A conversation with...
What life experiences inspired you to write Awakening to Prayer: A Woman’s Perspective?
As a Dominican sister, I’ve studied a lot, especially the mystics, and I’ve been encouraged to contemplate. The mystics connect me to the essence of prayer more than anything else. My own contemplative experience, my experience with spiritual direction as well as the planning of retreats and programming of retreat centers are probably what moved series editor Elizabeth Dreyer to ask me to write Awakening to Prayer.
From my background in spiritual direction, I know people are always asked, “Where was God in your life this past month?” and “What do you want at the deepest level of your being?” I’ve witnessed people talking about their prayer, even their experience of mysticism, what I understand to be knowing God through experience.
You distinguish between watching and noticing. In the midst of hectic lives, how can women look deeper and really begin to contemplate the world around them?
First, by acknowledging that we’re capable of contemplation—taking a long, loving look at the real—and then by starting to let go of compartmentalizing life and beginning to see that, in a certain sense, everything is holy: cooking and cleaning and making love and taking walks and visiting hospitals and making lunch for our children. We need to move away from the notion that it’s a holy thing to get down on our knees and say an Our Father, but it’s not as holy to cook dinner for our family with that same kind of attentiveness.
When you watch, you distance yourself, you observe. When you notice, you look in depth at what’s going on around you. For instance, when cooking, if you think, “OK, I’m going to prepare food that nourishes the bodies of people I love so they can live healthfully,” then you are noticing rather than just watching.
What is the connection between awakening and prayer?
Awakening is opening our eyes to what’s going on in the world. It’s possible for some of us to exist for a lifetime in a kind of half-asleep state. This is when we close ourselves off from the world and deny the interconnectedness of all creatures and all beings. For example, we can live and be asleep to such devastating events as earthquakes, hurricanes and genocide in Darfur. If we want to pray with awareness and attentiveness to what is going on in the world, we need to be awake to it. Aware and awake are practically interchangeable.
Why are we quick to reject the notion that our own experiences can often point us to a Truth about the Divine reality?
When I was growing up, there was never any emphasis on trusting our own experience. I see this today, too, with people I meet in spiritual direction. They study religion in grade school or high school or even in college-level theology classes, but they are not encouraged to trust their experiences and to see how that experience—and their reflection on it—is a vital part of any prayer life.
Also, we have emphasized a God outside ourselves rather than the indwelling presence—even though we’ve always had that doctrine in the Christian tradition. We’ve had a “here I am, and God, you’re way up in heaven” mentality. The emphasis is not on ourselves and our experience, but on how we can transcend and get outside ourselves and reach out to this creature way beyond us. We haven’t grown up thinking that our experience is a place where we really meet the sacred and the holy and so on.
Why is the way we name God so important, and how do the names we assign the Sacred affect our prayer life?
The name isn’t as important as the image and the understanding of God. Think, for example, of a colleague, a supervisor, a parent or a classmate who is grouchy, selfish, demanding or lacking in compassion. Do you want to cultivate a connection, a close connection, with that person? No.
Being human, we create images to the best of our ability. This is OK, but we need to realize that whatever image we create, it is a metaphor for something beyond our comprehension. Saint Augustine says God has no gender, but our prayers and our liturgies are packed full of solely one image of God: God as father. If a person has had a really tough time with patriarchal oppression, why would that person want to think of God as the great patriarch? On the other hand, if we think of God in terms of “I hold you in the palm of my hand” or “even if a mother would desert her child, I would not desert you,” then that image could impact how we want to be involved with this God of ours. It is important to realize that God is beyond all images. Perhaps Mystery with a capital M is the best name for God; God is beyond our comprehension.
Talk about the role Sophia plays throughout the Bible, who she is and what women can learn about their faith from her.
