Category Archives: Prayer
I’ve recently returned from my annual retreat at the Benedictine Abbey at Jamberoo, NSW. The nuns and the Abbey were briefly famous some years ago when several women came to live with them as part of an ABC documentary/reality TV show. For many of my friends and indeed for many Catholics around Australia, the Abbey is far more ‘famous’ for being one of the ‘thin places’ on the earth: a place that has been sanctified by the prayers of people throughout the years and where God seems very near.
For my final few days at the Abbey a group of schoolgirls (Year 10s, I think) came with several teachers for a retreat experience. The inimitable Sr Hilda took them in hand, and was clearly seeking to give them as authentic an experience as possible of the life of the nuns (including an introduction to lectio divina prayer at 6:30am). I couldn’t help think about the ‘distance’ between the life of the Benedictines and the life-experience of the girls.
While I was observing the interaction between the these two groups of women a quote from Emmanuel Cardinal Suhard, one-time archbishop of Paris, came to my mind. Cardinal Suhard said that
to be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.
And so I found myself hoping that the girls’ experience of life at the Abbey was messing a little with their heads… in a good way. I was hoping that the witness of the nuns’ lives was throwing the girls into a holy confusion, as they tried to process why these gifted and capable women would make the decision to enter an enclosed order and dedicate their lives to prayer and simple work. Because those nuns really do epitomize the Cardinal’s words. Their life of stability which involves a commitment to more or less remain at the Abbey for the entirety of their lives; their fidelity to the monastic office which punctuates the day with the chanting of the psalms in the beautiful Abbey Church; their support of themselves by their own manual labour and their extraordinary charism of hospitality: none of it makes sense unless God is real, and unless God is love.
I’m not idealising these women. Over the years I have come to know some of the nuns quite well, and I have lived communal life as a religious brother for nearly eighteen years myself. In many respects they are a very ordinary, diverse and earthy lot. But to acknowledge that is precisely to provoke the question: they could have done anything with their lives and yet they chose the hidden life of prayer and self-renunciation as monastic women. For me the real power but also the litmus test of the truth of their lives consists in the very undramatic but genuine love with which the nuns welcome all who come to the Abbey, for whatever reason.
When a good friend of mine joined the Carmelites some 15 or so years ago many of our mutual friends and fellow students at the theological college where we studied described it as a ‘waste’. Julie was a great student, the SRC president, well-liked and respected. She could have done whatever she wanted with her life. But she chose to ‘waste’ it by joining an enclosed, contemplative order. When I heard these comments I was reminded of the story of another woman accused of being wasteful: the woman who anointed Jesus before his death with the expensive perfume (Mark 14:1-10). To be a contemplative is to be an extravagant lover, ‘spending oneself’ as it were in a life given to God. From a certain perspective that is certainly a ‘waste’, but it is that seeming wastefulness that actually constitutes their lives as living mysteries. The proclamation that God exists and that God is love is inscribed into their very bones, written into the laugh-lines on their faces as they live their simple lives, hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:3).
When I was a kid, I was pretty scared of the classic painting of the Sacred Heart that hung on the wall of my grandparent’s home. You know how the eyes of people in some paintings seem to follow you wherever you go? Well, I felt like that bleeding heart wrapped in the crown of thorns followed me. That’s pretty unnerving when you are a little kid.
Fortunately my understanding of the Sacred Heart of Jesus has developed a little over time. There are two scriptural images that are the biblical foundation for this devotion. The first is the image of the beloved disciple resting his head on Jesus’ heart at the Last Supper. It’s a wonderful icon of intimacy with Jesus, and tells us something vital about discipleship. Following Jesus involves becoming his close companion.
Then there is the image of the blood and water flowing from Jesus’ heart after the soldier has pierced his side with the lance. The symbolism here is raw and visceral. The very life-force of Jesus is poured out for the world, for us. Devotion to the Sacred Heart takes us to the very centre of the Redemption. He sheds his blood so that we might share in his life.
The meaning of these two scriptural images come together in an experience of St Margaret Mary Alacoque. She was praying before the Blessed Sacrament one day when she experienced Jesus take her heart and place it in his own, burning heart. He then returned her heart to her, only now hers was burning too. To debate what actually happened to Margaret Mary is to miss the point, because her experience is really Christianity 101. Our hearts are supposed to be set on fire by Jesus’ heart. Filled with the burning love of God.
A few years ago I spent some time on retreat in the town of Paray-le-Monial, where St Margaret Mary Alacoque received her visions of the Sacred Heart. I wrote the following poem as a result of the experience.
Paray- le- Monial
“The disciple Jesus loved was reclining next to Jesus…”
I wonder, do you pilgrim when you come,
exhale at the ordinariness of it all?
Pews, altar, ambo, tabernacle –
Solid if not stolid, and altogether unremarkable?
Do you wonder:
“will great graces be bestowed upon me here?”
for if not here then where, you
reason, little realising that grace does strike twice.
Are you awaiting wonders and signs in this
House of Apparitions
or do you nakedly seek the Christ
who did bear his heart here once?
Tell me, what manner of wonder
marks your passing pilgrim?
do you catch your breath, then inhale
the peace and power?
Have time and space whittled away to a needle-point
to this moment, at which a new unveiling is taking place?
Do you shudder, anticipation and agony
As truth runs you through
like a rapier-thrust of light
both unforgiving and merciful
Or are you blind to your apocalypse, my friend?
Do not fear, if all or part is hidden still,
Simply tell me this:
Can your heart keep time with his?
You need no other vision.