The Great Reveal

This past week, a couple of my reflections have recalled to mind an apparently little known doctrine of the Church: that at the end of the world, all will be known to all. As we read in the Catechism:

In the presence of Christ, who is Truth itself, the truth of each man’s relationship with God will be laid bare. The Last Judgment will reveal even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life…

CCC #1039

As an adult, I see what an advantage it was to be taught the Catechism as a child. I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on it, and for it to shape my worldview. Two ways in which this particular doctrine formed me are as follows:

1. Knowing that ultimately all my sins and all my good deeds, all my good and evil thoughts would one day be revealed to all as part of our great rejoicing in God’s story of our Salvation, I had good motivation to go to Confession. Although I might be mortally ashamed of my sins, it was probably a good idea to get used to them being out in the open—to one man, who acts as Christ Most Merciful. Besides, to go to Confession quickly would mean I would sooner have more grace to avoid falling into more sin. That in turn could mean less filth ultimately to be exposed! Heh. Cunning as serpents, innocent as doves. Sometimes conniving is a good thing!

2. I began to desire that kind of openness. In the present, it is often prudent to keep one’s sins discreetly, for many reasons, all ultimately that we are still broken and do not have the vision we will one day have to see all things in the light of God’s glory. The Devil loves to use sin to distance us yet further from God: shame, judgment, gossip, scandal.

However, it is not just sin that will be revealed, not just our heroic achievements when we responded to God’s grace, but the naked soul in all its beauty. This thought led me to reflect on the profound beauty of each unique, individual soul, including my own. Nothing seemed more glorious an existence than that when all darkness and dimness of vision will cease and each person will be known as God intended him to be known.

But why wait until the final day? Why not work towards that beautiful transparency of soul?

Of course, to work towards this now one must be absolutely convicted that each soul is made Very Good, and that sin can never fully corrupt that which God has made, as existence itself is good. These concepts aren’t difficult for me to accept and believe, in part on account of my gift of faith, and in part, no doubt, thanks to the love of my parents. I have never been able to believe on any deep level that I am not good, and in turn I have not been able to believe that any other person in the history of the world has been pure evil. (Does pure evil even exist? Even the Devil is God’s creature and therefore good in one sense, something that must disgust him and make him hate himself.)

Contemplating the end of the world not only motivated me to be shrived when I often wished to hide, but it also motivated me to live with transparency of soul, not to hold back in “letting my light shine,” to put it more colloquially.

It’s a funny thing, too, that when you believe you are good, it’s easier (in some ways) to be good. You understand goodness is your true nature, and when you also believe that Christ has died and rose from the dead for our sins, you know that it’s Game Over for Evil. Christianity is all about choosing the winning side—who really wants to be a loser? Sin is totally irrational.

Joy is what we were made for. Do not be afraid to confess your sins. Do not be afraid to live transparently and let your light shine. Love Who is Christ conquers all fear.

Surprised by Joy

For seven years now, I’ve thrilled in the story of how I came to be engaged to my husband. For me, it feels like it is almost extraordinarily special, almost as though it is more special than our actual wedding day! In the past few weeks, I’ve been asking myself why that is. Why is it that the anniversary of our engagement means so much to me? I can’t answer that question fully, but I have discovered a lot through my pondering.

Primarily, I have realized that the reason I love my engagement so much is not so much that the man I loved asked me to marry him, but that through this man’s commitment to me, I came to know God’s love for me in a way I’d had trouble believing till then. My engagement was very, very much the incarnation of God’s love for me, and the fulfillment of so many hopes and dreams I had scarcely dared ask Him.

About a year before our engagement, I’d attended a discernment retreat. It was a landmark occasion for me, as I was blessed with the personal direction of a very good and holy priest over the course of three days. For me, it was a very Paschal experience, for I went from deep sorrow to joy, spanning Friday through Sunday. Though I came from a loving family, I struggled to believe in my heart (head was easy) that God loved me. My whole motivation in wanting to become a nun was not my response to His love for me, but wanting to show Him my love for Him. Cute, but definitely immature. That weekend, I became convicted deep in my heart that God Himself was crazy about me, and that I didn’t need to do anything at all to earn that love. I worked through deep wounds I’d suffered, and I came out radiant. Full of love for God, I felt ready to risk everything for Him and entered a discernment house I hadn’t even known existed.

But all this time, I still had not dared to admit what I wanted most. I’m not sure I even knew what I wanted most, apart from pleasing God. That’s a perfectly fine place to be, really, especially if you manage to disentangle yourself completely from all your own ideas about what you should be wanting and allow the Holy Spirit to direct your heart. It took letting go of my grip on all my convent dreams and aspirations, and standing before God completely empty-handed, for me to arrive at the place where at last the Holy Spirit had enough room to move and quiet to speak.

Now, even though I had not really known for years what I wanted, apart from not wanting to be without a vocation, I had many years and much literature and opera to have me contemplating marriage and, well, an ideal husband. I had not originally wanted to be a nun. Rather, I had grown the desire out of my own distaste at the idea. Indeed, it was my revulsion at the idea of joining a convent as a young teenager that compelled me to learn more and to grow a desire for it, for I hated the idea even more of holding back anything from God. I wanted to love God, no matter what the cost, just like the great Saints I’d read about–all of whom, I noted, had pursued religious life or priesthood. Clearly my aversion needed to be conquered! But, I was weak, and I would often find my heart yearning for companionship, and no matter how close I grew to God, I always felt lonely and incomplete. I assumed that this was just part of the vocation, part of the sacrifice, and I embraced it, offering it up for all those who find themselves alone or celibate by chance rather than choice. I could carry that cross, I said to myself. I would do so with love. It didn’t really matter whether I enjoyed it or not. I wanted to love!

Yet still, I would find myself smitten with Tom or Harry or whomever, and I’d laugh at myself and analyze and over-analyze my feelings and my ideas of what God maybe wanted of me. And I’d certainly go through many periods of desiring marriage and wishing I could find a good man who wanted to date me. Finding a good date was hard, as I was very serious about dating with the intention of discerning marriage. What was the point in allowing romantic feelings to grow if we didn’t have an end goal in mind? To save time and heartache, I spent time outlining the bare minimum of shared values or interests I would need to share with a prospective date. And I also occasionally dreamed of the most wonderful man I could imagine, who quite possibly didn’t exist. I’d probably have to end up sacrificing some of the traits of my dream man. After all, how many men were good at Latin? How many of these were also funny? And how many of those loved classical music and literature? And, the biggest yet most significant hurdle of all, how many would kneel beside me before the Eucharistic Lord in adoration? I decided to prioritize the latter, as it was the closest to my heart.

When my husband–legendary Latinist, witty, well-read, gentle, a match for me in music knowledge, and devout Catholic–proposed to me and I finally accepted, it was for me the fulfillment of the deepest desires of my heart for this world: a perfect companion. Better yet, it was a complete surprise. I had known this man for five years. Four of those years I hardly knew him, occasionally hoping he would date me, but the shy guy never made a timely move. Then I began to take religious discernment seriously, and I also encouraged him and a friend to date. It was in some ways thanks to their friendship, that never grew beyond a friendship, that I got to know him better and realize that here was a really amazing guy. Cultured and Catholic? Amazing! He had great taste in music, recited Beowulf in Old English, and enjoyed Shakespeare, but he also went to Sunday Mass, and even weekday Mass, for I’d seen him there often, not knowing he’d hoped to see me there.

God loves me. He really, really loves me. He even wants my happiness, not only in the next life, but even in this life. He delights in surprising me with good things. He wants to fulfill every wholesome desire of my heart. He blessed me with a man who cares deeply for me, who admired me for years, and who is a really terrific companion.

My engagement story is much bigger than simply the story of a man and a woman who fall in love and decide to get married. It’s the story of God showing His love and provision for His beloved daughter (and son!). My engagement is such a source of joy and beauty for me much less because of this incredible mortal I am now bound to, and much more because of the incredible God who arranged such an event in the history of the world, an event so seemingly insignificant and trivial compared to all the great events in history, and a tremendous gift for two very unworthy servants. I do not deserve this kind of joy!

I knew at the time, and I know even better now, that married life is not happily ever after: it’s hard work, and there are times of deep grief and suffering. But through it all, God is constant. He is faithful. He loves us, and He is with us. My good husband is a daily reminder of that. He is truly a Sacrament to me.

My engagement is my Annunciation event, my cause for a Magnificat! It is my Good News, my Gospel! Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord! That is why May 8th will always be a most important and wonderful date on my calendar.

For our ridiculous love story of literary proportions, including an engagement ring sent from heaven, see: My own Austen novel — extended version.

