and the sick before Jesus.

To adore Jesus in the Eucharist is to listen to God: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him" (Matthew 17:5). It is becoming aware of God's presence within me and in those around me. Eucharist adoration is a time of deepening my relationship with my God, a time of spiritual nourishment and renewal.

I connect myself with God. I let go all that separates me from God and ask myself: Who am I? What is God saying to me? What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What will I do for Christ?

Adriana Haro Betancourt belongs to the Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity. She is from Mexico and currently works in youth ministry in the Philippines, where she heads her congregation's national communications team and produces a weekly online radio program for youth evangelization. She made final vows in 2014.

When I was 20 years old, if someone would have told me that one day I would dedicate my life entirely to praying and preaching in order to teach others how to do the same, I would have laughed. I was certainly searching for happiness everywhere but in prayer.

That was until I listened to someone who had experienced God speaking and discovered that God can fulfill all the cravings of the human heart. This person, a married man and a Verbum Dei Missionary, was not only saying it — he was radiating such joy that I couldn't help giving into my curiosity. I had to find out for myself if God really spoke, because if he did, perhaps he could fulfill my thirst for happiness and purpose.

It's already been more than 18 years since that first experience of prayer, and I am still amazed when I realize what happens each time I open my heart, mind and body in prayer. God, the almighty, the transcendent, bends down to reach me and whisper to my heart his dreams, his passion, his concerns: all of this through his word. Thus, the prayer I like the most is precisely this heart-to-heart, mouth-to-mouth encounter with him through his word, which heals my wounds and makes me an instrument for healing the woundedness of today.

Sometimes the best way to assimilate my experience of prayer is dance my heart out! At other times, it is to create an image. I don't consider myself an artist, but I love it when the Spirit grants me inspiration to create a visual expression of the fruit of my prayer, like the one I'm sharing here. I drew it right after I wrote this reflection in my prayer journal:

"Heart to heart, mouth to mouth with you, my God-Love. Face to face with you, source of every desire to love and be loved. Face to face with the author of my heart for whom there is nothing hidden or secret. You who knit me together in my mother's womb and know the depths of my being, the cracks of my soul."

Illustration from Sr. Adriana Haro's prayer journal (Provided photo)

Marilyn Lacey is a Sister of Mercy from California. She transitioned from teaching at the high school level into refugee work, first in camps and later in domestic welcome and resettlement with Catholic Charities in San Jose. An author and speaker, Marilyn founded and directs Mercy Beyond Borders, an international nonprofit that works with women and girls in places of extreme poverty.

Wait. Is this a trick question? I can only answer: "Whatever prayer God is drawing me into at this particular moment." The shape of that has shifted, of course, and will continue to shift.

As a child, I loved sitting in the back of our parish church when it was empty, being there where stained-glass light splashed over the pews and sometimes over my shoes. A tiny miracle made for me: how God plays with color.

In school, I joined a choir. Not that I could sing well, but what did that matter? Blending my voice with the voices of others felt like praise. Somehow, words when sung did not feel like clutter the way recited prayers did. Singing had wings. Sung words would flow to God, not be flung at God. On the days when singing was beyond me, silence sufficed. (True confession: I never was any good at saying prayers. Even the rosary is beyond me; instead, I secretly pray just one word per bead.)

Convent life introduced me to the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. The God revealed there became the focus of my daily hour of contemplation. Sitting or kneeling, allowing the Word to sink into me, I yearned to align my ways with God's ways.

Once I began active ministry, the people and pain and upheavals of life crowded into my prayer. I was no longer going to God alone. That seemed right to me: holding up all the messiness to be enfolded by God's tender gaze while my own internal drive for perfection was being carved away to make room for compassion. Sometimes it is enough to hold a single photo, such as the feet of this woman in South Sudan displaced by war and covered in dust and adorned with anklets forged from bullet casings.

South Sudanese women wearing jewelry made from bullet casings (Marilyn Lacey)

My aversion to using words in prayer eased when I encountered Sufi poetry. I now sit silently with snippets from Sufi masters (such as those from Rumi, below) who express deep longing to be united not only with God but with all God's people, especially those who are poor:

My work is to carry this great Love
As comfort for all who long for You,
To go everywhere that You have gone
And gaze at the pressed-down dirt.

And this:

Let yourself be drawn
By the pull of what you really love.
There are many ways to kneel
And kiss the ground.

Such is my prayer today.

Brenda Peddigrew is a Sister of Mercy of Newfoundland, Canada. A writer, speaker, high school teacher and director of adult faith development for St. John's Archdiocese of Newfoundland, she collaborated with Diarmuid O'Murchu on Religious Life in the 21st Century. She facilitates chapters for congregations of men and women around the world.

At age 6, my teacher, a Sister of Mercy, taught us all how to pray "from inside." Every Friday morning, 36 of us marched to the giant basilica next door and knelt in front of the tabernacle. Then 22-year-old Sister Mary Gerard repeated how we were to be with Jesus in our hearts, how we were to invite him to come from the tabernacle and be inside each one of us.

It wasn't until very recently — 65 years later — that I felt the full impact of this early formation.

Before Grade 1, my prayers were those taught to a small child: the Our Father, Hail Mary, Angel Guardian. After Grade 1, prayers became again worded and spoken aloud: in school, in church, at family rosary. We made "spiritual bouquets" of prayers and gave them as gifts for special occasions! It wasn't until becoming a Sister of Mercy myself that I was introduced to daily Scripture meditation. After two experiences of the 30-day Ignatian Spiritual Exercises — once when I was 23 and again when I was 45 — I noticed my form of prayer changing, slowly and deeply.

