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!

The Saint as One Who Finds His Worth in God

I don’t have much to say, and what I have to say has been said before: one defining aspect of the saints is that they find their self-worth completely in God.

My husband and I watched a movie tonight that had been recommended to us, Murder Mystery on Netflix. It was mostly “meh” by my critique and I can’t say I could recommend it, but it was mildly entertaining and led to a Life Reflection: namely, the above. The first scene sets up a cop character who is lying to his wife about being a detective because he wants to impress her. His self-worth lies in impressing her. Many other characters invest their self-worth in wealth.

I have met people who have placed their sense of self-worth in intellect, in refined judgement and discerning taste, in their possessions, in their abilities–in short, in their own identities.

It is very important in our day to build our own identities and sense of self-worth. It’s not a new idea by any means: I recall Petrarch excitedly seizing upon the idea back when the Middle Ages was melting into the Renaissance, and surely this is what motivated the Pharaohs to be buried in the manner they were, but today Everyman is being encouraged to be the author of his own happiness. “Our only limitations are those we set up in our minds,” I recently read, a quotation attributed to Napoleon Hill. By pseudo-Jedi power, we can will our desired future into being, and that is essentially the highest level of being.

Catholics do not believe this. We believe our self-worth rests in God alone as His adopted children. We don’t even find our self-worth in how good or holy we are. At the end of the day, we have absolutely nothing to do with our self-worth at all, and have absolutely no control over it: there is nothing we can do to make ourselves any more or less valuable.

This is good news! For some crazy reason, God has evaluated us as being so precious that He gave His Son as ransom for us. We couldn’t aspire to be more valuable than that, could we? It is also good news because it means that no matter how much evil we may have committed, we are still infinitely valuable in the eyes of God. Our self-worth lies in Him alone.

However, even though we know and believe this as Catholics, we don’t always live it out, thanks to sin and fallen nature. We are distracted by the world and begin to judge ourselves and others on the basis of various merits: beauty, wealth, intelligence, health, abilities…. I believe many of us are constantly judging according to erroneous criteria, and therein lies our sorrow. How can we be happy if we have always to be grasping to hold forever that which we invest our self-worth in?

“Being good” is one of the erroneous traps I often find myself falling into. It’s not a bad one in itself–none of the traps really are–but I often get down on myself for not being a good mother, a good housekeeper, a good teacher. I see how I could be much better and grieve that I am not. Again, this is not in itself bad, or it wouldn’t be, if I then turned it over to my Father. Without Him, I begin to believe the lie that my self-worth is dependent on how good a mother I am, etc. God does not think like man, though: He desires that we be good, certainly, and it pleases Him very much when we succeed, but it is our love and our trust He wants. He wants us to live in Him, for that is our true purpose in life.

Although it can be useful to be motivated by worldly prods to become our best selves, the great saints are those who have ultimately forgotten those worldly influences and who place all their sense of self-worth in God. Whether they are spoken well of or ill, it matters not to them. Whether they succeed or fail, it matters not. They live for God. Their identity lies in Him, and thus so also their happiness.

What to do after a bad Confession

Like all other Catholics who have been practising their Faith for years, I’ve been to Confession countless times. We all know that God gives different gifts to different people, even among those whom He calls to serve as priests. Usually the most we have to complain about is a “boring,” cookie-cutter penance of three Hail Marys (if you think that’s boring, just consider how tedious your sins are!). But, occasionally, we experience a Confession that is not simply uninspiring, but a truly bad experience. I had one such experience recently, and I will share how I dealt with it.

Over the weekend, I was blessed to participate in a retreat. The direction was good, the food was wonderful, and I slept like I haven’t slept in years. Indeed, I must confess I slept through most of the silent meditation sessions, so exhausted had I arrived. It was truly a gift in all respects. Of course, there was opportunity for Confession offered by a number of priests anticipating a large number of penitent retreatants, so I went. Let’s call him Fr Well-Intentioned, for I do believe he is a well-intentioned man, and he is very kind—dare I say, too kind? During the course of the Confession, Fr Well-Intentioned gave me the advice that I “shouldn’t bother” trying to set time aside to pray since I am a busy mother, and that instead I should find God in “the smiles of children and flowers.” Setting aside all amusement I took in his idyllic vision of motherhood full of meadowy frolics and grateful, angelic children, I became quite alarmed at this counsel, which raised a big red flag in my conscience, as well as a great fear.

