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Prayer Is His Passion: Father Edward Hays

Life can be prayer, according to Father Edward Hays, a longtime teacher, founder of a house of prayer, and author, who longs for everyone to pray always.

By Anita McSorley

Cover illustration
for Feathers on the Wind
by Father Edward Hays

We Are at Prayer
Credit the Sources
Monday-morning Mystics
Man With a Million Images
Sidebar: Hooked by God

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 City.

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 says.

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 activities.

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 of me?"

Monday-morning Mystics

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 a field.

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 existence."

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 explains.

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 prayer?

"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, for it was to be for both religious and laypeople living in community. To this day, says the current prelate of the archdiocese, Archbishop James 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 fund-raiser.

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 with God."

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 Soul.

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 great religions.

"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 prayers."

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 God's Love
By Edward Hays

Among the 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.

Reprinted 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.

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