On the Ministry of Prayer
You will find Sister Marie Zelie Gignac in the Morrow Park chapel well before mass begins. She told me she uses that time to say her morning Office and make her meditation. (The Divine Office is the official public prayer of the Church: hymns, psalms, readings and prayers that vary according to the liturgical season. Priests, most religious, and many of the laity use a form of morning and evening prayer that is said daily.) "But what do you do?" I asked.
"The beauty of our chapel speaks to me of God," said Marie Zelie. "So I just sit and talk to Jesus, tell him what’s on my mind, ask him for what I need and for what my friends and family need."
At other times you may find Sister in the small oratory on the floor where she lives (see picture above). "There I say my rosary; I pray for all my extended family — all 91 of us — for all who have asked for our prayers, for my community, for the sick and the dying. I usually say two rosaries, then the different litanies and some other prayers. I really like to pray in the chapel in the evening, when it’s dark and quiet and there are few people around."
As the years go on, active ministry becomes difficult and the ministry of prayer takes pride of place. Sister Marie Zelie entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto 77 years ago, in February 1932. Having spent many years in elementary education and a good number in hospital visiting, her main ministry now is that of prayer.
Prayer is such a normal part of the life of a Sister that it seems strange to speak of it as a ministry — yet that is surely what it is. Whatever other ministry she is involved in, every Sister punctuates and encircles her day with prayer. She will ordinarily say the Divine Office morning and evening, and attend mass if at all possible. Because schedules differ, the morning Office is usually said alone, but most communities gather for the evening Office together.
Mass depends on the situation: perhaps in the convent or community house, more likely in the parish church. That is the part of her daily prayer that is ‘official’ or part of the liturgy. Is there more? Certainly! What? Ask 10 Sisters and you will probably get ten different answers.
Private prayer is an important part of each day, but when it happens and how it happens depends very much on the Sister herself. Half an hour or so will be spent in what is generally called meditation. This is quiet prayer, alone, perhaps using Scripture or a spiritual book, or perhaps something like centering prayer, where one sits quietly opening to God. And there will be small groups who meet to share thoughts on the gospels or other writings. The possibilities are endless.
But one thing to remember: a Sister does not escape from her busy world and relax into a comforting prayer. Rather, it is her prayer that energized her and sends her out to care for ‘the dear neighbour.’
As Sister Marie Zelie expresses it, "I pray for the needs of the world, for the hungry, for those who need housing..."
The ministry of prayer is shared by all Sisters and as time goes on, spreads itself out to fill all the little nooks and crannies of the day. It becomes all-encompassing, very much like the air we breathe.
Written by Mary Buckley CSJ
Photo by Gisela Côté