If you open your heart today, you can change the world! Daniella Stephans describes her incredible journey of finding love that never ends
I was a cradle Catholic, growing up in the heart of a Catholic family with 7 children. We went to Mass regularly and I felt drawn to learn more about my faith, to imitate the saints and felt attracted to the beautiful images which spoke to me about the presence of the Lord. He planted the seed of love into my life from a young age. When I was given the choice in my teens, I continued to go to Mass, even when some of my siblings didn’t, out of simple obedience. I always wanted to do the right thing and never wanted to get in trouble. I didn’t want to disappoint my parents and I knew it was a sin to deliberately miss Mass on Sundays.
However, I never really understood what was going on. I was just ticking off boxes through the different parts of the Mass. Although I felt that God was close to me, I didn’t know Him personally and still felt a gaping, throbbing hole in my heart. When I was really busy during the week, I didn’t have time to worry about it, but on weekends, I felt consumed by this deep loneliness.
I was at the age, where I felt attracted by all that the material world had to offer, so I tried to solve my problem by drinking and going out to parties with friends, but that gaping hole remained unfilled. I felt rejected, lonely and disappointed. Although I wanted to be free to do my own thing, I was battling with my conscience which was telling me that so much of what I wanted to do was wrong. God hadn’t made me for that. I read in the Bible about Jacob wrestling with an angel and I could really relate to that.
As I was praying about all this at Mass one Sunday, I realized that I was in self-denial. God had a better plan for the life that He wanted me to live. Gazing up at a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, I could sense that He was knocking on the door to my heart, asking to come in, but I was too scared to accept this amazing gift because I feared that Jesus would come in and take away my freedom. Until that moment, it was fear of getting in trouble that had kept me from worse sins. Then, somehow, by the grace of God, I found myself saying, “Right, Lord, I’ll give you a chance.”
In that moment, I looked up and for the first time noticed a picture of Jesus being baptised. He looked so strong humble and gentle. Instantly my heart changed. The fear melted away, the gaping hole was filled with incredible warmth and I fell in love with Jesus. This moment changed everything. I walked out of church feeling alive. I felt like the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment and was healed instantly, freed of all my pain.
I had been scared that if I let him into my heart, He would take away my freedom, but I was wrong. The cleft in the rock in which God placed Moses is analogous to the hole pierced in the side of Christ. I felt that Christ had pulled me into His Sacred Heart where I could be kept close and protected and He could talk to me as a friend speaks to a friend, just like Moses when he spoke with the Lord.
The more I sought out personal encounters with the Lord at daily Mass and Adoration, the closer I felt to Him. So, I studied Theology and as I came to know God more intimately, He revealed Himself to me even more, even in times of tragedy, like my brother’s death. At the time, I was struggling with finding my identity after finishing my studies and feeling fearful of the future. I couldn’t feel His presence anymore and wondered if God had abandoned me. I knew all the words Jesus had said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life… I am the Resurrection and the life.” but now my belief was being tested. Was it all true? In the silence as I sat in my brother’s room, gazing at his empty bed, I remembered how Jesus had told Martha, “Your brother will rise again,” and felt that He was saying those words to me.
When I went to World Youth Day, I felt a bit lost in the huge crowd. As I looked out around at all these people, I asked Jesus, “Lord, how do you love all these people and love me as well?” God showed me how He saw each one as an individual with whom He has a personal relationship. God gazes on each one of us with a unique and individual love. He loves you like no-one else, because there is no-one else in the world like you. God loves you uniquely, personally and individually. There is no-one from Adam to the end of time who has ever been exactly like you. So, when you feel His love personally, He sees you as the unique individual you are, in a way that no-one else can. He gave Himself up for each one of us. When He was on the Cross, He was thinking about each one of us personally by name.
Jesus showed me that my image of the Father had been flawed. I had felt that God was condemning me, that I was in trouble. I feared His justice, but I was wrong. Jesus came into the world to reveal the Father’s love for us in His plan for our salvation—to heal the rift between God and Man by living among us. He even told us that if we had seen Him, we had seen the Father. He showed me that gaping hole in my heart was meant to be filled by God, and when I let Him in, He set me free indeed. We are made by God and for God, so when I invited Him in, He filled me with His warm and loving presence, banishing the depression and restlessness which had been troubling me.
When we try to fill that God-shaped hole with other things, they all fall short, because He is infinite and irreplaceable. It reminded me of how we are warned that “putting the wrong fuel in a vehicle can cause havoc to your journey and potentially cause extensive damage to your car engine.” Your heart is your engine and it needs the right fuel to prevent the damage that sin causes.
