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After nine years of formation, I recently professed final vows as a Sister of the Holy Family of Nazareth. Following communion during the final vows Mass I was overcome with emotion and deep gratitude. It was as if God gifted me with a greater awareness of all that he had been accomplishing in me over the years. The gifts and graces of each prayer, confession, and reception of the Eucharist became present in that moment. I was amazed by God’s enduring, relentless love. As I knelt in prayer, I thought about how I was one of the unlikeliest candidates to become a spouse of Christ. “But nothing,” I remembered, “is impossible with God.”
I had grown up Baptist in Houston, Texas. When I was eight years old, my father died by suicide after years of struggling with addiction and because my mother was not able to care for us, my brothers and I were adopted by my aunt and uncle. The next ten years provided a consistency and stability I had never known in the first eight years of my life. I went to good schools, read books, played soccer, sang in the Church and school choirs, and got to be a regular kid.
When I was eighteen a pamphlet advertising a Dallas, Texas school for “independent thinkers” brought me to the University of Dallas. The fact it was Catholic totally escaped me. I spent much of my four college years indulging in sinful behaviors as a way of medicating my old wounds. I had no idea what to do with the pain that come from abandonment. My conscience was being formed at the University of Dallas. I spent a semester in Rome and encountered Pope Saint John Paul II whom I loved. His understanding of God resonated deeply in me. I joined a Latin liturgical choir and became more familiar with the Mass by singing at hundreds of eucharistic liturgies.
After graduation my life was mostly work during the day and bars or hanging out with friends at night. I eventually sensed something was missing; for “if no worldly experience can satisfy my desires, then probably I was created for more than just this world.” That’s when I started seeking deeper faith. I wanted to be like the godly women who raised me. To my surprise, when it came time to decide where I would go to church, I found myself hungering for the Mass. I hesitated to become Catholic because there were so few Black Americans in the church. But the desire to receive Jesus in the Eucharist pulled me into the church.
Becoming Catholic didn’t fix everything. I still indulged in sinful behaviors, but I found myself constantly at confession. I was struggling emotionally and spiritually. Though I felt like I was killing myself spiritually (and physically–my weight was approaching 400 pounds), in my professional life I was reaching heights I had never imagined. During that struggle, I returned to Rome and went to confession and Mass at Saint Peter’s. My confessor’s advice that day to “just begin” changed everything. Within the year I was discerning a religious vocation, and three years after that confession I became a candidate with the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth.
Eleven years after that confession I said yes to Jesus in a way I did not know was possible. My wounds and shame had me making an all-too-common mistake which C.S. Lewis explains well: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition, when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” Not only was I too easily pleased, but I made the mistake of seeing my life in light of the struggle instead of in light of the one who loves me.
During my postulancy, a Sister in her seventies who was giving a class on the spiritual life said, “I love my age. I would never want to be younger and I would never want to go back. I have all these years with Jesus. I have all these experiences. I would not want to trade that.” Surely, she had known loss, mistakes, and sin, but mingled in all that was an abiding love of Jesus that made her life a love affair with Jesus and an untradable treasure.
On the day of my final vows, my tears mingled a tinge of grief with a great sense of joy and gratitude. Throughout my life, as I experienced loss, pain, struggle and sin, joy remained inevitable because of Christ’s self-sacrificing love made manifest in the Eucharist. I have come to know that the final word in all our stories is Christ himself. Saint John says, “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands… we saw it and testify to it.”
My tears on that day of my final vows gave witness to the enduring love of Christ, come what may, through all these years.
©Sister Josephine Garrett is studying to be a Clinical Mental Health Counselor. She served for 10 years as a Vice President in the Home Loans division of Bank of America. In 2005 she entered the Catholic Church, and in 2011 began her formation to be a Religious Sister with the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth. Today Sister Josephine serves in vocations ministry, and also as a speaker for youth and young adult retreats and conferences.
