This excellent paper was presented by one of the Dominican Contemplative Nuns from the Siena Convent in Drogheda, Ireland.
The occasion was the Domincain Family day, a yealy event where the different branches of the Dominican Order (Friars, Nuns, Sisters and Lay Dominicans) come together. This paper is called “Our Preaching Story”, and is a reflection on the role of the contemplative sisters in the life of the Order of Preachers. The focus of the paper is on private prayer.
Our preaching story both differs from, and incorporates the preaching stories of the other branches of the Order. “As the friars, sisters and laity are called to preach the name of our Lord Jesus Christ throughout the world; the nuns are to seek, ponder and call upon Jesus in solitude so that the word – (the saving- word, the grace-filled word) proceeding from the mouth of God ( and preached by you our brothers and sisters )may not return to him empty, but may accomplish those things for which it was sent.” ( Is 55:10) ( LCM Fund. Const. 1.11)
Our Constitutions tell us that St. Dominic in founding the Nuns wanted us “to be free for God alone” and he associated us with his “holy preaching” specifically through our prayer and penance. They also tell us that we are ‘commissioned by God primarily for prayer’ ( LCM 96.1) The Constitutions of the Friars, LCO 142, states that “ St. Dominic intended the nuns of the Order to dedicate themselves wholly, in the contemplative religious life, to that communion with God, which nourishes the apostolic life of the brothers and of the other branches of the Dominican Family, the nuns providing a witness of prayer, silence and penance.” Three weeks ago on the 31st May 2010, Sr. Niamh made solemn profession and I would like to quote a little part of this ceremony as it is very beautiful and emphasises our place in the preaching mission of the Order:
‘By this solemn profession you have given yourself to God and to His will: God Himself, therefore, has consecrated you to Himself through the ministry of the Church, to be associated, through a life of prayer and penance, with the ‘holy preaching’ of St. Dominic, so that you may be His own heritage and that He may be your heritage forever.’
And the prayer with the blessing of the veil reads; ‘Lord, bless this veil which Sr. Niamh Muireann wears for love of you and your blessed Mother Mary, ever Virgin, as a sign of her consecration to you. Through your help and protection may she always preserve the purity of heart it mystically signifies. In wearing it may she be recognised as a house of prayer and a temple of intercession for all people. Clothe with your grace her entire being, so that she may love you with all her heart. May she always live in this love and be introduced one day to the joy of your kingdom, through Christ our Lord.’
‘A house of prayer and a temple of intercession for all people.’ Prayer really is our life and is always intimately and essentially connected with love- God’s love for us and our response in love- however fragile that response may be. “ In the midst of the Church our growth in love, is mysteriously fruitful for the whole people of God,” – which means that our vocation in not for ourselves alone but transcends the limits of the monastery and is of benefit to the Order, the Church and the whole world.
Due to limited time I will focus only on personal prayer.
Prayer is a gift of God that we receive. It is fundamentally not what we do but what God does in us, how God loves us, addresses us, looks at us, enlightens us, forgives us, heals us, purifies us and eventually transforms us – if we let Him! We are on the receiving end. In prayer God gives us Himself in love and God’s love is total and unconditional:
‘I have loved you with an everlasting love and so I am constant in my affection for you’ ( Jer 31:3) and ‘You are precious in my eyes and I love you’ ( Is. 43:4)
Words cannot express the Reality of God or the lived experience of praying- of communing with God in the silence of our hearts. God will always remain the great Mystery, Awesome, Transcendent, and Incomprehensible – beyond words, ideas and images. Yet, thankfully we have Jesus, the revelation of the Father and through baptism it is in him that we ‘live and move and have our being’
( Acts 17:28). Union with God is not something we have to acquire; God is already the ground of our being. ‘ God is your being and what you are you are in God’ – as the author of the Book of Privy Counselling assures us. It is more a question of realising this in our lives and living out of the truth of this realisation.
For many years now I have been very taken with, and influenced by Ruth Burrow’s understanding of prayer and the mystical life. ( she is a contemplative Carmelite nun and writer) In her book, Essence of Prayer, she says:
‘The mystical life is the human person becoming more and more receptive to the inflowing of divine love, which as it enters, of necessity, purifies and transforms.’ – but the mystical life is not basically other than the Christian life, says our own Fr. Marie-Dominque Chenu OP.
