Catholic Mom Book Spotlight
The Journey Within - Prayer as a Path to God
by Sister Kathryn Hermes
Paperback: 136 pages
Publisher: Saint Anthony Messenger Press and Franciscan (July, 2004)

Many things hold us back from receiving the healing love of God. The clamor of modern life distracts us, and our own failures and sin grieve us, tempting us to conclude that God is not exactly against us but not quite for us, either. The Journey Within: Prayer as a Path to God offers practical tips to help us surrender our brokenness, distractions, hostilities—all our experiences of personal defeat—to God. As we do so, we will find ourselves not only making peace with life as it is, but also encountering the truth that will set us free. When we put the author's suggestions into practice, we will discover that God is not simply with us—he is with us as one who serves us, heals us and restores us.

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LH:  Thank you, Sister Kathryn Hermes, for your participation in this Catholic Book Spotlight feature on your latest book, The Journey Within - Prayer as a Path to God.  To begin, please share with our readers about your background and your community, the Daughters of St. Paul. 

I've always wanted to be a religious sister since I was a little girl. The kids I grew up can tell plenty of stories of summers spent pretending I was in a convent... at least for a few days. After that it was back to playing football with the neighborhood team or curling up and reading a book in my favorite chair in the living room. But the dream never left me and only grew through the years. I entered the postulant formation program of the Daughters of St. Paul in 1980. I was drawn by the sisters' simplicity and family spirit, by the hours of Eucharistic adoration tucked into each day, and the work of reaching out to those whom God is looking for and won't be found in the Church - at least not yet. The Shepherd looking for the lost sheep was intriguing to me then. Now I can see it much more clearly through Blessed James Alberione's vision: "If people don't go to Church, we must transform the places where they do go into churches."  Alberione was the amazing priest who founded our congregation at the beginning of the 1900’s. How do we transform peoples' space into churches?  Well, people have surrounded themselves with 24/7 access to media: radio, books, newspapers, video games, internet, DVDs, movies, television shows, music... The list is endless and will only get longer as technology and creativity produce new forms of communication. The Daughters of St. Paul go where the people are: they walk through the door of the media, in a sense, in order to announce to these media savvy people that Jesus is our Lord and Teacher and he is seeking for them, thirsting for their love, drawing out their belief.

Probably the most formative experience I have had, however, occurred a year after my profession. In the hospital for a foot operation, I had a stroke. Twelve years later I was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy, a welcome explanation for the emotional and psychological problems that had begun the year of the stroke. The struggle of these years and the ensuing depression became a face-to-face, hand-to-hand wrestling with God, the meaning of life and the problem of prayer. Much of what I write about prayer has its seeds in my own personal experience or the experiences others have shared with me.  

LH:  The Journey Within offers helps and inspiration for those of us struggling to cope with life's hectic nature and maintain an active relationship with God.  What was your inspiration for writing this book and what would you say is its central message? 

I was originally asked to write a book about problems in prayer. Problems in prayer, however, can't be remedied by a how-to lesson. Problems in prayer are only resolved by praying. Most of us are missing fundamental theological principles about God, Christian life, grace, sacraments, and prayer. Without going back and filling some of these in, a book that sought to address some problems in prayer would only be trying to add furniture and paint in a building that was missing floors, walls, and foundation. This is all a long way of saying that the inspiration for the book was the sense that we needed to fill in the information that hasn't been systematically deepened for most Catholics in these past decades.

But there is another thrust also entering the picture: prayer is not self-help. It is true that praying can help us live in this hectic society with a greater sense of calm and peace. This is a great "side-effect," you could say. But prayer is truly prayer when it wrestles with reality, when it is beaten back by God's glory and surrenders to the Reality that alone can transform what we live and who we are. God is the ultimately Real. Before the Light of God, our light pales, for our light is drawn from God and depends on God. Sometimes a quote can say things better than we ourselves when we are trying to express something, so here is a quote from Jesus. I once read in a book on contemplation that Jesus told a Visitation nun in prayer: "Make yourself a riverbed and I will be the torrent." Prayer is yielding to the power of God, surrendering to the overflow of passion from the sacred heart of Jesus, melting in the fire of the Spirit. Prayer is about learning to forget ourselves entirely in order that our consciousness might be absorbed by God in the acceptance of what is in our life right now.  

LH:  While not a "how to" book, The Journey Within offers three suggested "movements".  Could you say a few words about these movements and their role in our faith journeys? 

The three movements of the book are three stages through which we pass as we learn or re-learn how to pray. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke has said: "There is only one journey. Going inside yourself." The movements of the book are a gradual movement within. Movement One is entitled Naming the Journey. The journey of prayer helps us name our present situation and the cosmic aloneness that comes from fearing that we may not be loved, that even God may not love us. Within that lens, the chapters present the length and breadth of the Christian life, the primacy of Love that has poured itself out for us, the theology of Baptism, and the promise of the end of the ages. The second Movement is entitled Encountering Our Loneliness. This section looks closely at the lives of individuals seeking the mystery of God and growth in prayer. Their stories are interwoven with Scripture. Each of these stories is a story about wrestling with the mystery of everyday life in order to find within it the mystery of God. As Nietzche once said: "You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star." The stories of "chaos" offer guidance and direction in prayer. The Third Movement returns to where many have started: Abiding in the Word. It includes a Primer on different methods of prayer, and guidance for praying with Scriptures and finding in them direction for one's everyday life. Our faith journeys are like a beautiful song, and as we grow and mature and deepen our relationship with God the music takes on different tones and might change keys. The idea of movements is meant to help us realize that prayer is not static but is part of a dynamic relationship that, like any relationship, has its ups and downs, its joys and sorrows. If we are moving, we are living, and this is good. It doesn't matter where we are, as long as we are moving in the right direction! 

