Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Solemnity of the Annunciation of Our Lord


Excerpt from "Annunciation"
by Denise Levertov

...The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
God waited.
She was free to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.
This was the minute no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.
A breath unbreathed,
She did not cry, “I cannot, I am unworthy,”
Nor, “I have not the strength.”
She did not submit with gritted teeth, raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.

The life of contemplative nuns is replete with opportunities for withdrawal into some sacred time, some sacred place. It is the very abundance of those opportunities which draws some souls into this life, a life in which we live together alone with God. Yesterday provided such an opportunity for me, my monthly day of private retreat. Yes, by my very entrance into a monastic community I have withdrawn from the larger society in significant ways. But life in a monastery is a communal one in which all of the nuns live, work, eat, pray and play together. This intense life in community brings all of the realities of family living into play - joy, celebration, decision-making, conflict, mis-understanding, compromise, unity of purpose, mutual love and support and forgiveness. And, as if that were not enough, it requires all the work of creating and keeping up a home and giving sustenance to body and soul. It is a tall order. Thus these monthly personal days of retreat into solitude and our annual long personal retreat of ten days are a necessity.

My day of retreat was chosen with a strategy in mind. It was to be a meditation on the eve of the anniversary of my first vows taken six years ago. The picture here of the angel's revelation to Mary and Denise Levertov's poems were used on the invitation and program for my solemn vows. Each speaks of total and free surrender to the will of God. As I walked about the landscape yesterday and meditated upon it as I looked out my bedroom window, I observed flora and fauna perfectly surrendered to God's will, bending in the wind without resistance, patiently waiting for God's sun to warm buds into opening without fear and trembling or pregnant deer basking in the sun awaiting their day of delivery.

We have much these days to disconcert us; trials and fears abound. But Mary's trust, her utter surrender -"Let it be done to me according to your word." - remind us of our recourse to the providence of God.

Among Redemptoristines, every 25th of the month is a celebration of the Incarnation, God taking on our human flesh. We will renew our vows as usual and celebrate Sr. Mary Jane's 30th anniversary of her vows, Sr. Moira's anniversary of entrance into the community twenty-one years ago, and my little six year mile marker. May we all celebrate with Mary a renewed surrender to total trust in Divine Providence.

The Avowal

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
free fall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.

Denise Levertov
with permission of
New Direction Publishing

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Lenten Contemplative Studies Series

The People's Office

That's what the documents of the Second Vatican Council tried to communicate to the faithful; that the Divine Office, now more commonly called the Liturgy of the Hours, was not the exclusive property of clerics, or even of religious but, as the official public prayer of the Church, it belongs to everyone.

These days that is being taken more and more to heart by many in the Church. Last evening, 18 earnest, faithful folks, ranging in age from early 20s to over 80, came to our monastery to be introduced to or to brush up on the Liturgy of the Hours. Their interest spurs us contemplative monastic nuns on in our own apostolate of prayer. And the group included seven men! That's over and third and it is hard to find such a ratio at most religious adult education.

Last night's presentation covered the theology of the Liturgy of the Hours, the trinitarian prayer of the Church to the Father, united with Jesus, and through the Holy Spirit. It is the prayer of the whole Church, sanctifying the hours of the day and fulling the priestly office of Jesus Christ in which we participate by virtue of our baptism.The seven sacraments, especially the Eucharist; the observance of the Liturgical year of the Church; and the Liturgy of the Hours comprise the official public worship of the Catholic Church.

Next week we will compare notes on using the Hours during this coming week - the trials, frustrations of using the book and, hopefully, the contribution made to our prayer lives. We will also cover the long history of the Liturgy of the Hours in our Chruch. The last week will also include more encouragement and how-to but also discussion of the Psalms as a particular prayer form.

