Prayer: anchor in storm of distractions

Archbishop Aquila

Did you know that we see hundreds if not thousands of advertisements a day? In fact, the consensus among marketing researchers is that you might see or hear as many as 4,000 per day. We are bombarded by messages and at the same time we are confronted with St. Paul’s message to the Thessalonians – “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:16-18).

This column is the third and final installment in the series I have written about Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad), which aims to inspire all people to holiness. As I explained in the previous column, this week I am reflecting on the sections “In Constant Prayer” and “Combat and Vigilance.” I have chosen to focus on these specific sections because they address how Christians should interact with and view the world we live in. And questions about our worldview are especially important as the truth becomes harder to discover with the flood of information we experience.

Pope Francis dedicates the last section of his chapter on holiness to the theme, “In Constant Prayer.” Like St. Paul’s exhortation to pray continually, this sounds impossible, and it would be if we had to rely on our own weak powers of concentration and strength. But we know that “with God all things are possible” (Mt. 19:26). This challenge is so important that Pope Francis says: “I do not believe in holiness without prayer” (GE, 147).

The battle that each of us faces every day and every minute is between the immediate surroundings of this world and the supernatural realities that are simultaneously at work. We tend to focus on what we can see and forget about what we cannot see. Pope Francis writes, “The saints are distinguished by a spirit of prayer and a need for communion with God. They find an exclusive concern with this world to be narrow and stifling, and, amid their own concerns and commitments, they long for God, losing themselves in praise and contemplation of the Lord” (GE, 147).

Being in continuous prayer does not mean reciting prayers at every moment or always experiencing intense emotions, rather it means remaining in the presence of God in whatever we do. We make God the end of every action, thought or word. The Holy Father cites St. John of the Cross to describe this way of living: “Try to be continuous in prayer, and in the midst of bodily exercises do not leave it. Whether you eat, drink, talk with others, or do anything, always go to God and attach your heart to him” (GE, 148).

The secret to remaining connected to God in every moment is one’s relationship with the Holy Trinity. When you know in your heart that your most fundamental identity is as a son or daughter of God the Father, you are able to spend time in silence, resting in the presence of the Holy Spirit and attentively listening to his Word. “In that silence, we can discern, in the light of the Spirit, the paths of holiness to which the Lord is calling us,” (GE, 150) Pope Francis says.

The time spent encountering each person of the Holy Trinity is what sets our hearts on fire and heals us. It deepens reality and enlivens our experience of it. The Pope draws upon a beautiful experience of St. Therese of Lisieux to describe how a community can be transformed in this way. “One winter night,” St. Therese recalls, “I was carrying out my little duty as usual… Suddenly, I heard off in the distance the harmonious sound of a musical instrument. I then pictured a well-lighted drawing room, brilliantly gilded, filled with elegantly dressed young ladies conversing together and conferring upon each other all sorts of compliments and other worldly remarks. Then my glance fell upon the poor invalid whom I was supporting. Instead of the beautiful strains of music I heard only her occasional complaints… I cannot express in words what happened in my soul; what I know is that the Lord illumined it with rays of truth which so surpassed the dark brilliance of earthly feasts that I could not believe my happiness” (GE, 145).

The Holy Father also recognizes there is a constant battle waged by the devil to draw us away from this God-centered way of living. At the beginning of Chapter Five on spiritual combat, Pope Francis makes a point of saying that when we speak of the battle with evil, the Church is not just talking about confronting a worldly mentality or striving to overcome human weaknesses (cf. GE, 158-159). Satan is real; he is “a personal being who assails us” (GE, 160). This is demonstrated, the Pope explains, by the sheer destructive power of the evil one in the world around us.

At the same time, we should not be intimidated by the battle, since we know that Jesus conquered sin, death and Satan through the cross. “Those who choose to remain neutral, who are satisfied with little, who renounce the ideal of giving themselves generously to the Lord, will never hold out” (GE, 163). The key is to engage in the fight by depending on Jesus, cultivating all that is good, true and beautiful, deepening our prayer life and growing in love.

As we begin the less structured time of summer, I pray that you will fortify yourself with the armor of continual prayer, so that you and the people you influence will be drawn closer to Jesus Christ. I invite you to grow in your devotion and attention to the Eucharist and to pray the Rosary with your family. May Pope Francis’ words in Evangelii Gaudium inspire you to take up this challenge. “Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner, borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil” (EG, 85).

COMING UP: From Columbine to Christ: “Not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

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Every school day for almost two years, Jenica Thornby would spend her lunch hour in the library at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Every day, except April 20, 1999.

“I was sitting in my art class when all of the sudden I had this urge to leave school. I remember thinking, there is no way I am going to be talked into staying.”

