Last fall, I had the privilege of spending two nights as a guest at St. Rose Convent, the motherhouse of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Both nights, I kept vigil with the sisters in the adoration chapel during the waning hours of evening-into-night.
I should point out that I generally don’t do very well with this form of prayer. Every time I try to spend an hour in adoration, I start to get fidgety and distracted after about four minutes. But my experience at St. Rose Convent was drastically, startlingly different. I found distraction and fidgetiness to be impossible as I knelt rooted to my prie dieu, unable to turn either my gaze or my focus from the altar, the monstrance, and the Blessed Sacrament within. Not just my gaze and my focus, but the whole of my being, was riveted by the awesome Presence in that place.
You’ve probably already guessed that I’m not using the word “awesome” in the skateboarder slang-y 21st-century vernacular kind of way. Rather, I’m using the word awesome in the old fashioned sense of “awe inspiring.”
To be inspired with awe is to be overcome with a mixture of reverent wonder, amazement, and even – or perhaps most conspicuously – fear.
Fear was certainly the most conspicuous element of the awesome Presence that I encountered during my first night’s vigil.
While I distinctly recall having identified fear as my overriding response to the Sacred Presence, I cannot recall – and I’m not sure I ever knew – what it was that skewed my experience of awe so heavily towards the component of fear.
Perhaps it was the silence: a silence as silent as time suspended outside of time.
Perhaps it was the beauty of the art, architecture, and furnishings in the chapel: a beauty as cool and crisp and ageless as an ancient legend captured, frozen, and preserved beyond the bounds of time and space.
Perhaps it was the prayerfulness of the sisters: a prayerfulness that transcends all ages.
Or perhaps it was the general sense of being ancient, yet ageless; of being within a distinct time and space, yet free of the physical and social constraints of time, space, and today.
In this space of somewhere, everywhere, and nowhere; some time, every time, and no time, I wasn’t sure how to identify or define the Presence revealed through the Blessed Sacrament.
I perceived the Presence initially as cold, unforgiving, and unyielding, perhaps because the reddish gold of the monstrance seemed strong, powerful, cold, and almost terrifying – like a medieval warrior king determined to conquer everything in his path.
I was frightened, but I could not look away.
And as I looked, I began to acclimate to the somewhere / everywhere / nowhere-ness of the space. I began to feel somewhat at home in this ageless space, somewhat comfortable with the rootedness of this timeless space in something bigger than time. And as I became somewhat more comfortable in this somewhere / everywhere / nowhere space, I began to see not the harshness, but the gentleness, of the Presence revealed through the Blessed Sacrament. I began to see small whispers of lighter, softer colors in the powerful red gold of the monstrance; I began to see a brightness and warmth in the pyx; I began feeling drawn to this Sacred Presence not by fear, but by an invitation to love, to be loved, to simply be.
By the end of my second night’s vigil, my fearful awe at being in the Presence of Christ had shifted to wonderful awe at being allowed simply to bask in a love and a goodness that transcend space, time, and all that we claim as reality.
It was easy to perceive – indeed, it was impossible not to perceive – the timeless Presence of Christ in the sisters’ adoration chapel. It is, perhaps, less easy to perceive this Presence as we go about our ordinary, noisy, and distinctly time-bound lives. Yet this timeless Presence journeys with us somewhere / everywhere / nowhere and all ways, inviting us to love, to be loved, and to simply be present in a love and goodness that transcend time, space, and all that we perceive to be real, here, now.
May your days, nights, somewheres, everywheres, and nowheres be ever blessed with this Sacred Presence.
— Lori Randall, 27 June, 2019