|He looks like nothing so much as a cross between Father Christmas
and Father Time. But he's Father Edward Hays, founder of Shantivanam,
a house of prayer sponsored for 23 years by the Archdiocese of
Kansas City in Kansas, the archdiocese in which he was ordained.
Shantivanam, whose name means Forest of Peace in Sanskrit, is
located in Easton, Kansas, less than an hour's drive from Kansas
Old St. Nick might put Father Hays's
ascetic frame to shame, but not his generous good nature. Nor
does Father Time have anything on the good Father Hays. Although
the self-effacing priest would be the first to deny a wise bone
in his body, more than half a million of his books on prayer and
spirituality sold speak for themselves.
"Ed speaks to the very core issues
of people's lives," says Tom Turkle, publisher and longtime
friend of Father Hays. "He makes the divine mystery accessible
to the ordinary person. He's really a quite remarkable man."
We Are at Prayer
Father Hays is known for his work in
two areas: prayer and contemporary spirituality. His approach
to prayer is an unusual one. While most spiritual directors and
writers on prayer encourage people to incorporate prayer into
their daily life, Father Hays directs us to do just the opposite:
to incorporate our daily life into our prayer.
Basing his argument on Jesus'
invitation to his disciples to pray always, Father Hays proposes
that "the glory of God is beauty, and whenever we are caught
up in the beauty of heaven and earth, we are caught up in prayer--in
the mystery of God....I think the issue of teaching people how
to pray is really one of teaching them how they are already praying."
Most people aren't totally unfamiliar
with the type of prayer he's encouraging, says Father Hays. Over
70 percent of the American population claims to have had a mystical
experience. "I've talked to fathers who had been present
at the births of their daughters in the delivery room and claimed
it was the most religious experience they'd ever had," he
But a misunderstanding about the nature
of prayer prevents many from understanding how events like these
are, indeed, religious moments, or moments of prayer, in their
lives. Moreover, it also prevents them from understanding how
even the more mundane moments of our lives can be lived prayerfully.
The type with which we are most familiar
can be called prayer of communication, says Father Hays. In this
style of prayer, individuals take time out of their day to talk
to God--to thank, praise or petition. But formal prayer is only
a way of conditioning the faithful to pray all the time, in Hays's
opinion. Whether one is Catholic or Muslim, Buddhist or Jew, whether
at prayer once a day or many times a day, formal prayers are meant
to get people in the habit of seeing God's handiwork everywhere.
Formal prayers are not meant to be
sufficient in and of themselves. Prayer isn't something we can
check off our to--do list when the rosary is concluded or the Sabbath
prayer service over.
Most people are less familiar with
Hays's other favorite style of prayer: the prayer of communion.
Some find themselves most often in communion with the cosmic Christ,
in appreciation of the grandeur and majesty of the stars and galaxies.
Others find themselves more often in communion with the common
Christ--the Christ of the coffee grounds and the dirty diapers.
Either way, the prayer of communion can transform our entire existence
into an offering. It is the prayer of communion that makes Jesus'
injunction to "Pray always" actually achievable.
Most of us already pray "in communion"
much more frequently than we realize, says Father Hays. One of
the great surprises on the Day of Judgment, he predicts, will
be how pleasing our prayers of communion have been to God, how
well we have actually been praising the Lord through our everyday
Just as those in Matthew's Gospel were
surprised to learn that when they fed the hungry or sheltered
the homeless they were feeding and sheltering the Lord, Father
Hays thinks we'll be amazed when Jesus congratulates us on "praying
so well with me when you were nursing your baby!" And despite
our protestations to the contrary, our claims that "I don't
remember praying when I was nursing my baby; I was just changing
diapers and nursing my child," Jesus won't be dissuaded.
"You did it with such love,"
Father Hays expects Christ to say, "you were so absorbed
in it. Don't you realize that you were absorbed in the mystery
Prayer is not something we become "good
at" only after "succeeding" at increasingly difficult
stages, says Father Hays. Terms like mysticism and contemplation
have become shrouded in mystery, when actually they are very natural,
very human, activities. Contemplation, or the prayer of communion,
is something we can all do, he says--from the child totally absorbed
in the building of a little mud house or in playing with a doll,
to an adult being captured by the beauty of a dog running across
Hays says we need to move beyond the
idea that the only way to God is through arduous labor and years
of progressively esoteric study and to realize that all of us
can be Monday-morning mystics--ordinary folks who experience God,
both in and outside the Sunday liturgy.