If you would like to know more; if you would like to consider this time-honored prayer practice for yourself, here are some resources:

Church Documents
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Vatican Council II)
General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours

The Divine Office for Dodos - Nugent, Catholic Book Pub.
The Origins of the Divine Office and Its Meaning for Today by Taft, Collegeville 1986

Internet Sources
The Holy See on the Internet for all documents

****Daily Instructions and whole offices for the Liturgy of Hours

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Pure Attention:
A Form of Prayer

My friend of many years and now divinity student, Linda Miles, took one of my book recommendations to heart. After reading Waldron's "Thomas Merton: Master of Attention" she decided to use it with a small group at her church. She has given permission for reprint here of the quotations she used and the reflection questions offered. Perhaps you may find them stimulating.

Thomas Merton: Master of Attention
by Robert Waldron

(poem inspired by Simone Weil)

Teach me to be attentive
To all your vestiges;
To the first light,
To the waking bird,
To the leaf’s rustle and to the rain’s drop,
To the scent of water and to the sky’s hue
And to the rise of the wind;
Teach me to be so attentive that
I shall hear the first flakes of the snow’s fall.
Robert Waldron

The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable of toward God. The quality of the attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer. Warmth of the heart cannot make up for it. The highest part of the attention only makes contact with God, when prayer is intense and pure enough for such contact to be established; but the whole attention is turned toward God.
Simone Weil

How Merton had become a “spiritual master” ?

“Merton, of course, prayed in church while chanting the psalms, when attending and later celebrating Mass, and at set times in the day he meditated on biblical texts. But he also prayed while reading, studying, and writing, while sweeping and cleaning his hermitage, while watching the deer outside his door, while gazing upon the Kentucky hills or listening to the birds outside his window, while looking at a blazing fire in his hearth on cold winter days and nights.”(Waldron, p.3)

“Deep prayer is not an esoteric activity only for mystics and proficients: it is available to all of us if we would only pay attention.” (Waldron p. 7)


1 How is prayer like attention?
2. Which experience is more dominant in your prayer, you paying attention to God or God paying attention to you?
3. How satisfied are you by your prayer and what might you change to make it more attentive?
4. How is attention to nature, art, study, or scripture like prayer for you?

“The Hawk” in The Sign of Jonas by Thomas Merton

“The eagle attacked a tree of starlings but before he was near them the whole cloud of them left the tree and avoided him and he came nowhere near them. Then he went away and they all alighted on the ground. They were there moving about and singing for about five minutes. Then, like lightening, it happened. I saw a scare go into the cloud of birds and they opened their wings and began to rise off the ground, and in that split second from behind the house and from over my roof, a hawk came down like a bullet and shot straight into the starlings just as the were getting off the ground. They rose into the air and there was a slight scuffle on the ground as the hawk got his talons into the one bird he had nailed…..”

“It was a terrible and yet a beautiful thing, that lightening flight, straight as an arrow, that killed the slower starling….The hawk, all alone, in the pasture, possessed his prey. He did not fly away with it like a thief. He stayed in the field like a king with the killed bird and nothing came near him. He took his time.”

“I tried to pray, afterward. But the hawk was eating the bird. And I thought of that flight, coming down like a bullet from the sky behind me and over my roof, the sure aim with which he hit this one bird, as though he had picked it out from a mile away…But in the end, I think the hawk is to be studied by saints and contemplatives because he does know his business. I wish I knew my business as well as he does his…”

“I wonder if my admiration for you gives me an affinity for you, artist. I wonder if there will ever be anything co-natural between us, between your flight and my heart stirring to serve Christ, as you, soldier, serve your nature. And God’s love a thousand times more terrible! Now I am going back to the attic and to the shovels and the broken window and the trains in the valley and the prayer of Jesus.”(p.274-275)


1. Is your prayer life like that of the eagle or the hawk? How so?
2. What did Merton see in the hawk and how did he connect it to prayer?
3. Recall a time of prayer that was especially focused for you. What factors contributed to your heightened attention?
4. How can you apply Merton’s spirituality of attention to your life?

