I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again

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seeyouagain

Without context, this sounds unremarkable: I’ve dreamt every night this week.  I’m sure millions of people dream every night. But because I can count on one hand the number of dreams I’ve had in the past few years, this week of dreams is unusual. Dreams are strange. No one really knows why we dream or what, if anything, they mean. Dreams may provide some insight into how we think and what’s on our heart, but most of the time dreams don’t tell us much of anything. But every so often, a dream is a real blessing.

I’ve had a week of blessings. Friends who have been separated from me- through distance, disagreements, or death- have visited me in my dreams this week. The dreams follow a similar script: I walk into a room and see an old familiar face. We look at each other for a moment before erupting into laughter as we embrace. We excitedly share everything that’s happened in our life as though we would burst if we kept these things in any longer. The exhilaration and the urgency to share everything that has happened in our lives reminded me of how C.S. Lewis described heaven in The Problem of Pain:

Heaven is a city, and a Body, because the blessed remain eternally different: a society, because each has something to tell the others- fresh and ever fresh news of the ‘My God’ whom each finds in Him whom all praise as ‘Our God.’ For doubtless the continually successful, yet never complete, attempt by each soul to communicate its unique vision to all others (and that by means whereof art and philosophy are but clumsy imitations) is also among the ends for which the individual was created.

Now, if these reunions had taken place in heaven, I’m sure we would have focused on more lofty things than what we discussed in my dreams. But, I believe the emotions felt in the reunion are glimpses of what will be experienced in heaven. C.S. Lewis conjectured that each soul in heaven will express one aspect of God better than any other, providing something new and unique to heaven. The eternal revelation and discovery of God will be so thrilling we won’t be able to keep it to ourselves. Heaven will be a continual sharing of our experience of God with others.

We can’t fathom what constant, perfect union with God and others for all eternity will be like, since it doesn’t exist here. Not only will our love be more intense and pure than it ever could be here, but there will be no pain associated with love. There will be no sting of rejection, no more tears of parting, no more harsh words, no more misunderstandings, no more awkwardness, no more unrequited affection, no more risk. Authentic love is intertwined with pain because it requires sacrifice. Besides that, even in the closest relationships, whether we intend to or not, hurting one another is inevitable. We are imperfect people who love imperfectly, and imperfect love hurts:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken… The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

– C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

Because love cannot be forced but only given freely, there is no guarantee the person you love will respond with the same intensity or in the way you would hope. Even the best relationships are subject to the “secret from which one never quite recovers”:

“Even in the most perfect love one person loves less profoundly than the other. There may be two equally good, equally gifted, equally beautiful, but there may never be two that love one another equally well.” –The Bridge of San Luis Rey

This imperfection in relationships is painful. Because we are created in the image of God, we remind each other of God, whether we are conscious of this or not. But, because none of us are God, trying to put someone in God’s place leads to dissatisfaction and loneliness in our relationships. Flannery O’Connor expressed this frustration in her prayer journal, “I do not want to be lonely all my life but people only make us lonelier by reminding us of God.”

St. Therese said she “found only bitterness” in her friendships here on earth. She considered that to be a blessing because it prevented her from putting another person in God’s place. Through the pain of being misunderstood she came to realize that only God could understand her and meet her desires.

My sensitive and loving heart would have easily given itself away if it had found another heart capable of understanding it. How I thank Jesus for making me find only ‘bitterness in the friendships of this world’ … How can a heart that is given over to the affection of created beings be intimately united with God?

In heaven, our relationships with God and each other will be perfectly ordered. We will love each other more intensely, but in a way that only serves to deepen our love of God. There will be no more loneliness in relationships, since our loneliness on earth is due to our separation from the One we were created for. Since we will be in constant union with God in heaven, loneliness will be impossible.