In prayer, this emphasis on our participation through ‘ receiving’ leads to my own conviction that it is at the time of personal prayer when, as the psalmist instructs, we must try to: ‘Be still and know that I am God’
- when our bodies become still and our minds become silent, through whatever means is helpful to us, -that God can achieve in us the greatest purification and transformation that is so necessary through the inflowing of divine love – as I quoted earlier ’the human person becoming more and more receptive to the inflowing of divine love which, as it enters, of necessity purifies and transforms’. In allowing ourselves just to ‘be’ there for God, – not doing anything, not ‘saying’ prayers or making petitions (good as this is but not at this particular time) – just being silently aware of God’s presence and allowing Him to heal us and love us – receiving this love passively and surrendering our whole being to this powerful, silent, hidden, secret action of God- this type of prayer, I firmly believe, is of vital importance in all our lives. Fidelity to it and persevering in it is, as Contemplatives, our greatest contribution to the preaching mission of the Order, the Church and the world.
St. John of the Cross’ says: ‘In contemplation the activity of the senses and of discursive reflection terminates and God alone is the agent who then speaks secretly to the solitary and silent soul. Even though the soul is not then doing anything, God is doing something in it.’
St. John of the Cross also says: ‘ that the journey towards union of the soul with God does not consist in consolations, delights and spiritual feelings but in the living death of the cross, sensory and spiritual, exterior and interior’ .
True prayer means wanting God not self. Our own documents on the Contemplative Life affirms this when it says: “ withdrawal from the world for the sake of leading a more intense life of prayer in solitude is nothing other than a very particular way of living and expressing the paschal mystery of Christ, which is death ordained towards resurrection” ( Venite Seorsum 1)
The more we pray, the more time and commitment we give to being with God, the more we are purified within and this inevitably is painful. Direct contact with divine love is deeply disturbing. The love of God, all self-giving, confronts our terrified self-protecting, would-be self-reliant, autonomous self and this produces deep pain. Accepting and surrendering to this pain, this process of purification, by staying with God in prayer, is a tremendous challenge and a great grace. It would be all too easy to avoid this painful encounter by distracting ourselves by doing things, becoming involved in projects that are good in themselves, multiplying contacts, etc but to do that in our life, to avoid this stark encounter with God during this particular time of prayer, would be a form of escape, – that is how I see it.
Our own Meister Eckhart encourages us : ‘Do not waver from your emptiness’
Yes, prayer requires great poverty of spirit.
It is helpful to remember that prayer takes place at the deepest level of our person and escapes direct knowledge and indeed is beyond our understanding; therefore we can make no judgement about it. Where it takes place, in our deepest self is God’s holy domain and we have to trust it utterly to Him. This is one of the principal ways in which we surrender control.
We must be ready to believe that ‘ nothingness’ is the presence of divine Reality; emptiness is a holy void that Divine Love is filling. We must give up wanting assurances either from within or without. The inflowing of God into our secret depths of its very nature must remain secret as John of the Cross tirelessly insists: ‘…. it happens secretly in darkness, hidden from the faculties….so hidden that the soul cannot speak of it.’ But its effect on our life as a whole will be marked – chiefly by growth in love and selflessness.
On this subject of love Fr Anselm Moynihan OP has written; ‘The contemplative life is truly par excellence the vocation of love, that which gives the highest expression to our love for God and at the same time provides the greatest stimulus to the increase of that love. That is why it is so vital to the Church, for it nourishes the very heart of the Church, the life-spring of all its work of bearing witness to God’s glory and saving the souls of men.’
In nourishing the heart of the Church it nourishes the preaching heart of the Order and indeed the heart of the world. In Pope Benedict’s Pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland ( no. 14) he asks that monasteries organise periods of Eucharistic Adoration so that “ through intense prayer before the Real Presence of the Lord, you can make reparation for the sins of abuse that have done so much harm, at the same time imploring the grace of renewed strength and a deeper sense of mission on the part of all bishops, priests, religious and lay faithful. I am confident that this programme will lead to a rebirth of the Church in Ireland in the fullness of God’s own truth, for it is the truth that sets us free.”
In response to this request by Pope Benedict, we have one hour each Friday, 4:45pm – 5:45pm of silent Eucharistic Adoration for this intention, when all the community are present and as many of the faithful as possible. The invitation is open to all.
I would just like to finish with a quote from letter IV of Blessed Jordan to Blessed Diana, which helps to explain how our preaching stories complement one another: Jordan writes to Diana: “What you achieve in your stillness, I achieve by moving from place to place: all this we do for love of Him. He is our sole end.”
Indeed no matter what branch of the Order we belong to, we, like St. Dominic, whose deepest source of inspiration was his love of Jesus Christ, do all for love of Him. Love of Jesus is the source and goal of our lives.