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A pillar of Benedictine spirituality is hospitality. According to the Rule of Saint Benedict, everyone, without exception, is to be received as Christ. As a novice oblate of Saint Benedict about to make my final oblation, I was convicted of breaking this iron-clad rule by two strangers on the night of December 12, 2013, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. After praying the evening office, I had just settled down to meditate when the doorbell sounded a clarion call I felt compelled to answer. Peering through the peephole, I recognized the face of a fellow Legion of Mary member whom I was planning to see later that evening at our weekly meeting. Brother Jack lived miles from my neighborhood in the opposite direction—alarmed, I opened the door.
Instead of Jack, there stood a tall 30-something man with remarkably similar features but much longer, wavy brown hair reaching to his shoulders. In spite of the frigid weather, he was wearing only a long-sleeved black crewneck shirt and a striking gold cross that caught the porch light. His arms were at his sides, as if standing at attention, and his hands were empty. He smiled expectantly, his warm brown eyes silently regarding me through the glass of the unlocked storm door that still separated us, apparently waiting for me to open it and invite him in. I was too dumbstruck to speak—all I could do was smile back and, with flailing arms, motion him apologetically away. Instead of going away, his smile widened and, mimicking my gestures, he said, “What’s this? Signing? I can do that.” Feeling foolish, I shook my head and slowly shut the door. As it closed, he said reproachfully, “Thanks for your hospitality!” Ouch. I may as well have slammed the door in his face.
Where were my manners? What was I afraid of? Being taken away from something on my agenda or being asked to do something I did not want to do? Ashamed, I opened the door to call him back, but it was too late—the stranger had already vanished into the night, leaving no calling card or flyer in sight. I attempted to resume meditating, but my rhythm was off and my mantra, “Come, Lord Jesus,” rang hollow. Instead, I decided to visit the adoration chapel before my meeting, instead.
Contrite in His Holy Presence, I read, then re-read, Mother Teresa’s “I Thirst” meditation that someone had handed me earlier at Mass. Though I thirsted for Jesus, did Jesus really thirst for a sinner like me? Stretching out my arms toward the monstrance, I whispered: “Come, Lord Jesus, come back to me,” but it was already time to leave for my meeting. As I made a quick stop to my car, a middle-aged man bearing a bouquet of roses approached with a question in Spanish. Smiling apologetically, I explained that I did not speak Spanish—a convenient excuse for avoiding conversation. Then he asked in perfect English if I knew where he could get water for the flowers. Caught off guard, I shook my head and repeated my excuse—now an inexcusable brush off. As I turned away, he said reproachfully, “I speak all languages.” Nailed again! I wanted to turn around and ask for another chance, but I knew this was my other chance and I had blown it, big time. Ashamed, I fled to my meeting.
Why had I not been helpful? Why had I not suggested the restrooms in the building where I was headed? Of what was I afraid? Being late for a meeting I knew could easily start without me? Being judged unfavorably for tardiness? Though I arrived on time, a goal I had been working on recently, self-congratulations, seemed cheap, won at the expense of fragile flowers, obviously meant to honor Our Lady on her feast day. As I pondered both encounters on the way home, all my petty sins became magnified in the harsh light of my selfish neglect of those flowers. Did Jesus really thirst for a sinner like me? Parked in my driveway, I wept at the hardness of my heart. Upon entering my house, my spirits were lifted by the surprise of Christmas lights my daughter had strung in the foyer. A little flower had been added to a vase which, only hours ago, had contained a few sprigs of red berries. On closer inspection, it was a rose—a spotless red rose with a stunning head of velvety petals! My daughter confessed that a mysterious woman had dropped it at the metro station; before my daughter could return it, the lady had vanished into the rush-hour crowd. I said no worries. The tiny rose, an advent symbol of the baby Jesus—sprung from the root of Jesse through the stem of Mary—welcomed her hospitality, while I welcomed another chance to offer mine.
Over the next few weeks, I cared for the thirsty rose, replenishing its vase frequently, enjoying its sweetness and beauty. I also became a better servant of the moment, stepping up in an emergency to lead the next Legion of Mary meeting, offering a parishioner a ride home from Mass in an unexpected snowstorm and wishing a telemarketer a blessed evening, despite my interrupted prayer time.
On Epiphany Sunday, the day of my final oblation, the rose was still lovely, remarkably preserved after 24 days. Though still unworthy of the promise to dedicate myself to the service of God and others according to the Rule of Saint Benedict, I was ready to make it, renewed through my belief in the “Rose E’re Blooming’s” infinite thirst for a sinner like me.'
As a young man not yet even 20, I attended college, pursuing a degree in accounting. During my first year, given that I was very shy and introverted, and having had no close friends, I would eat my lunches alone, sitting on a bench on the campus lawn. This enabled me to avoid the hustle and bustle of the dining halls, where almost everyone else enjoyed their meals while socializing.
One day as I approached my usual bench, I noticed another young man was already sitting there. Thinking back to that day, I remember I was quite annoyed. That was my bench. “Go get your own,” I thought. As I walked by him, he must have noticed I was carrying a bagged lunch and he asked if I wanted to sit down. Begrudgingly, I did. We introduced ourselves. His name was David. After I began to eat my sandwich I remember looking over at this fellow and thinking that he looked very poor. His pants had rips (and not the cool kind of rips that many people used to do themselves) and his shoes looked as if they should have been retired many years ago.