A Most Unusual Palm Sunday

How is it Palm Sunday already? Weren’t we only half way through Lent when the quarantining began? And that was last week or thereabouts, right? I am clearly losing track of time here. I was excited to hear from my son’s teacher last week saying that she was going to be hosting a half hour class on Mondays and Fridays–a little hint at normalcy! My husband actually keeps fairly regular weekday office hours in his home office these days, so, for me, weekends still feel like a relief, but I do miss the structure that school gives.

And really, that’s the only way in which we are being affected by this business. We are undeservedly fortunate to have (a) a salaried position, and (b) a teaching job that had already mostly shifted to online work with our February move. We live in a nice, spacious rental house, have a van for taking drives for a change of scenery, and internet to keep us connected to our loved ones. As I was driving my girls yesterday so that they would nap, I saw many many people outside their homes in their pyjamas, and it had an odd effect on me: it made me think that these COVID closures are a gift. Here we are, forced to slow down, and likely led to contemplate to some degree how much others mean to us. It’s quite possible some people might not have had the opportunity to slow down in their lives at all. Silence, or a lack of busy-ness, is essential to the soul’s health, though. In that respect, COVID is a gift.

But it’s not all sunshine and roses. We’re losing loved ones prematurely, we’re losing income, we’re losing our freedom to enjoy company in person and even to enjoy nature in our parks. There is a strong element of suffering. I am not the first Catholic to observe that this suffering comes at a liturgically appropriate time of year: Lent. And now, heading into Holy Week, we are really invited to contemplate the mystery of suffering.

Today we tuned into Ascension Press with Fr Mike Schmitz celebrating Palm Sunday Mass. The kids fell asleep and napped through most of it, making it just about the easiest Mass I’ve ever attended with them, and I got to listen to the homily! I’d like to recount some of it here, as it was just packed with points worthy of contemplation. Is Fr Mike Schmitz the new Fr Fulton Sheen? It kind of feels like it, eh? This man has a gift for preaching, and I praise God for leading him to the priesthood every time I listen to him preach.

He began the homily by picking out the words from the Gospel “It is finished” and started talking about unfinished furniture–so much to my surprise that I turned to my husband and asked if I heard it right! He made a beautiful analogy with it, though. He observed that just as sometimes we can buy unfinished furniture and choose our own finish, making our own mark on it, so too we complete Christ’s sufferings. For an unfinished chair is no less a chair being unfinished–it is as much a chair as it ever will be; so too Christ’s sufferings are lacking in nothing–except our own “finish,” or participation. Christ does not need us to participate in His suffering, but He invites us to. This was the best explanation of St Paul’s problematic line that I’ve ever encountered.

Fr Mike went on to say that, for the Christian, there is no senseless suffering. There is wasted suffering, but there is no senseless suffering. But when we join our suffering to Christ’s, our suffering takes on meaning, for, like His suffering on the cross, it becomes redemptive. When we say “yes” to our suffering and offer it back to the Lord as a sacrifice for, it becomes full of meaning.

Fr Mike distinguished between two kinds of suffering: physical and moral. The physical is bodily suffering, and the moral is basically every other kind of suffering: grief, sin, even irritation and frustration. When we offer these sufferings up, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant, we help make up “for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ”–which, paradoxically, is nothing, but Christ so loves us that He desires that we might derive meaning from our suffering and so He invites us to join our small “yes” to His crucifixion, which, I need not tell you, saved the whole world.

I love that he spoke about how even our grief over sin can be used redemptively. Those things we’ve done that we feel awful for but can’t go back and change? Those words we’ve uttered and can’t take back? Those times we’ve avoided doing something good and something bad happened as a result? We can ask the Lord to use them. And He will. We just have to ask.

How do we “offer it up”? We just ask. We state our intention, and that is all. “This is for so-and-so.” Fr Mike says Christ was doing that all through His Passion. He saw each one of us, and His love for each of us individually motivated Him towards the bitter end. I remember doing this with my first labour and delivery. I was in too much pain to think of every intention during the labour individually, but I collected them at the beginning and offered them up, and then I entered into the suffering, a physical suffering I’d never experienced the like of before.

It became important to me that my children should learn how to suffer well. I hardly knew what that meant. I just knew that suffering was unavoidable in life and that I wanted my children not to turn to bitterness and cynicism, but to offer it always to the Lord. Little did I know that the greatest Golgotha of my life was right around the corner!

I’ve occasionally felt some guilt for embracing my suffering with Matthew so poorly. On the one hand, I suffered well: the Lord gave me the grace to rejoice in the terminal diagnosis and to accept it. On the other hand, I suffered poorly: I fell into a dark self-inwardness and nigh despair. I found I had nothing much to offer, as I had been reduced to nothing. Now, I realize that to some extent, my mental health was so greatly affected that I can hardly be blamed. But until I die, I will not know to what extent I embraced my suffering and made it redemptive, and to what extent I wallowed and wasted my suffering. As someone who has overcome past scrupulosity, I let it go, but I still felt bad for not loving Jesus as fully as I might have. Watching Fr Mike today, I think triggered by his comment that even grief for our past sins can be offered up, I suddenly realized that even this grief, the grief of not suffering as well as I might have, of wasting opportunities to do good, could be offered up. God is nothing if not opportunity. The Devil is nothing but a dead end.

So there we have it. Suffering well is easy: we just offer it up in the form of an intention–Do something with this, Lord! Of course, the reality isn’t that simple, as we have hesitations and reluctance to overcome, but God can make something with even the smallest of intentions.

Let’s offer up our little (and large) sufferings this week and in the weeks to come for the salvation of souls.

In Lieu of Silver Linings

There has been a lot of talk about looking for silver linings in the Time of Coronavirus 2020. The pandemic is affecting everybody, to varying degrees. There is fear, there is anxiety, and there is boredom and frustration. Those of us who can are working from home, schools are closed, and, for those of us who are parents, the family home has become a kind of petri dish in which the flaws and strengths of our relationships are coming into sharp focus. It’s not easy. On media and social media, one quickly gets the impression that many people are experiencing a deep sense of foreboding and a deep-seated fear in the face of marked uncertainty. To counterbalance the “doom and gloom,” many are looking for silver linings, such as increased family time, a forced slowing down, or even, as I read somewhere, the opportunity to look our fears squarely in the eye.

I attended an online conference for Catholic women this past weekend and we received some amazing advice on facing current circumstances, including from Kimberly Hahn. She said we need always to remember that although it’s good to make plans, we must always make them with the caveat “God willing.” God’s will for many of us right now is to stay home, to thank Him and praise Him for all that He is permitting to happen, to trust that joy is ours even in the midst of sorrow (the Paschal Mystery!). So I’ve decided I need to work less on seeing a silver lining and more on seeing the Light of Christ Who is already here.

It’s not always easy. One moment I am inspired and hopeful, but winds change and the next moment my heart is heavy with grief. But the Light of Christ seems to be a theme in my life right now:

A few nights ago, I was enveloped in grief, the grief of losing my son, but not only that: the loss of formative years for me establishing a good family rhythm, a secure and happy home, etc. Instead, I was emotionally volatile, I spent a lot of time lying down and ignoring my living child and household duties thanks to depression, and I was in such great pain I could not bear to maintain an actively intimate relationship with God–I did the bare minimum, and I tried to avoid personal prayer as much as possible because facing God meant facing my pain, and I just couldn’t. But recently, just before COVID19 swept the Western world off its feet, so to speak, I began to see that I had the strength to cultivate once again the intimacy God has always invited me to have with Him.

But one thing I’ve learned in the past few years is gentleness with myself: I don’t have to push myself–in fact, I don’t have to do anything–even though I didn’t pray much the past few years, I was well aware that God was with me, watching me, loving me. I knew He knew I loved Him and wanted to love Him more. I knew He was giving me space. Like the wonderful man I married, the Lord is gentle and patient and ever-faithful. I trusted that in time, He would draw me to Himself. This was a profoundly different approach to faith than the striving and effort and, well, fear that I had experienced in all my life prior: worried that I wasn’t holy enough, that I didn’t do enough, that if only I were better then life would be so much better and the whole world a much better place. I pity former Me, trying so hard, wanting so much, and unable to simply sit and do the one thing that is needed: not worry about myself and simply adore Him.

That night, a few days ago, when I was enveloped in the grief of losing my son, my family dreams, and my intimacy with God, I prayed with a rare desperation. I wanted a hug–no, I still couldn’t bear His touch–but I wanted to be close to Him! The Lord must have suggested then that I ask for His Light, that I might be enveloped in His Light, warming myself in it, and allowing it to rest gently upon my aching heart.

