Fall 1985, Vol. 37, pp. 256-266.

Clare Wagner:
      Current Trends: Women in Prayer

Sister Wagner, O.P., belongs to the Sinsinawa, Wisconsin, congregation of Dominica sisters and is currently engaged in the office of education for the archdiocese of Chicago.

A rare and privileged moment occurs when friends share with us their thoughts and images of God and their experiences o prayer. In this essay, I intend to offer for reflection such a moment as I weave together words of women on prayer given to me in response to a few questions.

The responses affirmed two things I have observed these pas several years. First, women's prayer experience is bursting with life -- paschal mystery life. Donald Senior writes of biblical prayer that it is "drenched with life and its cries rise from that experience."(1) So with this prayer: whether in pain, joy, grief, struggle, or peace, it has commitment to life. Secondly, these women's prayer reflects a breakthrough of religious experience that is becoming free of the restraints which curtailed the imagination and was no rooted in experience.

A few years ago, a woman told me of a prayer experience which provides an adequate context in which to weave a reflection named Women in Prayer. This woman was in her mid-sixties when she told this to me, and she was experienced in the ways of deep prayer. She had a strong sense of the presence of God, Jesus, and the Spirit in her prayer and interacted with each. In a particular dialogue in prayer, she was moved to ask Jesus to take her heart and to replace it with his own, in a way reminiscent of Catherine of Siena's experience. Jesus was ready to do this, but the Creator God asked him if he was sure that this was what he wanted to do. Jesus paused, but said he was sure. The exchange of hearts took place and effected feelings of delight, gratitude, inexpressible joy in the woman, and, according to her, great happiness in Jesus. For two weeks, she went about her life very conscious of new, empowering life, feeling energized and joyous. Then, one evening in prayer, she was in dialogue with Jesus and he said that after thinking about it, he wanted to make the request that she return his heart and receive her own back. The woman was startled and saddened. She told Jesus of her feelings and he entreated her to listen very carefully to something important he had to say to her. His words were something like this: "I love you; I will always be close to you. I want to return your heart to you because God's world needs to be loved as you can do it because you are a woman. Love the world with a woman's heart; even my heart cannot do that. Things must change at this time through a woman's way of loving." The woman understood and, in her prayer, received back her own heart and the specific challenge Jesus gave her as woman.

The action of Jesus in which he returned the woman's own heart characterizes the breakthrough in spirituality reflected in the responses I have received here and in a broader experience of women in prayer. In this experience Jesus not only "gave permission" for the woman to love, act, and respond with her own heart, but called her to do that in spite of how difficult it was for her to let go of what was familiar to her. Once the challenge was accepted, a new way of praying and relating to God became as much a part, of herself as breathing in and breathing out.

Two other things to be noticed in the experience described here are that Jesus says that the world needs a woman's way of loving and that even his heart could not love in the same way as woman's heart can. Even though this is simply one person's precious experience of God at a given moment, it nevertheless illustrates the great need for balancing male dominance in the area of spirituality and prayer. It does seem that the need to recognize and own the feminine heart is an impassioned call of God and the deeply felt need of women in prayer.

Because the spiritual directors, confessors, writers, and theologians involved in women's spiritual formation in the past were predominantly male, it is understandable that the spirituality of women has been heavily influenced by male approaches to God, as Sandra Schneiders wrote two years ago.(2) But now authentic women's spirituality is emerging quietly but very definitely in chapels, kitchens, back porches, bedrooms, parish churches, lake shores, city streets, and other places where women pray. In shelters for women, in sparsely populated farm towns, in university study rooms, and in theological centers women are taking seriously their own way of experiencing God, loving God's world, and trusting what they are discovering in prayer.