Daily Mass, regular Confession, prayer, Adoration, Bible reading and faith study, and a deeper relationship with Our Lady have been the fuel that has restored my heart and given me the grace to live my life in personal encounter with God. He called me to go deeper. Although it’s sometimes painful to take up my cross and follow Him daily, He has led me through trial and temptation and expanded my capacity to receive and share His love.
Every day, the Enemy, Satan is trying to discourage us and turn us from God’s love. He doesn’t want us to know and experience what God has to offer. He stiffens our pride so that we are unwilling to bend to God’s will. When we feel broken by the pain that sin causes us, we delude ourselves into thinking that God doesn’t love us. Saint Therese said that Satan’s strategy is to dismantle and demolish our belief that God can love us when He is perfect and we are so imperfect.
Does God really love me when I’m struggling? One night, Jesus left His disciples struggling all night against the wind while He prayed on a mountain, but in the morning they saw Him walking toward them across the water. When you are going through difficult times, the Lord is there in the midst of your struggle. He also says to you, “Do not be afraid.” And when we feel ourselves sinking, like Peter did when his faith failed him as he walked across the water towards Jesus, we can call out, “Lord save me.” When everything seems to be going against you, fix your eyes on Him and He will not fail you.
There is always a new dawn. Every day is a day to start again. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). Night can be symbolic of trial and temptation. Morning is symbolic of Christ who is the Light of the World. Remember on Easter Sunday, Christ left the tomb in a burst of light. He has come to share His light with us.
Jesus’ name means God saves. He came to save us. He came to share our trials, enter into the depths with us and draw us out. Trust is like a muscle which grows under trying circumstances and pressure. Surrendering my desires to Him and trusting that He will fulfill them is hard. To be able to sincerely say, “I want God’s will above my own,” isn’t easy because we like to do what we want to do. That’s what Our Lady did when she said, “Let it be done to me according to Thy word,” (Luke 1:38). In her gentle way, she stands beside us, helping us to align our deepest desires with all that is good.
So, by the grace of God, I go forward with confidence, knowing that I can speak to the Lord as a friend and family member about all my needs. I have come to know God as a loving Father who calls us to come to Him with childlike trust in His loving plan, despite all our flaws, and mistakes, no matter how many times we have failed.
“Let us approach the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16) and “Do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord, your God is with you” (Joshua 1:9)
ARTICLE is based on the testimony shared by Daniella Stephans for the Shalom World program “Jesus My Savior”.
Daniella Stephans is a Catholic speaker who lives in Manchester, UK.
Life throws hard punches at everyone, but have you ever wondered how some people are never defeated? For every expatriate working in Saudi Arabia–the annual vacation is the highlight of the year. I too was looking forward to my trip back to India, which always took place around Christmas. There were just a few weeks left for the trip when I received an email from my family. Nancy, a close friend of ours, had called them to say that Jesus was asking for special prayers for my vacation. Of course, I added it to my daily prayer list. Nothing eventful happened during most of my stay. The weeks at home went by quickly. Christmas came and was celebrated with the usual gusto. After a month and a half of fun-filled days, my vacation days were almost over. Nothing extraordinary occurred, and the message was slowly forgotten. A Hard Punch Two days before my return trip, I decided to start packing my bags. The first item on the list was my passport, and I could not locate it anywhere! Then came a numbing realization: I had taken it to the travel agent that morning to confirm my flight, and it was still in the pocket of the jeans I had worn. However, I had earlier thrown these jeans in the laundry basket without checking the pockets! I ran to the washing machine and opened the lid. The jeans were whirling around. I pulled them out as fast as I could and pushed my hand into the front pocket. A feeling of dread spread over me as I pulled out the wet passport. The official seals on most of the inside pages were damaged. Some of the travel stamps were displaced and, most distressingly, the ink on the Saudi entry visa was smudged too. I had no idea what to do. The only other option was to apply for a new passport and try to get a new entry visa upon arrival in the capital city. However, I didn’t have enough time left for this. My job was on the line. My Battalion to the Rescue I laid the passport open on my bed and turned on the ceiling fan, hoping to dry it out. I told the rest of my family what had happened. As usual, we joined together in prayer, entrusted the situation to Jesus, and asked Him for guidance. I also called Nancy to tell her about the mishap. She started praying for us too; there was nothing more that we could do. Later that night, Nancy called me to say that Jesus had told her His angel would see me through to Riyadh! Two days later, finding strength in prayer, I said goodbye to my family, checked in my luggage, and boarded my first flight. At the Mumbai airport where I changed flights, I joined the line for the immigration clearance at the international terminal. Feeling a bit anxious, I waited with my passport open. Thankfully, the officer barely glanced down before absent-mindedly stamping the page and sending me off! Filled with divine grace, I felt at peace. After the flight landed in Saudi Arabia, I continued to pray as I collected my baggage and joined one of the long lines at the immigration checkpoint. The line moved slowly as the officer carefully examined each passport before stamping it with an entry visa. Finally, it was my turn. With my passport opened to the proper page, I walked toward him. At that very moment, another officer walked up and started a conversation with him. As he was immersed in the discussion, the immigration officer stamped my passport with the entry visa, barely even glancing down at the pages. I was back in Riyadh, thanks to my guardian angel, who had “led me through the fire” at just the right moment. Guardian—Now, Then, and Always Undoubtedly, the trip boosted my relationship with my guardian angel. However, Jesus underlined yet another lesson for me: I am being led by a living God who foresees every puddle in my path. Walking hand in hand with Him, listening to His directions and obeying them, I can handle any obstacle. “When you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it”’ (Isaiah 30:21). If Nancy had not been listening to God’s voice, and if we had not been praying as instructed, my life might have swerved off track. Every Christmas since then, every trip back to my home country serves as a fond reminder of God’s leading providence and protective embrace.
