Have you ever made a bargain with God? I have—I do it all too often!
“Listen Lord, I promise to pray every day and spend more time with you if you would just please fix… (fill in tough situation here).”
I have come to the realization that I do this without being so explicit. I expect, subconsciously, that because I strive to be a “good” Christian my life’s outcome will be perfect, without suffering or challenges. I wrongly think that if I finally start walking in my identity as a beloved child of God then all my human sufferings will dissipate and my time on earth will contain a storybook ending. It’s a results-oriented mentality: if I put in good work, then I will get a “good” outcome, almost like a math equation.
This realization was spurred from walking with friends who have been enduring profound suffering: childless friends who want the gift of a child, friends who have lost babies, friends who are waiting ever so patiently for their vocations, and friends who have been persevering faithfully through physical and mental trials. I have been wondering during prayer why these good people are getting such poor results. “This is not how it should work, Lord, they are good people, and they love you,” I tell Him. The problem with a results-oriented Christianity is that it typically results in disappointment—disappointment in yourself, and ultimately even doubt in God’s infinite goodness and love.
Enter Mary, the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, who completely destroys this toxic thinking. A few of her titles are: Mother Most Pure, Virgin Most Powerful, Morning Star, Mother Most Chaste, Mother Most Faithful, Mirror of Justice—the titles continue, but the point is that she is the perfection of humanity. She is without sin. She prayed perfectly. She said “yes” to the Lord with total trust and love. In her goodness, Mary teaches us how to be good, how to be more like Her and Her Son.
I used to struggle with Mary. I mean, she’s perfect. She’s called the Morning Star, for crying out loud! It’s a tad intimidating to attempt to imitate Her. Then, I pondered Her life’s “result” and Her humanity seemed more relatable. Though perfect, she experienced emotion, and she experienced deep suffering—from losing Her Son in the Temple, to standing at the foot of the Cross as Her Son gave the ultimate sacrifice for you and for me. I cannot imagine the pain Her Immaculate Heart suffered. The Mother of our Lord shows us that the Christian life is not one that lacks suffering—rather that the Christian life is one of faithfulness during times of joy and hardship.
In her book Cause of Our Joy, Mother Mary Francis, a contemplative Poor Clare nun and spiritual writer, expounds on another Marian title, Mary Inviolate, meaning “being without violation.” One might look at the result of Mary’s life and see many “violations,” but her peace, trust, and humility in the Father’s Goodness surpassed any fear of suffering. Mother Mary Francis says, “With [Mary’s] help, I will not let every little thing that happens to me disturb me, break in on the peace of my heart, make fissures in my prayer, make cracks in my relationship with Jesus … She could suffer without being violated, so that she could go forward in her life inviolate, unassaulted, nonfissured, with no fortifications destroyed ... Only our reactions assault us. Other things can merely invite us to suffer with the Man of Sorrows and Our Lady of Sorrows” (Francis, 30). Suffering is always an invitation to grow closer to the Lord—to realize that we’re never alone. If we pray, trust, and hope through suffering like Mary did, then we start to move away from a results-oriented Christianity, where we treat our relationship with the Lord like a math equation, and toward true discipleship, where we follow wherever the Lord leads us.
When we next encounter suffering—which is inevitable in the Christian Life—may we say “yes” as Mary always did. When we struggle through our suffering, may we go to Her open Heart that has suffered so greatly and there find the understanding, peace and love that only a Mother can tenderly bestow.
Question for Reflection: Do I turn to God and His Mother like I would a beloved friend or family member when I suffer? Do I pray only for an alleviation or my suffering? Or do I “talk through” my struggles like I would with a friend or family member? How can I approach the Lord and His Mother like I would these confidants I have on Earth?