Every person I saw in my dreams this week is someone who I have no hope of seeing again in this life. It seems to me that most friendships are meant to last for only a season in life, and a lifelong friendship is a rare blessing. The joy I felt in the dreams is only a taste of the joyful heavenly reunion. Not only will we meet again, but in heaven, we will have all eternity to repair and perfect our relationships. To be reunited with and to be reconciled with those who have left me in bitterness helps dull the sting of separation. It’s comforting to know that no matter how badly we may have failed in a relationship, it has a chance to be redeemed. All our shortcomings in relationship, all the hurts we’ve caused others, will one day be rectified, if not in this life then in the next. “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5)

Sometimes I’m overwhelmed with gratitude when I think about all the things people have done for me throughout my life – things that I didn’t deserve and can’t ever repay done by people who I never had a chance to properly thank. I’m sure there are many others who have done things for me, such as prayers and sacrifices, that I won’t know about until heaven. St. Therese expressed similar feelings in her autobiography, and drew comfort in the hope that all things will be made new in heaven:

I was like an idiot… no one ever caused you as much trouble as I, and no one ever received as much love as you bestowed on me. Happily, I shall have heaven to avenge myself, for my Spouse is very rich and I shall draw from His treasure of love to repay you a hundredfold for all you suffered on my account.

Writing about this is difficult because I fear when I talk about heaven like this that it can be interpreted as a kind of fatalism: The world is broken, and this isn’t my true home anyway, so improving it is a waste of time. Friends come and go, so why bother having any now when I can make as my heart desires in heaven? Why bother trying to repair damaged relationships if they’ll be repaired effortlessly in heaven?

I am not saying that friendship on earth is unimportant, or that holiness means friendlessness, or that we shouldn’t work hard to repair, maintain, and deepen our relationships with others. One reason the dreams I had were such a blessing was because it reminded me of the hope I have that relationships that are irreparable in this life can be repaired in the next. I believe that friendship is one of God’s greatest gifts and one of the best ways He makes His love for us tangible. The friendships we make here on earth will affect how we experience heaven. The deeper our relationships with people here on earth, the more people we impact, the sweeter heaven will be.

And though they are all joined in the bond of charity, they know a special kind of sharing with those whom they loved most closely with a special love in the world, a love through which they grew in grace and virtue…So now in everlasting life they have not lost that love; no, they still love and share with each other even more closely and fully, adding their love to the good of all

(Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena)

This life is just brief stop along the way to our eternal home. We should do what we can to improve life here and to be a friend to others, keeping in mind that our purpose is to reach eternal union with God and help others reach that union too. The fundamental purpose of our relationships on earth is to deepen our most important relationship: with God.

There are so many people I’ve met in this life I wish I could have a closer relationship with, but can’t for one reason or another. We may find ourselves in different places and have to focus on those obligations immediately around us. There’s only so much time, energy, and resources we’ve been given, and sadly some relationships fall to the wayside because of that. It’s comforting to know that we will have eternity to perfect the relationships we’ve started on earth: from those we were closest to, to those we were only acquainted with.

Truly it is a blessed thing to love on earth as we hope to love in Heaven, and to begin that friendship here which is to endure forever there.

-St. Francis de Sales

Several years ago, I was waiting with one of my dear friends at the airport, who was about to leave to start a new life overseas. As we embraced to say goodbye, knowing that we were going in different directions and would have limited contact with each other,  she simply said, “I’m glad there’s heaven…”

Me too.

What God’s Voice Sounds Like, Part IV

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(Part I)
(Part II)
(Part III)

While I can’t know for certain why things happened the way they did before, during, and after the monastery, I have some thoughts about what God wanted me to learn from that experience. Even though it was agonizing, I consider it to be a tremendous blessing from God.

Leaving everything behind to enter the monastery felt like an Abrahamic sacrifice. I wouldn’t be able to see or even hear from anyone I knew again in this lifetime, besides immediate family. The separation felt analogous to death. It was comforting to know that I could continue to help my friends and family by praying and sacrificing for them in the monastery, but it didn’t make it any easier to leave them. I embraced this sacrifice because, as Mother Teresa said, “love is proved by deeds. The more they cost us, the greater the proof of our love.” I was glad to have the opportunity to give the best things in my life to God, because the more difficult the sacrifice, the greater the proof of my love for Him.