Prayer is a strange thing. In twelfth grade, I had the gift of being able to write about a section of the Catechism for an assignment. I chose the fourth section, on prayer, driven by my thirst for relationship with God. I learned a lot, and I went on to read more and more after that. At that age, I found it frustrating that prayer itself is mysterious. I half wanted a checklist that I could satisfy so that I could know I was on the right track. Instead, all the answers I received led me instead to contemplation. We’ve heard it often said that prayer is not a technique. Many times I’ve been told that ultimately it doesn’t matter tuppence how a person prays. All that matters is that a person does pray. But if there is no “how,” then how can one do? Ha! It’s amusing, isn’t it? The simplest things are sometimes the hardest.

The section on prayer in the catechism begins with a quotation from St Therese of Lisieux, if I remember correctly: something about prayer being the leap of the heart towards God. How simple! How utterly simple! And how beautifully expressed, although experience suggests to me that “leaping” can also be “panting on the floor unable to move.” Prayer is relationship with God.

COVID19 is, I have read, causing many people actual grief. I don’t doubt it. For many, it is the greatest uncertainty they have ever faced, and uncertainty is one of the most painful and challenging states of life to be in. I have read some people writing that, much to their surprise, they find it harder than ever to pray now. When I saw that, I knew immediately the sort of thing they were suffering. I’ve always found it a strange thing that most people apparently only remember God and pray to Him when they are in trouble. I love talking with Him in good times, but when the bad times hit, oof! Give me some space, Lord, my heart hurts too much. Perhaps, without acknowledging it, I’m angry at Him. I don’t know. But I do know that fear and uncertainty can fill a person’s heart to the extent that it becomes very hard to open the door to Christ.

If this is you, do not be afraid. God is bigger than any of our closed doors. He is always waiting. He loves us. He expects nothing of us. He only yearns for us to allow Him to love us. We need do nothing. If you find you can’t pray, don’t beat yourself up. Remember that prayer is not a formula. This may be a season in life in which you enter into a different kind of prayer, just as I did when my life felt sunk. Do the bare minimum (which right now is very little indeed!), and then allow God to love you as much as you can. Sit in His Light, or curl up in a fetal position in His Light. It doesn’t matter. He loves you and is always with you.

I’m not saying there aren’t silver linings, or we shouldn’t count these blessings, but we should find our comfort ultimately in God.

Not Another Motivational Post

It’s that wonderful time of year when everyone feels like they’ve got a fresh start and are making new resolutions and bringing a renewed sense of focus into their lives and determining to make 2020 the best year ever… and then there’s me.

Sometimes I feel like a Type A person trapped in a Type… W… body: I love the idea of GTD (Getting Things Done), and I love writing lists and planning schedules, but as soon as I have to live that stuff out, I freeze inwardly, grab my phone and/or coffee/chocolate, and sit on the couch and try to pretend the world does not need me. This is not the kind of person I want to be, but somehow that’s where I am. Maybe it’s connected with my GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder), I don’t know. I do tend to find myself visiting the Sahara of Overwhelm and the Great River of Denial quite frequently.

This year, I didn’t do the New Year Thing: I didn’t reflect extensively on the past year–heck, I couldn’t even remember the first half of the past year!–and I didn’t even try to make a resolution. Life ticked on as usual, with me barely treading water most days, although occasionally lucking out with an Amazing Day of Energy (can I tell you how much I love those days? sometimes I think I would be a seriously amazing mum if I had energy).

But I am always seeking improvement, list or no, and my health, both mental and physical, has become a sort of holy grail I’ve dedicated myself to seeking the past couple years, as I see it as essential to serving my family better (tiny cute faces make for good motivation). Today saw my first time stepping foot into an alternative health clinic primarily based on TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and seeking–gasp–acupuncture.

As the acupuncturist assessed the state of my health (weak, weak, weak–uniformly weak!), identified the root of my problems as my diet that has caused an inflamed and irritated gut incapable of absorbing sufficient nutrients, and left me to “get some rest” with a bunch of tiny needles sticking out of my body at various points she determined as salutary, I had some quiet moments to reflect and pray.

All my life, I have largely tried to ignore my body. Thirsty? I’m not going to drink a glass of water until my lips are cracking. Sore tummy? Just ignore that. Pain? Best to ignore that, too, unless it’s completely interfering with my life. I just did not have TIME to look after my body. Sports were for people who didn’t have to get As. Eating was something to be done without thinking overly much about it because that’s either being too picky or wasting precious time that could be spent doing other things. As for emotions, those are what we learn to control. I did not want to be self-absorbed or a difficult person. Push through it. Be the hero.

It struck me that, throughout my life, I have only “listened” to my body when it became absolutely necessary: when my gallbladder needed to be removed, when my son died and my emotional world turned pitch black, when I had a panic attack while driving on a busy highway. I have been the complete opposite of gentle.

Gentle.

I had not thought I would lob onto a single word for the new year that is forgotten by the next, but this one slapped me in the face, so to speak. I need to learn to be gentle, foremost with myself. I need to be gentle with my body, listen to its pleas and respond fittingly. I need to be gentle with my spirit, and allow myself to fail in everything save turning to God. I need to be gentle with my emotions, and give them more acknowledgement.

Gentleness is an aspect of respect. I was not respecting the body God gave me, nor the person He made me. Ultimately, I have not been respecting Him and His glorious designs. I have been treating my body like a neglected workhorse, and it’s starting to revolt by giving out on me.

Gentleness is giving room to God, giving Him space to act.

In some ways, we don’t live in a very gentle era. The pace is fast. The expectations are high (although often misguided). There is an emphasis on having the best of you-name-it, as quickly and efficiently as possible. Information comes instantaneously through the internet, and we complain if it takes us twice as long as we are used to to get somewhere. If you’ve ever done a walking multi-day pilgrimage, you’ll have experienced something of the kind of pace people must have experienced in days of yore. It’s hard, very hard, but it’s gentle. Much like Christ promises His yoke is easy and His burden light: it requires effort, but it feels like that which we are made for. Very rarely, I’ve met someone who seems to have a special grace that sets them apart from this world of rush and bother. They seem to see every moment as sacred, even the pouring of tea, and treat it as such. Their outlook on life is exceptionally gentle. They have goals, but they are not so much driven in the sense of self-propelling as in the sense that they’ve handed the wheel over to the Lord. If I have any goal in life, it is not ultimately to be the sort of person who has accomplished everything on my list of Ideal Me; rather, my goal is to be this kind of person, no longer driven by ambitions but pure trust in God.

I’ve chosen a patron Saint for my new Polaris virtue this year: St Francis de Sales. I hope I might get the chance to read and re-read some of his writings as well, but at the very least, I trust he will intercede for me.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

Coloss. 3:12

Joy

I rambled recently on Facebook about Christmas, and how I feel that I might be a Christmas kind o’gal at heart. I realized tonight what it is that led me to that reflection, what it is that I am experiencing this week: joy!

This has caught me by some surprise, as I hadn’t quite realized I’d been lacking it, but of course: the past few years and Christmasses have been quite hard. Each holiday I feel keenly the absence of one of my dear children at some point. Although not chronically miserable and even at times happy, I had lost joy.

I am a joyful person! I had not realized. Without joy, I am not myself. What a wonderful thing to discover about oneself! But it is not just true of me: it is the same for everyone! Even the most Ebenezer Scroogiest among us!

This is what I love about Christmas: the total abandonment to joy! Untarnished, unblemished by any cynicism, pure, innocent joy!

Clearly, not every Christmas is joyful to all people. One learns as a child, to one’s astonishment, that one can feel quite contrary to the intended spirit of the special occasion being celebrated, just as the weather can be wretched rather than gay. The past few Christmasses, though happy, have been coloured by grief and anxiety, and I cannot describe my heart as having been joyful.

There is a levity to joy. It is this levity that sets it apart from mere happiness, I think. When one is happy, one’s feet, as it were, remain on the ground. When one is joyful, one is levitating, at least interiorly. My favourite depiction of joy in a movie is from the 1951 A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim:

Ebenezer [grumpily]  I don’t deserve to be so happy.

[starts laughing uncontrollably again] 

Ebenezer I can’t help it!

When joyful, we forget ourselves. We lose or renounce the control we typically enforce on our lives: the worries we have about how we might be perceived by others, about whether we are living up to our own standards, about living up to the Idea of Oneself that one has decided one ought to be. If we are uptight, anxious, fearful, or controlling in any way, we cannot be truly joyful. To be joyful, we must lose ourselves in God. And perhaps it will manifest itself in smiles–it certainly does with me, or at least a softening of my face. And there is an excitement in joy, the same sort of excitement the multitude of the heavenly host stirred up when they praised God in the fields, saying “Glory to God in the highest!” When I am joyful, my heart is united with that heavenly host stretched across the vast field, praising God. There is also a deep and intimate aspect to joy, as intimate and ineffable as a mother’s love for her baby.