A Life-Changing Conversation
I asked him if it was his first year at the school and further inquired as to what he was majoring in. Turns out he was working on his general education classes, with plans to move on to pre-law. I was impressed. I knew that some people do in fact become lawyers, but I had never really met anyone who had the determination to actually pursue it. As we talked and exchanged tidbits from our lives, I learned that David grew up in a small town about two hours from the university—a small, depressed town. In fact, David grew up very poor, much more than I had originally suspected. His mother died when he was a young boy, and his father raised him and his three siblings by himself. David was the oldest, so as his father went to work every day at one of the local factories and after school each day, David watched over his brother and two sisters while doing his homework. He also had a part-time job washing dishes at a local restaurant in the evenings several days a week. I asked David why he wanted to be a lawyer. He told me he wanted to help others who could not help themselves. He wanted to make a difference, for people and for God.
When his uncle asked him at the age of 14 what he wanted to be when he grew up, “a lawyer” was his response. From that day, he said he was determined to make it happen. He came in a tie with a fellow classmate to be the valedictorian of his high school. Between saving the money from his part-time job and being blessed with a well-deserved scholarship he was able to attend college. He was the first in his family to ever do so. David told me he could not afford to live on or near campus, so he drove to school every day from his hometown. It was a four-hour drive, each day, five days a week. I asked him how he had the time and strength to do this day after day. He responded by telling me that God gave him the strength. As I sat and listened to David humbly tell fragments of his life story, and his current situation, my only thought was that he inspired me. Our only connection was that I also grew up quite poor, and my father died when I was very young. But I definitely did not share his determination. At that point in my life, I was clueless as to how to proceed with my life, other than trying to show up for class on time every day.
David definitely inspired me not only with his determination, but also with his humble, kind and peaceful attitude. Here was this young man who, when faced with so many adversities, who had decided this is what he wanted and this is what he was going to do to make it happen. I would like to claim that I was there in the audience when David received his law degree. I would like to claim that David went on to become a lawyer who championed moral justice. I would like to claim that David and I went on to become life-long friends. Regretfully, I never again saw David. I went back to that same bench many times that year, hoping to see him, strike up another conversation and find out how he was doing, but he was never there. Regardless, I have never had a doubt in my mind that he did it—that he became the lawyer he wanted to be, helping people, just as he wanted to do.
A Determination to Persevere
David had a goal from the age of 14, and he worked hard and saw his goal become a reality. I knew it then and I know it to this day. The most important thing I took from that brief encounter is that David has always reminded me that a goal without action is really not a goal at all. David showed me that there is a big difference between saying you want something and actually working to make it happen. In my mind, I imagine that David worked and strived hard, perhaps even harder and with more adversity than other young students who also wanted to become lawyers. Saying you want something is one thing, but actually doing something about it is very different. We prove what we desire most by our actions, not by our words. Where our treasure is, there will also be our heart. We see this and experience it all the time, in others and in our own lives.
Since finding my faith, I cannot help but recognize the determination that each of us needs to live the type of life God wants from us. We want to be forgiving, but how often do we continue to hold grudges? We want to be more patient, but do we truly make the changes in our thoughts and actions to demonstrate patience? We want to start being more charitable, but do we avoid people who call on us for help? We desire to have more gratitude for what we have, but how often do we continue to want more, instead of appreciating what we already have? We desire to love God with our whole heart and soul, but how often do we find reasons not include Him, whether consciously or unconsciously, in our lives?
Less Talk, More Action
How often is what we say we want different from what we actually pursue? Again, saying you want something is one thing, doing something about it is very different. We prove what we desire most by our actions, not by our words. We should ask ourselves: Am I taking the necessary steps to grow closer in my relationship with God, a true relationship? Am I taking the steps to overcome my defects and let God turn them into virtues and strive for continual determination?
Much how David was determined to see his goal become reality, we have to keep going and never give up, no matter how many times we fall and even if we fall hard. We cannot give up. God loves us and is merciful. A desire to be a better person for God, without the necessary spiritual work to become that better person is just wishful thinking. Just how David showed and inspired me, it takes some work on our part—actions, strength, determination. We can do this, together, with God by our side. Never give up.'
I was introduced to Our Blessed Mother at an early age. I fondly remember the many processions held in her honor at Saint Lawrence O’Toole Church in Walkerville, Montana. The sisters would patiently gather us in the church to form a procession in honor of Mary, followed by the recitation of the holy rosary. Each child was directed to recite either the Our Father or the Hail Mary or the Glory-Be until we successfully prayed all five decades of the rosary.
As a child, I instinctively knew Jesus’ mother was a very special person to be honored and respected. As an adult, I got away from saying the rosary or even thinking very much about the Blessed Mother. However, my mother always prayed the rosary, especially during times of great sorrow and sickness in our family. She seemed to know Our Lady was interceding on her behalf.
It was not until many years later when my mom was diagnosed with a terminal disease that I began to pray the rosary with mom. During this time of great uncertainty and fear I began asking Our Blessed Mother to intercede for us. On one occasion I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Our Blessed Mother had interceded on our behalf.
Mom was in a Great Falls hospital in Montana receiving her chemotherapy treatment when, suddenly and without warning, her heart began to fail her. The doctors and nurses rushed her into ICU and frantically began to work to get her heart properly working. She was hooked up to all kinds of monitors and machines. I was scared; I feared the worst. Thankfully, the medical team finally got her heart stabilized. I was so exhausted, the nurses encouraged me to go back to the motel and get some rest and I reluctantly agreed.
I sat in my car, which was parked in the parking lot of what was then the Columbus Hospital, and the tears began to flow. I asked Jesus to wrap His arms around her and keep her safe. I looked out at the nearly empty parking lot and I saw this glowing statue of Our Blessed Mother. She was so beautiful; I immediately felt at peace and knew she was watching over us.
