Thursday was the annual National Day of Prayer, which got me wondering what the world would look like if we actually did pray, and daily. A new book I’m a contributor to called When Women Pray: Eleven Catholic Women on the Power of Prayer suggests that there’s a particular power in women taking that task seriously. In it, editor Kathleen Beckman posits that for women, “the vocation of woman as Christ-bearer, life-bearer, and cooperator with God’s initiatives can be fully realized only through prayer — deeper mystical communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” We talk here a little bit about what she means.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: “Somewhere in the secret chambers of a woman’s heart there is a gentle, persistent longing for holiness,” Sister Regina Marie Gorman, a Carmelite from Los Angeles, writes in the foreword to the book. What does that mean for men?
Lopez: Can men read this book and get something out of it?
Beckman: The Church teaches that women are called to be unique examples and witnesses for all Christians (both women and men) of how the Bride is to respond in love to the love of the Bridegroom. When men consider the feminine soul at prayer, they may discover more deeply the complementarity of men and women in prayer and service to the Church.
Beckman: When I invited these ten authors to contribute to the book with individual chapters, I did not designate topics for each chapter because I intended to let the Holy Spirit uniquely work through each writer. It turned out that I wrote my chapter called, “The Marian Heart Prays.” While all chapters refer to Mary in some way, I focused my chapter on her because she was extremely influential to my “reversion” to the faith in 1991.
In my opinion, the Marian heart matters, especially in the spiritual formation of women, when we consider the ten evangelical virtues of Mary per the Gospels: Most Pure, Most Prudent, Most Humble, Most Faithful, Most Devout, Most Obedient, Most Poor, Most Patient, Most Merciful, Most Sorrowful. The Marian heart relates to human joys and sorrows, to matters heavenly and earthly. The Marian heart is a pierced heart, as I write about in the book. I also suggest that perhaps the pierced (broken open) heart prays best because it identifies with Christ crucified and risen.
Lopez: How did “Mary’s entire life become a living prayer”?
Beckman: In the book, I offer four scriptural occasions when Mary’s words are recorded as keys to praying unceasingly as she did. We examine Mary’s words at the respective scenes of the Annunciation, the Visitation, Finding the Christ Child in the Temple, and the Wedding Feast at Cana. These scriptures record the movements of Mary’s heart, her emotions and responses — all of which are the fruit of consistent communion with the Holy Spirit, Jesus, and the Father.
We learn that Mary’s mind and heart were attuned to God’s will through prayer. Mary teaches us the way of prayer, of interior recollection, of discerning the movements of the heart, and of conforming our minds to Christ. Through Mary we learn to acknowledge our situations, relate to God, receive grace, and respond accordingly. With Mary, we learn relational prayer: acknowledgement, relating, receiving, responding, so our life becomes a living prayer.
Lopez: What’s so great about the skeptic’s prayer that Ronda Chervin writes about in her chapter “When Women Pray”? — “God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul!”
Beckman: I was delighted to receive Ronda Chervin’s chapter, because it is amazing to consider that she was brought up in New York City by atheist parents who met in the Communist party, became disaffected, and then became informers for Senator Joseph McCarthy. She states that God was no more real to them than elves have been to most of us. She relates that her first prayer was suggested to her by her future godfather, a professor at Fordham University. She was studying Catholic philosophy in a frantic attempt to find some truth that would keep her from despair. I like the skeptic’s prayer because it is real; and I think many people will relate to both the prayer and to her story.
Lopez: What does it mean to be a contemplative in action? Can men do it too? Must women lead the way?
Beckman: The relation between contemplation and action is one of the oldest themes in the history of authentic Christian mysticism. We can see a fine example of a real contemplative in action in the life of Saint Teresa of Avila (1515–1582), the first female Doctor of the Church, who is known as one of the greatest teachers of contemplation in the history of Christianity, especially through her first writing, The Life, and her masterpiece, The Interior Castle.
Teresa was also in constant activity for the last 15 years of her life, when she founded the first house of reformed Carmelite nuns in 1562 in Avila, Spain. Her life and writings represent a new understanding on how to live as a “contemplative in action.” There are other saints, men and women, who exemplify the interior life intertwined with the active life. This book, When Women Pray, provides eleven examples of present-day women whose active apostolates bear fruit because of their contemplative prayer. When I lead retreats, I pray for several hours before the Blessed Sacrament ahead of each one-hour talk. Prayer is the fuel and foundation of the active apostolate.
Lopez: You quote Saint John Vianney as having identified prayer as “the mother of all virtues.” Why would he say such a thing?
Beckman: The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:
A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions. The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God.
Saint John Vianney is wise to identify prayer as “the mother all virtues.” An intentional prayer life develops the virtuous life by disposing the soul to manifold grace for interior transformation that is manifested in works of service and sanctity. I quoted Saint John Vianney in my chapter on prayer with emphasis on his statement, “Everyone on earth who has the use of reason ought to love and pray to God.”
Lopez: “The pierced heart can be a portal of grace if we remain open to divine transformation.” What on earth does that mean? Why does God want heart piercings? That seems like a masochistic God.
Beckman: I suppose that not a few people in the world think of Jesus Christ as masochistic when they consider His Passion, death on a cross, and His followers (you and me) who share in the sufferings of Christ, who know pain, and whose hearts can be broken (pierced) with sorrow. God made a provision for this. In the book, I quote Pope Benedict XVI, who, when he was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote in The Spirit of the Liturgy, “In the pierced heart of the Crucified, God’s own heart is opened up; here we see who God is and that he is life. Heaven in no longer locked up, God has stepped out of his hiddeness.”
I began to understand the concept of the human heart pierced with sorrow through a traumatic event in my family, the brutal murder of my father-in-law. I began to comprehend the meaning of co-redeeming love, intercessory prayer, and forgiveness. I have reflected much on Pope John Paul II’s 1984 apostolic letter, Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering). In the book, I suggest that perhaps the pierced heart prays best since both Christ’s and Mary’s hearts were pierced with sorrow — broken open as fountains of grace. Scripture teaches that God is close to the broken-hearted.
Lopez: How can women be other Marys? She was a woman who lived in pretty unique circumstances a very long time ago. And this can’t help with the fact that some Protestants believe Catholics worship Mary. Now we want to be her?
Beckman: The Gospels teach that, through sacramental baptism, we are transformed to become “other Christs.” Indeed, the Immaculate Conception is unprecedented and unrepeatable, but Christ gives His Mother Mary to the Church as the model of discipleship. For women, Mary models the feminine genius, the wisdom of a godly woman. She, above all, can help us to become more Christ-like. The gift of the Mother for God comes from Christ. She was first a gift from the Father, and she was the one woman who could receive in totality the gift of God. Mary is very helpful in forming disciples to love and serve her Son. I believe wholeheartedly that the world desperately needs to experience the beauty and purity of Marian women in ways public and hidden. Godly, prayerful women release the perfume of holiness, changing the atmosphere for good.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here.