But, just as God was only asking Abraham to prove his love For Him and not to sacrifice Isaac, I believe God was asking me to place everything in His arms as a test of my love for Him. For reasons I don’t know, God chose to give it all back to me. I’m not entirely comfortable saying that entering the monastery was an Abrahamic sacrifice. I know there are huge differences between what Abraham did and I did. But, I think it’s the best way to explain how I felt throughout this experience. The idea of God calling me to the monastery as a test of my love for Him and not for a life-long religious vocation is the only way I can reconcile my belief that of the strong call I heard leading me to Carmel was the same one that just as strongly drove me away from the monastery. I know this isn’t the way God usually works in a person’s life. But, this experience does fit with what I know of God. God doesn’t ask us to make sacrifices for the sake of making sacrifices, but so we can grow closer to Him. As Pope Francis has said, “God doesn’t take anything away from us but will give us more.” Whenever God asks us to give up something, it’s either because He has something better to give us or because He wants us to go to Him to find the very thing we’ve given up. Francis Thompson expresses this beautifully in The Hound of Heaven when God says, “All which I took from thee I did but take, not for thy harms, but just that thou might’st seek it in My arms. All which thy child’s mistake fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home. Rise, clasp My hand, and come!”

I chose the Carmelites because they’re one of the strictest religious orders. After trying and failing to live that lifestyle, I realized that just because a sacrifice is difficult doesn’t mean that God is calling me to make it. God doesn’t want to take away every single good thing from us. But, sometimes He asks us to give up the things we love because He wants us to seek fulfillment of our desires in Him and not anywhere else. He wants us to love the Giver and not the gifts. Because all our desires are ultimately a desire for God, they will lead us to God if they are properly pursued. (Ps. 37:4). The desire to grow closer to God and pray and sacrifice for others led me to Carmel. While at Carmel, I quickly realized that, even though being a Carmelite may be one of the best ways to live a life of prayer and sacrifice, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the best way for me to live my life. While in the monastery I came across a passage in The Imitation of Mary that seemed to jump off the page at me, “The greatest of all perfections is to love one’s own state and to carry out its obligations, however ordinary they may be, when this state is in conformity to the order established by Divine Providence… The best state for you is not the one you think perfect but the one in which God has placed you.” My desire to give my life and everything dear to me to God and live a life of prayer and penance does not necessarily mean that I’m meant to be a Carmelite. Those desires just mean that I love God. I came to a better understanding that we are all called to give our lives over to God and live a life of prayer and penance in whatever state we find ourselves. That is the way to truly please God and live the best life we can. St. Therese of Lisieux longed to be a priest, missionary, and martyr. Though she knew there was no practical way for her to be any of those three, she trusted that God would find a way to satisfy her wishes:

 Nevertheless even because of my weakness, it has pleased You, O Lord, to grant my little childish desires and You desire, today, to grant other desires that are greater than the universe…. I read… that all cannot be apostles, prophets, doctors, etc., that the Church is composed of different members, and that the eye cannot be the hand at one and the same time. The answer was clear, but it did not fulfill my desires and gave me no peace… Without becoming discouraged, I continued my reading, and this sentence consoled me: “Yet strive after the better gifts, and I point out to you a yet more excellent way.”… I finally had rest. Considering the mystical body of the Church, I had not recognized myself in any of the members described by St. Paul, or rather I desired to see myself in them all. Charity gave me the key to my vocation. I understood that if the Church had a body composed of different members, the most necessary and most noble of all could not be lacking to it, and so I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was burning with love. I understood it was Love alone that made the Church’s members act, that if Love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the Gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood. I understood that Love comprised all vocations, that Love was everything, that it embraced all times and places…in a word, that it was eternal! Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my Love, my vocation, at last I have found it … my vocation is Love! Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is You, O my God, who have given me this place; in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I SHALL BE LOVE.

 

I started this blog series by saying that reading certain books about saints can be dangerous for me. Whenever I read those books, I’m filled with admiration for those holy women and aspire to be a saint like them. I want to be a Mother Teresa, a St. Therese of Lisieux, or a St. Faustina. But no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be them. I’m not called to do what they did. God gave them different graces than He has given me, but that doesn’t mean the work I am called to do is unimportant. John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote a beautiful prayer about this: “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.”

