Our Prayer Life
Sr. Mary Ellen Wagner
Prayer is knowing God loves you
As a child, I attended daily Mass, said my prayers, and saw my parents living a faith-filled life. My mother generously helped at the church and school when needed, baking 10 angel food cakes when they had only asked for one. My father lined up coins for the children to put in our church envelopes even during the lean years. Through their actions and the love they shared with their family, my parents instilled a deep appreciation for the Church in my siblings and me.
That foundation led me to an important decision as a sophomore at St. Theresa College in Winona, Minnesota. Since I was very young I had felt a desire to become a religious sister. Reading about the lives of the saints, especially St. Teresa the Little Flower of Jesus, inspired me. As a college student I felt distracted because I was studying to be a teacher, not a sister, and it seemed time to take that step.
I made this life-changing move with reflection and soul searching. I continued to go to daily Mass and consulted with people I trusted. I began to deepen my personal relationship with God. That relationship included asking many questions I hoped God would answer.
I was unsure and I wanted God’s guidance, asking, ‘Is this really what you want or is it my imagination?’ I was praying for help, guidance, and courage. In time, I felt God was guiding me toward religious life and I went to Wisconsin to join a religious order.
However, I found prayer life there structured in a way that wasn’t always conducive to building a close relationship with God. I began every day with morning prayers at 5:30 a.m. then continued with Mass, noon day prayer, and other routine prayers that didn’t vary.
While still at the convent, I began work as a high school home economics teacher, and prayer life continued to be much the same, yielding little inspiration. But in 1971, I discovered a great joy in prayer that led me down a very different path.
An accident leads to a deeper prayer life
I had been in a car accident several years ago, which caused back pain the doctors hadn’t been able to diagnose. As I lay in a hospital bed grading papers and waiting for yet another test, a priest from school entered my room. When he asked if he could pray with me, I said yes.
I still remember the details of that experience. He said ‘Let us put ourselves in God’s presence.’ Then he took out his New Testament and began to read. The story was about Jesus visiting Peter’s mother-in-law who was sick with a fever. He touched her; the fever left and she got up and waited on him. After he read that story, the priest said to me, “He loves you as much as He ever loved her, if you only believed it.”
That was a joy. I could never describe the joy in my heart hearing someone say ‘God loves you as much as he ever loved her.’ The prayer gave me a sense of security about what would happen to me. If she was healed, I believed, so will I be. It was a letting go.
The next day during the procedure, I felt no pain. The doctor quickly found the ruptured disc that had been the source of years of pain and scheduled surgery the next day. I walked out of the hospital nine days later and have never had problems with the injury again.
The effect of that one prayer experience didn’t end there. While still lying in a hospital bed, I could hear a patient in another room moaning and crying. I wished I was able to be at the patient’s bed side to share her prayer experience. And so began a new period of searching in my life. For the next five years I prayed for direction. “What are you saying to me?” I asked God in prayer. I believed I was being called to chaplaincy.
I loved teaching, but I also knew when God called me to do something new, I needed to respond. So in 1976, I trained to be a hospital chaplain.
Busy-ness. If there is too much going on, you might be too tired to pray with spirit. One solution is to make prayer a habit. If you make it a priority like your other responsibilities, you will make the time for it. You might want to write it in on your calendar – make an appointment with yourself for prayer time.
Preoccupation. This can make it hard to get centered. To address this introduce a sacred word or mantra, which centers your thoughts. Morning payer often works well – when you are fresh and not yet distracted.
Routine. When prayer becomes rote, you might look at it simply as an obligation, not something that truly helps build a relationship with God. One way to avoid routine is to try a variety of types of prayer— praying with scripture, meditation, journaling or centering prayer, sometimes even praying outdoors where you can be in communion with nature.
Responding to God’s love
Besides sharing the prayer that brought such peace and comfort in time of need with others, I came to understand, the whole center of prayer is really knowing God loves you. Your response is, “How are you asking me to live my life, God?” And then regularly saying, “How am I doing?” And asking for forgiveness when we’re not following God’s urging.
I found work in chaplaincy didn’t blend with the routine of the community, so I sought another community and found the Sisters of Bon Secours. I began the process of transferring to the community in 1987, becoming a member in 1990.
I find in the community of the Sisters of Bon Secours prayer is much freer and more spontaneous. We determine together as a local community the structure we wish to use (time, place and type of prayer, e.g., Divine Office, faith sharing, etc.); and we each determine what we use for our own personal prayer time.
Prayer routine leads to daily resolutions
My routine now begins with individual prayer around six a.m. I follow that with 30 minutes of meditation. I take the scripture reading for the day, quiet myself, and try to put myself into that reading to hear what God is saying to me through it. I listen for what God’s asking of me today and I make a resolution for what I’m going to try to do. It gives me a feeling of closeness with God.
After meditation, I attend Mass. I know that is God’s gift to me—the gift he gave at the Last Supper and that He continues to give through the Eucharist. I’m there with other people in the parish and feel like I’m part of the wider community.
I am now retired from full time ministry, yet I still fill my days with a variety of ministries.
In the evening, after some relaxation, which might include watching television, I like to pray the liturgy of the hours and pray for the people in need or for local issues, such as for the plight of the people in Detroit’s inner city. Evening is a good time to talk with God.
Over the years my prayer journey has taught me that the key is knowing God loves you. When I take that knowledge to prayer, I know what I hear from God will not be my will, but God asking me to do something for Him.