Thornby found her friend that she always studied with and talked her into leaving too. As they drove away in a car her father had bought her just a week earlier, behind them they saw hundreds of other students running out of the school. Thinking it was maybe a fire drill, Thornby kept driving.

Back inside the school, two students had entered with guns, where they would kill 12 students and a teacher, and wound over 20 more people before taking their own lives.

In the days that followed, Thornby would learn that many of the casualties took place in the library, where on any other day she would have been sitting.

“I remember thinking, I always went to the library, and the only reason I wasn’t there was because I had this urge to leave. That was really hard to wrap my mind around, and so I really wondered, ‘What gave me that urge, why wasn’t I there?’”

Two decades later, Thornby is now Sister Mary Gianna, a religious sister of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and on the 20th Anniversary of the Columbine massacre, she shared her story with the Denver Catholic of how God led her out of her high school that day, and through a series of events, led her into a deep relationship with Christ.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

SEARCHING FOR FULFILMENT

Sister Mary Gianna said growing up in Texas, California and then Colorado, she had loving parents, but as a family they did not practice any religion or faith.

After the school shooting, like many of her classmates, Sister Mary Gianna struggled coming to grips with what had happened. Coupled with emotional scars from bullying in her teenage years and other insecurities, she said she tried desperately just to fit in.

“I started drinking and going to parties, thinking if I was in a relationship, then I’ll be happy,” Sister Mary Gianna recalled. “I was searching for fulfilment.”

But near the end of her junior year a classmate of hers who seemingly had everything going for him committed suicide, and Sister Mary Gianna said her senior year she hit rock bottom.

“If he was in so much pain and suffering and took his life, what do I do with all my suffering and all my pain?” Sister Mary Gianna said she asked herself. “I thought I was going to take my own life by my 18th birthday.”

It was that year that a friend invited her to come to a youth group at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, where Sister Mary would meet a youth minister named Kate.

“I remember seeing something different in (Kate),” said Sister Mary Gianna. “She was so bright, so full of life. I could tell that she had something in her life that was missing in mine.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Kate and the youth group introduced her to a God that loved her, and that had a plan for her life.

“I felt like I was junk to be thrown away, and (Kate) would tell me you are made in God’s image and his likeness, and if God created you, how can you call yourself junk?” recalled Sister Mary Gianna. “I realized God did have a plan, and I love the words of St. Augustine: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in God,” and I realized not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

RCIA, NET and DLJC

After high school graduation, with the support of her parents Sister Mary Gianna chose to attend Franciscan University of Steubenville, where her freshman year she went through RCIA and was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2002.

After college, she spent a year with NET (National Evangelization Team), sharing her testimony with teenagers across the country. At the same time, through the encouragement of others, she began to consider religious life.

“I felt God wanted to use me to lead others to Christ as my youth minister had led me to Christ,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “And I felt God was calling me to share how he had worked in my life, my personal testimony.”

Sister Mary Gianna said words in a book by Father Benedict Groeschel really impacted her.

“He wrote, ‘Instead of asking God why something happened, ask him, what would you have me do?’” Sister Mary Gianna said. “So instead of reflecting on my life and why did this happen or that happen, I began to ask God, ‘What would you have me do?’”

In 2010, Jenica Thornby entered religious life as a member of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, was given the name Sister Mary Gianna, and last year on August 4, 2018, took her final vows. She now serves at The Ark and The Dove retreat center in Pittsburgh.

CHAIN REACTIONS

Standing in the center of the Columbine Memorial at Clement Park, Sister Mary Gianna is drawn to the plaque that remembers Rachel Joy Scott.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

Rachel was one of the first students shot on April 20, 1999, and after being wounded, one of the gunmen reportedly asked her if she still believed in God, to which Rachel replied, “You know I do,” before the gunman shot her in the head.

“Unfortunately the two boys talked about how they wanted to start a chain reaction of death and violence and destruction,” Sister Mary Gianna said. “However, Rachel had a theory that if one person could go out of their way and show compassion and kindness, we would never know how far it would go, it just might start its own chain reaction.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s story has become an inspiration to her, and coincidently, Rachel’s family played a role in her own conversion. Sister Mary Gianna said the day after the shooting she was at a friend’s house and her friend’s mom told Rachel’s aunt about how she had left just before the shooting began. Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s aunt replied, “God must have a plan for your life.”

It was one of the first seeds planted in Sister Mary Gianna’s heart, that started to grow, and as Sister Mary Gianna continued to say ‘yes’ to God, led her to the life she has today.

“Even when I didn’t know God that day at Columbine, he led me out of school, he protected me,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “He loved me so much that he drew near to me and has shown me this path of life.”

“Even in the midst of tragedy, God can bring good, God could bring life out of death. The worst tragedy was Jesus being put to death on the Cross, and it led to our salvation. And even in the midst of this tragedy of Columbine, God could bring good.”