I’ll pray for you anyway

After visiting with Sister Margaret, I pray in the monastery’s beautiful chapel.

“I just got back from Walgreens where I bought boxes of band aids, Neosporin, and hydrocortisone cream.”

This was my response to Sister’s Margaret’s inquiry into the summer activities of my children.  I try to visit her Benedictine monastery once a month for spiritual direction.

“The kids are doing great,” I said.  “But Isaac came home last night all banged up from baseball. He had deep, bloody scratches down both knees and an infected sore on his toe.  I was horrified.  He hardly noticed.”

Sister Margaret smiled and laughed at this description of my 10-year-old boy.

“It’s so hard to see my baby’s body all beat up like that.” I continued.  “But before I put him in bed I made sure he was all clean.  I gave him a bath, slathered on the Neosporin and put bandages all down his knees and shins and around his toe.”

“It sounds like lectio.” Sister Margaret remarked, which made me smile.  She was right.  I “attended” to my son’s wounds just like a person of faith would “attend” to a sacred text through lectio divina—or sacred reading.

“You know,” Sister Margaret continued, “God attends to you in the same way.”  Her comment made me pause and contemplate God attending to my wounds, being horrified by my pain and seeking to speed the healing process through attentive love and care.

She shifted in her chair and leaned forward intently. “I want you to go back through your life and remember all the times you were attended to with love and kindness,” she said.  “We more often remember when we have been hurt or wounded.  But kindness and love abound.  Return to those places when you were shown love and kindness and in those places you will return to God.”

As I began to consider when I was attended to in love, I recalled what Sister Margaret said to me when I first sat down in the comfortable armchair across from hers. I had not been able to come see her for a few months because of my busy schedule so I apologized for missing.  Her response to my apology was, “That’s okay.  You can miss if you have to.  Whether you come or not, I’ll pray for you anyway.”

Longing for God

“I feel this longing for God.”

Sister Margaret, my spiritual director, sat across from me in a comfortable armchair as I shared this, her bible open on a small table next to her. She always has a scripture ready for me. I needed to talk about this longing, though, this desire for God that I had been feeling, but not able to satisfy. I needed to confess and felt my apprehension reveal itself as I did, my forehead wrinkling and my eyebrows lifting in concern.

Sister Margaret smiled and nodded in response, as if my longing was good. But it didn’t feel good to me. It disturbed me. Why can’t I find God? Why can’t I satisfy this desire to know and feel God? I have in the past. So why not now? What’s different about me now? What am I doing wrong? Where has God gone? Or, was God ever there at all?

Sister Margaret just kept smiling and nodding. She approved. In fact, she applauded my longing as a form of prayer—like the Psalmist crying out, “Where are you God?” and then waiting for God to answer.

But I don’t like to wait, I told her. Waiting is uncomfortable—because as I wait my mind starts to wander and wonder whether God will ever show up. I start to doubt that God is listening or even exists at all.

I recently read a description of Western upper-middle class life as like “living between two mattresses”—a well padded existence where we can satisfy every craving, every want, every desire almost instantly. In my affluent, well-padded world, I find it easy to distract myself from what C.S. Lewis would call sehnsucht – a German word used to describe the primitive impulse lodged deep within the human heart, a yearning or craving that can hardly be put into words, but that nevertheless motivates everything we say or do. Such longing cannot be satisfied by a trip to the mall, a late night raid of the refrigerator, or a glass or two of Chardonnay. The satisfaction these indulgences offer are fleeting and never run deep enough. I want and need something more.

“What do you think God wants you to do with this longing?” Sister Margaret asked.

“To not run from it, to honor it, to keep seeking,” I responded immediately, instinctually.

Maybe it was simply what I was supposed to say. But it helped to hear myself say it. It also helped to see Sister Margaret smile.


Meeting with Sister Margaret

St. Benedict

St. Benedict

Forty-five minutes north of me, in Rock Island, Illinois, there is a Benedictine Monastery where the Sisters of St. Benedict live and run a retreat center. I have known of this monastery ever since I moved here and have even referred people to the sisters for spiritual direction, but never (in six years) had I gone there myself.   Recently, though, I realized I could benefit from a spiritual director, or a conversation partner in faith. So I made an appointment to meet with Sister Margaret and made the trip this past Thursday.

The monastery was so easy to get to. I turned right off the highway into a neighborhood of typical Midwestern ranch homes. Then I turned left onto a quiet street that opened up into an expansive view of the monastery set on the edge of a hill, overlooking acres of beautiful hardwoods just beginning to turn in color. I rolled down the windows of my car to take it all in—the crisp air, the view, the sunlight highlighting it all. I felt a sense of peace just driving into this beautiful, unexpected nook in Rock Island, and I hadn’t even stepped through the monastery doors.

Ever since I discovered that monasteries are open and welcoming of visitors seeking spaces of spiritual respite and renewal, I have sought them out. Reading books like Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk, Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain, and Henri Nouwen’s The Genesee Diary, encouraged my exploration. I spent a week, once, at a Benedictine Monastery in Cullman, Alabama and I have taken church members on retreat to a monastery in South Carolina. Guest house accommodations are typically very simple and you are, oftentimes, welcome to eat and worship with the community. I recommend a book called Sanctuaries that lists monasteries all across the country that welcome guests for a modest fee, or sometimes just a donation.

Sister Margaret met me at the door of the monastery, dressed in a white sweater, a pretty blue scarf and a pair of comfortable-looking blue pants. They don’t wear habits anymore.   After we sat down in her office, she began our session with lectio divina (sacred reading) and a prayer. Then we got to know each other. Sister Margaret is 75 years old, but still gets around easily in spite of knees that she admits are wearing out. As we spoke she referred to scripture, but also quoted Ghandi and a Zen master. I liked her right away. She encouraged me to practice centering prayer, which she described as a practice in which you simply “let God look at you.” I described my sense of call for her and how I had always felt drawn to God from a very young age. It was good to remind myself of this in conversation.

Before I left, Sister Margaret handed me a piece of paper with the following scripture verses printed on it:

“You are precious in my eyes; I love you.” Isaiah 43: 1-11

“God loved us so much he gave us his only son.” John 3:16-21

“God is love.” 1 John 4: 7-21

“I have called you by name.” Isaiah 43: 1-7

“I have written your name on the palm of my hand.” Isaiah 49:1-16

“With an age old love I have loved you.” Jeremiah 31:3

“Give thanks to God; good indeed is the Lord, whose love endures forever, whose faithfulness lasts through every age.” Psalm 100

“God’s love endures forever.” Psalm 136

Her message to me was clear. I look forward to the next chance I have to be loved by Sister Margaret.

[Feature Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.]