In many ways, I’m a fair-weather friend to Our Lord. I have struggled for years with the discipline of prayer, and the recognition of this was part of what made me desire religious life before the Lord opened a different door to me. Recently I’ve begun setting aside time—maybe ten or fifteen minutes while the children watch Paw Patrol—and I have seen the fruits of it. The prayer time is always subject to interruption and incompletion, but my intention is to try, just try to offer a little of the day in a more intimate way to my Beloved. So, when Fr Well-Intentioned advised me to sacrifice this prayer time in the interests of my “busy-ness” I knew he was wrong, but I also knew that me, being weak, might easily take this advice from a voice of authority and use it as an excuse to neglect my attempts to build my spiritual life once again. Hadn’t I already tried his advice and found it wanting? Truly, the danger lay in his authority as a priest, combined with my present weakness.

Now, if that were all, I might have simply took the matter to prayer and worked through it on my own. However, Fr Well-Intentioned, bless him, assigned me a well-intentioned but impossible penance: he offered me a line I vaguely remembered from Scripture about how precious I am to God, and told me to reflect on it “until it sank in deep.” I was already confused and distracted by the bad counsel I’d received and didn’t think to ask for a more refined description of my penance, but as I was walking away and feeling confusion and frustration and even anger, the weight of the vague penance fell upon me: open-ended and ambiguous, I would never be able to walk away from the penance feeling confident I’d fulfilled it. It’s likely I’ve been assigned such similar penances before, but there was a time when, not having children, I could sit in prayer until I detected God’s movements in my heart that I’d done what I could. I do not have this luxury anymore. To assign an open-ended penance to a mother is to torment her. I’d say it’s a bad move on the part of the confessor regardless, but I can now say from experience that it is a torment to an exhausted, weary mother who can only clutch at the occasional prayer time and has no mental energy left for frolicking in vast meadows of prayer. Motherhood has made me wonderfully efficient in my spiritual life and has done much to detach me from my formerly highly emotionally-based spiritual life. Whether I feel God’s love for me or not does not matter so much anymore so much as I know that I am honouring Him. Not to say that I don’t prefer times of consolation, but when desolation strikes, I have no time to sit around and beg God to return to me: life keeps on going, and I wait for Him, striving to be patient and faithful in the apparent darkness.

So, what did I do? My first instinct was to go to another priest hearing confessions, a priest I know and trust, but his line was long and moving slowly and I was not sure I should take up his time when I had already been to Confession. So I called my Dad. 🙂 I’m incredibly fortunate to have a father who has been a true spiritual guide and teacher in my life and who knows Catholic doctrine thoroughly. Dad’s advice confirmed my instincts: this had been a bad Confession, and that I should talk to another priest. Dad went further to say that what I could do is try to fulfil my penance as best I could for about five minutes and then, at my next Confession, preferably within a week, tell the priest exactly what had happened and how I had done my best to fulfill the penance given me. This was reassuring. My dad is certainly not a priest, but as a trusted spiritual authority throughout my life, this set me at ease.

As it happened, I ended up waiting in line to consult with the trusted priest. After all, getting to Confession when I’m at home with my family is challenging and I could not commit to getting to a priest within the next week or two with any confidence. On the retreat I had TIME. So I prayed my rosary and waited my turn. I am so glad I did.

The second priest heard my tale (marvellous, considering the effusive tears that wouldn’t stop streaming), gently gave his sacerdotal authority to my desire to set time aside for prayer insofar as my family duties would allow, and invited me to give a mini re-do confession for which he promised he would offer me a very concrete penance with a start and a finish. And so it happened. I walked away with the taste of freedom in my mouth that comes when you know you have been forgiven and when you have been given the incredible gift of a tiny but (so to speak) tangible way in which you can make repair for your offences, a co-participation in your own redemption.

The take-away, in brief: if you experience a bad Confession, go to a priest you know and trust and ask him to help you.

A Mother’s Prayer by Julienne du Rosaire

Mother Julienne du Rosaire was not a biological mother but a Dominican nun, and thus, I suspect, the mother of many saints, especially considering the following prayer that she composed.

As the mother of small children, I rarely have enough mental and spiritual energy to read it all the way through, but a paragraph taken here or there helps refocus whatever energy I have.

Jesus, I give you my heart so that you may replace it with your heart and so that I may thus love God our Father as you do, love my brothers [and sisters] as you do.