The next morning when I arrived at the hospital, I wanted to again look at the statue of the Blessed Mother. To my surprise the only statue I could find was that of Christopher Columbus. I will always believe in my heart that Our Blessed Mother was there in the hospital parking lot that night, helping me through the difficult time.
My mom faced her illness with so much courage and inner peace. It was as if Mary was holding her hand, comforting her during her final days and leading her home to Jesus.
In the years since Mom died, my loving devotion to Mary has grown. I recall the words of Saint Bridget of Sweden: “The demons are every anxious in their pursuit of souls. Yet, they quickly abandon their prey merely at the name of Mary.”
Mary is my “top-of-the-line” prayer warrior and I want her in my corner every moment of every day.'
Why do some people have faith and others do not?
What if I personally do not feel like I have faith?
To answer the first question: sin. Sin is the reason why some people do not have faith. “But wait!” you cry, “I know a lot of really good people without faith and a lot of really mean people who have faith! How is sin related to all of this?” Here is how. We were originally created in union with God. Once sin entered the world, that union was ruptured. Among other things, our intellects were darkened and we could not understand what we were originally able (before sin) to grasp. We all inherit this “fallen-ness.” So, in a real way, sin has taken its toll on all of us; sin is why we sometimes do not clearly see God. Even closer to home, sin is also what keeps ME from God (not just Adam and Eve, but ME).
Never forget: faith is a gift.
No one earns it. No one gives it to himself. God gives a person faith. The second point is this: God gives this gift to everyone. God does not choose to give it to some and not others. This is the point that Jesus made in the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13). In the parable, God gave the gift of faith (the seed) everywhere. But it was the recipient’s response that was crucial in bearing fruit or losing the gift. God’s giving the gift is absolutely necessary, and He has made all the arrangements; if a person is open to faith, it is theirs. But that is the crux: we must receive it and live it out. If a person sincerely does not believe in God, it is most likely because they do not see the “proof” of God. That is legitimate. You would think that if God wanted us to believe in Him, He would have made it a lot easier. On the other hand, I personally think there is plenty of evidence for God’s existence. Maybe God does not just want people to “believe” in Him. I think we sometimes act as if God has nothing better to do than get a bunch of people to believe in His existence. What if God wants something more than our “belief?”
If you are struggling to believe in God, I have this advice: pray. Start living as if God was real. Ask God (in prayer) to draw you closer to Him. Ask God to reveal Himself (on His own terms) to you. If you want the gift of faith, all you have to do is sincerely ask for it. Again, this means you have to begin by actually praying. Now, this is the moment (the moment of choosing, the moment of taking the risk, the moment of making the decision to act and not just having wishful thinking) when most people get off the boat. It is easy to go on and on and “wonder” at God’s existence. It is easy to study the arguments and argue the points. Until a person comes to this point—the point at which a decision is made to engage the will as well as the intellect—he/she will never have faith.
This is crucial. Because “faith” is much more than “belief.” Simply “believing in God” never saved anyone. If all one had to do was believe in God’s existence or in Jesus as the Son of God, then Satan would be saved. James writes about this in his letter, “You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble” (James 2:19). Faith is so much more. According to the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (“CCC”), having faith is when a person “completely submits his intellect and his will to God. With his whole being man gives his assent to God the revealer. Sacred Scripture calls this human response to God, the author of revelation, “the obedience of faith” (“CCC,” 143). Faith is related to “belief” but the kind of faith that saves a person is more like “trusting obedience.” With that in mind, does it make sense why I said that some people do not have faith because of sin? At its heart, sin says, “My way”; at its heart, faith says to God, “Your way.” Like love, faith is a decision, not a feeling.
If you do not feel like you have faith, do not worry. Be practical. Look at your life. Are you striving to be faithful (obedient) to God? Do you pray every day? Do you feed yourself with Scripture? Do you go to Mass each week? Do you try and love the people around you who need love? When you fail, do you go to reconciliation? If yes, you have faith. If not, now is the moment to begin. Start by praying at this very instant. Do not wait. Do not hesitate. Do not put it off. Begin now.'
My heart can still feel the ache of singleness. My eyes well up with tears and I feel the pain of what used to be. It was a long road of sadness, anger, uncertainty and loneliness. It seemed like I was always discerning God’s will and discovering more about who I was becoming. There were blessings of joy and beauty. For 16 years I longed to have my deepest desire fulfilled. In college, I cried with friends telling them of this ache. I have journals with pages of sorrow. There have been so many prayers.
Unless you have traveled the road of singleness for quite some time, it may be hard to truly understand what it is like. It was never about just getting married or going with just what I wanted. It was about what God wanted for my life. Coming to realize that is one thing; it is another to want what God wants and to embrace it with joy!
I prayed often for God to take my desire for marriage away until the time was right. It hurt to have such deep desires with nowhere to go with them, especially when I believed they were from God Himself. I prayed for my heart’s desires to be His desires. I laid down my desire for marriage time and time again. This all took place during dating, break-ups and singleness. I discerned whether or not marriage was the vocation to which God was calling me. I have always enjoyed Mass and sharing the Gospel message. Parts of religious life are very beautiful, but I did not feel a call to that life. Was the single life for me? I enjoyed many parts to that life and I faithfully served God. What about marriage? Little by little, I laid down my will for marriage and focused on becoming a happy, healthy woman. Laying my life and future down to the Lord (completely) was one of my most painful experiences. I believe that once we make a decision after discerning for some time, God brings peace. Once I surrendered, I learned that what will be will be when it will be. I embraced each day being present in it, rather than living in the past or in the future. We are not truly living if we are not in the present. When I got busy living, I was not so focused on what I thought was missing from my life. Instead, I was busy being happy and growing in many ways.