No one can do any good thing on their own. God decides how to work through His people. It’s up to us to respond to His gifts and use them well. Mother Teresa often described herself as a “pencil in God’s hand.” I can’t compare myself those women because they had a unique calling, just as I do. As a great woman once said, “What I do you cannot do; but what you do, I cannot do. The needs are great, and none of us, including me, ever do great things. But we can all do small things, with great love, and together we can do something beautiful for God.” -Mother Teresa

Of the many things to admire about Mother Teresa, I especially admire how she radiated God’s love in everything she did. Even though sometimes I fail miserably in reflecting God to others, it’s what I strive to do every day. I can’t think of anything better to do for someone than to show them the love of God and point them to Him. Along with the desire to live a life of deeper prayer and sacrifice, the desire to be a more effective witness to Christ drew me to the religious life. Nuns can have a profound impact on people just by virtue of their appearance. I’ve seen groups of people fall silent, cross themselves, hide their beers (not that they needed to do that!), and even shed tears when they find themselves in the presence of a nun. A nun’s habit is a universal sign to the world that everyone was made for another world. Sometimes people respond to that sign in dramatic ways. Sr. Cristina’s performance on The Voice is a powerful example of the effect a nun’s appearance can have on people. If you haven’t yet seen it, it’s well worth watching. (H/T: Though a Glass Brightly)

 

Sr. Cristina only gets a few notes out before the crowd rises to its feet, cheering loudly. While her voice is good, they are clearly reacting to something other than her voice, as she has barely started singing when they start cheering. Their cant of “Sorella! Sorella!” (“sister” in Italian) after her song confirms this. The judges’ reactions are incredible. Each one of them has a look of wide-eyed wonder after they turn around to see a singing nun. Two of them fold their hands and start murmuring to themselves- has seeing a nun made them want to pray? The most remarkable reaction is the rapper J-Ax’s.

jax

The wave of emotions he experiences is incredible to watch. At first, he talks wildly, apparently in disbelief. After convincing himself that he really is seeing a nun sing, he starts to giggle. Finally, he’s brought to tears and puts his head in his hands. And says ““If I had met you during the Mass when I was a child, now I would be Pope. I would surely have attended all of the functions.” This is an amazing statement. He’s so struck by her witness, her joy, her zeal, that would have inspired him so much that he would have lived a life totally devoted to God. Her response: “Well, you have met me now.” He tells Sr. Cristina that she is the “holy water to his devil.” Sr. Cristina planted a seed partly because she wore her habit, reminding the audience of God. This reminder may have changed the course of J-Ax’s life.

While nuns (and other religious) are called to be set apart and witness to the world in a special way, I am encouraged in knowing that no matter what my state in life, I am still called to be a witness to others: “ Each individual layman must stand before the world as a witness to the resurrection and life of the Lord Jesus and a symbol of the living God… each one according to his ability must nourish the world with spiritual fruits.” (Lumen Gentium, 38)

I long to be a contemplative, to get away from the noise of the world, and go to a quiet place where I can talk to Jesus without distractions. While Jesus is more difficult to find out in the world than in the monastery, He is still there. He is present in every person. This is why Mother Teresa said, “We are not social workers. We are contemplatives in the heart of world. We are twenty-four hours a day with Jesus.” Mother Teresa knew that every encounter with the poor was an encounter with Jesus. I can also find Jesus in the people I come in contact with every day. In that way, I can live as a contemplative in the world.

Something else I learned from my time in the monastery is the importance of peace. I believe that peace is the best way to know whether I am following God’s will. Jesus promised peace several times to his disciples (Jn. 14:27, 16:33, 20:21) As long as I have peace, I take that to be a sign that God is pleased with me and wants me to stay where I am at. If that peace should leave, that means God is telling me to change something in my life, and I will discern where God is leading me. With God’s peace, any suffering He sends can be endured. Without peace, even minor irritations can be unbearable.

Externally, living in the monastery shouldn’t have been difficult for me. I’ve been on week-long retreats, silent retreats, and had stayed at monasteries and convents before entering Carmel. All those visits were times of refreshment and spiritual growth. Near the end of every retreat and visit to a monastery, I found myself not wanting to leave. On the surface, the life I lived in the monastery wasn’t much different from that. And yet, living there was so unbearable I had to fight the urge to run away. I believe that God let me know I wasn’t called to monastic life by taking my peace away so immediately and completely. Because the darkness was so deep, I had no doubt that I had to leave the monastery. This was a blessing, because I can say at the end of my life that I followed God’s Will exactly as I understood it.

