A few weeks ago 65 Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary sat together in contemplative silence waiting for Holy Mystery to speak a Word that would quicken in us the gifts of our charism, zeal, joy and passion for justice. Our current justice question is how to provide Catholic health care to the rural people of our region while being caught between the laws of the land and the laws of the church. It is a huge justice challenge for us, but, we believe that it is through our prayer together that the answers will come.
Contemplative prayer is an ancient practice that has carried religious and all pray-ers for centuries in the search for God’s living spirit and truth. Religious congregations for centuries practiced sitting together in prayer as part of daily spiritual commitment. But, today, there is a new consciousness evolving as we recognize that we are a global community of religious, so that even as we sit together in our local congregational gatherings, we are not alone with our questions. Instead, we share this space with sisters and others globally.
This solidarity became evident in 2009 when the visitation of United States congregations was initiated. Providentially, the theme of the assembly of the Union of International Superiors General that year called us to renew ourselves in contemplative and mystical prayer. Sisters and their lay partners from around the world confirmed through word and prayer a mystical solidarity with the U.S. sisters. The call to communal contemplation awakened the leadership of LCWR to recognize that the only way through the conflict with Vatican offices was to consciously strengthen a global community of contemplation and mysticism. So, we wait together “However, long the night” for the spirit, convinced that we will be led in the way of Christ. This national practice of communal contemplation is now being replicated in congregations around the world.
The contemplative waiting together at my own assembly gave me comfort and a deep sense of God’s presence as we face into our communal “long night” described by Nancy Schreck in her address to the LCWR assembly. We listened to her reflections and shared our congregational experience of current and past dark times in our history beginning with the life of our foundress, Honora Nagle, whom we affectionately call Nano. Her deep love for the contemplative life was passed on to her daughters leading them from Ireland to the wilds of Dakota Territory. Contemplative prayer empowered them and those who followed to face their own inner darkness which bore the fruit of courage to face the contradictions and conflicts of starting and growing the congregation in a part of the U.S. that is minimally Catholic, even up to the present.
Our congregation was not founded by a bishop or priest but by the initiative of this woman whose spiritual director advised that she could not refuse the impulse of the Spirit to do something about the systematic spiritual genocide of the Irish people. She was impelled to return to Ireland from France where she had gone to spend her days in monastic contemplative prayer because the pain of injustice was so overwhelming to her.
In the midst of the darkness of this endeavor, Nano found herself caught between the British laws that forbade her secret (illegal) education of Irish children and the fears of her family and those of church hierarchy who wanted from her decisions that did not fit her vision of God’s call. She stood peacefully firm in her own integrity, fruit of intense prayer and suffering in facing opposition as noted in 1 Thes 1:5, “The Gospel brings not only the Word of God, but power, the Holy Spirit and full conviction.”
Struggles for justice have been with us from our beginnings, even though we framed our work differently and had to grow into its current understandings. Early documents remind us that “those who teach others unto justice will shine like the stars in heaven” (Dn 12:3). But, we believe as do all serious pray-ers that it is commitment to going ever deeper into the seeming darkness of contemplation that we find Jesus and his dreams for us to be joyful disciples.
This poem of St. John of the Cross I found on a prayer card (translator unknown) captures our journey well – and note how John calls the “night” lucky:
Upon that lucky night
In secrecy, inscrutable to sight,
I went without discerning
and with no other light
except for that which in
my heart was burning.
It lit and led me through
more certain than
the light of noonday clear
to where One waited near
whose presence well I knew;
there where no other presence might appear.
[Joyce Meyer, PBVM, is international liaison for Global Sisters Report.]