The paths of prayer
Image: During the Chicago marathon in 2014, Sister Christa Parra, I.B.V.M. (in white t-shirt) found the strength to finish with prayer and the support of her religious community, friends, and family. She ran with friends Anna Mayer (blue shirt) and Melissa Carnall (grey shirt).
I love to run. When I run, I pray. When I start out my run along Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, I begin with a prayer of thanksgiving for the gift of health and energy to run each mile. I continue praying about whatever is in my heart. I pray for friends and family. I pray for people I know and people I don’t know and especially for those who suffer. I talk to God and listen.
Last fall I ran in the Chicago Marathon for the second time. I had trained hard and felt well prepared for the big day, but it was one of my toughest runs. Several times during the race I thought about quitting. Around the ninth mile, I had a major cramp in the back of my right leg, and during the 16th mile, I felt nauseous. As I neared the 17th mile, all I wanted was to call my mama and older brother (who had come from Arizona to watch me run) and ask them to pick me up.
However, I found the strength and motivation to keep going. I was running to raise awareness about the urgent need for comprehensive immigration reform and to help raise funds to support the cause, and that inspired me to keep going. I knew the prayers of my family, religious community, friends, and members of my parish were carrying me every step of the way, as were their cheers from the sidelines. I was supported and loved through the finish line. I wasn’t running alone. Prayer delivers a surprise
Ten years ago, I never imagined that I would run a marathon or become a nun. Yet, at the age of 33, I have now spent eight years in religious life and completed two marathons, by the grace of God.
When I was in high school, my senior class voted me “Most Likely to Be a Nun.” This was news to me. I had no thoughts of entering a religious community. As a little girl, I dreamed of getting married and having a family. Family life was all I knew. I was raised as a third-generation Mexican-American in a large, tight-knit Catholic family. Growing up, I went to Mass each Sunday with my nana (grandma). She prayed the rosary daily and had great devotion to the saints. She taught me how to pray and showed me the power of faith.
As a young adult, I continued going to the same parish I attended with my nana. I often went to church just to pray in the quiet sacred space. One afternoon, as I knelt in the first pew, the quiet enveloped me while chaos raged within me. My mind raced as I talked to God about my struggles. I had just broken up with my boyfriend. I needed direction in my life.
Suddenly, it occurred to me that I was talking at God, but not listening to God. Perhaps I wasn’t listening to God because I was afraid of what I might hear. At that moment, a sister approached me without introducing herself and asked me, “Have you ever thought about becoming a nun?” I quickly replied, “No, I want to get married and have a family.” Undeterred, she invited me to visit her IBVM (Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary) community. The thought of becoming a sister terrified me, but I decided to take her up on her invitation.
As I walked through the convent door, I felt a sense of being at home. The sisters were so down-to-earth, joyful, and welcoming. One of the sisters invited me to meet with her each week. I had a deep desire to do God’s will and strengthen my relationship with God, so I figured meeting with her would help me.
There were many times in the next several years that I would run away from the idea of this vocation. However, all along the way I had numerous experiences that kept pointing me in the direction of religious life.
Discerning a life path
At the age of 25, I was finally ready to discern religious life. I began this discernment by attending an eight-day silent retreat, based on the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. I wasn’t sure how I would survive without my cell phone, computer, or music. It was difficult at first but surprisingly freeing. The lack of distractions helped me to focus on my relationship with God. My prayer life began to evolve. During the retreat, my spiritual director encouraged me to hike and run on the nearby mountain trail. I had never considered exercise as a way of praying. The beauty of the desert came alive to me in a new way. As I ran, I prayed.
Through my ongoing prayer and with the guidance of a spiritual director, I realized that my deepest desire is to love and to be loved. The First Letter of John says, “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us. God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in that person” (1 John 4:16). I wanted to know that love that comes from abiding in God.
I learned to meditate and to pray with scripture. I got to know Jesus better and began to cultivate a friendship. Seeing Jesus as a friend helped me to relate to God on a more personal level. Prayer became a conversation, and my heart began to listen carefully for the voice of God in my life.
In my discernment process, I carefully prayed about each vocation knowing that each one (married life, single life, and religious life) provides a way to love, honor, and serve God. My spiritual director told me numerous times, “Every vocation is holy, important, and necessary.” I looked at the pros and cons of each vocation, and I paid attention to my feelings, identifying joy, peace, and freedom, as well as a little sadness, anxiety, and fear. In considering religious life, the joy and peace that I felt was an indicator that I was on the path that God wanted me to explore.
After looking at several different communities and praying about each one, listening to countless vocation stories, and learning about various ministries, I felt most called to join the IBVM community. I was drawn to the IBVMs by the joy and kindness of the sisters, but also by their Ignatian spirituality that resonated deep within me.
Contemplation and action
Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, believed in the importance of seeking God in all people, places, and circumstances. He believed in doing everything for the greater glory of God. The Venerable Mary Ward, founder of the IBVMs, felt called in the early 1600s to follow Ignatian spirituality. She desired that her community be out of the habit and free from the cloistered way of life so as to accompany those most in need in the world.
My formation in religious life has shown me that we are called to be contemplatives in action. This means that we are first centered and grounded by our prayer life. It is our personal and communal prayer that strengthens and energizes us to accompany people in our ministries the best we can.
Over the years, I have learned that there are a variety of prayer styles. Just as our relationship with family and friends is unique and dynamic, so is our relationship with God. My personal prayer life includes one hour of prayer in the morning in my bedroom. I have a prayer space made up of a small table, candle, and Bible. I sit on the floor and practice Christian meditation. I use a journal as a means of reflecting on my everyday experiences. I attend daily Mass with my local community. I find that the Eucharist strengthens my bonds with God and those with whom I share my life.
On the days I run, prayer is also very much a part of that experience. At the end of my day, I practice the Ignatian Daily Examen. Some days are easier to pray than others. As an extrovert, I get energy from being with people. For me, reflection and stillness do not come easily so I have to discipline myself.
Today I run as an IBVM and pray for the grace to persevere. Much like running in a marathon, prayer and discernment take practice. Every journey has its challenges, but we are not on it alone. We are accompanied to the finish line by the love and prayers of our families, friends, and communities.
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