While I’m still open to the possibility of a late vocation, I think it’s unlikely. During the years leading up to entering Carmel, I received hundreds of pamphlets in the mail from religious orders, and visited several monasteries and convents. Because I haven’t felt called to continue searching since leaving Carmel, I believe I have thoroughly discerned my vocation to religious life. If I hadn’t entered a monastery, I may have lived my whole life with nagging thoughts, “I wonder how different my life would have been had I gone to Carmel. Would I have been happier? What if I missed my vocation? Did I say ‘no’ to God?” Now that I’ve ruled out religious life, I can focus on what God is really calling me to do, whatever that may be.

Often I find myself longing for monastic life, but I recognize that as completely different from the call that led me to the Carmelites. Because the future has always appeared hazy and uncertain to me, the security of a monastic life has always appealed to me. I would know where I would be living, what I would be wearing, and what I would be doing every day for the rest of my life. Even more importantly, I would have the assurance that I was following God’s Will by obeying my superiors. I’ve longed for that stability and certainty since I can remember. I realize that my longing for the monastery now is longing for God and His peace, security, and love. Ultimately, this is a longing for heaven. I know that in whatever state of life God has called me, I’ll have some dissatisfaction. It has to be that way, otherwise I may forget that I’m not meant to stay in this world. We were all made for something far better. Our goal is to get to heaven and try to bring as many people as we can with us. Each vocation has its own unique way of doing that.

So, why did God ask me to the travel down this path? I have several ideas, and I’ve shared some of them with you in this post, but I still can’t say for certain why. I don’t think I’ll fully understand why until I reach heaven. But, God knows, and has a plan, and that’s really all that matters to me. I quoted part of John Henry Cardinal Newman’s prayer earlier in this post- I’d like to share with you the rest now. The last part is my daily prayer: “Let me be Thy blind instrument. I ask not to see- I ask not to know- I ask simply to be used.”

God has created me to do Him some definite service.
He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another.
I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.
I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.
He has not created me for naught.
I shall do good; I shall do His work.
Therefore I will trust Him.
Whatever, wherever I am,
I can never be thrown away.
If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him;
In perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him;
If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him.
My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be
necessary causes of some great end,
which is quite beyond us.
He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life,
He may shorten it;
He knows what He is about.
He may take away my friends,
He may throw me among strangers,
He may make me feel desolate,
make my spirits sink, hide the future from me,
still He knows what He is about.
Let me be Thy blind instrument.
I ask not to see
I ask not to know
I ask simply to be used.

What God’s Voice Sounds Like, Part III

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(Read Part I)
(Read Part II)

After Mother left, I sat in the room for a while. I had gone to meet her determined not to let her leave until she realized how serious my situation was. I felt like if I stayed another day at the monastery I would lose my mind. But, once again, I had no words to tell her how I was feeling. As she left, I felt like my chances of escape left with her. I didn’t know who else to turn to. I wanted to lift my thoughts up to God, but felt too weak to do that. My thoughts were too cloudy and jumbled to focus on anything. As I went about the daily routine at the monastery, I didn’t think I would ever be able to find a way out.

That afternoon, while I was back in my cell, I found myself staring at my suitcase. Running away seemed to be so simple- all I had to do was take my suitcase and start walking. As I went through my suitcase, a stack of index cards fell out. Friends and family had written down their prayer intentions on those cards. I picked them up one by one and read each intention. Some were intentions they hadn’t told anyone before- things they were trusting me to keep in the silence of the monastery. After stacking up the prayer cards, I opened up a notebook I brought with me. I had written down the name of everyone I knew so I would remember to pray for them. I read every name in the notebook before putting it back. The reason I went to the monastery was to grow closer to God and to pray for them. I believed I could do more for them by praying and sacrificing in the monastery. I felt like I was letting down all those people. I glanced at the priceless relics and beautiful rosaries people had given me. I felt like a fraud. I wasn’t the person they thought I was. I was too weak and too worldly to be a nun. The darkness that had been so intense the night before had diminished. What if this lack of energy and inability to describe the darkness is God’s way of keeping me at the monastery? What if Mother’s right, and peace is only a few days away? I resigned myself to staying another night. I didn’t feel like I had a choice anyway.