May it be no longer I who live, but rather you; I who pray, I who adore, but rather you; may it be no longer I who work, but rather you; I who suffer, but rather you. May it be no longer I who love, but rather you.

May your gaze transform my eyes so that I may look upon all people as you would, with kindness and benevolence.

May your light full my mind and may it radiate through me and enlighten those whom I meet.

May your love set my heart ablaze and move through my words and gestures, filling all with your meekness, your goodness, your humility, your tenderness.

May my life be an incessant prayer of praise of adoration and if love to God, our Father, through a sincere “yes” to his will at at every moment.

Taken from a prayer card published by Les Dominicaines Missionnaires Adoratrices.

Mary and the Innocents

“In my struggles with these questions, I found it surprising and somewhat reassuring to discover how many theologians believe Mary had it tougher than the rest of us, because her sinless nature made living in our sinful world especially painful. Like Jesus, Mary probably approached the world with acute sensitivity, alert to both the tiniest whispers of God’s voice and the slightest suffering in the lives of others. The casual cruelties and everyday injustices we inflict without thinking probably disturbed Mary more than they would someone with a calloused, sin-hardened soul. And the torture and Crucifixion of her innocent son must have ripped her heart in two. Luke alludes to Mary’s sorrow in his story of Jesus’s presentation at the temple, where the prophet Simeon holds the infant Jesus aloft and warns Mary that her son is destined “to be a sign that will be opposed … and a sword will pierce your own heart too” (Luke 2:34–35).” (from “My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir” by Colleen Carroll Campbell)

Today we commemorated possibly the most horrendous feast of the Church, at least from a natural point of view: the Slaughter of the Innocents. As a child the story horrified me, and now as a mother I’m possibly even more horrified. If you’ve never wrestled with the question of why God permits evil, then you’ve never spent much time reflecting on this story (cf. Matthew 2:16-18). It’s like a demonic parody of the celebrations befitting a royal birth: the King of the world is born and the local powers that be mark it by a massacre of babies – and not even just the newborn babies, but all boys up to the age of two. The mere thought is enough to make me feel physically ill.

One of my favourite passages from Colleen Carroll Campbell’s excellent book is the quotation given above, which affirms something I’ve come to understand better as I’ve grown in my faith and devotion: namely, that the closer one is to God, the more sensitive one becomes to evil, and it naturally follows that Our Lady, preserved from sin since her very conception, would have been highly sensitive to even the slightest offences that she both witnessed and endured.

It seems to me quite possible Mary learned of Herod’s response to her Son’s birth. If the news did not follow the Holy Family to Egypt, would she not have learnt of it upon her return to Galilee? And what would have been her reaction? What went through Mary’s mind and heart? Her empathy and love was beyond that of most people; if she learnt of it soon after the deed, she was newly postpartum and experiencing the extraordinarily acute feelings that hormones tend to foster; moreover, she held in her arms just such a one: an innocent, feeble, utterly vulnerable and fragile baby, making the horror of child-slaughter all the more vivid. Simeon had warned her that a sword would pierce her heart – surely this was a sword, whatever other swords might follow. Did the thought flit across her mind, as only great compassion could entertain, an almost-wish that her Child might have been sacrificed in the place of the babies killed for His sake, that they and their mothers and families might have been spared? Did she remember this inclination at the foot of the Cross, some thirty-three years later?

This is all speculation. Scripture does not mention that Mary knew of the slaughter, only that Joseph was told that Herod wanted to kill Jesus and that they had to travel as far as Egypt to escape. I sometimes think, however, that the Lord may have prepared Mary’s heart over the years to offer her Son’s Sacrifice in full communion with Him, something we try to do ourselves, especially when we participate in the Mass. Any mother knows that Christ’s Sacrifice was as much His mother’s insofar as her suffering would surely have been as great as His had He not been God taking on the sins of the world, for what brings greater pain than to watch someone we love with all our heart suffering? There are, I gather, many wonderful reflections out there on Mary’s participation in Calvary, but I haven’t read them yet myself. I base my suppositions on my experience as a mother, and on my having experienced divine preparation for great suffering in my life.

In any case, let us remember the innocent and seemingly insignificant souls whose sacrifice history would have forgotten, save for Matthew’s testimony. And let us consider with how much love and patience and trust in God Our Lady would have endured this horror, just as she endured the Crucifixion of her baby boy, no less innocent than the day He was born.