But can we all be mystics? Surely
mystics are individuals who somehow, through lives of asceticism
and prayer, come to know God in a way not open to the average
Christian. Not so, says Hays. God is as available to each and
every one of us as we allow him to be.
"Theologians believe," he
says, "that individuals tend to experience the God they believe
in. If I believe God is in heaven, and I'm here on earth, I won't
experience God till I die. I can experience the Church, I can
experience the sacraments and holy places, but if I want to experience
God, I have to get to heaven." In short, if we don't allow
ourselves to know God in our everyday lives, we won't.
But if we believe, as we were taught
when young, that the answer to that old Baltimore Catechism
question, "Where is God?" is truly "God is everywhere,"
he says, "then there are all kinds of wonderful opportunities
to experience God in this world.
"I think we should all aspire
to mysticism," says Father Hays. Like the theologian Karl
Rahner, S.J., in Practice of Faith, Hays believes that
"the Christian of the future will be a mystic or he or she
will not exist at all!" Father Rahner explains, "By
mysticism we mean not singular parapsychological phenomena, but
a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our
In other words, we need to demystify
our understanding of mysticism and realize that, to be a mystic,
one needs only to experience God personally. How does this happen?
Hays's answer is prayer. "One of the primary purposes of
prayer is to bring us to a firsthand experience of God."
Whether that firsthand experience comes
primarily from prayer of communication or prayer of communion
doesn't matter. What matters is that we learn to look for God
everywhere. "We're all hungry and thirsty to experience God,"
Hays says. "There can be no dynamic faith that is second-
or thirdhand. You can't live on secondhand faith."
But Father Ed Hays's life wasn't always
one of prayer and contemplation. The story of Shantivanam, the
house of prayer he founded, began some 23 years ago when Father
Hays asked his archbishop for a three-month sabbatical.
The young priest had found in his 13
years of parish ministry what so many men before him had found:
that the priesthood gives you far less time to pray than you would
imagine. "My personal prayer life was taken up by work,"
He requested permission to spend his
proposed sabbatical at a Trappist monastery, where he hoped to
renew his personal prayer life. What he got was a yearlong prayer
pilgrimage around the world--to Rome, Jerusalem, India and Tibet.
Then, to his complete surprise, he was asked by his archbishop
to consider opening a house of prayer for the archdiocese. Would
he be willing to make himself available on a full-time basis to
those interested in pursuing a deeper relationship with God through
"Saying yes to the invitation
to begin a house of prayer was one of the most transforming experiences
of my life. Living in a community of prayer with laypeople was
a wonderful experience," Father Hays says.
The house of prayer that Archbishop
Ignatius J. Strecker proposed was indeed unusual 23 years ago,
was to be for both religious and laypeople living in community.
To this day, says the current prelate of the archdiocese, Archbishop
Keleher, it "shows a unique commitment to the whole idea
of a life of prayer and the encouragement of contemplation.
"It is not aimed specifically,
like many retreat houses, at priests and religious," explains
Archbishop Keleher, "but it is intended to show hospitality
to anyone who is interested in a deeper spiritual life. I don't
know of any other place like it."
A house of prayer initiated and supported
by a diocese is also uncommon. From its inception, Shantivanam
has been considered an archdiocesan institution and a percentage
of its annual budget has come from monies raised by the archdiocesan
The founding of Shantivanam took place
in the midst of the spirit of renewal brought on by the Second
Vatican Council. But of "all the changes in ministry and
liturgy, of all the necessary reforms and excellent documents
that the Council produced," Archbishop Strecker believed
that none of these things alone would truly renew the Church,
Father Hays recalls. The Church would be renewed by prayer.
"Personal prayer," he told
Hays, "would then overflow into ministry and liturgy, but
first of all, renewal had to start with personal prayer."
In his diocese he wanted a place "set aside for that kind
of renewal work and so, in a way, provide the undergirding, the
support system, that the renewal of the Church would require,"
recalls Father Hays. Shantivanam grew, therefore, not out of one
or two documents of the Second Vatican Council, but out of all
of them, and the spirit of renewal they embodied.
In the intervening years, Father Ed
Hays has become closely identified with the house of prayer he
began. But Shantivanam is a permanent community of a small group
of individuals who have dedicated themselves to a life of prayer
and to living as a community. Some hold jobs outside the Forest
of Peace, and members have come and gone over the years. But by
choosing to live at Shantivanam, each member has chosen to make
prayer an integral part of his or her life.