You may be feeling lost and alone. Take heart, for God knows exactly where you are! Alone in the shower, I could scream and not be heard. The water pelted the top of my head as anguish wracked my heart. My mind imagined the worst, a tiny coffin and a loss too great to bear. My heart ached, as if squeezed in a vice. It was more than a physical pain but I felt tortured with an oppressive sinking feeling. It pervaded my being. Nothing could alleviate the pain and no-one could comfort me. Suffering is part of the human condition, unavoidable. A particular cross is fashioned for each of us to carry but I didn’t want this one. I whimpered beneath its weight. “Please God, give me a different cross, not this one. I can’t carry this one. I will take any pain, disease, anything, but not this, not my son. This one is too big. I can’t, please,” I begged. Nausea swept over me. I vomited and then slumped to the floor of the shower, sobbing. My ‘No’ was futile. Surrender was the only path forward. Spent and exhausted, I prayed, “If you won’t change this cross God, please give me the strength to carry it . . . (the image of a tiny coffin flashed into my mind again) . . . no matter where it leads. Help me. I cannot do this without You.” My sweet, little boy had been admitted to the hospital in a serious condition. For eight days I lay next to him in his hospital bed. His spirit was undaunted by his illness but he no longer looked like himself. Bright pink and purple blotches spotted his cheeks, ran across the bridge of his nose and over his arms and legs. The medicine that would offer him a reprieve bloated his face and body. When he slept, which was hardly at all, I sobbed myself to sleep. Prayer, distraction and rocking his frail body were the only contribution I could make in his battle to survive. I read to him and drew cartoons on a magna doodle he had been given before he was hospitalized. It was therapeutic for both of us. Although I had never been able to draw before, in my efforts to give him some small joy, I suddenly found that I could draw with ease. Finally, he was released from the hospital with a treatment plan, hope and a prayer for remission. Our new normal set in. My mom suggested that I explore my new ability to draw. We took an art class together at the local fine arts studio. The art teacher asked to bring in a picture that moved us. I chose a Christmas card depicting the Blessed Mother holding the Infant Jesus. The art teacher thought because I lacked experience and training, I should draw something simpler, like a flower. I turned my stool to face her, declaring , “My son should be dead but he is alive. Jesus and the Blessed Mother are all that matters to me. They move me.” Her eyes widened. “Oh, I had no idea about your son. I am sorry. Just be sure to watch your values.” I was confused. “What do my morals have to do with my picture,” I asked. “Light and dark values,” she said gently. “Oh, okay,” I said, somewhat embarrassed. I turned to my easel, closed my eyes and prayed, “Come Holy Spirit, help me draw a picture that will help others love and need Jesus and Mary the way I do right now.” As I drew, I relied on the strength, love and wisdom of Heaven to carry me through. My desire found expression in my art. Each new piece was a prayer and a gift from God. One morning, as I left the church after Mass, a visiting priest approached me, saying “When I was at your sister’s house, I saw the picture you drew of Christ and the angel in the Garden of Gethsemane during His agony. It moved me deeply. Your sister told me about your son and how you unexpectedly discovered your ability to draw in the midst of your anguish. Your art is truly a blessing born of suffering, a gift.” “Thank you.” I replied, “It is. Looking back I feel that this artistic gift was a foreshadowing.” “Why? What do you mean,” he asked. “Drawing taught me to see everything differently. I discovered that the contrast of the dark and the light in a picture creates depth, richness and beauty. Without the light, the darkness in a painting is an empty abyss. The darkness of suffering is like the darkness in a painting. Without the light of Christ, suffering threatened to swallow me into the depths of despair. When I finally let go and surrendered my pain and my circumstances to Jesus, I fell into His loving arms and submitted to His plan for my life. Then Christ, the Master Artist, used the darkness of my suffering to tenderize my heart making room for faith, compassion, hope and love to grow within me. The light of Christ illuminated the darkness and brought untold blessings from our trials for my son, my marriage and our family.” “Now I understand. It really is true. Art imitates life and suffering united to Christ brings great blessings. Praise be to God,” he exclaimed. “Amen,” I agreed.