I started taking care of myself by putting things into my life that made me my best self. I also took out things. I learned to move on from a relationship that was never going to bring marriage. I learned to love again, but guarded and with confidence in who I was becoming. I discovered how to be OK with alone time and I eventually embraced it. I ate right and exercised. I learned what a healthy dating relationship was. I better balanced my personal and work time. I set weekly goals that focused on building confidence. I said good-bye to men that brought me extreme joy and frustration because they were not God’s plan for me. I turned down a wedding proposal and a future seeing a clear vision of who my husband should be. I closed a chapter in my life with someone who was “perfect,” but could not love me according to God’s plan for marriage. I have been working on embracing life and God’s plans for my vocation since 2011. I looked at it as a mountain climb. In order to get to the top, I had to go through the tough stuff—the healing, forgiving myself and others, taking new risks while being afraid, moving on, letting go, laying down my life and trusting God. I realized that I could not skip or take shortcuts to get to where I was going. As Robert Frost said, “The best way out is always through.” I love the person I became and the person I am becoming as a result of the “going through” and embracing God’s plan for me each day. Hard? Yes, but worth it.
A Practical Note:
Please pray for the single and the pain they suffer. If you ever need to offer words to someone struggling with their state of single life, it is always best to walk with them rather than give advice. There are so many bad “words of wisdom.” Be there. Listen. Offer an “I’m sorry you’re hurting and going through this.” Pray with and for them.'
I grew up in Dublin, Ireland, in a traditional Catholic family where we all went to Holy Mass on Sundays. However, the faith was not very deep; rather, it was something we did out of routine.
When I was about twelve, my parents separated. My prayer to God was for them to get back together. After a year or two, it was clear that they would not be doing. So, I concluded that God did not care about me since He did not answer my prayer.
I still believed He existed, but I stopped believing that He was a God of love. Turning my back on Him, I attempted to create my own happiness through alcohol, boys, nights out, popularity, etc. These led me down a path that was further and further from whatever God may have planned for my life.
I was left feeling isolated, yet I continued searching for happiness in worldly things, completely unaware that they could not fulfill me.
This continued for a few years, but a big turning point came in the sixth year, after a typical night out of heavy drinking and bad decisions. I woke up the next morning realizing that I was feeling utterly lost, that I kept falling into the same bad situations. Something had to change, but I did not know how. I only knew that I was longing for something more meaningful in my life. At the time, I was in a relationship that made any real change quite difficult. He had become my focal point of happiness, yet the relationship was not based on the true meaning of love.
One day, my Dad’s uncle visited us. Devoted to the Catholic faith, he lived to lead others closer to the Lord. The Holy Spirit used him in a very powerful way.
He asked me if I would like him to say a prayer with me. I politely said yes, but was not taking it too seriously. However, I experienced such a presence of power and authority, as well as Supreme Love, gentleness and peace. It left me feeling powerless, but very contentedly so. This was the grace of God that came into my heart through the power of the Holy Spirit. In retrospect, I recognize this moment as the beginning of my journey back towards our Lord. The Holy Spirit ignited a small but powerful spark in me.
Not long after this, my Dad arrived with a book for me, “Through the Eyes of Jesus” by Alan Ames. I cannot recommend this book enough.
It tore away all the lies and misconceptions I had about a far-off God. It opened my eyes to the reality that God is love and that Jesus truly loves me beyond all understanding.
As I continued to read this book, I found tears streaming down my face, my heart burning with something unrecognizable—Jesus’ pure and unconditional love. I yearned for more of this love of God. I was hungry for His truth.
However, one huge block to this remained for me—chastity. I was still in a relationship and was torn between human “love” and this newfound pure love from God. My boyfriend could not understand this change and had no belief in God. This was heartbreaking for me. I longed to be free to love God with my entire heart, not just part of it. I wanted to live in line with His Church.
The Lord listened to my prayer. He knew how weak I was and how not being in a state of grace made it incredibly difficult to take that big step. On Saint Winefred’s feast day, my Dad was at her shrine praying for me. That very weekend my boyfriend and I broke up. Painful as this was at the time, it set me free.
By now I was ready to accept the Church’s teaching in all its fullness and change my life in whatever way necessary. In confession a wonderful priest explained to me why the Church teaches the message of chastity. He told me about a group in Dublin that met weekly and prayed for purity. My initial reaction was a definite “no.” I was willing to practice chastity but I was certain that I could do it on my own—our Lady knew better.
Several months later I was with a group in Medjugorje for the youth festival. They were normal, fun young people who loved the Lord like me. They told me that they were involved in this prayer group in Dublin called Pure in Heart, which prays for purity. Back in Dublin, I went along to hear a Pure in Heart talk and was blown away. It was a message I had thirsted to hear. I began attending the weekly prayer meeting, which was pivotal in continuing to live chastity.
Having finished my undergraduate degree, I am now blessed to be working for Pure in Heart, which teaches the truth and beauty of human sexuality. I am on the mission team that travels around the country bringing this life-giving message of true love to secondary-level students. I am passionate in sharing this message as it profoundly changed my life in so many ways. It is teaching me what love truly is, how to receive love from God and others and how to truly love in return.
I pray that one day every soul will hear this message and choose real love, not the counterfeits for which the world is trying to make us settle. Chastity has shown me that only God’s love can truly fill the void within our hearts. When we are affirmed in His love for us, we can then love others in a beautiful and ordered manner that never robs them of their dignity.
By attempting to imitate Christ’s love we begin to see God working powerfully in our lives. We see God in every human being who is made in our Creator’s image and likeness. What does God mean to me? He is my everything, the Love we all seek.'
