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.

Lent, 2019

In a few short days, Lent will be upon us once again. It always seems strange to start Lent in March, but it has allowed me this year to prepare myself better. The past few Lents have been impossible with my mental health at an all-time low, but things are good now, really good. I feel like myself again, and my true self has always longed to love God more and more and more. As St Peter puts it so well, What else is there? (Ok, more like “to whom shall we go,” but that’s basically the same thing.) So, I’m excited about Lent. I can’t wait to have a really good incentive to deny myself, because by nature I’m pretty lazy and it’s just easier and more fun to indulge. The only thing more fun than indulging is rising to the challenge not to indulge for the sake of Jesus and his kingdom. 😆 I’m so competitive.

What are you giving up for Lent? I’m giving up sweets. There was a time I thought giving up sweets was so cliché. But you know what? So are my sins, and my concupiscence doesn’t vary all that much. Giving up sweets is hard. Not becoming Cookie Monster the moment Saturday anticipation hits during Lent is also hard.

I’m also going to be putting my phone out of reach for most of the day, way up on top of a bookcase where I’ll need a stool to reach it. I don’t want to be the mother who is always clutching her preciousssssss. I’ve got three precious children to hold instead, and these years are passing so quickly while I divide my attention between them and “oh! That’s a great organizational idea!” and “I should try that in my studio!” It will be much better for all of us if my attention is not divided from the task or child at hand. Christ, after all, is found in the present, and when one’s attention is divided, one is not truly present anywhere.

And that’s it. I have nothing else I plan to do, except fill up my free time with spiritual reading, something I’ve also let fall by the wayside. I’ll be reading Caryll Houselander’s The Reed of God. I also plan to re-read A Mother’s Rule of Life. Do you have any books you plan to read for Lent? Let me know in the comments, or on my Facebook page! 😊

How to become a saint – how my perspective has changed

I’ve always been captivated by the stories of the Saints. My earliest memory is one of fascination and some horror as I flipped through an old illustrated book of Saints for kids, observing the wide spectrum of gruesome ends depicted and fixating on the beautiful dresses that adorned the queen Saints (my favourite pictures in Andrew Lang’s fairy tale collections were likewise those of elegant princesses). From there, I grew to a crude awe of Saints like Padre Pio and Joseph of Cupertino, whose lives were a series of unfathomable miraculous events. I kind of wanted to be miracle-working Saint Superhero. Ultimately, I wanted to feel special and be special. I was charmingly naive to the real toll of bearing the stigmata or the humiliation of levitating in view of others. It was an awkward, immature stage of spirituality, much in line with the awkwardness and immaturity of those early teenage years.

Then I watched The Mission and fell hard in love with the Jesuits, St Ignatius, and the idea of doing great things for God. St Maximilian Kolbe was a great hero of mine as well. I wanted to bring the love of Jesus all around the world, fight like the bravest of spiritual soldiers, and perhaps die a martyr’s death. Ad maiorem Dei gloriam! I was ambitious for the higher things, right? Or so I thought.

My voracious appetite for spiritual reading led me to discover the Church’s supreme estimation of the interior life. I had a new aspiration: to become a contemplative, preferably a cloistered one, a Trappist or something if I were really heroic. I’d read little pamphlets about the slightly insufferable Thérèse of Lisieux, pamphlets that made me feel guilty if I didn’t replace the toilet paper roll if I finished the last one (dang it, conscience! Ignorance is bliss!), and I figured I’d better buckle down and learn to appreciate her. I couldn’t really get through the autobiography. It was far too simple for my sophisticated soul. Thérese got put on the back burner while I fell in love with God through St Augustine, some guy who had beat me to my trick of writing letters to God, and some eighteen centuries earlier, at that!

Eventually, as an undergrad, I encountered von Balthasar’s Two Sisters in the Spirit. What a gift that book was to my all-too sophisticated soul! It was essentially an intellectual translating Thérèse’s simple spirituality into a language a mind hampered by excessive sophistication could understand. This opened my soul to a whole new world of simplicity and humility, and I dove deep.

But I still wanted to be a great Saint. I wanted to do something for God. I wanted to be something for God. I wanted to change the world! Looking back, I am alternately embarrassed and charmed. I am a little ashamed of my blind pride, but I am also charmed by an enthusiasm that I see in my young son: that drive to be the superlative human being in all endeavours. It’s an adorable, trusting, childlike but yet immature stage of faith: instead of “when I grow up, I’m going to be the strongest and the fastest!” it was “one day I’ll be the holiest! I will be the poorest in spirit! the purest in heart! I will do great things for God!”

And, you know, Josemaria Escriva urged people to set as their goal to become great saints. However, there’s striving to become a great saint and there’s striving to become a great saint. One busies itself with becoming great, and the other becomes a beggar.

In recent years, I have not had as much time to devour holy books. I also have three children, so I can no longer spend long hours in prayer. I don’t really even have much time to build an interior life. My life is no longer conducive to my making myself a saint —thanks be to God!

I am a beggar. I am busy just trying to survive on the streets of my life. In between ensuring three small children are properly dressed to venture out into the increasingly cold weather and cleaning up the mess of food fallen under high chairs that children in impoverished countries would happily devour but sadly meets the compost bucket instead, I say, “help me, Jesus” and “I love you, Jesus” and “help me to love you more, Jesus” and, most beautiful of all, “thank you so, so much for your love for me, Jesus!” In five years of marriage that has included twins, stillbirth, unemployment, mental illness, and a perpetually messy home, I have grown in touch with my utter weakness and helplessness, but I have also discovered the greatest joy of knowing that Jesus loves me. Jesus is crazy about me. And what’s more, Jesus is the most incredibly, profoundly, heartbreakingly, terrifyingly beautiful thing I’ve ever caught glimpse of, and I could just sit in awe of his majesty, the burning, blazing furnace of his love.

I am not a great saint. I am not sure I ever will be one, but honestly, I don’t much care anymore. If it pleases Jesus to use me in some way that I am one day upheld as a model to the Church, so be it, although the thought amuses me seeing as I can barely offer up chocolate for a day for some intention at present, nor do I have any discipline of daily prayers. If it pleases Jesus to let me remain a simple soul who struggles daily to overcome her weaknesses and give him glory, who lives in relative obscurity for the rest of her life, that is fine. I only ask that I might share Him in some way with others, that I might make Him known and loved. How I will do that, I can’t determine: circumstances determine that. On the other hand, how I will do that is quite simple: I will bask in his love, and he will in turn allow that love to leak out of me as I go about my daily business.

My interior life is this: on Sunday, I go to Mass and receive the Sacred Host. Jesus takes up residence in the tabernacle of my heart, and I essentially ask him to make a monstrance of my eyes. And that’s it. I go about my daily life. I try to live a good life, but I’m currently in a season of healing. I am praying that He might lead me one day to a season of more active spirituality, one in which I can take on penances out of love for him, but for now I need to know His love for me, and I need to glory in it, and I need to adore Him, and He’ll do the rest. And I do know this: I know that He will lead me to heaven so long as I keep going to Mass on Sundays and avoiding mortal sin, so ultimately, whether I’m a great Saint or not, He has promised to transform me into a saint.

I love you, Jesus.