For many women, it is not easy to let go of an exclusively masculine image of God. One woman writes: "I realize that my image of God is very masculine even though in my head I reject that. It came to me about a month ago when I very consciously tried to image God as woman, as mother, and found it impossible to do. It made me sad and almost panicky to realize how conditioned I had become to a "male" God. I think this is gradually changing, and as it changes I am able to see more of the hope dimension -- God as faithful woman and mother who walks with us through evil and suffering to the other side-Resurrection."(3) A greater hope dimension emerges because God is released from the limitation of one image. And it becomes clearer to women that they too image God.

A number of women named the God of their prayer as constant, loving presence, light, movement, powerful yet forgiving presence, presence immediately accessible. I noticed that it is rare for any of the respondents to mention even these apparently abstract names for God without immediately relating the name to themselves or the world. Examples of these "threads" which evidence a type of kindred spirit are the following descriptions of God:

A life-love force energizing the world, available to all who respect and reverence and discover and create their own life-love.

A strong sustaining force which permeates my life and wakes me up to see more clearly and act with more integrity.

You [God] are my center, my core, the core of my being. You are the deepest part of me and the rest of my life is a shell wrapped round it.

An ocean of love whose giant waves come up and sweep me in, if I don't run away.

A moist, liquid light, penetrating my being, sometimes entering down through the crown of my head, into my heart -- a life-giving, powerful force. I can actually feel the warming, energizing movement of the force throughout my body, my mind, my heart.

There is no mold into which God is cast by these women's prayers; there is a spirit of welcome to the way God chooses to present the divine presence. One woman imaged God as a rock, "sturdy, reliable, dependable, present as life swirls around -- ebbs and flows," and another saw God as a prism. One woman called upon her memory of a great piece of sculpture in downtown Chicago to express a way she sees God. It is of three figures, a female and male image, tall and slender with arms outstretched in a protective stance yet not touching the third figure, a child, between them. She writes that God is "transcendent, constant, loving presence and immediately accessible. God is relationship, relation and relationality. God is love." An elderly woman experienced in love and prayer simply wrote, "God is the love of my life." A lover of literature wrote: "God is my chief character. I live in God. There's no other place to be and I love it. I rise in God's summons -- God, personal and gracious."

Anthony de Mello said in a talk last summer that God is more unlike the way we image God than like our image, but let us give God credit for being at least as good as the best of us. Some women imaged God as "the best of us" -- a maternal grandmother who "loved vividly -- no strings attached," and a father who, seemingly indifferent to his presence but not really, held his three year old grandson in his lap for hours. This memory of her father reminded the woman of the image in a favorite psalm: "Enough for me to keep my soul tranquil and quiet, like a child in its mother's arms, as content as a child that has been weaned" (Ps. 131). Another said: "I see God as an elderly woman, bent, misshapen, worn by life, carrying a sack of potatoes from the discount produce, but clothed with a refined dignity and amazing strength -- such a ten- der, vulnerable gaze from beneath her flowered, once lovely straw hat. I am awed at such fragile beauty, wrote a faithful prayer." These images, the gift of memory, faith, and imagination, are the best of us indeed, and even more -- a powerful hint of the God-life and the blessing of words to speak of it.

A lost heritage "in the Spirit" is being recovered as women research, write about, and discover "Sophia" as an image of God that expresses the God of their experience. A woman who claims Sophia as her image of God writes: "Sophia is she who gives understanding of all things, who penetrates and pervades all things, who is at the heart of creation. She reveals herself to me, in myself as part of God's creation-when I seek her and open myself to all that is natural and alive and growing and changing."

The God of these women's prayers pervades all things and is revelatory in the experience of all of creation. Basic threads for the tapestry named Women in Prayer are in these images of God who is Sophia, center, life-love force, rock, liquid light, ocean of love, love of life, grandmother, chief character, father, relationship, old woman worn by life, and more than these, much more. Yet, as one young woman wrote, "in the end we are left with a loss of words even the mystics have not been able to overcome." I imagine these threads as bright yellow and pure white and as running the entire length of this weaving, permeating the entire piece with light and life.


How do women come before their God in prayer? For various reasons, this world moves many women to a prayer of lament. As Rachel weeping for her children, as Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, so do these women lament the tragic, the injustice, the frustration of life.