As a little girl, I wanted to become a Superhero but eventually I accepted that it was a child’s silly dream, until… When I was a kid, I woke up early on Saturday mornings to watch Super-friends, a cartoon about a group of superheroes who saved the world. I wanted to be a superhero when I grew up. I would imagine getting a signal that someone needed help and quickly flying to their aid. All the superheroes I saw on TV remained incognito. To the world, they seemed like regular folks with boring lives. However, in times of trouble, they quickly mobilized and worked together to save humanity from the bad guys. Once I grew up, I recognized that the superheroes in cartoons were imaginary characters. I gave up on my silly notions...until, one day, when I met a true superhero who opened my eyes. I would occasionally drop in to pray at the perpetual adoration chapel in a local church. Since someone has to be present at all times during Eucharistic adoration, volunteers sign up for short intervals. On many of my visits, I noticed an older man in a wheelchair who sat and prayed for hours at the chapel. He looked to be about 90 years old. Every so often, he would pull out different items from a bag—a Bible, a rosary, or a piece of paper that I assume was a prayer list. I wondered what kind of job he did when he was younger and physically healthy. Whatever he did before was probably not as significant as what he was doing now. I realized that this gentleman in a wheelchair was doing something far more important than most of us who were busy running around. Incognito superheroes were hiding in plain sight! This meant I, too, could be a superhero...of prayer. Responding to SOS I decided to join the church prayer chain, a group of people who have committed to intercede for others privately. Many of these prayer warriors are elderly. Some are people with disabilities. Some are in seasons of life where they are homebound for various reasons. We get email notifications of names of people who have requested prayers. Just like the superheroes in the cartoons I watched long ago, we get a signal when someone needs help. The prayer requests come in at all times of the day: Mr. X fell off a ladder and is being taken to the hospital. Mrs. Y has been diagnosed with cancer. A grandchild has been involved in a car crash. A man’s brother has been kidnapped in Nigeria. A family has lost their home in a tornado. The needs are many. We take our responsibility as intercessors seriously. We stop whatever we are doing and pray. We are an army of prayer warriors. We are fighting invisible forces of darkness. Thus, we put on the full armor of God and fight with spiritual weapons. We pray on behalf of others who are in need. With perseverance and dedication, we continually submit our petitions to God. The Hero Effect Does prayer make a difference? Every so often, we get feedback from the people who have requested prayer. The kidnapped man in Nigeria was released within a week. Many experience miraculous healing. Most of all, people are strengthened and comforted during times of suffering. Jesus prayed, and He revolutionized the world! Prayer was part of His ministry of healing, deliverance, and providing for those in need. Jesus was in constant communication with the Father. He taught His disciples to pray as well. Prayer allows us to understand God’s perspective and align our will to His Divine nature. And when we intercede for others, we become partners with Christ in His ministry of love. When we share our concerns with the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God, there is a shift in the atmosphere. Our faithful prayer, united with God’s will, can move mountains. “We beg you, Lord, to help and defend us. Deliver the oppressed. Pity the insignificant. Raise the fallen. Show yourself to the needy. Heal the sick. Bring back those of your people who have gone astray. Feed the hungry. Lift up the weak. Take off the prisoners’ chains. May every nation come to know that you alone are God, that Jesus is your Child, that we are your people, the sheep that you pasture. Amen.” (Saint Clement)
It was a stormy night. Sister Faustina bowed her face to the ground and prayed the Litany of the Saints. Toward the end of the Litany, such drowsiness overcame her that she couldn’t finish the prayer. She immediately got up and prayed, “Jesus, calm the storm, for Your child is unable to pray any longer, and I am heavy with sleep.” With these words, she threw the window open, not even securing it with hooks. Sister Fabiola said to her, “Sister, what are you doing!? The wind will surely tear the window loose!” But Sister Faustina asked her to sleep in peace. At once, the storm completely subsided. The next day, the sisters were talking about the sudden calming of the storm, not knowing what had really happened. And Sister Faustina thought to herself: “Only Jesus and Faustina know what it means…” Such was the trust Saint Faustina had in Jesus. No wonder He appeared to her and gave her the mission of Divine Mercy for the whole world, with the instruction to inscribe the words: “JESUS I TRUST IN YOU.” She abandoned herself to Him completely, just