And true joy is rooted in love. Sometimes we get a taste of joy in our relationships with people. I look upon my husband, or think about a friend who is very close to my heart, and I know joy. The deepest joy, however, is when I turn that gaze towards the Lord in my heart. I smile at Him, knowing He is smiling at me, who is totally unworthy of His smiles.

Joy! Joy is known at Easter, too, but in a more glorious and mature way. Joy at Christmas is so simple, so innocent of suffering albeit wise to it.

I am really quite fortunate to have known joy in my life. I know not everyone has joy in their homes. Perhaps, indeed, most people do not know more than happiness at best. I do not know. My wish is that everyone could know joy, but it is hard to see how one could be truly joyful without knowing Christ. Happy, certainly, but joyful? Perhaps, perhaps. Certainly there are many who know God and find joy in Him. Yet… yet to know God as Christ and Holy Spirit is about as intimate as we mortals can get with the Almighty. There is no other God who became one with us in body and soul, who fused his very being to our matter. This lends an intimacy that cannot otherwise be achieved. It is what marriage is a mere shadow of. And in intimacy, there grows the deepest and the greatest joy.

The most joyful people are the Saints, it has been said to me. I believe it! Who is more free, who is less self-conscious and more God-conscious than a saint? Some are so joyful that their interior levitation has been reflected in physical levitation! A priest my father knew once swiped his foot underneath Padre Pio as the saint was levitating, astounded that a human body should be floating above the ground! Such an amazing and miraculous external reflection of an internal reality!

I am grateful. I am deeply grateful to know joy again. I know that in my life joy comes and goes, but overall, when I am well, I am a joyful person, and I have always wanted to be a joyful person like St Philip Neri. I have prayed that God might grant me the grace of joy, just as I have often prayed that He might grant me the grace of wisdom.

In my joy, I do not forget suffering. I still remember my Matthew. I quickly recall dear friends who are undergoing terrible hidden crucifixions even at this very moment–some, remarkably, enduring these with a continued determination to rejoice in the Lord, God bless them! Rejoice in the Lord always! Newly equipped with joy, however, I can face these sufferings with a levity that is not of this world, a trust that God truly is God, and a good and loving one at that.

For now, my own life is enjoying some reprieve from major grief, and I am taking the time to thank God and to rejoice in my blessings: friendships many times more valuable than gold, family so near to my heart, wonderful children, and a husband I adore the Lord in, for the man is such a good man and such a delight. I am trying to bottle up my joy, label it, and shelve it for a future date when trials strike again, as they are sure to. The joy will still be there, but it will feel more distant, more of a memory than a present reality. And that’s ok. That is how this life is. In the next life, it will be pure joy beyond anything we have ever known in this life. We will all be levitating!

Renaming the Rosary: The Stressful Mysteries

We received some stressful news last week and it’s become a big lesson for me in Trust. In short, our landlord has plans to sell the house we are living in, so we have to find a new home sooner than we’d anticipated. It’s also teaching me Detachment in a big way: over the past two and a half years, I’ve made a nice home, finally relaxing into a sense of security in the past year, and now I’m being asked to give that all up. Thanks be to God!

I don’t really like it, I’ll be honest. I’m forcing myself to praise the Lord and give thanks, but it’s not coming naturally. I have noticed, though, that the more I forget myself and the more I praise Him, the happier I feel. It’s a bit like eating vegetables, though: I know they make me feel better, but I struggle to make myself eat them. Chocolate cake tastes so much better, and wallowing in worry has a similar weird appeal.

I was going to write through my feelings in my journal, but felt prompted to pray the rosary instead. My go-to set of mysteries is the Joyful Mysteries, the only ones I knew as a kid, so I would say those ones over and over again. They’re “my” mysteries. While I like the other ones, too, the Joyful are the ones I feel most at home with.

It occurred to me, while praying this morning, that “Joyful” is rather a strange appellation for this set of Mysteries. Had Mary not been her incredibly admirable self–had she been more like me–these mysteries would most certainly have been called the Stressful Mysteries. They’re basically proof that Mary was utterly amazing. Let’s break this down, for the sake of illumination:

The First Joyful Mystery: The Annunciation

A young woman, engaged to be married, is asked to conceive the Son of God.

  • Visited by a terrifying non-corporeal heavenly being. Stressful. You try not being afraid when the supernatural comes knocking at your door!
  • Unmarried and pregnant. Stressful. Couldn’t you have at least waited until I was securely placed in marriage?? How important is proof of this virgin birth anyway? I thought you said you loved ME and this is not helping ME right now in any way.
  • My betrothed may not look too kindly on this baby that’s not his. Stressful.
  • Possibility of being stoned to death for conceiving out of wedlock. Great idea, Lord.
  • Mother to the Son of GOD: ha! ha! um… can’t even.

The Second Joyful Mystery: The Visitation

Unmarried young woman in the first trimester of her first pregnancy ever travels to visit her pregnant cousin.

  • I don’t know about you, but I spent as much of the first trimester of my first pregnancy in bed.
  • Travel while pregnant on foot. Stressful.
  • Exhaustion on account of tiny, miraculous parasite. Overwhelming.
  • Morning sickness. NOT FUN.
  • Body changes. Whaaaaat?
  • Prospect of returning home with an increasing and imminently noticeable belly.

The Third Joyful Mystery: The Nativity

Young woman arrives in foreign city about to give birth. Gives birth in a place where animals are kept.

  • Moving before giving birth. Stressful. Also, I don’t care who you are, nobody wants to be riding on a donkey for days when you’re nine months pregnant and about to give birth.
  • Finally arrive in Bethlehem, but there was no internet to make room reservations in advance, so gotta trust God will find us something. In fact, the entire city is over-full thanks to this census. What happened to this whole “God will provide” thing? Couldn’t he have figured out an easier way to have his kid born in Bethlehem?
  • A stable?? This is not living in the manner to which I have become accustomed, Lord.
  • Couldn’t we have brought my mummy to help? I am about to give birth and some lady I’ve never met is the only person here to assist with the birth. Goodbye, privacy and comfort!
  • Wait, what? I just gave birth–NO RANDOM VISITORS. FAMILY AND FRIENDS ONLY. Please don’t touch the baby. Someone let me sleep? Is there any place to take a shower? Please leave: I actually just want to lie in the straw naked doing skin-to-skin and inhaling my new baby.
  • Could someone turn down the volume on those angels? And that star is shining way too brightly.
  • Joseph, do you mind shoveling that manure out of here?
  • WTF nobody told me breastfeeding would be so un-intuitive!!! Please use your omniscient powers to nurse, little baby!!
  • Bleeding everywhere. So gross. So gross. Your design is so icky, Lord.

The Fourth Joyful Mystery: The Presentation 

New mother brings her firstborn son to be consecrated to the Lord and circumcised.

  • They’re going to cut my baby. It’s going to be ok. —I can’t stand hearing him cry!!
  • Have you people ever heard of unsolicited advice? How does having a baby make you a target of every stranger’s passing remarks?
  • A sword? My baby? Old man, please… I don’t need this right now. I can hardly handle my baby getting a pinprick. Please don’t tell me there’s worse to come. I’m postpartum hormonal and I really don’t want to cry in public.

The Fifth Joyful Mystery: The Finding in the Temple

Twelve-year-old son has been missing for three days. He’s found in the Temple back in Jerusalem.

  • You are SO grounded.
  • What the heck do you think you’re doing preaching to these old men? They want wisdom? Tell them to talk to your mother next time!
  • Lord, I’ve never been so scared in my life. I’ve been having constant panic attacks. How could you do this to your mother??
  • We left the city! We told you we were leaving! How on God’s green earth did you think it was acceptable to stay behind?
  • You may be God, but in human terms you are only twelve years old. You haven’t even hit puberty yet. You aren’t growing up that fast!
  • I’m going to need about three days to sit on the couch and recover from the shock you just gave me, young man.
  • Where is chocolate when I need it?

 

As you can see, I am a long way from being the Blessed Virgin Mary. The mere responsibility of being the mother of God is terrifying to think of. I feel overwhelmed and unprepared just raising my merely human children. Mama Mary was clearly AMAZING. No joke that she was FULL of grace. You can’t do this kind of stuff unless you’re full of grace.

The good news is, everyone can be filled with grace. The more we surrender ourselves to God, the more he can fill us with His grace.

I still love the image of Our Lady of Grace that a priest once expounded on personally for me: he pointed out that her hand are open, not clenched. Grace can’t be poured into and through clenched hands. God won’t force our hands open to receive grace, but as a kindly Father will invite us and urge us to loosen our grip. Let go, let God.