Centering prayer (two periods of 15 to 20 minutes each day) over many years opened me to the practice of presence and of surrender. Then I encountered Robert Sardello's book Silence, and even centering prayer deepened with the practice of moving from head to heart for only a few minutes at a time. It shifts not only perception, but presence: God becomes actually, perceptually, present when soul fills every part of me, heart and body, feelingly. Nature/Creation comes alive, shifts into three dimensions, and I know myself to be a small part of it, know that nature in all its forms is as much a presence of God as I am myself.

Sr. Brenda Peddigrew's best place to pray (Provided photo)

So, what is my favorite way to pray now? To bring my whole being into Presence, to open to the fullness of all creation, to feel myself receiving from the manifestations of the Divine that surround me. All of me, not just my mind, knows my heart as the doorway to this amazing gift, swinging inward and outward all at once.

Here is a photo of one of my favorite places to pray, though — a blade of grass, my cat, snow-laden trees, crocuses, the river — all offer me ongoing prayer when I can leave thinking behind and sink into Presence. I receive, say thank you, and fall into unity with it all, body and soul.

Marie Josee Seide is a Daughter of Wisdom, and — in temporary vows — is their newest professed member for the United States. Before entering, she worked in Haiti for USAID, the International Development Bank, and the National Olympic Committee. In community, she worked in administration at a school for exceptional children and now directs parish social ministries in Amityville, New York.

Before I answered the call to enter religious life, for many years, I used to be an active member of a Marian prayer group and a contemplative Holy Spirit prayer group. Later, I became a member of a Charismatic prayer group where praise is the predominant form of prayer: singing or speaking in tongues. So it is not easy for me to select a specific favorite type of prayer.

However, as difficult as it is for me to make this choice of a favorite type of prayer, I can say that at this point in my life, contemplative prayer speaks much to my heart.

Contemplative prayer is the sacred space where I meet my Triune God hidden in the tabernacle if I am in a church sanctuary or when I am at home in the inner castle of my heart. It's like being in this upper room where I feel the presence of my Redeemer Brother, the embrace of my Daddy-Mother God who cuddles me lovingly, soothing any pain, wiping any tears, taking away any anxiety, witnessing my joy, attentive to my needs and delighting in my praise and gratitude. It is where I experience total surrender; I let God be God, I allow him to be at home in me.

In this sacred space, words have no part, only the language of the heart, mine united with that of God, and all this happens under the tender gaze of the Blessed Mother, Daughter of the Father, Mother of the Son and Beloved Spouse of the Holy Spirit.

Contemplative prayer is restorative and transforming for me. Often, I rest deeply in the Spirit, and when I wake up, I feel so peaceful, renewed and in awe.

Here is a prayer I would like to share:

When I rest in you, Lord, it is resurrection time to me.
I feel renewed, refreshed, reenergized.
I feel loved, treasured, valued and cared for.
I feel ready to bring you more deeply to others around me.
I am more obedient letting your Word act in me and through me.
Glory and praise to you, O Lord, my God, for loving me so dearly. Amen!

Margaret Gonsalves is a Sister for Christian Community and feminist theologian active in the Ecclesia of Women in Asia and Indian Women Theologian's Forum. As founder of ANNNI Charitable Trust, she networks with nongovernmental organizations to run free residential programs in intensive spoken English, sustainable development skills, and workshops for the empowerment of indigenous girls and women.

From my novitiate onward, I used to find that the morning hour of prayer bored me to death. When I was appointed an animator of the socio-pastoral community, I used to see some sisters drag themselves out of bed, praying the divine office half-asleep, some with sour faces and some unconsciously responding to the intercessory response: "Lord Jesus, we are your brothers" with complete gender unconsciousness!

This sorry state of our religious prayer life motivated me to grab the opportunity to redesign the Canticle of Mary as the "Ode of the Theotokos" (Luke 1:46-55) for morning prayer, chanting it while performing the "sun salutation."

Gradually, I noticed an increase in the sisters' energy level as they consecrated the first stirrings of body, mind and heart to God: "I will pray to you, Lord, you will hear my voice in the morning; I will stand before you in the morning and gaze on you" (Psalm 5:4-5).

The sisters were filled with the synergy of the light of the resurrection, enlightening all (John 1:9). As they felt healing from the sun of righteousness, they spread their wings to explore creative ministries: "The sun of justice shall arise, and you shall go out leaping like calves from the stall" (Malachi 4:2). Thus the day ahead was sanctified for our good and the good of our neighbors.

"Ode of the Theotokos" (Luke 1:46-55) for morning prayer, set to the 12 steps of the Sun Salutation by Margaret Gonsalves. (Graphic by Patricia's Fashion & Art)

Mary's canticle spoken on her visit to her cousin Elizabeth is a prophetic hymn of solidarity: The Mother of God visiting Elizabeth at the margins, celebrating the gospel of God's favoritism toward women, thus instilling our dual mothering presence into the world. Now it gives our sisters Mary's courage to challenge the misogynist, enthuses them with the synergy of the royal priesthood of the baptized and connects them to the eucharistic sacrifice (1 Peter 2:9).

The sun salutation is a series of 12 poses performed in sequential order with 12 chants addressed to the sun god in Sanskrit. I have replaced that with the 12 stanzas of the canticle.

Practicing daily should create a good flow of creative energy in the body, mind and spirit, setting into motion an energetic feeling that remains throughout the day. It induces deep breathing, loosens up the joints, tones the muscles and the internal organs, activates nostrils, removes lethargy, makes the mind alert, strengthens the endocrine system and burns extra fat.

May we all heed the invitation from Mary to abandon control, dispense from worldly expectation, live freely, and enjoy the journey.

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