There are things about childhood that you relive in your dreams. Maybe it is therapeutic for the mental issues we all have. For me, the long walks of my youth around the dikes of the camp where I grew up are a composite of long, friendly dreams. When I am lucky enough to have one of these dreams, I invariably awake in a sort of time daze, not sure if I am still between three and 16 or if the sad truth is that I am “grown up” and here in “normal” central Ohio.
When the bird banders came in the spring, I helped them set up their nets. Sometimes I even got to help them band the warblers that come through in a swarm of yellow, hurrying to their nesting grounds in northern Canada. My dad took me duck hunting a few times and, like any good daughter, I watched him skin at least a few hundred muskrats. One of the best adventures of my childhood happened in junior high, at that gray hormonal point in every person’s life when nothing is right with the world. No one understands you, strange things happen to your body and in my case my dad got remarried. My new stepbrothers, in spite of being goons, were wonderful for expanding my creativity, especially when it came to seeking out havens for myself. In our summer wanderings after sixth or seventh grade we happened upon a fallen willow. From the looks of it, lightning had struck it right down the middle. Rather than just falling and rotting, the six-foot base of the fallen tree listed to the side and kept on growing. It made a huge bridge, with nooks and crannies on the ground.
The tree house was hidden from view because of the overgrown path and brush. We managed to clear a path, although it took at least a week of solid clearing. We used the branches from the brush we cleared away to mask the booby traps we built into the path … to keep people away, of course, and to lure our unsuspecting friends. There was a kidney-U-shaped pond beside the tree. The tree was at the closed end of the U and though the pond often dried up in the summer (another great place to explore, with deep cracks and critters), it made for a much-need escape for me and my inevitable book. I used to go there—with books, with homework, with problems—and sit in the muted green. When I visit it in my dreams, I always think of praying, though in my adolescence that never occurred to me. Back then, I was pretty sure God could not hear me and if He could He was busy with more important stuff. After a time, my stepbrothers tired of the tree and so did I. Before long, family situations changed, we moved and the tree was forgotten in all but my infrequent dream visits. I found other refuges as I got older: school activities, educational pursuits, romance.
Sometimes my refuges were hiding places—from the weight of my problems, from the stress of my life, from the things I did not understand. Sometimes my refuges were places of comfort, places I went to let my hair down and be me, though I was often trying to figure out just who, exactly, “me” was. Sometimes, in the flurry and bustle, my refuges were times of peace, sanctuaries of silence, places of rest. I moved away and grew up, only to find that, in the loneliness of my soul, something was missing. I did not know what it was, but it seemed to be linked to a young man and his Sunday-morning habit. As I sat with him in Mass, holding his hand and fighting back the overwhelming desire to cry (and losing most of the time), I sensed that same feeling I felt back in our fallen tree. It was peace and silence and safety. I could hide from the things that disturbed me and settle in to be myself.
Once upon a time, there was a refuge in the Garden of Eden—it was paradise and it was perfect. Before the loss of innocence, there was peace. Now, living in the midst of our fallen world and my fallen self, I find my refuge is a glimpse of heaven. I go to her, my refuge and I snuggle in her lap. Her cool hands brush my hair off my forehead and she holds me. She does not talk. She does not distract me. She lets me be. When I am ready, she points me to her Son, whose arms have always been open, waiting. She understands that settling in, being myself, is not comfortable. I do not like what I see. I have sinned and fallen short; I have fallen, just as Adam and Eve did, again and again. I think of my early days of attending Mass and my childhood tree house when I hear Mary called refuge of sinners. I think of how my children run to me first when they are hurt and I imagine Jesus running to Mary, to feel the solace of her strong embrace and the comfort of her soothing words.
Did Joseph also go to Mary in his doubt, to find refuge in her unwavering faith, her ongoing assent to the divine plan? The disciples found her a refuge, from the three years of Jesus’ ministry to Pentecost to the present day. Jesus took on our sin—my sin—and died. What higher purpose could His mother have than to act as a refuge to the very ones he offered his life to save? Jesus wants us to have His mom for comfort, just as He did throughout His life.
In my sin, I always expect a place like prison, dark and cold, gray and unwelcoming: a punishment. Sinning makes me think of hell instead of repentance. Through my repentance in confession, I come closer to God. When I cooperate with the great graces God has waiting for me—and which His mother so gently and often points me toward—I can grow past my sin, past my imperfection, past my faults. Coming back to God, the ongoing conversion story of my life, makes me a better Christian. In being a better Christian, I am more like Mary, my refuge and the refuge of all sinners. She stands there, offering comfort, encouragement and peace. She reminds me that it is not about punishment or suffering; it is about God’s will.'
Miscarriage. Pregnancy loss. Enduring pain. Endless sleepless nights filled with longing and regrets. Whether the pregnancy was planned or unexpected, miscarriage brings about a myriad of emotions that take months and years to resolve and heal, and many, especially mothers, never forget. Whether or not the unborn child was eagerly planned and waited for, or an unexpected surprise, the pain of losing a child to miscarriage can be extremely intense and all too often minimized or overlooked by those close to them who do not understand the pain they are going through.
I experienced my first miscarriage a year after my second youngest child was born. This pregnancy was unexpected and definitely not planned. To further complicate matters, I had been medically advised to wait eighteen months after my previous birth before trying to conceive again due to serious complications that had occurred during delivery. I was not happy when I found out that I was pregnant and in my ignorance told a friend that ‘if God planned on sending me anymore children after this one, I was going to change my address and not give Him the forwarding information!’ A few days later, I would end up deeply regretting and repenting of these words I had said.