LH:  I enjoyed the "Breaking Open Your Life" activities in the book.  What approach would you suggest that Catholic readers take towards using these activities to walk along their own paths to God? 

Most likely the majority of us today read too much for one person to process. With computers, an immense amount of information is at our fingertips - and its even fun to find it. With the internet and e-mail, reading at our work place has jumped in volume probably without our even suspecting it. Instead of eliminating the "paper trail," it seems to have increased it. If you are like me, I have become proficient at skimming, at distancing myself from the information because I can't get equally engaged with everything I read. "Breaking Open Your Life" is meant to stop the reader so that they can process what they've read and allow it to break open their life. I have found that exercises in integrating new material are important. We can't learn to pray by reading about prayer. The "Breaking Open Your Life" activities help the reader to start praying. They concretize something that could remain very abstract and distant from us. They give us mile markers on the journey. These could be shared with a friend or a group who is working through the book with you, or a spiritual director. 

LH:  For busy Catholic families, and others who attempt to cope with the crazy, busy nature of today's world, do you have any tips for strengthening our prayer lives and our relationship with God? 

I often think of my sister. She has four boys between the ages of 5 and 14. She and her husband work so hard to provide education and formation for the boys. As I watch her, I admire again and again the love of parents, which I believe is very much like the love of God. It is a love that gives and gives and gives so that the children can have life. I believe that families need to look at their reality as an audio-visual sign to the rest of us of God's love. Life in a family is crazy and busy, but it is also filled with much love. Prayer can be as simple as bringing that sense of love to the front burner. Blessings can go a long way here. Have a blessing that you say whenever you part with your children. My mother always said, "God bless you. God love you. God keep you" whenever she said goodbye to us. Blessings can be offered at meals, after watching the news, when a child has hurt themselves, before a game in which your child's team is playing, at night before the lights are out. Celebrate feast days and holy days with a cake or a small present. Play Christian music in the car instead of the radio. When quiet moments break through in the day, take a moment to imagine Jesus in the room or in the car with you. Watch him smile with you or cry with you. Participate at Mass as a family as much as possible. Soccer games at times make that impossible for my sister's family, but Sunday still revolves around the primacy of God. Two of the boys are altar servers, and everybody gets to Mass with one of the parents even on the busiest weekends.

There is one thing that goes a long way to the spirituality of the family, however, which often gets neglected: the spiritual development of the parent. As adults we not only have to deal with trying to understand what is happening to us and within us, but we have to try to make sense out of life as it affects our children and spouses. We quickly sign up for conferences and seminars, continuing education programs, join clubs for hobbies and interests. Sometimes we don't know what to do to develop our spiritual intuition and our relationship with God. We don't even know what habits to form and what habits to break. We feel ourselves unprepared to pass on the Catholic faith and traditions to our children. We have Master's Degrees in economics or biology and an 8th grade education in religion. Some avenues to explore are: boning up on theology through carefully selected books, getting a spiritual director (a trained priest, sister, or lay person), joining a parish program of interest to you, going through the RCIA program as a "refresher," join a prayer group or book discussion group, find a couple religious websites to keep current with. But most of all: pray! 

LH:  How has writing this book aided you in your own journey? 

My books come out of personal experiences: the struggle I have had to find God in my life. I worked through my experience of the stroke and epilepsy in Surviving Depression (Pauline Books & Media). I began writing The Journey Within - Prayer as a Path to God as the war in Iraq began. Writing the book helped me explore tenderness, the reliability of God, forgiveness, and reverence in a new way. Writing is a healing process and it was instrumental in healing my fears and anger at the outset of the war, envisioning a world of tenderness.  

LH:  Sister Kathryn, thank you so much for your time and for sharing your message.  Are there any closing thoughts or ideas you'd like to share with our readers? 

My last word would be the title of one of the chapters: Find the neglected beauty of your life! God reveals beauty wherever he goes. In his footprints one discovers the perfume of endless love. We all need to hear that we are beautiful. We all long to discover that there is more to us than what others might see. We all desire to come home to our true self. In a newly deepening love between you and God, you will know yourself anew. A friend called me yesterday saying that God had made her see the most stupendous thing. She is a very religious person and suffers tremendously from back pain. She always felt she was closer to God when she was in pain because it was then that she prayed the most. She almost felt guilty when she was free from pain. She said to me, "But yesterday God made me see in an instant that I was concentrating on my guilt instead of him. That I should forget about my guilty feelings. Sister, it was so wonderful. I felt like I was being lifted up on a surge of happiness that would leave me in heaven. God was so close to me and showed me he loved me." It is moments like these that nourish our spirit in powerful ways and give us the courage and trust to walk through this life.

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