The Jesus I meet in prayer is sorrowful. At times, I've wondered if this image is merely my projection -- hinting of my own unresolved demons. However, Jesus assures me otherwise. Weeping over Jerusalem (then and our world now), he mourns what might have been. This experience tells me Jesus is in pain over our pain and he still longs to comfort. This "edge of sadness" is deeply felt.

Jesus called his disciples in the Gethsemane scene to "staying awake" to the ordeal at hand; doing that makes the sadness "deeply felt." "Loving the world with a woman's heart" includes consciousness of, and involvement in, the world exactly as it is in the here and now. Anguish because of personal pain, woundedness, oppression, death of loved ones, and the power of evil ravaging the lives of our sisters and brothers call forth prayer not unlike the lamentations of Jeremiah, the Book of job, the first few chapters of the Book of Wisdom, or Psalm 42; "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?"

Because of the personal trauma of being wounded by the conditioning and oppressive treatment women have experienced in society and in church or because of mid-life or other crises, women bring themselves to God for healing and, actually, for life. To identify with Jairus's daughter, who, as Mark tells the story, was dead when Jesus arrived at the house, is not unheard of. The ending of that story ("Little girl, I say to you, get up"-Mark 6:41) is not unfamiliar as the touch of God brings to life the real self or the wounded-child self of the woman.

However, the responses that are reminiscent of the lamentation focus, because of my question, on the world or the experience of death. Four women spoke of death thus:

I have come to know God as a God of pain and loss in ways I never felt before this. Such a source of support! I have recently had a sense of going out of myself and the deep breath I took reminded me of my mom's face after she died. I realized that death could be a kind of ecstasy-a total letting go-and I also realized how far I have to go in abandoning myself totally to God.

That Sunday morning, June 24, my dad was hanging on to life in Illinois, I was praying in Minnesota. But my prayer was a different prayer, the "letting go" prayer. By my absence, I gave my aging father a chance to "get away to God." It was not an easy prayer. Even as I write I am choked with tears. My entire grief process from spring '84 to spring '85 has been a prayer process. There is life in death; there is life after death! Specific instance of prayer involved listening to the Earth Mass . . . O Mystery . . . while swinging on my swing feeling full of sadness yet sensing a comforting presence as winter earth came to life in spring, sensing also a oneness with the Body earth which was mine, which now housed and even was my friend. O sacred Body-Earth! An experience of oneness with life-love forces was my prayer. Watching, waiting, listening in reverence and awe to the life-love forces.

Daddy was dead since October. I'd expected my brothers and sisters to call on Christmas day. I thought this year they might send a gift. We decided we wouldn't exchange gifts in community. (No calls, no gifts.) On January 2, one of the sisters asked me at work, "Was Santa good to you?" My heart was empty, my eyes full. This sister surely expected the obvious answer. My response was, "I don't know." It was then I began to grieve for my dad. A deep sadness and loneliness filled the next few days. Finally, I was able to tell some of the sisters I'd had no presents or calls. The sadness began to dispel. Had it not been for the experience of no gifts, perhaps that grief would still be trapped. Gift took on a new meaning. Money, value, worth took on a new meaning. I had received more than I hoped for my perception, my experience, and my faith gave me perspective.

These descriptions of meeting death only scratch the surface c these women's periods of grief. What is striking is the close attention each pays to the unique way God is present in their experience and leading the way to greater depth and even to new life through no gifts, the letting go prayer, the sacredness of earth, any the moment of ecstasy.

Other comments that evoked a struggle, a lament, a crying out are responses to the world in 1985.

The suffering I experience and witness propels me to prayer. I would use the same Greek word Mark uses to describe the Spirit driving Jesus into the desert after his baptism.