As I was terrified of both mine and my unborn child’s safety, I immediately called my doctor’s office and was given verbal reassurance over the phone. A few days later, my husband and I met with the doctor who assured us that with careful monitoring, he was very optimistic of a positive outcome for both the child and myself. Relieved, we went for blood tests to check my hormonal levels and became excited about the pregnancy. That night, I started bleeding, and the next morning we learned my hormonal levels were incompatible with a viable pregnancy. As we had just found out that I was pregnant, we were both surprised at the amount of emotional pain we felt. I went to the store, trying to pretend that everything was normal and that this would pass over, but instead ended up breaking down into tears in front of a sales associate. Thankfully, she was sympathetic and supportive, but the next several weeks went by in a painful blur. Every time I saw a pregnant woman or newborn, I was reminded of my own loss and was filled with grief. We named our child after her grandparents as we felt in our hearts that she had been a girl. I went to confession about what I had said earlier, and the priest reassured me that the miscarriage was not my fault, my child did have a soul, and that she was in heaven with God. Deep within my heart, I feel her purpose was to open both mine and my husband’s heart to remaining open to life rather than being afraid of it, and when that was accomplished, God called her home to Him.
A few months later, we lost another child to early miscarriage. As we had been given medical permission to begin trying again, this pregnancy was planned and very much wanted. There were complications right from the start, so we were not as surprised by this miscarriage as we were with the first one. This did not ease the pain that we felt however, and as we buried him next to his sister at a family’s grave site, my body contracted in longing for him and we both wept in sorrow.
The months went by, and it was only the responsibilities I had in caring for my older children that made the days more bearable and easier to handle. As we watched our children play, we both felt a deep sense of loss, that there was an emptiness that would not go away. We were both grieving, in different ways, and as the months went by without conceiving again, the grief seemed to intensify rather than lessen. We were older, and started wondering whether or not we would be able to have another child again. I prayed that the desire to have another child would be lessened, but instead it increased.
Several months after we lost our second child to miscarriage, I found out I was pregnant again. This time the pregnancy test came out with a strong, solid line, compared to the weak, faint lines of the previous pregnancy tests. We were cautiously excited, especially after we made it past the time where we had lost the previous two babies. An ultrasound was scheduled, and we eagerly looked forward to seeing the first glimpse of our unborn child. It was not to be at this visit. While a gestational sac was seen, no fetal pole or heartbeat could be detected and we were devastated. More blood tests were ordered and it was discovered that while I had low progesterone, the HcG levels were high and rising, although not in the typical pattern expected. I was placed on progesterone supplements and we spent an agonizing week waiting for the next ultrasound. This time a moving fetal pole was detected along with a heartbeat, although it was considerably low for gestational age. We cried tears of joy at seeing our child, and began to hope that the outcome would be different this time.
Two weeks later, I started spotting and in a panic, called my doctor’s office. She reassured me over the phone, stating that this could be normal, especially as I had a history of spotting in other pregnancies. To help put our minds to ease, she scheduled an ultrasound for later in the day. My husband met me at the doctor’s office and as the results were inconclusive, we were sent to the hospital where the imaging machines are more advanced. It was there that we saw the still form of our unborn child, no longer moving, without a heartbeat, and I cried out in anguish. We went home and spent the evening consoling each other. Two days later, the cramps began and the pain was so intense it felt like going through labor. My husband took a few days off so he could care for me and our other children. A week later, the bleeding had not subsided, and it was discovered that I had retained part of the placenta. I was scheduled for a D&C the next day, and I fought my husband on going. He firmly told me that unless I went through with the procedure, there was no way that I would be able to become pregnant again. That was about the only thing he could have said that would have motivated me to go. The hospital staff was warm and caring, but when I woke from the surgery, I wondered if I would ever feel normal again.
The weeks passed by and while we did seek medical consultation about the repeated miscarriages, we decided not to pursue any further fertility or hormonal treatment due to our ages. After three miscarriages in less than a year and a half, we seriously doubted whether or not I was able to carry another child to term. We prayed about it and made the decision to remain open to life, but were not really expecting anything to happen.
A few months later, I was in church praying and I told God I thought I was ready to become pregnant again if it was within His will. In retrospect, I am certain God was laughing, as unknown to us, I was indeed a few days pregnant at the time! I repeated this to my husband later that day, and he grasped my hand and we prayed for acceptance of whatever God’s will was for us. Two weeks later, I was in tears and crying out for our Blessed Mother’s intercession when I realized I probably was pregnant again. Although I very much wanted to be pregnant, I was terrifed about the possibility of going through yet another miscarriage. This time we did not take any pregnancy tests as we were very well aware of what the symptoms were, but a week later, I started slightly spotting. Blood tests were ordered and again my progesterone levels were low. This time, however, the HcG levels looked a lot different, and I was feeling like I had when I was pregnant with my children I had carried to full term. We refused the progesterone supplements as we were concerned they caused complications with the previous miscarriage. More blood tests were ordered and none of the doctors liked the HcG rise. I was told everything from ‘there is no way you are still pregnant,’ to ‘there is a strong possibility of this being a molar pregnancy, due to the HcG rise. I went in for an ultrasound at six weeks, bracing myself for the worst. The ultrasound was done in the same room that I had found out I lost Elizabeth a few months earlier, but this time the results were different. A healthy baby with a strong heartbeat was detected and for the first time, we began to feel hope the outcome would be different. Four weeks later, I was hospitalized with severe morning sickness, and another ultrasound was done in the hospital. I was amazed at how much our baby had grown, and my doctor reassured me everything was looking well, and that the likelihood of miscarriage at this point was very small. There are no words to describe the relief we felt! I was so happy about being pregnant that it was difficult to complain about the severe morning sickness and other discomforts of pregnancy.