Is anger or resentment the only way to deal with unfaithfulness in your life? Sarah Juszczak unravels the path less trodden, through her story of pain and triumph. The Meet-Cute I come from a lovely, Italian family. I was raised and grew up Catholic, but in my teens, although I was going to Mass on Sundays, I wasn’t really living the faith. When I was sixteen, I joined a youth group and that's where I met Tomasz. Tom and I were asked to lead a youth weekend together, so we ended up spending a lot of time together trying to organise it. Soon after, we started “seeing each other”. Neither of us were keen to give our relationship a label- there was no intentionality about it. I was pretty rebellious in my younger years, which Tom hated. Being Polish, his Catholic faith was important to him, and he had a lot of traditional values. Neither of us really knew our faith or lived it—and because he didn’t really understand the reasons behind his values, it wasn’t hard for me to convince him otherwise. It wasn’t clear where this relationship was headed and it wasn’t the healthiest, but we cared about each other. Fog in the Glass After nearly three years together, Tom and I were starting to think about marriage. Tom was finishing up at university and had always dreamed of spending a few months travelling Europe before getting a full-time job. I was very unsure about this, but something in my heart told me that it was important. This time apart would either make or break us. Just before Tom left for Europe, we joined our youth group at World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney. At that point in my life, I was realizing that my faith life needed to change. I couldn’t continue floating along in what was really a ‘practical atheism’. I went to World Youth Day with this question on my heart: “God, if You exist, show yourself to me. I want to know You”. A couple of talks and experiences really spoke to me that week. As I sat on the train ride home one evening, mulling over the things I had been hearing, I opened the pilgrim’s handbook to a quote from Saint Augustine: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You”. At that moment, I had a sudden and overwhelming awareness of the presence of God. My centre of gravity shifted. I knew that God was real and nothing would be the same again. Soon after, Tomasz left for Europe and I suddenly had a lot of time to spare. I listened to talks on the Theology of the Body, read more about the lives of the Saints and attended weekly Holy Hours. The six months that Tom was away were a time of conversion for me, culminating in a one-month, live-in youth leaders formation course. During that time, I realized that if I wanted to continue on this journey with God, I needed to let go of the things that were leading me away from Him, so that I could follow him wholeheartedly. The Worst Part? With Tomasz away in Europe, I wondered if things would work out for us when he returned home. He was still caught up in a world that I had decided to leave behind, and our values and priorities were now miles apart. I kept taking this to prayer, and praying for Tom. I tried to plant some seeds, and when some of his travel plans were derailed I managed to convince him to make a detour to Lourdes, which was a powerful experience for him—but he wasn’t ready to make changes yet. When he returned from Europe, I knew we had to have an honest conversation. We went out to dinner and I tried to tell him about some of the things that had been happening in my life. I told him things needed to change about our relationship. For the most part he seemed okay with it, until I told him I wanted him to stop using pornography. He barely hesitated before responding with a flat out “No”. This was quite a shock for me. I thought he’d at least be open it to it. He’d later tell me that he was struggling with a porn addiction, although he wasn’t really aware of that at the time. As the Fog Fades As we continued to recount our experiences during our time apart, it became clearer to him that I was different, and he became somewhat uneasy. When I revealed that I really wanted to pray the Rosary with my family every day when I was married, he reacted very strongly against that. I would try to challenge him and encourage him. As I described my image of family life and how I hoped to live my life, he would push back. He was no longer the most important thing in my life and he didn’t like it one bit. I started to feel that I wasn’t supposed to be in this relationship, so, I asked the Lord for an answer. I knew He wanted me to break up with Tom, but it was difficult because we were in so deep. I tried to break it off several times, but for Tom it was all or nothing. I loved him and didn’t want him out of my life completely. I told the Lord that I didn’t have enough strength to end the relationship myself. The only way it could happen is if Tom messed up big time, but I was certain that it wasn’t possible. Completely Oblivious Not long after, Tom came to see me. He was clearly very nervous, but he finally worked up the courage to come clean. He’d been cheating on me. I was shattered. How could he have betrayed me, when I trusted him so completely? How could he have lied so convincingly, without even batting an eyelid? How could I have been so oblivious? This