The poverty, oppression -- especially in Central and South America and South Africa, Ethiopia, Middle East -- and here in the U.S. -- hunger and poverty -- makes me search for the reasons, makes me want to "be with" in all that suffering. It helps me begin to get a tiny idea of what it means that "Christ suffers today in the poor of the world," makes me struggle with anger that such suffering exists It's numbing, depressing-yet somehow to work for a preferential option for the poor, to begin to see life through their eyes, gives not only a vision of poverty, hunger, violence, and want, but a sense of being so stripped -- there is a truth in it all that feeds my prayer life.

The crucial justice and peace issues move me to "cry out" to the Lord for conversion for our nation. I feel so powerless-how do we change a nation's mentality? Sometimes I find myself praying for a miracle.

I feel great anger and maybe even a sense of despair over what seems to be a continually lessening concern for the poor or for the future of the world. I pray often to Jesus and imagine him weeping at the depths of his being so much more so than he wept over Jerusalem.

With no lack of pain, anger, and powerlessness in these women's prayers, there seems to be less blaming of God than in the lament psalms. I sense those praying being conscious of God standing with them or weeping with them over evil in the world. These feelings and convictions provide purple and lavender threads for the tapestry.


The energy emanating from people in prayer is a significant power influencing the world. Strength coming from within, coming out of prayer, empowers women to speak, to act, to decide, or to know the fears that keep them from it. One woman wrote a mean note on a Christmas card to her daughter-in-law who had hurt this woman's son; after an experience of a communal reconciliation service which she allowed to touch her to her depths, she tore the card in pieces rather than send it.

Another woman felt deep resentment toward Jesus for the satisfaction he seemed to have in his ministry when she had none. Suddenly she imagined herself on a balcony with Jesus and Pilate. Jesus let her know that the crowd shouting "Crucify him" were some of those he healed and preached to. Satisfaction in ministry is an ambivalent thing, Jesus communicated; fidelity is what counts.

Still another woman in deep, quiet prayer experienced a strong sense of acceptance, peacefulness, and calm love for all people ;and life, which this very young woman calls "grace." A fourth .:woman, meditating on the story of the healing of the woman with the hemorrhage in Mark's Gospel, was struck by the line: "Immediately aware that power had gone out from him, Jesus turned around . . . ," and she was filled with strong desire that Jesus' power might somehow go out from her. This desire became part of her prayer for a long time.

Though there are many ways in which women are empowered in prayer, the major ones are by bonding with other women, sensing connectedness with creation, working with their own experience, and being rooted in Scripture.

BONDING. Praying with people has become more important to me in the lack of its availability. The role of women in one of our celebrations touched me deeply and gave me a new sense of who I am and who we are as women before God. The key moment was when N. as president raised her arms high in blessing, calling on the God of Sara, Rachel, Leah, the God of Rebecca, Ruth, and Naomi, the God of Esther, Susanna, and Miriam and so on through all women of the Bible. Words cannot express what that moment was for me.

(Two travelers who were acquaintances and became close friends on a five day trip to Oregon.) We spent the first day of our trip laughing; I had never laughed so much in my life. I came off the trip as if I had come off a retreat .... There was between us an intermingling of ritual, convention, personal faith, shared faith, new ideas, hope, and daily-daily matters .... We were blessed. I would like to live in that place-seeing God and praising God in everything. Risking to share and experiencing healing in that risk. There is something about being on a trip that allows such abandon.

CONNECTION WITH CREATION. It was an experience of God in me -- of God who has made herself part of my body and my spirit as well as part of all creation. The new experience for me is the profound connectedness between me and all of creation. Though it has been a gradually deepening and growing realization, the experience of this connection (through which I know God) "peaked" while I received a body massage during the weekend of solitary prayer. The physical experience became a profoundly spiritual one. As I relaxed in silent, respectful, healing touch of the woman massaging me, my consciousness of myself changed. I experienced the physical reality of myself, the cycles and changes of my life, the transitions in my life and in relationships, all the things that bring me happiness as one with the change of seasons, the dying and growing things of the earth. The experience has given me a heightened consciousness of Sophia God who "penetrates and pervades all things" (Wisd. 7:24) and has remained with me somehow deeply "informing" my own understanding of myself as a woman searching for the spirituality that is truly mine as a feminist, and for the God who early called herself Sophia.