Those who visit Shantivanam for retreat
purposes, therefore, says Father Hays, "only step into an
existing prayer life--the ongoing prayer life of this lay community."
The house of prayer offers no retreat exercises, nor does it offer
conferences or consultations, except on an individual basis. Instead,
Father Hays says, "People come here primarily to be alone
Much of the identification of Father
Hays with the house of prayer derives from the many books he has
published through Forest of Peace Publishing, Inc., an adjunct
of Shantivanam. Since his first book, Prayers for the Domestic
Church: A Handbook for Worship in the Home, was published
in 1979, Father Hays has written a total of 18 books of stories
and parables, prayers and contemporary spirituality, including
his most recent Feathers on the Wind: Reflections for the Lighthearted
Man With a Million Images
Father Ed Hays is a man of many
talents, but most of them grow out of one special gift: an uncanny
ability to conjure forth the perfect image to illustrate his point.
His gift, perhaps, grows unconsciously from his love of Scripture
and the plethora of beautiful images it offers.
When he's asked why he has chosen to
use word pictures and stories to convey his message, he points
immediately to the power of one of his favorite metaphors, Christ
as mother hen: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets
and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather
your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,
but you were unwilling" (Luke 13:34).
"You remember that. You can visualize
that. We are coded to process
and retain images better and faster than we can mere words,"
says Father Hays. And such parable-like images provide a powerful
way for Hays, the author, to make his own message memorable.
But his publisher also maintains that
Father Hays often thinks visually, as opposed to verbally. "I
think in pictures," Turkle remembers Hays telling him once,
so that when he writes, his stories take on a three-dimensional
life in his mind, almost of their own accord. That dimensionality
is enhanced by his own pen-and-ink or watercolor illustrations.
Although Hays hasn't had a formal art course since high school,
he is an accomplished artist.
Father Hays claims that his art is
a unique example of the failure of the education system. "All
children are artists," he says. "They're also singers
and dancers and performers. But we have become so efficient in
our methods of education that by the time they are nine or 10,
we have cured them of all that. For some reason they weren't able
to do that for me," he says, "and I just can't seem
to do it on my own."
Indeed, Father Hays has to be the "most
creative person I've ever encountered," but claims no credit
for it, says Turkle. "While he is tireless in his giving
of himself, he credits his success to only one source: God."
That's why he refuses payment for the
use of his stories or art in not-for-profit publications. "Ed
feels that all of this has been given to him freely," says
Turkle. "And charging reprint rights would mean taking ownership
of something that he doesn't claim ownership of."
Last December, Father Hays turned over
the leadership of Shantivanam to Father Joseph Nassal, C.PP.S.
(Society of the Precious Blood), who has spent time at the Forest
of Peace ever since his seminary days. When asked whether he will
continue to write now that he has left Shantivanam, Hays says,
"That depends upon the Author. I'm just the secretary. If
the Author wants to speak, I'll be happy to take dictation. Sometimes
the ideas come so fast that I have to scribble as fast as I can
just to get them down."
Credit the Sources
Father Hays credits many of his former
teachers as the source of inspiration to him down through the
years. "I have found it to be true that God provides the
teacher we need at each stage of our life. If we're open to being
taught, and I have struggled in life to be both the good teacher
and the good student," almost anything is possible.
But the abiding wellsprings of his
personal spirituality are names familiar to us all. "There
have been four excellent authors who have been like gold mines
in my life," says Father Hays. "You can go down day
after day and year after year and find these rich veins of wisdom
and knowledge. It's amazing! I have been ordained 37 years but
haven't even begun to mine the gold in Matthew, Mark, Luke and
John." To that list, he adds the sources of all the world's
"One of the greatest events in
my life was the Second Vatican Council, which called us to a broad
ecumenism," says Father Hays. "Not simply to consider
our Baptist and Presbyterian brothers and sisters in the body
of Christ, but also to realize how God had spoken, the Holy Spirit
had inspired, the great religious books of the world."
Inadvertently, the Council that made
such an impact on Father Hays's priesthood also had the effect
of diminishing the emphasis placed by the Church on private prayer.
"The Second Vatican Council," says Father Hays, "focused
attention so thoroughly on the Mass that it deemphasized prayer
at home." But it is in the home, he says, that our personal
relationship with God is born.
As a child, Father Hays was brought
up on what he calls "incarnational" prayer. "I
was raised and grew up in a home that was not particularly pious,
but was a very devout Catholic home during the Depression and
the Second World War.