Friday, March 06, 2009

All in the Family

Breaking Vocation
News to the Family

Sr. Julie Viera, IHM is the blogger I would like to be when I grow up! Her blog, A Nun's Life at is just terrific. She is doing a tremendous service to religious life by demystifying it, publicizing its past and current achievements of service, and giving valuable information to those who are considering vowed religious life. Her question today is about family. How does one break the news of a religious vocation to the family? How does one present the determination to enter a contemplative monastic community; a cloistered monastery of nuns. Of course, this has its own particular set of issues for younger people whose families are looking forward to the achievements coming from the college education they bankrolled and parents who are eagerly awaiting the arrival of grandchildren, that great reward of their own years of hard work and sacrifice.

But my case is a bit different because when I had to present my intentions to my parents I was 55 years old, had already used that college education and then some, and had presented them with three grandsons. One would have thought that the job of being a good daughter had been fulfilled. Not so. As my mother reminded me when she expressed concern over my well-being after having had a baby, "You will always be my baby."

It is quite amazing to think that the very same fears that kept me from following through on the call to religious life when I was a teenager were still hanging around some 40 years later. A bit of background is necessary here. While I was raised in a culturally Italian household; while my parents were diligent about their two daughters being educated in the faith and receiving the sacraments; neither of them went to church, nor did the other two adults in our nuclear family. Many people find that hard to believe especially since my faith has always been so vital to me. My parents felt that religious education was good moral education but it did not go further than that. Nor were children given much leeway in our home. Expectations were high.

After public elementary school, I attended a high school where the teachers were the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood both familiar and attractive to me in the parish setting where, probably in eighth grade, the idea of becoming a sister emerged. It remained in my head and in my heart all during high school. I followed the advice of older girls headed for the convent and visited a priest they had found helpful. But when it came to telling my parents, I just could not do it. I could not muster the courage to deal with all that I knew would have to be endured. Eventually college and love stepped in and the rest is history.

At the age of 55, my three sons were well on their way; the old and very inexpensive mortgage was almost completely paid off; and the always lingering desire was blooming. Where secular institutes had refused me because I was too old, it looked like the Redemptoristine Nuns had never totally given up on old ladies. The community knew me well; a three month live-in experience confirmed what I thought was God's will for me; and the application was made. I did not approach my parents until I had been officially accepted and then only with the advice and support of a counselor and the promise of support from my sons. And this last was my salvation.

I invited my parents to come for dinner. My middle and youngest sons were to be present and they knew it was my plan to break the news. I said to my parents, "Remember how I spent last summer at the monastery. Well that was not just for a long retreat. I was testing the waters to see if I really wanted to enter the community. And now that is what I am going to do. I will finish teaching in six months and then I will enter the community for a trial period." Just what I had expected to be said 40 years before was spoken at that table. It was painful to hear the disappointment and the scolding voices. But something happened which I did not expect and it lightened my heart. I was seated at the head of the table with my parents on one side and my sons on the other. The conversation soon turned into a ping pong match between the sides and I just sat quietly while my sons respectfully did battle for me. I was so proud and happy. Finally, my middle son said to his grandparents, "We don't really understand this either but we know how much Mom has done for us and for others. She has let us do what we wanted to do. How can we not support her in this?" My parents had no answer and no understanding of the generosity and acceptance being expressed by my sons.

How did it all turn out? My sons, daughter-in-law, sister and parents came to be present at my entrance. My parents visited me in the monastery every 6 weeks or so until about three years ago when their ages became a factor. They have been comforted by seeing that I am not hidden away from them and am still part of the family although in a different way. They know, and this grows in importance with each passing year, that if they should need me I can be there for them. Since they are not "church types" they seemed quiet observers of the rituals of my first profession, all quite new to them. But gradually they have grown more and more comfortable. Now my mother closes phone calls with, "Send my love to the ladies." On the occasion of my solemn profession, my father told me, "I am glad that you have found your place."