One Word at a Time

"Fish Church" - First Presbyterian Church in Stamford, CT

The interior of the church* looked like it had been torn from the pages of Isaiah, “I lay your pavements in carnelians, your foundations in sapphires; I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of jewels, and all your walls of precious stones.” The air was still, heavy with the heat of early summer and anticipation. I settled into my pew, tore my eyes from the distracting beauty that surrounded me to focus on the choral ensemble arrayed across the chancel.

Suddenly the tenors plunged as one voice into the soaring space, “Ave Maria…,” a line echoed by the baritones, then caught up into a complex harmony of overlapping phrases by the sopranos and altos. The music swirled above us and poured down the walls. Eddies of sound spun down the main aisle.

A word or phrase would surface in perfect clarity, then become submerged into the polyphony, only to re-emerge again on the next word. Gratia, grace. Benedicta, blessed. The depths of each phrase of the Hail Mary were sounded by threads of intricate harmony. My ear strained to follow the final note of the final Amen, until it too, was caught into the silence.

As I took the train home late that night, I was struck by how much like my prayer this setting of the Ave Maria had been. I gather myself in stillness to listen, plunge in with a word or two. Adsum. Here I am, Lord. God willing, I hear the music that ever surrounds us, but even with long practice the individual notes elude me. Words tumble about, caught in the currents of my thoughts. Sometimes, there are flashes of heart-rending clarity. And in the end, the transcendent Trinitarian chorus carries me into silence again, my heart straining to follow their lead.

Perhaps because this particular piece had been composed by a contemporary of St. Ignatius, I thought, too, of his Second Method of Prayer. (SE 252) Gather yourself comfortably before God, he advises, still your gaze, and don’t let it roam about. Take a familiar prayer, like the Our Father, or perhaps the Ave Maria—the Hail Mary. Say the first word, hold onto it, explore it, relish it, turn it about. When you’ve exhausted that word or phrase, go on to the next. Let each word pull you more deeply into the Divine mystery.

This morning, listening again to Robert Parson’s Ave Maria, I realized that this is the rhythm not only of my prayer, but of my life. There are moments when I am blessed with an utter certainty of God’s presence, followed by moments when I am so distracted by the complex cacophony that pervades my daily life I lose track of the underlying melody entirely. I can be befuddled by, entranced with, or simply carried away by the complexity of the sacred tune swirling through the universe. And there are so many times when I strain to hang onto the barest whisper of God’s voice, unsure if it is still there.

Gratia plena, indeed. I pray to be filled with the grace to hear God resounding through time and space, and the courage to follow him into the depths. One word at a time.


* The church is the “Fish Church,” First Presbyterian Church in Stamford, CT. Watch a fly-over video of the church filmed with a drone.

About Michelle Francl-Donnay 29 Articles

Michelle Francl-Donnay is the mother of two 20-something sons, a professor of chemistry, an adjunct scholar at the Vatican Observatory, and a regular contributor to Philadelphia Archdiocese’s CatholicPhilly.com, where she writes about the joys and struggles of trying to live a contemplative life in the midst of everyday chaos. Michelle blogs at Quantum Theology.

4 Comments on One Word at a Time

  1. Sometimes words can be superfluous – but the words expressed in this hymn are just what I need at the moment. Lovely, pulling one in, and deeply inspiring. “Gratia plena, indeed”….Thank you, and abundant blessings of this day.

  2. I so agree with Peter. That last line is a keeper. Not surprisingly, this passage found me after a week of spiritual desolation. I am trying to do the Spiritual Exercises (week 3)and it produced a deep depression. A spiritual darkness. As I reviewed the 3 weeks, a theme emerged- I long for peace,starting with inner peace but I lack the ability to trust. Calling on Mary,the Blessed Virgin, focusing on the wonderful memories of hearing that song in Italian by our Parish priest is a way for me to put myself into the story and gather strength and insight to help me begin to heal this part of me and keep working on God’s blue print for me. Thank you.

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