revelation made me question a lot of things I thought I knew. I never thought Tom was capable of being deceptive and I had thought I was a pretty good judge of character. I discovered he was in the habit of lying and had been for some time. He was frighteningly good at it. Naturally, I threw Tom out straight away. I’ve always had a flair for drama, so I packed up a box of his things that night and called him back to collect them. When I met him outside my house, I completely lost it. I was enraged. To my surprise, he didn’t try to explain or defend himself, he just fell to the ground and wept. Embraced by God It’s hard to articulate what happened in that moment. As I saw Tom crying, all anger in me instantly dissolved. I was so moved with pity and love that I knelt down next to him and embraced him. I can only describe that moment as a glimpse of the Heart of the Father. I felt God’s love and mercy flowing through me, and saw that I was no different to Tomasz. In that moment, God gave me a glimpse of His own Heart as He embraced me and forgave me my own infidelity. Tomasz later described this experience similarly, as if it was God enfolding him within His merciful, loving embrace. I’m not one to let go of things quickly, so the grace to forgive Tomasz so magnanimously definitely came from God, not me. Connecting the Dots Although I forgave Tom, we both knew we needed to go our separate ways. Tom would later say that being dumped was one of the best things that ever happened to him. God had been leading Tom on his own journey, and he needed to do this part without me. On that detour to Lourdes, months earlier, he experienced God guiding him. In fact, God guided him straight to the confessional. When he started to put things into the light, he received the grace to eventually be honest with me. Following our breakup, Tomasz made a conscious effort to turn his life around. He started making regular Holy Hours, going to a priest friend of ours for guidance, and finally got around to listening to the CDs on Theology of the Body that I had been nagging him about since his return from Europe. Little Did I Know Tom and I were together three years before we broke up, and were apart for three years before God brought us back together. During that time, we were able to rebuild our friendship. I was completing my studies, enjoying a new career in marketing and communications and discerning my vocation. I was pretty sure I was going to be a religious Sister. Tom was earning a good living as a rehabilitation consultant, but growing increasingly restless. Both of us earnestly wanted to discover God’s will for our lives. The opportunity to attend WYD 2011 in Madrid came up for each of us on separate pilgrimages. Both of us went with the intention of discovering what God wanted next. I was hoping to meet the religious order I was supposed to join, and Tom was preparing to leave his job, but didn’t know where to go next. By the end of the pilgrimage, Tom had decided to enrol in a Theology course. I was not successful in finding a religious order. Instead, while visiting Poland with my pilgrimage group, I found myself thinking about Tom and how it didn’t seem right to be visiting his homeland without him. Shortly after returning home, I realized that I really needed to pray about God’s will regarding my relationship with Tom, so I started a novena. The same day, Tom invited me to join him in a fifty-four day Rosary Novena for a particular intention–27 days to pray for the intention and 27 days to give thanks. I agreed, but added on my secret, second intention for our relationship. Twenty-seven days into that novena, Tom and I were both at a leadership retreat. Tom was helping to run the retreat while I served in the kitchen. I dropped in to listen to him give a talk and was struck by how much he had grown. He was really becoming a man of God. I thought to myself, “Here is a man I could entrust myself to.” It turned out that he shared the same intention in the Novena. When we resumed dating, I felt total peace because both of us were seeking God’s will - so there was nothing to fear. To cut a long story short, Tom and I were engaged on the Solemnity of the Assumption of Our Lady. Tom told me that he chose that day, not just because he loved Our Lady, but because it pointed to the ultimate end of the marriage he was proposing: Heaven. We were married on Easter Saturday, or the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday and prayed that our marriage could give witness to the transforming power of God’s Mercy. God had taken the mess that we had made of our relationship the first time around and made it into something completely new. Marriage is a commitment, a vocation, a union. When we made that commitment at the altar to love one another, it was till death do us part. This is where we really learn about love. God doesn’t often ask us to die for our spouse, like Jesus did for us: His Church, but He is asking us to die to ourselves by forgiving each other in little ways every day. Marriage has to be based on loving forgiveness. God forgave us before we even said sorry. He told us to “Love one another as I have loved you.” When we imitate Him and forgive without rancour, then we share real love in a relationship centred on Christ. That relationship will last into eternity.