I was going to write this as a reflection on the life of Saint Clare, given her feast day is this week (August 11) and that there are so many interesting facts and stories about her life. Then a different, but related, reflection came to mind…
Seven years ago, being a relatively recent convert to Catholicism, I had no idea who the Poor Clares were. However, I gained some new “sisters” when I started a diocesan two-year faith development program that year and was fortunate enough to have two Poor Clare nuns of the Order of St. Clare (OSC) in my class. The Poor Clares take vows of poverty, obedience, chastity, and enclosure and are followers of St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi, living the simple, Gospel life in an enclosed contemplative community. The variety of Poor Clare expressions includes the Order of St. Clare (OSC), the Colettine Poor Clares (PCC), Capuchin Poor Clares (OSC Cap), and Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration (PCPA). No matter the expression though, the Poor Clare life of prayer is possible because they do live in community. I am now profoundly involved with the Monastery of St. Clare in Great Falls, Montana and count the nuns of the Poor Clares of Montana, who I affectionately call my sisters, amongst my dearest friends. My sisters have taught me a few things…
Sisters Maryalice, Catherine, Jane, and Judith Ann all came to Great Falls 16 years ago at the invitation of the Bishop of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, who wanted to bring a monastic presence to the state of Montana. Each sister came from a separate monastery of the Holy Name Federation of Poor Clares along the eastern seaboard. I did not know the sisters then, but I am in awe at their courage, tenacity, and conviction to pull-up their roots and move west to this beautiful, but unknown land, to start the first monastic presence in Montana. They did not know each other well, had never lived in Montana, and had no monastery to occupy. I have moved around a lot in my life, but my horizon was never as uncertain and rocky as was the horizon for these four amazing women. Their story on starting the first monastery in Montana echoes St. Clare, who ran away from her familiar surroundings, wealthy family, and pending marriage in 1212 to join St. Francis in a life dedicated to God. My sisters, you have taught me to trust God’s providence, discern God’s call, and follow that call with all my heart no matter how difficult the road ahead seems.
In the time that I have known them, the Poor Clares of Montana have faced numerous, varying tribulations, and in each of those situations, they relied on the power of prayer (ok, no surprise there, that is their vocation – to pray, to pray with and for all of God’s people). Witnessing the sisters’ trials brings to mind St. Clare herself who faced many struggles including years of difficulty in obtaining papal approval of the form of life she and her sisters lived, a life she called “the privilege of highest poverty.” The effect of St. Clare’s prayers also come to mind as her prayers are credited with obtaining victories in turning back invaders of Assisi as well as numerous healings. My sisters, your witness to the power of prayer and reliance on Divine Providence have helped me to deepen my prayer life and ultimately my relationship with Christ.
Each Poor Clare community is unique as each monastery is autonomous while expressing the Poor Clare spirit of evangelical poverty, prayer, and contemplation, and the nuns of the Poor Clares of Montana reflect St. Clare’s charisms in their own exceptional way. As a small community (the same four who were the foundresses here 16 years ago are the same four who are the community today), each nun has an enormous workload to keep the monastery running as well as to try to grow her community all while keeping her emphasis on enclosure and prayer. You would think enclosure would ensure a level of certainty, but each day is distinctive for these women. Yet, somehow, the sisters maintain their prayerful focus. What they encounter in the work of each day, likely, is not very different from what St. Clare went through in starting the Order of Poor Ladies of San Damiano over 800 years ago – all the responsibility initially falls on a few until the community can grow. My sisters, you have taught me no matter what each day brings to rely on Christ and persevere through prayer.
The Poor Clares of Montana recently started offering contemplative prayer workshops and Christian meditation prayer groups, bringing the Catholic Church’s rich Desert tradition of prayer to the local laity. I am amazed that these women (all who have been involved with prayer for decades longer than I have) continue to expand and deepen their relationship with Christ by embracing various expressions of prayer, adding to their repertoire of vocal and silent prayer methods. I am reminded of St. Clare’s words, “Gaze upon Christ, consider Him, contemplate Him, as you desire to imitate Him.” My sisters, you have shown me the power of praying silently in a group as a way of cultivating my relationship with Holy Trinity, as a way of responding to God’s presence in the world.
My sisters live for God alone, dedicating their whole being to God in a life expressed in community, silence, solitude, and prayer. I am grateful for their prayer, their presence, and the peace that they bring me as well as the whole community of God’s people. The Monastery of St. Clare in Great Falls is the only monastery in the state of Montana, but like the dozens of Poor Clare Monasteries in North America and the over 900 in the world, the Poor Clare nuns, following in the footsteps of St. Clare, are here for all of us – my sisters are our sisters. Thanks be to God.
Fawn Waranauskas teaches in the Catholic Catechesis Certificate Program for Saint Joseph’s College Online.
This blog post was first published on August 9th on the St. Joseph’s College of Maine Theology Faculty Blog. Click here to learn more about our cooperative alliance with St. Joseph’s College Online.