By Lisa Rosenlund,
Saint Brendan Parish Manager
Each week, we summarize a specific style, form, or approach to prayer, using the highly-acclaimed book by Robert J. Wicks, Prayer in the Catholic Tradition: A Handbook of Practical Approaches (Franciscan Media 2006). In this article, you’ll learn more about prayer in the Mercy tradition.
The Order of Mercy was begun by two Irishwomen, Catherine McAuley and Mary Ann Doyle. Catherine was fifty-three years old at the time of the founding of the first House of Mercy in Dublin in 1831. She had a difficult life. Having been orphaned as a young woman and left to care for her younger siblings, she was fortunate that a Quaker couple, the Callaghans, stepped in to help her. Though they didn’t approve of her Catholic beliefs, they grew to admire her commitment to her faith and to serving the poor. The Callaghans unexpectedly left her an inheritance, which she used to found the Order. Many people ridiculed her and referred to the House of Mercy as “Kitty’s Folly.”
Once the Order had been firmly established, Catherine asked Mary Ann to become the leader of the first Mercy convent outside of Dublin, which was located in Tullamore. There was tension between the two women and their followers, with some preferring the trappings of a cloister and others finding them pretentious. Mary Ann adopted traditional convent devotions and ascetical practices at the Convent in Tullamore. Catherine had a great sense of humor and would tease Mary Ann by referring to her as “Her Reverence” or “the Divine Mother.” When describing Tullamore, Catherine joked, “Mother Mary Ann has met with her ‘beau ideal’ of a conventional building at last, for our rooms are so small, that two cats could scarcely dance in them.” (314)
Catherine also believed that rigid observance of rituals and formal prayer led not to holiness, but to isolation and inflexibility. Her viewpoint, which has prevailed in the Mercy tradition, is that prayer and action should be seamlessly integrated, resulting in a “wholeness” of life. In her instructions to her Sisters, she said that they should be like “the compass that goes round its circle without stirring from its center. Now our center is God from Whom all our action should spring as from their source and no exterior action should separate us from him.” (312)
Catherine’s many writings demonstrate her success in modeling the goal she described, namely serving the poor, while simultaneously achieving an intimate relationship with God. She also united the Order with her writings which made the Sisters feel that they all belonged to the same faith tradition. In addition to numerous informal letters to the various members of her Order, Catherine penned a more formal publication called the Foundation Circulars.
We can take a page out of Catherine’s book to reach our goal of integrating work and prayer. Embrace the discipline to write and reflect consistently this Lent. In particular, consider bringing a journal to Mass and writing down whatever you hear the voice of God speaking to you during the greatest prayer ever known.
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