The weeks and months went by and we remained hopeful, but knew that because of previous complications with my last delivery, the upcoming birth was high risk. My doctors remained optimistic that with careful monitoring, everything would turn out well. We both rejoiced in the new life I was carrying and appreciated the beauty of it in ways that we had not done before. The older children were becoming very excited and enjoyed feeling the baby kick inside of me, who in turn responded to them! I knew that due to my age and history of miscarriage, this would likely be my last pregnancy, so I tried to hold onto every moment of it. I eagerly looked forward to seeing our new baby, but yet, it was difficult to give up being pregnant as I enjoyed the unique feeling of having new life growing within.
Our son’s birth was a planned c-section to help avoid complications that might otherwise occur. I was both scared and excited as I entered the delivery room, and a few minutes later was able to watch most of his birth. He was placed directly on me for several minutes under heated blankets in the delivery room, and we both cried tears of joy and gave thanks to God for his safe arrival. I was still grieving the loss of our other children, especially Elizabeth who I had lost less than a year before, but the sense of emptiness, the deep longing for new life had been filled. Our son did not replace the other children we had lost, but it did help both of us to let go and move on.
Miscarriage is something that happens to so many families, but yet is so little talked about in society. Well meaning individuals do not know what to say, and so often as the pregnancy has not yet been announced or showing, very few people know what the parents are experiencing. For those who have experienced miscarriage, the pain is very real and every years later, the parents, especially mothers as they are the ones who carried the child, have not forgotten. Frequently, guilt does set in for the mothers, as they wonder if they did something, exposed themselves to harmful foods, did heavy lifting, etc that contributed to the loss. The feelings of ‘what could I have done differently to prevent this from happening? ‘are extremely prevalent and can last for a long time. The majority of the time, there is very little that the mother could have done to prevent the miscarriage, but it takes time and the patient, caring support of others, to come to peace about it. The three precious little ones we lost will always be etched upon our hearts and I look forward to the day when I will finally be able to hold them in my arms in heaven and tell them how much I love them. As hard as it was with losing them, we will always rejoice in the fact they came into existence and were with us, even though it was for only a short time. Going through all of this did help us to realize how precious life is, how every day with our children is a gift from God, and ultimately how our children belong to God and not us. Life — A precious gift from God, to be cherished at all stages, no matter how brief or how long it may be.'
Throughout the accounts of the nativity story we encounter God working the extraordinary amidst the ordinary. During a recent advent, I found myself accompanying the shepherds in their journey—beside the sheep in solitude and silence.
“Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Then suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests” (Luke 2: 8-14).
The life of a shepherd was simplistic, the daily tasks at hand were few and one day could easily flow into the next. Yet, a lack of attentiveness could put the whole flock at risk and without a shepherd the sheep easily lost their way. The needs of the flock were to always supersede one’s own, and this included the need for community to which we have become so accustomed. Due to a very transient lifestyle, company was but only occasionally found with fellow shepherds along with the animals they watched and for which they cared. Moreover, as they could not consistently observe the ceremonial rituals of purity prescribed by Jewish law, shepherds were considered among the lowliest of professions. Gone were the early days of Israel, as with King David, where their responsibility was respected; instead, they were included among the marginalized in Jewish society.
While certainly not a life easily undertaken by those who craved conversation or comforts, it did offer its own unique recompense. Under a blanket of stars and away from the hubbub of the city life they had time for quiet moments and reflection. I have often wondered if they, while aware their social standing, also recognized the value and purpose in their life’s work.
Even if they had, they most definitely did not expect to have been called out to receive the most magnificent angelic proclamation of the birth of the Messiah. With not one but a host of angels, breaking through the stillness and the darkness, hope was born that night. As Luke truly stressed, God moved from Heaven to earth—to the peripheries to reach all of humanity. Undoubtedly aghast at their divine invitation and despite any misgivings they may have had, their unexpected response was to make way for Bethlehem. Oh, the trepidation the shepherds had to have initially felt from the sudden marching orders and the impending arrival to a city, given their unkempt appearance!
Surprisingly, instead of a stately palace or grand estate customary to a King or “Lord,” they were welcomed by the small stable surroundings. Who is this king, that He would choose this as a birthplace, as a seat of governing, a site of lowly stature? Could it be that He has come for us also … and what does this mean for our lives? The peace the angels spoke of had to have meant more to the shepherds than an absence of physical conflict, yet resonated an inner peace of finally resting in God’s grace.
Consider: Do I believe that Jesus was born for me? What does this mean in my life, particularly for those times I feel alone, persecuted or marginalized?'
There she is, just moments after getting the news that she is miraculously pregnant and, that too pregnant with the Son of God who is going to save the world. This girl of about sixteen decides to head out on her own to travel on a dangerous, nearly ninety-mile journey. Does this make any sense? No, it does not. She should be taking it easy and have a stress-free environment and someone—perhaps her husband, Joseph???—should be around her at all times. She should go directly to the doctor and get the best medical attention. Better yet, a doctor should be coming regularly to her house. Throw in a few security guards and some special home cooking. Why is she putting everything, including our salvation, at such risk? Why does she head out into such dangerous conditions when she is carrying heart. There is something about our hearts that never fail and it is this: whatever we carry in our hearts that is what carries us in life.
We have different levels in our hearts, from the more superficial to the most intimate, a place deep inside us where God can live. We carry things in our hearts because they carry us in our life. My first car was a 1984 Chevy Monte Carlo. It was maroon and big and I loved it. It cost me $300 and moved like small aircraft carrier while spitting burned oil out the tailpipe at people who tailgated me. It carried me around and took me back and forth to school so I was able to finish my master’s degree.