For a certain time in history, the Spirit was considered as resonating with female metaphors, and this is where Sophia comes in. Sophia, of course, is actually translated as wisdom. The ideas of creation, of indwelling, of renewing and nurturing are all connected with the feminine. But this has been incredibly neglected in our church. Sophia is a real biblical personage—and quite powerful. I really think the reading of the Wisdom literature and the seeing there of the feminine dimension—and all the images of Scripture that bring in womanly qualities and the importance of creating and giving life—can be connected with Sophia. It has never been lifted up in an obvious way in the Christian tradition, either in the Catholic or Protestant tradition. Many feminist theologians are bringing Sophia out of hiding now. It’s exciting because women in their prayer need to know that God is beyond gender, and women can ask, “Why not have feminine images as well as masculine images of God?”
What do you wish women understood about Christianity that maybe is overlooked or glossed over?
The whole notion of the pervasive presence of God, evident in Jesus and creation and in women’s own being and in their own lives.
Another thing neglected in some church teaching is the centrality of inclusiveness and nonviolence and compassion in the Jesus story as expressed in the gospel—that business of everyone being welcome at the table and the whole nonviolence thing. I’m a pacifist, and the idea that a person can be Christian and still support war and violence is a disconnect to me.
Another thing glossed over that I wish women could understand is the unconditional nature of God’s love as revealed by Jesus. If I do something really bad or thoughtless, no matter what it is, this behavior doesn’t take away God’s love. I grew up with a very sin-oriented morality, learning that people were always on the verge of sin, and if you sinned, God loved you less.
In what ways can we stay connected to God through prayer during those dry times when it appears (on the surface anyway) that God has stopped listening and speaking to us?
We have to try to believe that God weeps with us; God grieves with us. Our only prayer needs to be cries of help. Another thing is to realize that we can touch God’s presence through the love of friends, family members and helping others. Try to believe that you’re not alone and that God is not responsible for your pain. That is something that our religion has not gifted us with. I’ve heard people say, for example, that if a person has cancer and that person comes through it, then “God blessed them.” That is true. But the person in the next bed who is going to die in two weeks is blessed by God, too. To let go of that is to be able to say that God is not responsible for my pain, but I will try to believe that God is with me in my pain. That is a change of mind that we have to move ourselves through.
The paschal mystery usually refers to Jesus’ death and resurrection, but it’s bigger than that. God doesn’t want us to suffer, but new life can come out of suffering. The suffering part is really difficult, especially if we think God wills that I should have cancer or wills that I should lose my baby. Tragedies and joyous things happen in the course of life, and God is in them all, and sometimes God has to come to us through our own anguish and the love of the Christian community.
Transformation cannot come to completion without God, but what role do we play in our own transformations?
Our role in transformation is to notice that something is happening and then to respond by the choices we make and perhaps by the way we pray. In Ezekiel God says, “I will change your heart of stone to a heart of flesh.” And, in a certain sense, that happens sometimes through struggle and suffering and sometimes through study—all kinds of ways.
It’s a process, and, in a sense, you move from within yourself the seed of the holy: from the seed to the blossom to the fruit. We have to water the seed of generosity or water the seed of compassion that lives somewhere in us. And by watering that seed, we’re doing our part to cooperate with God’s desire that our heart of stone will be changed into a heart of flesh. And then using that image again—the seed to the blossom to the fruit—we honor the fertility of the blossom. We don’t destroy our bodies by alcohol or drugs or this or that; we honor what’s coming to birth in us: God’s love. And then, we don’t hold it all to ourselves. The fruit is the next part. Scripture says, “You will know them by their fruits.” You give to somebody else what you have within yourself.
Based on your experience, should people have a specific time and place to pray regularly, or is this structure too rigid and limiting?
The question in response to your question is, “What works?” What connects you to Holy Mystery and keeps deepening that connection, and what increases your awareness of the sacred? It might be holding the face of your nursing infant; it might be watching the sunrise; it might be sitting by the bed of your parent with Alzheimer’s. Because God is everywhere, what does your personality or your life circumstance offer you to make that connection begin to work? My sister had eight children, and she said when they were young, the only place she could pray was in the shower. So her shower became her place to ask blessing and think about God.
Prayer works differently for each person. The question is, “What connects you to Holy Mystery and helps you to deepen that relationship?”
Tuesday, September, 16, 2008