like a child. Once, during Holy Mass, she had a miraculous vision. Jesus appeared as a one-year-old child and asked her to take Him in her arms. When she had taken Him in her arms, Infant Jesus cuddled up close to her bosom and said, “It is good for Me to be close to your heart…because I want to teach you spiritual childhood. I want you to be very little because when you are little, I carry you close to My Heart, just as you are holding Me close to your heart right now." Spiritual childhood is often misunderstood as naïveté or excessive sentimentality. However, it involves a total surrender to our heavenly Father's providential care—total abandonment of our own plans, opinions, and self-will—and a radical trust in God. Can we, too, ask God to give us the grace to accept—like a little child—all that He asks of us in this life? As we do, can we trust, like Saint Faustina, that the Lord will not abandon us, even for a moment?
She was diagnosed with chronic OCD, and put on meds for a lifetime. Then, something unexpected happened. In the 1990s, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The doctor prescribed me medication and told me I would have to take them for the rest of my life. Some people think that mental health issues happen because you lack faith, but there was nothing wrong with my faith. I had always deeply loved God and relied on Him in all things, but I also felt an abiding disabling guilt. I had not been able to shake off the belief that everything that was wrong with the world was my fault. I had a Law degree, but my heart had never been there. I had taken up law to impress my mother, who thought my choice of teaching as a profession wasn’t good enough. But I had married and given birth to my first child just before I finished it, then gone on to have seven beautiful children, so I had spent more time learning to be a mother than working in law. When we moved to Australia, the law was different, so, I went back to university to finally study my first love, Teaching. But even when I got a job doing what I loved, I felt that I was trying to justify my existence by earning money. Somehow, I didn’t feel that looking after my family and nurturing the people entrusted to me was good enough. In fact, with my crippling guilt and feeling of inadequacy, nothing ever felt enough. Totally Unexpected Because of our family size, it wasn’t always easy to get away on a holiday, so we were excited when we heard about the Carry Home in Pemberton where payment was a donation of what you could afford. It had a beautiful country setting close to forests. We planned to go for a weekend family retreat. They also had a prayer and worship group in Perth. When I joined, I was made to feel very welcome. There, at one of the retreats, something totally unexpected and overwhelming happened. I had just received prayer when I suddenly fell to the ground. Rolled up on the floor in a fetal position, I screamed and screamed and screamed. They carried me out onto this rickety old wooden verandah outside and continued to pray until eventually, I stopped screaming. This was totally unsought and unexpected. But I knew that it was deliverance. I just felt empty as if something had left me. After the retreat, my friends continued to check up on me and come to pray over me, asking for Mary’s intercession that the gifts of the Holy Spirit would become manifest in me. I felt so much better that after a week or two, I decided to reduce my dose of medication. Within three months, I had stopped taking the medication and felt better than I ever had. Melting Away I no longer felt the need to prove myself or pretend that I was better than I was. I didn’t feel that I had to excel in all things. I felt grateful for the gift of life, my family, my prayerful community and this tremendous connection with God. Freed of the need to justify my existence, I realized I could not justify my existence. It’s a gift–life, family, prayer, connection with God–these are all gifts, not something you are ever going to earn. You accept it and you thank God. I became a better person. I didn’t have to show off, compete, or arrogantly insist that my way was the best. I realized I didn’t have to be better than the other person because it didn’t matter. God loves me, God cares for me. Out of the grip of my disabling guilt, I have since realized that “If God didn’t want me, He would have made someone else.” My relationship with my mother had always been ambivalent. Even after becoming a mother, I was still struggling with these feelings of ambivalence. But this experience changed that for me. As God chose Mary to bring Jesus into the world, He had chosen Mary to help me on my way. My issues in the relationship with my mother, and subsequently with the Holy Mother, slowly melted away. I felt like John at the foot of the Cross when Jesus told him: “Behold your Mother.” I have come to know Mary as the perfect mother. Now, when my mind fails, the Rosary kicks in to rescue me! I never realized how much I needed her until I made her an indispensable part of my life. Now, I couldn’t imagine stepping away.
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