(Excerpts from a writer's description.) I was given a prayer experience that has changed my total being. My life has not been the same since .... Someone verbalized the truth my ego needed to face. When I heard it, I stood numb, shocked by the simple blunt reality. In the next hours, as I began to assimilate the realization, I saw my whole world turn upside down. Once my ego let go of its fixated position, a sweep of freedom and exhilaration rearranged everything .... A golden radiance permeated everything; the oneness of the universe was tangible -- rocks, trees, birds, animals, and other people all floated with me in an ocean of bliss and trust. If all is one, why worry or cling? All is in balance. Nothing matters but a compassionate surrender into Being. I wept with joy and gratitude. I was held, even gripped by a oneness that has remained a part of my consciousness ever since.

WORKING WITH EXPERIENCE. My world of administering a school is one of paschal mystery. This small microcosm encapsulates the struggle for truth and compassion in an intense and anxious way. Contract time seems to be the worst time of year -- surfacing lots of hidden agendas, angers, joys, and accomplishments. One day I returned home very down and burdened. I was very angry. I prayed in a dark and fretful sort of way. The anger hurt but I knew where it came from and what had to be done. A person who manipulated and weaseled around had to be judged incompetent with no contract renewal. This person was a peer and I felt the decision terribly. That night as I slept, I was awakened from a dream of death (it took place in a cemetery!) where I confronted this person. As I awakened, a tremendous sense of love, courage, and peace embraced me. I was ready to bite the bullet. The important thing for me was to enter, own, and label my anger. Being a passionate woman, God enters the whole spectrum of my affectivity. This was very liberative -- and empowering.

ROOTEDNESS IN SCRIPTURE. I think of Leah's mistake. She wanted a love from Jacob which she could not have. Gradually, in the naming of her sons she comes close to reconciliation; however, it becomes an unfinished task. While she moves from dependence on Jacob to a sense of being blessed by God, she still wants and hopes for what she cannot have: Jacob's love. This belongs to Rachel. As a result of her woundedness, her sons never reconcile. They become a wild bunch: they revenge with brutality (Dinah) and harbor and plot a grudge (Joseph and Benjamin). I, too, hesitate to reconcile, especially with some of my brothers in the church. Jesus asks me to remind these men to whom they belong. I flinch and hide.

Even reading the accounts of these experiences has the power to fire one and to move one. Who can read of the blessing which calls on our foremothers and not feel blessed and in relationship with those women of God? Who can ponder the oneness of body and spirit with creation and not yearn for it? Who can listen to the administrator's prayer and not be moved to enter, own, and name our own anger?

I want to acknowledge the limitations of this attempt to create this sacred weaving from what, through the mysterious ways of God, has come to me. Each person's experience of God and prayer is unique, so that many precious kinds of encounters with God, self, and the world are inevitably left out. What is written or spoken, moreover, is only the tip of the iceberg. Often anguish, struggle, waiting, and other intense experiences remain hidden. Yet I am so glad to present this incomplete, but authentic and beautifully worded weaving of Women in Prayer which expresses women's learning to love God, themselves, the world with their women's hearts. The breakthrough I sense so strongly is a continually developing process of women's rediscovering all that God has done in them, making them in God's own image, and what that reality -- so powerfully in and of God -- can do to enrich and recreate the earth.

  1. Donald Senior, "Prayer according to Mark," in Praying No. 7, National Catholic Reporter, Supplement, 1985, p. 12.
  2. Sandra Schneiders, "The Effects of Women's Experience on Their Spirituality," Spirituality Today 35 (1983): 108.
  3. All the quotations on prayer throughout this essay are from women who responded verbally or in writing to questions about prayer which I asked. They responded with the understanding that the material would be published anonymously.