The spiritual writer and poet John O’Donohue once wrote, “When you listen with your soul, you come into rhythm and unity with the music of the universe” (Anam Cara—Spiritual Wisdom of the Celtic World). For a generation, the chosen people knew only the silence of God. In the book of Samuel, we read that the Word of the Lord was seemingly not happening: “a revelation of the Lord was uncommon” (1 Samuel 3:1). The people spoke, gave praise, pleaded, petitioned, and lamented—and nothing came back. Until, one night, a voice startled Samuel. Samuel thinks it is Eli, the high priest of Shiloh, who might need help. But Eli sends the boy back to bed. After Samuel hears the voice a second time, Eli begins wondering if this might be the night the Lord breaks His silence and returns to Israel with a word of guidance. “If He calls you again,” Eli tells Samuel, “you shall say, ‘Speak Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3: 9). CBS correspondent and 60 Minute host Dan Rather once asked Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta about her devotional life. “What is it that you say to God when you pray?” She answered, “I don’t say anything; I just listen.” Perhaps a bit perplexed, Rather followed up: “What is it that God says to you during prayer?” Mother Teresa thought for a moment and said, “(God) doesn’t say anything. (God) just listens.” Teresa and God—sitting together, both quiet, and listening in silence. Can we be still in the silence? Do we get restless wondering whether God is there, whether He’s paying attention, whether He really cares? In a letter to her spiritual director, Teresa confessed her doubts regarding God’s presence: “In my soul, I feel just that terrible pain of loss…of God not being God.” She added, “If I ever become a saint, I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’” Sometimes prayer is patience in the darkness of the night, listening for a voice. But the question is: are we willing to listen the way that Samuel assured the Lord he was ready to do? “Listening” means we direct our hearts toward God, trusting that the subtle movement of His Spirit will do the rest. Prayer is not something we can force. If we sense a movement to rest in God’s presence, that nudge is coming from God, Who always takes the initiative. Our part in responding to God’s invitation is to create a sacred space, minimize the distractions, and remain alert to God’s presence. Prayer is God’s gift to us and if we show up, He will always take us by surprise, which is, after all, what gifts are supposed to do. How can we open ourselves to God’s presence? We do what Samuel did: we listen. We ask for the grace to listen with our full attention. Perhaps we get started with lectio divina, the sacred reading of Scripture, which can lead to a profound experience of listening. After we have mused on the passage, seeking understanding, and applying the passage to our lives, we have a conversation about what we have read. Then we rest in silence, being content to remain in God’s presence, without words or images. For many of us, stillness doesn’t come naturally, especially in our super-charged, 5G, frenetic world where we flit from one distraction to another. The Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner once said, “We’re all meant to be mystics; if we don’t become one, we’ll destroy ourselves.” Prayer eventually moves towards stillness, a quality modeled by our Blessed Mother who continually pondered what she experienced as mother of the Messiah. Silence moves us into the currents of our hearts where we can experience our true feelings and discern where they are coming from. It is precisely in these deep currents that God speaks to us, revealing our innermost desires and fears to us, inviting us to reach toward communion and fellowship as we surrender our fears and hurts. Listening to God requires surrender. To do that, we must first take the focus off ourselves and then make God the Center of our lives. Letting go of control is the beginning of listening to God. But surrender involves risks because God is going to take charge of our lives and suggest new ways of living our lives. When we put God in charge, we are making an act of faith that declares God’s Word is true, that He keeps His promises, and that He is trustworthy. We are saying that we trust God will pour himself into our silence and fill us with His Spirit. With Samuel let’s extend the invitation: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” But when God does speak, be ready to respond the way Mary instructed the attendants to respond at the Wedding Feast of Cana: “Do whatever He tells you.” That’s the risk, that’s the cost, that’s the adventure of the inner journey into the mystery of God.