Our Lady of Grace
Our Lady of Grace

Courage and Prudence

A topic near and dear to my heart throughout my life has been that of true courage, which in my opinion encompasses prudence. After all, if courage is foolhardy, we tend to call it rashness or impetuousness. Courage is acknowledging risks yet not being intimidated by them. Courage is taking control of our fear and doing what we have best discerned needs to be done. It’s one of my favourite virtues, up there with generosity. Of course, courage is one of the utmost forms of generosity, being a willingness to sacrifice oneself. And what is generosity, if not the freedom of self to give in love?

I’ve been drawn to reflect on the Parable of the Talents (Mt 25:14-30) of late. When I was a child, I was surprised that no mercy was shown to the servant given a single talent, who buried his coin for fear of losing it. I was a somewhat fearful child and appreciated the comfort of certainty, and wondered why those who were free, seemingly even careless, with their money should have profited. I saw more fault with the harsh and demanding Master.

It has taken the wisdom and perspective of some years to come to a better understanding of Christ’s message in this parable. It has taken some maturity to see that the simple portrait of the Hard Master, painted by the Nervous Servant, may be an inaccurate portrayal, coloured by the deficiencies of the observer.

Let us, for a moment, step back from our empathy for the Nervous Servant (if, indeed, you are like me and can easily identify with such a one).

‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’

The perception of the Master as a hard man comes from a timid observer. If we look to the beginning of the story, we see that he “called his servants and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.” What I see from the objective facts is that the Master trusts his servants, and not only does he trust them, he has the wisdom to see that each has a different level of aptitude and he does not give them more than he sees they can handle. He gives each an appropriate degree of responsibility. 

The Nervous Servant has noted that the Master reaps where he has not sown and gathers where he scattered no seed. The Nervous Servant is so blinded by his anxiety and fear that he interprets this as a sign of harshness rather than a sign of trust and respect. As a result, he quails, panics, and buries the entrusted treasure.

“You wicked and slothful servant!” cries the Master, upon learning what the Nervous Servant has done. Now, as a child, I was already standing in the shoes of the Nervous Servant, so I thought to myself that here was the miscoloured assessment of character. Wicked? Slothful? More like prudent, careful, responsible!

No. If I take that perspective, I miss entirely what Christ is trying to tell us.

Let us imagine that God the Father is the Master. He entrusts to each of us a different amount of “talent” (oh, how wonderful to have this synonym in English!), as every homilist I’ve ever heard has observed. What the text does not reveal explicitly is that He does so in an outpouring of His love, but, of course, that is how God executes all his actions, for we are told He is Love itself. To quail before such love is a respectable initial reaction; however, we are then faced with a choice: do we respond in like love and trust Him, as He invites us to, or do we hide in fear, as Adam and Eve attempted? To base our decisions on fear is to listen to the Devil, who wants so desperately to sow doubt and self-loathing in our hearts, to turn the focus away from our relationship with our glorious, infinite God and towards our own dull, finite navels.

IMG_1883

The above quotation is taken from Fr Jacques Philippe’s Fire and Light: Learning to Receive the Gift of God (p. 70).

The Nervous Servant thought he was being prudent, but he was not. As we see, it did not end well for him at all, for the Master took the pittance He had entrusted him with and “cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness.” Why this apparent harshness? Why the seemingly callous claim that “to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away”? Doesn’t that sound like kicking a man who’s already fallen on his face? But put it in the context of the story: the Master had trusted each of the servants, yet the Nervous Servant proved that he did not in turn trust his Master’s wisdom. The Nervous Servant was proud enough to refuse to believe that he could do anything with what he was given, even though he knew it was expected of him.

Lucy led the way and soon they could all see the Dwarfs. They had a very odd look. They weren’t strolling about or enjoying themselves (although the cords with which they had been tied seemed to have vanished) nor were they lying down and having a rest. They were sitting very close together in a little circle facing one another. They never looked round or took any notice of the humans till Lucy and Tirian were almost near enough to touch them. Then the Dwarfs all cocked their heads as if they couldn’t see any one but were listening hard and trying to guess by the sound what was happening.

“Look out!” said one of them in a surly voice. “Mind where you’re going. Don’t walk into our faces!”

“All right!” said Eustace indignantly. “We’re not blind. We’ve got eyes in our heads.”

“They must be darn good ones if you can see in here,” said the same Dwarf whose name was Diggle.

“In where?” asked Edmund.

“Why you bone-head, in here of course,” said Diggle. “In this pitch-black, poky, smelly little hole of a stable.”

“Are you blind?” said Tirian.

“Ain’t we all blind in the dark!” said Diggle.

“But it isn’t dark, you poor stupid Dwarfs,” said Lucy. “Can’t you see? Look up! Look round! Can’t you see the sky and the trees and the flowers? Can’t you see me?”

“How in the name of all Humbug can I see what ain’t there? And how can I see you any more than you can see me in this pitch darkness?”

“But I can see you,” said Lucy. “I’ll prove I can see you. You’ve got a pipe in your mouth.”

“Anyone that knows the smell of baccy could tell that,” said Diggle.

– The Last Battle (C. S. Lewis)

The Nervous Servant, much like the Dwarfs in the final tale of Narnia, could not see beyond his own dingy perception of the situation. Perhaps the other two servants even attempted to encourage him to think differently, but neither their example nor their entreaties made any difference.

Let’s consider those other two servants for a moment. They were trusted with five and with two talents, each according to his ability. Each went forth in faith and doubled his entrusted fund. Must we imagine that these two were repulsively confident, reckless risk-takers? Or might we entertain the possibility that they were courageous, loving, generous, willing to take risks in the hopes of pleasing their Master? For all they knew, they would fail and have nothing to hand over when their Master returned. Yet they trusted their Master: they knew He had expectations of them, and they saw that He trusted them. With little thought to themselves, they went forth and did their best. Their efforts were rewarded, for although the text does not say so explicitly, we know that the Master blessed their efforts.

Was the Nervous Servant jealous of the other two servants? Quite possibly. He saw how much they had been given, and he despaired. He did not see what he had, but what he had not. There was little room in his heart for love. He was concerned only with his own self-preservation, with not making a mistake, with avoiding the humiliation of failure.

“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” – Mt 16:25

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” – 1 John 4:18

Do not be afraid. God is love.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” – Prov. 3:5

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:9

I could go on! I cannot think of a faith that is more empowering than that of the Gospel. Who else tells us that we are sons and daughters of God almighty and proves it through the waters of Baptism? Are there any other creeds that bridge that gap between God and man in such an astonishingly intimate manner? Our God loves us so much that He sent His own Son, His own Self, to dwell among us, and to tell us: Do Not Be Afraid.

Walk to the Lord on water and do not doubt. If you begin to flounder in your doubt, trust God, as Peter did, to pull you up and rescue you. With God, you cannot falter.

Let us not be timid like the Nervous Servant, but as confident as a child in her father’s lap, as confident as the Little Flower, St Therese, who clung to the Lord in all her weakness.

My own Austen novel – extended version

Some years ago, I thought I was too sensible to be a romantic: I didn’t care for grand romantic gestures, I didn’t need someone to spend lots of money on me to feel loved, and my idea of a good date was going for a long walk and talking about things of spiritual, cultural, and intellectual significance. In retrospect, however, I can see that I am not so poorly afflicted as to want a romantic heart, and, on the contrary, am quite an intense romantic, ever seeking true romance, albeit perhaps without some of its popular manifestations. Thanks to a loving family, I have a heart that was seeking more to love than to be loved, more to give than to receive, more to find a companion than a devotee. I didn’t need a lover, but my heart did yearn for a beloved, and some way to give my life away for others.

Also some years ago, I went to spiritual direction and was asked to reflect on my life and see how God had led me to where I was. I couldn’t. I could not see God’s hand in my life, although I knew He had been there. It took my own, humble love story to see God’s provident hand in my life, and now I can’t stop glorying in his goodness and generosity. In light of my upcoming anniversary (six years!), I should like to recount some of the acts of his kindness in my life.


Chapter 1: Our Heroine’s Heart is Prepared

I was confident that I would know when my love came along (cf. Guys and Dolls). I had a heart that “fell in love” easily, finding much to love in others rather quickly, and, unlike Emma Woodhouse (cf. Emma), I knew, somewhat wistfully, God would never be able to surprise my heart because I was always keenly aware of the lay of the Land of Affection. If anything, my role in my “romances” tended to mimic that of the Lady of Shallott, of Viola of Twelfth Night, of Eponine of Les Misérables, or of Anne Elliot of Persuasion: I waited for the poor fellow to come to his senses and realize there was no one else for him but this fervently loyal soul who adored him. The way I made my affection known was by not talking to the objects of said affection. It was most effective, as you can well imagine.

