I am going to be speaking this weekend at the National Black Catholic Congress in Orlando, Florida. I was asked to give a presentation on prayer and was given the title "Prayer: Our Greatest Weapon". My lack of self-confidence quickly led me to wonder what in the heck I could offer on this topic that would be worth sharing. I started to look up quotes and think about books that I knew could say a lot about prayer; I tried making an organized PowerPoint with images and words that would do the trick; I even thought about doing a survey in my convent of what the other sisters had to say about prayer; but then I stopped. I realized that even though I didn't believe in myself, God did. I didn't sign up to be a presenter at the congress. In fact, they had to ask me twice because I turned them down the first time. I may be stubborn, but God is persistent. For whatever reason, God chose me to speak on the topic.
The other mistake I made, aside from thinking I should use everyone else's words, was the idea that God wanted my thoughts on prayer. One of my spiritual directors once told me I was in my head too much, that I needed to let my heart move me once in a while. When I was working on writing a book with several other sisters over Christmas break this past year, that message was reiterated. We would break off into small groups every day to share our progress and provide feedback for one another. One of the sisters whom I admire very much gave me this critique: she said that I was a storyteller and that it was a unique gift. She said she was intrigued by everything I had to say until I stopped telling the story. When my part of the book became academic, she confessed that she lost interest. I realized it was because I started relying too much on my "head" and started trying to write without relying on my heart. My gift is not in academic writing I discovered, it is in sharing stories. Since this blog enables me to tell stories in my own words and through the experiences of my heart, I figured it would be the best way to prepare my talk for this weekend - so here are some stories of prayer.
This summer I was able to return to the 100-mile pilgrimage I used to walk annually before I joined the convent. (It's actually how I met the Felician Sisters.) Every year, hundreds of pilgrims walk from designated cities around New Mexico to a small Marian shrine known as the Santuario de Chimayó. There were four groups walking in total this year and I was on the women's route walking from Albuquerque. So why do I bring up pilgrimage other than the fact that we were walking to a place of prayer? While it's true that we prayed together every day, morning, noon and night, that's not even the reason I bring up my experience of pilgrimage. I bring it up because we had become prayer. Walking 100 miles is no joke. It's extremely taxing on your body, even if you train for it. The altitude can get to you because the air is thinner; the heat can get to you, especially when there is no shade for miles; dehydration is always a threat; shin splints, blisters and cramping often show up within the first day or two; and then there's just the general soreness of achy muscles because no one's body is used to walking 20 miles a day for five days straight. That's how we had become prayer - we had opened up our bodies to extreme physical discomfort, not because we thought it was a good idea, but because we welcomed whatever the journey would bring and we did it for others.
There's a quote by Arthur Ashe that says, "Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome." I want to paraphrase that in terms of the pilgrimage: Prayer is a journey, not a destination. The effort is often more important than the outcome. On the pilgrimage, it was our desire to keep on going and our fidelity to the journey that transformed us. Most importantly, everything we did, we did for others. The journey and the determination to continue was for the sake of the people who had entrusted us with their prayers as well as for each other. Sometimes prayer was ignoring our own pain so we could comfort another, giving tissue to a tearful companion, or offering our suffering for the family and friends we had promised to pray for. Because it was so physically taxing, and because we did it all out of love, we carried prayer in our very bodies. That's called sacrifice, the highest form of loving one another that Jesus Christ explained and exemplified. And what is the result? Why should sacrifice mean anything to us? It transforms us. It brings us closer to others and closer to God. So often my prayers are about what I want or what I need God's help with, but in sacrifice it becomes all about how I can be of service to others. That's what prayer is for - transformation, becoming more like the images of God we were created to be. Are we not called to be perfect like our Heavenly Father is perfect? We will likely not reach absolute beauty and truth in this lifetime, but again, it's about the journey not the destination.