I have a little musical instrument called a charango. It is a cousin of the ukelele. Wherever I go I like to carry it in my arms and play it. It is not because it gets me attention. It is because it has carried me in my solitude so many times late at night and still does when I am alone in Ecuador.
Now all of that is great, and we have a lot of things that carry us in life. Money carries us through life, so we like money. Friends and family carry us through life and we carry them inside us. Work, sports … well, you get the point.
Only God can carry us through death. See, that is why Mary can go alone as a young girl on a dangerous, life-threatening journey, carrying God inside her. God is carrying her. He can carry her through everything, even death.
Last time when I was in Ecuador, one of the local men, a founder of the neighboring village in the mountains, got cancer in his foot. The doctors told him that the only option for him to survive would be to amputate the foot. He said no.
He moved down from the mountain and his wife and youngest daughter began to take care of him. I was able to visit him. I brought my charango and tried to learn some music from him. He would brighten up; Get his guitar off the wall and go on playing it. Not only was he the founder of the community, but he was a great guitar player, as well. When he was a young man, he played at the annual fiestas all night, playing more than 200 songs from pure memory, without repeating a single one. Almost no one in the community plays instruments anymore, so we had the idea of bringing some kids to his house to learn guitar and these songs.
Only a few months later, his condition worsened and he could not play anymore. The cancer quickly spread and by the time he could put his trust in God, it was too late to amputate the foot. He passed away on Easter Sunday morning.
At the funeral, there was no music. No one talked about his life. His wife felt lost and abandoned, the adult children did not know what to say. A weight hung over the family. He left his family, the music, his community—all for his right foot. His foot had carried him his entire life. But, it could not carry him through death. The church puts the feast of the Assumption as a holy day of obligation, because it puts in front of us the event of Mary literally being carried by God through death itself into heaven. We have a day dedicated to the reality that if we have God in our hearts, if we let Him delve deep in our hearts, then surely He will carry us through everything. Even death.
Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah (Luke 1:39).'
How do you put years of discernment on a single piece of paper or within a single write-up? As I was praying about it, the reality of its simplicity struck me: God called and I said, “No,” until Mary softened my heart. Well, actually it was more like, God called and I said, “No.” God called again and I said, firmly, “NO!” God asked yet again and I said, “No! Marriage, Lord, marriage.” God drew me to Himself, got His mom involved and asked me once more and I said, “Well … maybe.” God, in His infinite patience, asked a final time and I answered with a resounding, “Yes!”
The first time I heard God call me was in the fifth grade. Our English class was learning how to write business letters. For our assignment we were supposed to write a formal letter to any company in which we could see ourselves working “when we grew up.” I thought for a while on it and realized that the only thing that sounded interesting and exciting to me was being a religious sister. So I wrote to a missionary sister who graciously responded to me. As part of the assignment, we were to share any responses we received with the entire class. I remember feeling embarrassed as I read her response out loud. That was enough to snuff out the desire to be a sister (I was a very sensitive kid).
Throughout grade school the idea of being a sister was always in the back of my mind. I still heard God’s gentle voice calling me. But at that age, I did not want to confront it and so I dealt with it by saying flat out, “No.” Then, as a freshman in high school, my mom, sister and I took a pilgrimage to Medjugorje. Now Jesus was pulling out the big guns and getting His Mom to help Him in His “little scheme.” He knew I had a soft spot for her and He played that card well. While in Medjugorje I felt, through Mary, the tug of the Lord growing stronger, asking me to devote my life to Him. My response was, “Sounds great, Lord, but I can devote my life to You without wearing a habit.” But Momma Mary softened my heart and helped me to be open to the idea of a marriage to Her Son. I went on through my high school years with this idea very much in the forefront of my mind.
Being the stubborn person that I am, I told God that I was not going to commit until I tasted the dating life even though I knew in my heart of hearts that it would not bring me the fulfillment or satisfaction I desired and that it would not make me truly happy. Humoring me, God sent a very holy young man into my life. Through a youth group program I met my first real boyfriend, Anthony. He was everything I wanted in a husband (God covered His bases, making sure I would have no doubts): he was a gentleman, generous, self-sacrificing, not passive, considerate, mature, respectful to me, always upholding my dignity, funny, desired to be a saint, and challenged me to be holier. As a cherry on top, he was cute as well. While we dated I felt a separation between my heart and my body. It did not feel right. Something was off. It was like my mind and my heart hit a fork in the road and went in opposite ways: my heart was going toward religious life and my mind toward marriage. In my stubbornness I was attempting to lasso my heart and pull it over to the side my mind was on. I took it to prayer and (rather stupidly, since I knew the answer) asked God what was going on. He made it very clear to me (He is so patient with us) that in order to feel whole and in order to be at peace I was to give my entire life to Him, to be a bride of Christ. With that imagery, to be Jesus’ bride, I said, without a doubt and with such joy, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
Now I will not say that I did not have any doubts later or any struggles along the road. Heavens…no! How could there not be when society sees you as a strange person because you are not following the norm and getting married? I still struggled with the desire to date. I found it hard to be wooed by Someone who is not tangible in the form you want Him to be or present to you physically in body. I struggled with telling people and admitting out loud that I wanted to dedicate my life to Jesus by being a Sister. But God remained faithful to me and He kept renewing His proposal to me in various ways. He knew my heart and wooed me in ways no earthly man could. I had so much love and support from family and friends which encouraged me, kept me focused and strengthened me in times of temptation, By the grace of God I had the perseverance and commitment to remain faithful to my call throughout grade school and high school. Now, twelve years after that initial call in the fifth grade, I have joined this religious community where Jesus is continuing to woo me and pursue my heart in ways I never thought possible. In turn, I am growing so much more in love with Him!'