by Cheryl Ann Smith.
Prayer changes things. This was the inscription Mary Pennefather asked to have put on the cross that would mark her grave. This was the story of her life.
Though Mary’s early years were filled with anguish, she discovered the path of prayer, a path which led her to profound holiness. Let me share with you three lessons that were burned into me through Mary’s example.
1) Prayer is intimate communication between two persons.
One Sunday afternoon a few years ago, I was alone, praying in the island chapel. Dimly, I became aware that someone had quietly entered, and was slowly making her way to the icons in the front of the chapel. That slow faltering shuffle could only be Mary P.
After what seemed an eternity, Mary finally reached her goal, the icon of Our Lady, and she sank to her knees. What ensued was an amazing, intimate conversation between the two of them. I didn’t hear words, of course, but I saw and sensed their profound communication.
After a few minutes, Mary put her ear right on the figure of Our Lady. She was obviously listening, receiving, absorbing.
A short time later, she rose and shuffled out of the chapel. Her face was radiant.
I was reminded of this incident last May, when I was called to Mary’s bedside. She had taken a dramatic turn for the worse. She was white as a sheet and in excruciating pain.
For once, she couldn’t respond much to those around her. To console her, Hugo brought in the statue of Our Lady of Fatima. As soon as this statue was brought close to Mary, she strained with all her might to reach up and kiss her. Then she engaged in fast and furious conversation.
Again, I could hear no words, but Mary’s lips were moving with great intensity, and her eyes never left Our Lady.
I left these two friends to their conversation, and when I returned later, Mary was peaceful. She even had color in her cheeks.
When I remarked on this, she replied, "Oh yes, Our Lady pinched my cheeks to give them color." I believe her.
2) Prayer is seeing with the eyes of Jesus.
Because her whole being was riveted on Jesus, Mary was a prayer. She saw with his eyes, and she saw him everywhere.
My eyes were opened to this when I was transferred to St. Mary’s from the main house. I missed seeing Mary’s face every day, so when I did see her one day, I reached out in gladness to touch her.
To my astonishment, she took my hand and kissed it. That gesture pierced me to the heart. I wanted to prostrate myself and cry out, Leave me Lord, for I am a sinful man (Lk 5:8).
Where did that cry come from? How did the Lord become so palpable in that gesture? In time (and after a few more of these encounters), I realized that Mary saw Christ in me, and that she was reverencing him in me.
Mary saw Christ in every person, and reverenced him in every person, and somehow gave us eyes to see him too. Perhaps that’s why her love was so healing: it led us to Jesus. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Mt 5:8).
3) Prayer is a total offering.
My most profound and challenging lesson in the nature of prayer, came last Christmas. As director of women at St. Mary’s, I usually receive Christmas cards, often including spiritual bouquets, from the staff here.
In the Christmas card she sent me, Mary prayed for peace and blessings to be poured upon me. Lovely, but nothing out of the ordinary.
But then the card revealed that her prayer had been the offering of 10 Masses, 20 visits to the Blessed Sacrament (no small feat for her pain-filled body), 12 rosaries, 50 sacrifices and 3,360 ejaculations!
Again, I wanted to fall on my knees. I could hardly bear the overwhelming beauty of this love.
I realized that this was Mary’s life and prayer—a total offering of body, soul and heart for each one of us.
Every suffering was offered for us. Nothing was wasted. When she promised to pray for us, she wasn’t talking about a few vague words thrown towards God. She was talking about a commitment that called for sacrifice and the total gift of herself.
Yes, her prayer changed things. When Mary was a young woman filled with suffering and self-hatred, she discovered that she couldn’t love God and others if she couldn’t love herself. Unable to change her heart, she begged God for a grace.
Then she came across a prayer by Cardinal Newman. She recognized it as her answer, and she prayed it every day for the rest of her life.
It is now obvious that she not only allowed this prayer to change her heart, but that she became this prayer. This is what she prayed:
Dear Jesus, help me to spread thy fragrance everywhere. Fill my soul with thy spirit and thy life. Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that all my life may be only a radiance of thine. Shine through me and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel thy presence in my soul. May they look up and see no longer me but only Jesus.
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