Another form of prayer has been my recent interactions as I prepare to leave Pomona, California after four years here. During that time I formed many friendships and became a part of many families. It hurts to leave, but I cannot explain how grateful I am to have lived and loved here. The "goodbyes" started at the end of the school year, but they continue as I go out to lunch with a colleague or grab some ice cream with a former student. The other night I was invited to dinner at the home of a family I got to know through teaching. I arrived at 5 p.m. and was greeted with smiles and kindness before I even rang the doorbell. Along with the conversation and company, I enjoyed a wonderful homemade meal, dessert, and several glasses of water. Everyone was so gracious and genuine. We talked and laughed like we could go on all evening, but I eventually confessed that it was probably time for me to go. They walked me to my car and we hugged goodbye, but we promised it wouldn't be the last time we saw each other. As I turned the key in the ignition, I looked at the clock and almost started laughing. It was 2:23 in the morning! I had been there for nine hours and the conversation might have even continued had I not decided to go home. I almost couldn't believe it, and yet I could. The whole time I was at their house I had not been worried about what time it was. I wasn't repeatedly looking at my watch to check the time, or wondering when there would be a break in the action so I could leave. It was like I had experienced time the way God does.
Our time together that night became a prayer because each of us was living in the present - each of us was content to simply be there with one another. We weren't thinking about where else we could be or what else we could be doing; we were simply being. That's not easy. I know I often find myself thinking about ministry or community needs even when I am visiting with people. Questions pop into my head like, "Did I send that email?" or "What was I going to pick up from the store today?" However, none of us allowed any distractions that night. I could probably count on one hand the number of times I have experienced timelessness like that, and that was one of them. Jesus spent a lot of time with His disciples. Sometimes He was preaching and teaching, but often times we read about Him eating with people. He spent a lot of time just being with them, and why? Why do we spend time with anyone? We spend time with people to show we care. It's part of how we love each other. Sometimes we visit our family and friends because they're sick; sometimes we visit for special occasions and holidays; other times we visit because we are saying goodbye. No matter the reason, our desire to be with that person or those people comes from our love for them and thus we are able to give them a glimpse of God's love for them. Any time God's love is involved, it's a prayer.
Prayer sometimes involves teaching. It is one of the spiritual works of mercy after all, not to mention one of Jesus's greatest gifts, so it should come as no surprise that I also encountered prayer when I was teaching. One of my most powerful experiences of prayer actually came when I was watching my students pray. I taught Theology 12 for four years in a row, so I had the opportunity to introduce different forms of prayer when the curriculum allowed it. On this particular day, I had introduced lectio divina as a way to pray with Scripture. I had never heard of it before entering religious life, but when I became a novice in community, we would pray lectio divina together every Friday and I came to really enjoy it. It's a prayer typically done in small groups, but for the sake of time, I had my students do their practice run using a journal. Rather than sharing their findings aloud, they wrote them down. It was a very quiet activity, but I had a lot of introverts in the class so I knew it would work out just fine. At one point, while they were jotting down their personal messages from Scripture, it was like everything in me stopped and focused on one simple truth: this was a holy moment. I must admit that I have a terrible memory and have forgotten many special moments throughout my life, but this one hasn't left me. As I watched them journal I knew that it was a spiritually decisive moment - like some of their souls were choosing God right then and would never be the same.
Just like we don't receive all of our nutrients from one type of fruit or vegetable, the prayer of sacrifice and the prayer we find in relationships are not the only types of prayer that bring sustenance to our souls. There are various types of formal prayer that also have the power to transform us and therefore the world around us. Getting to know God and ourselves better has the potential to again remind us of who we are called to be - perfect, like our Heavenly Father. Scripture is one of the best ways we can do this, but lectio divina is not the only way to pray with Scripture. Mass and the rosary are two other excellent examples of formal prayers that can enrich our lives with Scripture. Praying with lectio divina has helped me discover areas of my life that I didn't realize needed healing, and has consequently helped me find the path to wholeness. The transformation that took place within me as a result has enabled me to love God, myself and others more deeply. My experience on pilgrimage had never been as rich as it was this year. What changed? I did. My love for dance had never been meaningful before religious life. What changed? I did. Again, prayer has the power to transform us. It's the tool that chisels us into God's image and likeness throughout our entire lives, enabling us to act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). Prayer is the journey toward perfection.