As a teenager, I devoured many great works of literature, but Jane Austen’s novels were my favourite and were honoured with a biannual re-read. This pastime was very helpful in preparing me for a successful romantic future: I practised the pianoforte diligently in order to delight my future husband, I took care to cultivate “the improvement of [my] mind by extensive reading” (cf. Pride and Prejudice), and I studied how to interact courteously and converse in a refined manner. How I did not date until I was securely into my twenties is a mystery! Although no longer a regret.

But I loved men. I had no brothers, and I yearned for male companionship. I prayed that one day I might become close friends with a man who wished to become a priest so that I might have the brother I never had. It took five years, but God answered this prayer, and I was graced with the wonderful friendship of a few good men whose hearts were led more by God than by women. I was surprised that God answered this little prayer of mine, but profoundly grateful that he filled that hole in my heart.

In my undergrad years, I began to experiment socially, meaning I battled to overcome my social anxiety, and it was a good environment in which to do so: there were a number of other young minds at university interested in intellectual conversations, and, not to belabour stereotypes, I discovered that I was actually somewhat socially skillful amidst this peculiar collection of young adults. I made friends both male and female, and “hung out” with both sexes one-on-one—a couple of times, I realized a decade later, entirely oblivious to my friend’s perspective that this was a date. What can a young woman do in a society that has no social customs or rules for courtship? It’s a bit of a mess that we have to navigate with care and some boldness, lest we sink in our insecurities.

Grad school came and I emerged as a social butterfly among my bookish peers. Many had arrived to obtain their PhDs. Secretly, I hoped to obtain my Mrs.

On a parallel track to my search for a life companion, let me say that I simplified matters by concurrently discerning a religious vocation. (And yes, I do frequently employ a light-hearted sarcasm, so please question everything you read here.) I was intensely religious. I had, at about the same time that I began to yearn for a boyfriend, begun to turn to Christ to fill my emptiness and heal my hurts. Thanks to much of the aforementioned extensive reading, I grew closer and closer to him, falling deeply in love with this Man Among Men.  He was my everything, and for him I was willing to sacrifice everything because I knew that ultimately, only He mattered. As such, I helped my dating life along by declaring that I would only date Catholics, seeing as I was dating to discern marriage and my tender heart could not bear the thought of receiving the Eucharist without my spouse beside me. Secretly, I was not strict on this principle, but because of my intensity, I feared that, should I date a non-Catholic, things would get very, very painful and challenging if he did not convert, and, although I endured pain and challenges of a different kind as a result, I am grateful, now that I am where I am, that I had this guiding star. I also helped my dating life along by frequently speaking of my interest in the convent and my love for Jesus. Nothing is more inviting to a young man than telling him that his rival for your affections is God Almighty.

There were times I was filled with regret. I regretted that I had pursued an intellectual career, for I feared this made me intimidating and I feared it had raised my standards too high. I regretted that I could not get beyond my intense and highly religious approach to dating as discernment of sacramental marriage, since I suspected it prevented me from being asked out by otherwise very nice young men. God let me cry many nights and experience much loneliness, but he gave me the grace to offer him my loneliness, even to suggest that I might sacrifice my life to loneliness in communion with those who never find a place of belonging on this earth. He gave me the grace to prefer the cross of singlehood to marriage with someone I could not share myself wholly with. But I still gave him as much of an ultimatum as I dared: If you love me, Lord, you will send me a man by the time I am thirty; I’ll even give you some wiggle room: by the time I am thirty-three, since that is how long your Son had to endure life in this valley of tears.


Chapter 2: Ships Crossing in the Night

The summer before I arrived at grad school I spent studying Latin. This is not such an odd thing for someone who is going to be examined on her Latin knowledge within the first few weeks upon arrival. On the department website I had found vocab lists written up by a grad student for the sake of studying for this particular exam. I wondered what kind of person had written them and if I would meet him. This was the first time I encountered my future husband’s name.

I arrived, hopeful for both an education and a date. Perhaps, I thought to myself, I would meet others in this department with an interest in and a love for Christ’s Church. The earliest pub gathering I recall going to, I remember a quiet academic whom others teased as the one who would speak in Old English and Latin if you gave him enough beer. As I recall, he indulged us without much liquid courage. What quirky people I’d found myself among! They seemed exactly the odd sort of tribe I’d been seeking. That is my first memory of my future husband.

When I ask my husband his first memory of me, he says it was of me outside of the library surrounded by young men and having a good time, laughing. It wasn’t my intellect or religious fervour that intimidated him, but the imagined competition! He was in a complicated relationship at the time anyway. I was invited by his then love-interest to go out for drinks following a talk he gave. The relationship was complicated enough that I had no notion whatsoever of their more intimate connection, and I most certainly checked his hand for a wedding band, for as he spoke, although he said nothing explicitly, I got the impression he might be Catholic, and he was, to the mind, very interesting indeed.

When people ask, I say we met in the library. We don’t remember when we first met, but we saw each other mostly in the library. It was just outside the library that another young fellow, who asked me out and whom I actually accepted and dated for, well, longer than I should have, suggested that we “play a game” that involved making the serious older haunters of the library smile. One of the two primary targets was my future husband. I am not an extrovert, but as someone who is a more outgoing introvert, I felt a special calling in making shier members of our human race feel comfortable.

Eventually, my husband asked me out for coffee. I declined. I said my interests lay elsewhere. He assumed I was hoping to enter the convent. In truth, I was annoyed with him for not asking me out six months prior following a conversation that had raised hopes in my heart. I had also just been on a date with a guy who I’d hoped would ask me out again—although apparently I blew my chances there because I offered him a handshake when he came at me for a kiss (what can I say? perhaps I had listened too often to “Shipoopi” from The Music Man, but in truth a kiss was rather too intimate an expression for a first date for me, for although I fell in love easily, I did not give my heart away for a good meal).

After great growth in my spiritual life and the sense that I needed to get things moving, I decided to discern religious life in earnest. I entered a rooming convent that allowed me to participate to some degree in the sisters’ daily life (daily prayer, Mass, communal dinners) while also continuing to pursue my studies. It just so happened that my future husband lived two blocks down the street from the convent, but that was of no significance to me at the time. Indeed, I was encouraging my friend, whom he was in light of my rejection pursuing, to date him. I was amazed that she was reluctant to date him: the man was sending her gorgeous music to listen to and reciting the original Beowulf in public spaces for crying out loud! He had excellent taste in beer to boot. And he was Catholic! What more could a girl ask for?? True, he was unemployed at the time, but he didn’t seem to be living in dire poverty, nor did he seem to be an extravagant wastrel. I told her frankly that had I not given my heart to Christ, I’d be giving this man a chance.

I don’t know what it is about entering a convent and pursuing religious life in all sincerity, but it seems to bring out desperate last gasps of romantic hope in your secret admirers. I received a couple of notes of ardent admiration within my first three months there. I was touched, but unmoved. More on that in a minute.

Discerning religious life in earnest is very freeing. You are no longer anxious that you should secure a date or find the man of your dreams. Male friendships don’t feel awkward. I chanced upon my future husband on his bike while riding mine and took up his invitation to go for beers. I spent much of the time encouraging him to learn to cook in order to please his future wife. I recommended that he host a Hildegard of Bingen listening soirée. He not only acted out of character by organizing one, but he baked pies for the occasion. I recall arriving first to his apartment and sitting on his couch. I had to laugh to myself because my romantic little heart was suggesting that nothing would be so lovely as for him to come sit close beside me: was I to receive such frivolous impulses even when I was consecrated to Christ? Foolish little dear heart. The man received a couple of free tickets to a concert from a friend. He invited me along “as a friend” seeing as he knew I loved music. Intermission was interesting, as I thought to myself with amusement that, had I not been pursuing a life consecrated to Christ alone, I would have really liked to have gotten to know this man who shared so many of my interests and was in them even more knowledgeable than myself.

At the end of October, I received a letter from my neighbour, delivered by post no less. You may be as surprised as I was to discover that this letter read in a vein very similar to Mr Darcy’s I must tell you how ardently I admire and love you. He knew I was discerning a spiritual marriage of a rather higher calibre, and he respected that. He knew his own actions in pursuing my friend might have been misleading, but in truth he would have been pursuing me had I been available. He essentially could not live any longer without knowing he had done all he could to tell the woman of his dreams that he loved her.

It was a beautiful letter, penned in the most beautiful hand and every sentence measured and balanced in such a way as to create the sort of music prose is capable of producing in skilled hands. It made me blush with pleasure, and I thanked God for this incredibly romantic experience I had yearned for all my life. For fear of keeping my admirer in extended anguish, I e-mailed the man to thank him for his kind letter and to assure him of my prayers, but I was off to visit some convents and my heart was not available.

Did you know I had also encouraged this man to become a priest? I really went out of my way to ensure that we would one day marry.