"My parents practiced incarnational
prayer: We prayed at meals, we prayed at bedtime; prayer was a
very important part of our life." In his and other Catholic
homes, there were all sorts of personal and private devotions
practiced in the home, family rituals and private prayers that
fed the spirituality of the family.
The Mass, as Father Hays remembers
it in pre-Vatican II times, was a very majestic and awesome experience,
but since it was in Latin, which few people really understood,
"the real nourishment of people's faith lives came from devotional
Then came the Second Vatican Council,
and with it an incredible enthusiasm for the Mass in the vernacular
and the accompanying changes in the rest of the liturgy.
It's true, says Father Hays, that a
lot of the devotions popular prior to the Council were not based
on sound theology. Many were pietistic--some, totally off base.
But the Church's mistake, he says, was not replacing them with
devotions based on good theology. For devotions are undeniably
a gift of the faith, he contends.
Think of the parish liturgy on Sunday
as a potluck dinner, he suggests. "Everybody shows up for
a potluck dinner, but what happens if nobody brings a pot?"
Or for that matter, anything to put in it. "We have to bring
something to the liturgy on Sunday," says Father Hays. "And
to do that there have to be prayer and ritual in the home."
Whether the home is one person living
alone, a single parent and children, or the classic two-parent
family, he says, in each household, "ritual, prayer and sacramentals
must be used.
"Some mystic once said that if
the student is zealous and the teacher is determined, you can
learn anything," says Father Hays. And he doesn't doubt that
God the Teacher is determined. We have no need, he thinks, for
a supernatural experience of God or a mystic vision, when God
is with us always--in our work, in our play, in each other. "We
need only to be present to the moment," he says.
But he does offer one final bit of
advice for any Monday-morning mystics in the making: "Pray,"
Father Ed Hays says simply, "with your eyes open."
Sidebar: Hooked on
most pleasant of all leisure activities is one that Jesus gave
to his followers as a special sacred vocation. He sent his disciples
into the sea of humanity to be fishers for God. We usually
think of that vocation as one restricted to religious professionals,
but it's a vocation of everyone who is a disciple of Christ.
Actually, as the 14th-century
mystic Meister Eckhart tells us, it's God who is the Fisher and
we who are the game. Love is the fishhook; but there's a problem.
Anyone who has handled fishhooks knows they are very sharp and
dangerous. So just as we stay clear of fishhooks, we tend to stay
away from God's love.
We all know too well from the
stories of the saints and from Scripture what happens to those
who get hooked on God. Because we don't want our well-ordered
lives upset, we avoid getting hooked on the radical love of such
a demanding Lover who wants not just part of us but all
of us! Now, a fisher can't catch a fish unless it takes the hook.
So the hook must be hidden by some tempting bait, like a big,
fat, juicy worm.
Jesus was the alluring bait that
hid the hook of God's love. His humanity was the incarnation of
God's love in the flesh and, oh, how attractive it was! Sinners,
those who were social and religious outcasts, all wanted to be
near him. Why were persons who normally would have felt out of
place in a religious environment so lured to someone who was so
prayerful and religious?
Hidden in the answer to that question
is the pattern for how you and I are to evangelize (to use a religious
word), to go fishing in the sea of humanity. From all the Gospel
stories it is clear that Jesus respected others, loved them for
who they were at the moment. He didn't preach at them, didn't
demand their conversion as a requirement of his companionship.
He was among them as one of them, loving them as God loves--unconditionally.
Being hungry for such love, they swallowed him, hook, line and
sinker. The paradox is that the more they were caught, the more
they were liberated!
If we wish to go into the world
as Christ sent us, as fishers, we need to make ourselves into
the same kind of bait as was Jesus. Rather than attempting to
make converts, let us simply love everyone we meet, the good and
the bad, with unconditional love. If our love has strings attached
to it, hidden motives other than loving as God loves, the "big"
fish (who always get away) are clever enough to see the hook and
will swim away.
Of course, the best way to go
fishing in this Christlike way is to first be caught by the big,
sharp hook of God's love and to wiggle with joy and delight. When
we little fish are caught by unconditional love, we will become
alluring bait for bigger fish. And again, fear not the hook, for
to be caught by God is to be truly free.
with permission from Feathers on the Wind: Reflections for
the Lighthearted Soul, Forest of Peace Publishing,
Inc. ©1995. The book, which is $10.95, may be ordered from
Forest of Peace, 251 Muncie Rd., Leavenworth, KS 66048.
Anita McSorley is associate editor
of The Leaven, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas.
She has also written for Columbia and is articles editor
for TWINS magazine.