I belong to a small community of contemplative religious women, Poor Clare Nuns, also known as the Sisters of St. Clare. In 1991, the late Bishop of Saginaw, Ken Untener, invited four of us to leave our home monastery in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and come to Saginaw, Michigan, where in the spirit of St. Clare we could be a praying community sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the healing power of prayer with others.
The question that we are most frequently asked is, “What is contemplative prayer?” For me “contemplative prayer” means to consciously open my heart to the presence of the resurrected Jesus in this time and place. I do this by trying to calm my busy mind. All of us are aware that sometimes reaching a calm and quiet space in our hearts is not easy. I often use aids to help me move into a more prayerful place where I might be more aware of God’s presence. Sometimes I light a candle or burn incense, or sound a soft bell or chime, or play music. Music can be a very powerful way to open my heart as I prepare for contemplative prayer.
Music and songs are also helpful when we gather for liturgy and pray together in our parishes. Because of the priest shortage in this rural diocese, we do not have a chaplain for our daily Eucharist, which is the usual arrangement for contemplative monasteries. We join the local parishes for Eucharist and usually go on Saturday afternoon. It’s traditionally a day that includes grocery shopping and other housework. These normal actions can sometimes be stressful, especially if I am behind schedule and feel rushed. By the time that I get to church, greet a few friends and get settled in the pew, I am ready for a rest rather than contemplative prayer. Rushing around is not the best way to prepare for prayer. However, as soon as the singing in church begins, something is transformed within me. Music invites me into a different mode of being. With many people around me in the pews, I can feel alone and at the same time united with them.
When we four sisters gather as a community for contemplative prayer, we always begin with a song to help us make the transition from our daily tasks to a more contemplative space. We have a collection of hymns that we use for different times of the year. Songs help us to get into the season.
During Lent, one of the keynote songs is the “Lord have mercy” at the beginning of the Mass. I grew up with the idea that in order to come into God’s presence, we had to admit our sinfulness. However, with this music I feel something very different. I move from a feeling of being unworthy into a heartfelt longing for the presence of God and a renewed awareness of God’s love for me.
Recently a friend played John Rutter’s “Requiem.” In the last two minutes of the opening movement, the choir sings “Kyrie eleison,” the traditional Greek for “Lord have mercy.” My attention was completely captured by that music and it transformed me momentarily into a new place and time. The melody was so beautiful that it hurt. My soul melted and my skin tingled. I had a sense of beauty, of intimacy, and of wonder. In that moment I sensed something that words can’t adequately capture: the presence of the resurrected Jesus. The presence of God in my heart. I wanted to hold that holy experience and never have it end.
I have heard other people express similar feelings when they hear music like “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art” and “Ave Maria.”
Although these brief holy experiences inspired by music do end, and we must come back to our ordinary lives, we are aware that we will not be the same. Throughout the days following my experience of this beauty and communion with the Holy, I realized that something in me had awakened and become more alive. My heart is more open. My spirit wants to be more loving because during my prayer I had felt what I know as love.
The experience of the disciples after the resurrection of Jesus resonates within me: I felt the presence of the risen Jesus and was touched by God’s love. Nothing will be the same.
I am grateful for this precious gift.
[Laura Hammel is a member of the Sisters of St. Clare, a Poor Clare community in Saginaw, Michigan. Her projects, in addition to her prayer ministry, have included developing and maintaining a website, making blessing oil, and creating various greeting cards for sale.]