I went, I fell in love with a convent, I returned. I kept the letter, though. It was too beautiful to destroy, and I suppose there was a corner in my heart that wouldn’t acknowledge fully that perhaps, perhaps it was something worth treasuring.

The convent of my dreams invited me to attend a Come and See Retreat with them, as they argued that it would give me a better idea of their life than a personal retreat such as I had made. I was surprised, but of course I would return! It was actually the second time on a Come and See weekend with them—I had attended one almost a decade prior only to discover I had more growth to accomplish before I might perhaps enter. So I attended. To my dismay and total heartbreak, God wanted to “break up” with me: all I heard in my heart was “NO.” I didn’t understand how this could be, how I could know so clearly I was not to be there, when it was what I wanted. I was devastated. I returned home in a mid-mid-life crisis and decided to spend my inheritance money from my grandmother on an impulse buy with my sister: airline tickets to South Korea and Japan for a three-week springtime getaway. I guess it was time to eat, pray, love?


Chapter 3: An Engagement Arranged by Girl Who Died of Tuberculosis in the Nineteenth Century

A few weeks into my abandonment to enjoy life to the full within the bounds of what is good and holy, I attended a dinner party hosted by some friends. Future husband was there. He spent the evening looking disengaged and, frankly, not very happy (as I learned later, he had a stomachache—something he had prior to eating, I should mention, on the chance that our hosts should be reading this). Even so, I found my eyes and heart rested on him. A snowball fight on our way home may have been a little flirtatious.

While at the library in the week or two following, he came to me with an amusing little discovery he had made. It led to me e-mailing him later, which opened the flood gates. We must have spent most of our days e-mailing each other for the next month, sharing favourite music, engaging in extensive wordplay, exercising our Latin composition skills by writing to each other in a dead language. It was academic flirtation at its finest. He invited me to an afternoon of poetry reading. I accepted. We had our first pre-dating date on Easter Sunday.

I was pretty sure he was going to ask me out. Since the beginning of our email exchanges, I had begun to calculate the likelihood of my giving my heart to him. No joke. It began around 50% and gradually worked its way up. Although I knew there had been some continued pursuit of my friend while I went to the convent and experienced my mid-mid-life crisis, when I spoke with her about her love life in March, she confessed she had feelings for nobody. The coast, as I saw it, was clear on my end, and I suspected he was getting the hint that his Immortal Beloved was not adverse to his attentions any longer. This time, I was ready for his e-mail saying he needed to speak with me about something and could we meet soon? I said yes, and my heart was ready to say yes to his asking me out.

We met for Mass and upon exiting the church, he wasted no time: “I would like it very much,” he said somewhat giddily, ” if it were in God’s plans for you to forget the whole nun thing, fall madly in love with me, get married, and have lots of children.”

[Here would be a good place to insert a GIF.]

I was all astonishment. I had thought I would never be surprised in love, and this whole adventure was turning my narrative upside-down. I was dumbstruck. And I was afraid: afraid I’d break his heart. Somehow I was never afraid of my own heart being broken, and I think subconsciously I realized that in any relationship in which I was the one being pursued, the power to break hearts rested in me, which is a fearsome responsibility.

I suggested that perhaps we date a little first and get to know each other, which of course was all he wanted at that point in time. I asked him later what made him so bold as to propose marriage to me before we had started dating, and he said that he wanted his intentions to be perfectly clear, seeing as to this point our relationship had been rather ambiguous. I took perhaps a week to pray about dating him, seeing as he was already 100% invested and I… I was perhaps still only 70% there (I’d have to check my diary to get the precise stats on that). I really didn’t want to break his heart, but he was so fascinating and pleasant and unlike any man I’d ever met, and he met absolutely every point on my checklist of an ideal husband (apart from a lively joie de vivre, of which I decided I brought enough to share to the relationship). And he was clearly very eager to take the risk.

When I was a young girl, quand j’étais jeune, I thought surely I’d need to be in a relationship for a good seven years before I knew I could commit to marriage with a man. As it happened, we dated about five weeks before I told him that he could propose to me again if he liked.

As we had been dating, the likelihood of my interest in marrying him had accelerated to a nigh 100%. The night before our engagement, I spent a good long time in the convent chapel begging God to direct my heart. I believed I loved this man, but I did not want to love God any less. Wrestling in my heart for I don’t know how long, I received God’s blessing: He did not tell me to marry the man, but He did impress upon my heart that I had complete freedom to choose whether to marry him or not and He would bless my decision. It was one of the few times in my life I felt beyond a doubt that Holy Spirit was communicating directly with me.

I met him at his apartment that morning and told him the news. He calmly took an index card, as was his custom, and began a to-do list for the day. I think the items were “go to Mass,” “eat lunch,” and “get engaged.” Something like that. We went to Mass, and left the church together, somewhat in awe of what we were about to do.

The world was radiant in spring’s joyous raiments as it was the month of Our Lady and all nature was charged with the energy of new life bursting forth. As we walked around campus, he began to discuss how he ought ideally to propose to me, and to describe the various ideal scenarios and settings in which such a significant event would take place. If he wanted to know my thoughts on the matter, I felt that it would be most perfect either in a beautiful natural space or in church. Well, what sort of natural beauty on campus would offer us the sort of privacy we would like? We sat on the grass outside the church.

The humour of our deliberate proceedings only made them more delightful, I must say.

As we sat on the grass, he spied in it a costume jewelry ring—God had provided! And, in doing so right outside the church, seemed to have suggested the location for the proposal. In we went.

First, we went before the tabernacle to pray for God’s blessing on that which we were about to undertake. This wonderful man, who loved me so much and had for so many years, then took me to the baptistry and got down on one knee and asked that he might lay down his life for me as Christ had laid down his life for the Church. And I said yes.

Do you know, I had never really understood the romance of getting down on one knee. I didn’t understand the point of it. That day, I learned. I learned that when a man gets down on his knee before a woman, he physically reflects the reversal of the norm: he makes himself smaller than she, her humble servant, her devoted lover, who hopes to honour and cherish her more than he even loves himself. I did not know that I would be greatly moved by the act, to be given such honour. May chivalry never die!

As we later sat again, enjoying our new life status as promised to each other, he looked at the ring he had given me and asked what I thought it looked like. I hadn’t noticed, but the design of the decoration was that of a rose. Apparently, that December after my rejection of his beautiful letter’s declaration of love, he turned to both Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, offering them novenas to plead for their intercession that they might find for him a wife. Thérèse had once again dropped one of her little roses from heaven (a small miracle we Catholics do hear of from time to time in relation to prayers offered to the Little Flower) to indicate that, through her intercession, God had answered a prayer. If ever, during the occasional trials of six years of marriage, doubted my choice in husband, I have only had to recall that proof to realize that such doubts are the whispers of the devil.


Chapter 4: A Very Short Engagement

Getting engaged was certainly as climactic as it is in stories, but unlike the stories, I got to experience the unwritten challenges and joys of preparing for the wedding. We both viewed our engagement as a time for discernment, albeit a deeply involved and committed joint discernment. I was not without my concerns and reservations, although I had spent much time discerning my vocation and much time applying the principles of St Ignatius’ Rules for the Discernment of Spirits, and my heart was confident in the matter even if my intellect was occasionally fearful.

We took our time telling family and friends. It was a pleasure to have the enjoyment of our engagement all to ourselves for a time, and it was also a little awkward to inform friends that I had gone from giving my heart to a convent to giving my heart to a man within a matter of five short months.

Shortly before I left to see Asia, my man had an interview for a job at Oxford. Though I’d been envisioning a spring wedding a year from our engagement, the prospect of his going abroad forced me to reconsider. Our options, should he get the job, were to endure a long-distance engagement (no thank you), to live beyond our means in separate homes in England (no thank you), or to get married before the job started. Although I knew the job was uncertain (and indeed, it was given to a scholar at Oxford in the end), the situation forced me to discern whether there was good reason to wait. There wasn’t, we set a date for early September, and by the time we learned he wouldn’t be moving across the pond, it didn’t seem necessary to postpone what we had already discerned needed no delay.

I also believed that if we oughtn’t get married, we would face obstacles in preparing for the wedding and would need to postpone it. As it happened, everything fell easily into place. Granted, my dream wedding was a very simple affair: the greatest expense was my wedding dress, which I splurged a thousand dollars on because it was so beautiful, so elegant, so modest, and fit me so perfectly it essentially needed only to be hemmed. We hosted an afternoon tea reception in a church hall. Friends showered us with gifts such as my bouquet and the flower arrangements, their time in decorating the hall, their gifts in performing the music at the Mass, their talent in baking a cake that outshone any wedding cake I’ve ever tasted. It was a simple, community wedding that honoured God foremost and us as a couple He united second. The only thing that would have made it more wonderful would have been the ability to have more friends and family present, but with such a short engagement and in the interests of keeping costs low, it was a more intimate affair.