When I regained consciousness, I did not know where I was, what day of the week or how old I was. That day everything turned very unfamiliar for me. I will lead the blind by ways they have not known; along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them. (Isaiah 42:16) Because I was born with an abnormal mass in my brain, I started having seizures when I was a baby. I had become accustomed to dealing with them as a regular part of my life, until a new type of seizure disrupted my routine. One morning, I was enjoying breakfast with my mother when I suddenly lost consciousness. I fell from the chair and experienced a seizure that lasted 10 to 15 minutes. Lost and Desperate When I regained consciousness, I recognized my mother, but I did not recognize the house or anything that surrounded me. I did not know where I was, what day of the week it was, or how old I was. In my house, I could not identify my bedroom. Everything seemed very unfamiliar to me. The seizure had caused me to lose a lot of memory. I felt very lost. This continued for about two weeks, and I was becoming desperate. One night, in the midst of my despair, I looked at the image of the Divine Mercy hanging on my bedroom wall, and I cried out to the Lord. I asked the Lord to strengthen me, to guide me, but, most importantly, to keep me close to Him. Lord, do not allow this situation to separate me from you. Instead, please use it as a tool to pull me closer to you. Jesus, I trust in you. That same night, I woke around 2 AM and had a vision: I saw myself falling into a deep abyss. Then, suddenly, I saw a hand holding me and keeping me from sinking any further. It was the Lord’s hand. Within seconds, my pain and desperation was turned into peace and joy. From then on, I knew I was in the hands of the Lord, and I felt safe. Surging Pain Two weeks after the seizure, I began recovering memories from my childhood, but most of them were painful. I didn’t want to remember that. Instead, I wanted to remember the beautiful and happy moments of my life. At first, I couldn’t understand why I was receiving mostly painful memories. Neurologists and psychologists would have an explanation: the memories with the biggest psychological impact are the ones that are better recorded in the brain. But faith had a different explanation: The Lord wanted me to identify my wounds and heal from them. One night, as I was reciting my bedtime prayers, I remembered the names and faces of the people who had hurt me deeply. I cried in deep pain, but -- to my surprise -- I did not feel anger or resentment towards them. Instead, I felt the urge to pray for their repentance and conversion, and I did it. Later, I came to realize that it was the Holy Spirit who prompted me to pray for them because he wanted to heal me. The Lord was healing my wounds. A Different Answer I keep a journal, and I began reading it to help me recover some memories. As I read it, I realized that I had attended a Shalom Growth retreat in March, the week prior to the lockdown due to Covid-19. At the retreat, I surrendered to the Lord and asked Him to direct my life. Later, in May, I attended a Healing Mass at my parish, and I asked the Lord to help me to identify my wounds and to heal them. I never imagined that the Lord would respond in such a way. For me, the seizure, the memory loss and the events that followed are God’s perfect response to my prayers. You might wonder why God responded to my prayer by allowing that seizure and memory loss to occur, and my answer is this: Every moment of suffering is an invitation for us to come closer to God, every difficulty is an invitation for us to trust in Him, and every loss of control is an invitation for us to remember that He is in control and that His plans are better than ours. A Walk to Remember This is something I had never experienced before. The Lord certainly took me along a very unfamiliar path, but He was constantly by my side. Even though I forgot many things, He never allowed me to forget His love. The daily Bible readings, reflections, the Divine Mercy image, the dreams and the people praying for me were a constant reminder of His love. I felt Him walking with me along the way, which made this unfamiliar road much smoother for me. For this reason, the blessings were certainly stronger than the suffering. For about a year, I had been serving the Lord by translating Catholic articles and other documents, and I was able to continue doing that throughout these months. Even though I forgot many things, I did not lose the skills and ability to translate. I am very grateful for that, because it allowed me to work for His kingdom during the time of difficulty. Now, several months later, I have recovered a lot of memory. I am still forgetful at times, and I have become slow at certain things, but I am very grateful to God for all the memories I have recovered and all the blessings I have received during these months. ____________________________________________________________________ If the Lord has taken you also along an unfamiliar path, surrender to His will and ask Him to make the roads smooth before you. Remember that His plans are better than our plans. He did not forsake me, and He will not forsake you either.
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