I did spend the night before the wedding crying that I was afraid I wouldn’t love Jesus enough in married life (haha!), and I spent the day somewhat paralyzed by awe in light of the great responsibility I was undertaking—until we walked away from the afternoon reception to drop off our things at our B&B and go off for a romantic dinner all by our newly minted Mr & Mrs selves.


Chapter 5: You Must Lose Your Life in Order to Find It

It will have been six years next weekend. Six wonderful, amazing, devastating, joyful years. We have found employment, gained my husband’s permanent residency in my country, welcomed a son, buried a son, welcomed twins, started a small business, battled mental illness, moved house three times, and then some. And it has all been as God promised: He has blessed us, abundantly.

I am not lonely anymore. That cross was not mine to bear for my entire life.

I am not my own person anymore. My own desires and plans are always intricately connected with those desires and needs of others.

I am not free, yet I have never been freer.

I never knew marriage could be so joyful. I never realized how beautiful family life is. Every day, in spite of all challenges, I am filled with deep gratitude for the life I have been given, for this chapter of marriage and family has been the best by far, and I cannot thank God enough for knowing my heart better than I ever have and for surprising me with the answers to all my spoken and unspoken prayers, for giving me a life companion I respect and admire and love unlike any man I’ve ever met, the man who is now the father of my children and who makes my heart melt daily in his interactions with these little souls we have brought into existence. Although I have grasped for many things in my time, the blessing of my marriage was pure grace, a gift I didn’t even know I needed. The sacredness of marriage is profound. How could I have doubted my ability to love Jesus in its bounds? Rather, I hope I have come to love Jesus better, more humbly, more on His terms rather than on mine. And as a good friend once wrote to me when I was entertaining doubts and fears, Jesus is and always will be my first love. I am grateful to God that my husband not only honours this but desires it. I am grateful for a man who understands me so well. I am grateful for a companion whose ultimate vision is so similar to mine.


 

This story of my romance is surely the love story of a man and a woman. However, for me, it is much more the love story of a God and his beloved daughter and son, whom He is drawing to himself through the Sacrament of Marriage.

Psalm 136 King James Version (KJV)

136 O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.

O give thanks unto the God of gods: for his mercy endureth for ever.

O give thanks to the Lord of lords: for his mercy endureth for ever.

To him who alone doeth great wonders: for his mercy endureth for ever.

To him that by wisdom made the heavens: for his mercy endureth for ever.

To him that stretched out the earth above the waters: for his mercy endureth for ever.

To him that made great lights: for his mercy endureth for ever:

The sun to rule by day: for his mercy endureth for ever:

The moon and stars to rule by night: for his mercy endureth for ever.

10 To him that smote Egypt in their firstborn: for his mercy endureth for ever:

11 And brought out Israel from among them: for his mercy endureth for ever:

12 With a strong hand, and with a stretched out arm: for his mercy endureth for ever.

13 To him which divided the Red sea into parts: for his mercy endureth for ever:

14 And made Israel to pass through the midst of it: for his mercy endureth for ever:

15 But overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red sea: for his mercy endureth for ever.

16 To him which led his people through the wilderness: for his mercy endureth for ever.

17 To him which smote great kings: for his mercy endureth for ever:

18 And slew famous kings: for his mercy endureth for ever:

19 Sihon king of the Amorites: for his mercy endureth for ever:

20 And Og the king of Bashan: for his mercy endureth for ever:

21 And gave their land for an heritage: for his mercy endureth for ever:

22 Even an heritage unto Israel his servant: for his mercy endureth for ever.

23 Who remembered us in our low estate: for his mercy endureth for ever:

24 And hath redeemed us from our enemies: for his mercy endureth for ever.

25 Who giveth food to all flesh: for his mercy endureth for ever.

26 O give thanks unto the God of heaven: for his mercy endureth for ever.

Amen.

Life-giving Music

I recently was honoured with the responsibility of leading the music at Mass for the first time in my life. 

Although music has always brought me the deepest joy, it never seemed to stand out as one of my superior talents–it was my acting skills and my ability to teach well that I received the highest praise for–and in music, I did well and was praised as very musical, but I did not stand out as a top achiever. In short, God did not put me on this earth to become a concert pianist, but I confused this recognition of my limitations with the thought that I was simply not cut out for a career in music beyond teaching. Ha!

This past week, kneeling before the Lord in the Tabernacle as I visited the church to practise, I marvelled at how He had brought me here full circle: my high school dreams of leading music for the Church were being fulfilled even though I had long ago assumed my musical talents were not sufficient for anything but teaching. My voice, I knew, was fine, but I had often been told it was best suited for a choir, and my piano performance skills were decent once I’d practised sufficiently but I showed no extraordinary natural aptitude. I thus assumed the lowest place at the table, so to speak, and left it at that.

But it was always in my heart to make music for the Lord. In planning our wedding, my favourite aspect was choosing the music; likewise when we planned our son’s funeral–choosing the hymns brought me the greatest joy and consolation. At Mass, I have often thought about how I might do things differently from how the musicians there were doing it. When, as a teenager, I was struggling with life generally speaking, I would turn to the Lord with my Bible open to the Psalms and sing them, totally improvised. It was always music that I turned to to express the deepest parts of my soul, and it was through music that my husband gradually insinuated his way into my heart. Music, if you will, is the language of my soul. It only seems right, then, that I would find it the most natural means to communicate with my God and to offer Him praise.

Before playing for my first Mass, I knelt and prayed, “Lord, I love you. Please, if it is your will, take away the nervousness I feel, for I wish to play for your glory and honour only. Only if it is your will. Let me play not for my vanity, but only for your glory. And, Lord, please use me to bring others closer to you. May the beauty of the music I offer this evening draw others to recognize you more fully. If there is someone who comes this evening whose spirit is weary, may my music help to refresh his soul, as so often I have turned to music for refreshment.”

It was at this moment, when I said this prayer, that I fully recognized what had been dawning on me this entire week: that there is no question that, through music, I could serve the Lord. And, it seemed, since I was there, it did not matter that I was neither a concert pianist nor a professional, trained singer. Through loving the Lord through my music, I could (and probably would) bring His love to others.

I played. I was a little nervous, certainly, but I kept reminding myself that I was playing for love. As I was warming up before Mass, I fell upon a certain hymn that means very much to me: I played “O God, Beyond All Praising.” This hymn I had chosen as the closing hymn for my son’s funeral Mass. That evening, as I “performed” it for the first time in church, I remembered this, and it strengthened me, reminding me that my son was present there in the Communion of Saints, that he was praying for me. It was a moment of great joy, singing this hymn of praise in union with my departed son: “and whether our tomorrows be filled with good or ill, we’ll triumph through our sorrows and rise to bless You still; to marvel at your beauty and glory in Your ways, and make a joyful duty our sacrifice of praise!” 

I made many, many mistakes in the music. Most were probably not too obvious, but a few undoubtedly were. I realized that I had chosen some rather sombre, slow, traditional hymns and hoped it wouldn’t have the effect of lowering spirits. I was satisfied with my performance, primarily for having faced my huge fears of playing in front of others when I am all too aware of my limitations, but I did not impress myself. However, I had come to play for the service of God and others, and my own vainglory was not really a factor in any of this, so I did not take this much to heart.

Still, God knew that my heart’s quiet prayer was that I might receive some affirmation that I had done well for Him, and He inspired a few people to thank me for sharing my talents.

My talents! I feel like the poor widow putting her two pennies into the collection box! Somehow God has taken those two pennies and made much of them! I am in awe of His goodness. 

For a long time, I have been struggling with my relationship with God since Matthew’s diagnosis and death. It just went cold. I still loved Him, but more out of obedience and the discipline of a love long established. What love I felt was tinged with nostalgia and sentimentality, or at the very least a great sense of distance. It was as though an old flame had moved far away, and to be entirely honest, I didn’t much miss Him. I didn’t really want to have much to do with Him. My interest in prayer was non-existent; I would observe the Six Precepts of the Church and attempt to pass on the Faith to my children, but there was no flame. My heart had been shattered, and it’s hard to feel warmly towards someone who allowed such intense pain, even if you do trust Him completely.  It was a dark night of the soul that lasted two years.

The past few weeks, however, as I have begun to rekindle my own engagement in playing the piano regularly, I’ve noticed a softening in my heart—especially as I have been practising hymns, and most powerfully when playing in church. A little spark of joy has been relit and is being fanned into a great flame. Where for so long I had lost much sense of closeness, His loving presence is no longer seemingly hidden from me . He has spoken to me in the language of my soul, and He has healed my wounded heart.

It is through music that God has once again drawn me out of darkness and given me new life.

Joy!