The familiar darkness came back that night with the same fierce intensity as the night before. The same feeling of panic came over me. I ran in place to calm down. I didn’t sleep much that night. Once again, I told myself that this would be my last night at the monastery. I prayed that God would give me to the words I needed to convince Mother that I had to leave. The next morning, when Mother asked me how I was, I said that I couldn’t stay another day at the monastery. I had to leave, and I had to leave now. She agreed to call my parents, but insisted that this was a temptation.

After calling my parents, she told me they would be at the monastery that afternoon. After an aspirant decides to leave the monastery, they are not allowed to have contact with any of the nuns. I stayed in my cell and waited for food brought up to me. Even though I was told my parents would be there soon, I felt just as trapped as I did the night before. A large part of me didn’t believe my parents would actually show up. This wasn’t because I didn’t trust them. Throughout this week there seemed to be powerful forces beyond my control that had kept me at the monastery long past my breaking point. I didn’t see any reason to believe that today would be any different from the past several days. I watched the hands of the clock move. Time had never moved more slowly. I couldn’t relax enough to pray, read, or think.

Mercifully, my mom arrived at the monastery as promised that afternoon. It wasn’t until I closed the car door and laid back in the car seat that I could relax. Then, I felt like an enormous weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I took a deep breath, as if I were breathing for the first time in days. Once again, I felt like I was where I should be.

It took me weeks to feel “normal” again. I remember going to the mall shortly after leaving the monastery, and being overwhelmed by the noise. It was so disorientating I had to sit down near the entrance for a while, and couldn’t walk any further in the mall. Even though I had only been at the monastery for a week, it felt like much longer. Sometimes when people ask me how long I stayed at the monastery, I’ll slip and say “a year.” To me, that’s a more accurate measure of how long I spent there.

In the last post, I said that God seemed to fall silent in the monastery. Even though that’s how it felt at the time, I believe that God was still speaking to me there. In fact, it’s because the pain I felt was so strong that I believe He was speaking more loudly and clearly to me than at any other time in my life. As C.S. Lewis says in The Problem of Pain, “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Because I had such a difficult time explaining what I was feeling to others (the descriptions I gave in Part II of what I felt, while as close I can get to describing them, still don’t really explain what I was feeling), I think that is more evidence that God was speaking to me. The Mother Prioress believed the pain I was feeling came from Satan. I knew what I was feeling was different. In my experience, God speaks to me in a voice that can’t be ignored. The voice of temptation isn’t persistent. It always fades away once I pray. Whenever I give into a temptation, it’s usually a very quick, almost unconscious decision. The longer a temptation stays in my mind, the more absurd it becomes and the less likely I am to do it.

Whenever I’ve tried to ignore God’s voice, it only gets louder until I can’t tune it out anymore. In the year leading up to entering the monastery, I kept trying to tune out that voice. I didn’t think I was suited for the monastic life. I was content with where I was. But, I kept hearing God’s call. It was clearest in the chapel when I heard Him say “go to the Carmelites.” It was a voice that surprised me so much it made me laugh out loud. It filled me with peace, joy, and zeal. It made me want to immediately leave everything behind and follow Him. In the Bible, in the lives of the saints and in the lives of people I know, this desire to leave everything behind and follow once Jesus calls is a common response.

“At once they left their nets and followed him.” (Mt. 4:20)

Though this voice took a different form in the monastery, it had some similarities. It was persistent voice that only kept getting louder the more I tried to ignore it. It was a voice that made me want to act immediately, just like the one I heard in the chapel leading me to Carmel. But, how can I believe that the voice telling me to enter the monastery right away was the same one that told me to leave almost right after I got there? That’s something I’ve been trying to reconcile for the past four years. I’ll try to work out my understanding of what God was saying in the next blog post.

What God’s Voice Sounds Like, Part II

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(Read Part I here.)

A flood of emotions overwhelmed me that first night. I hoped that in the morning, I would see things more clearly. But the next day I felt even more confused. These emotions were so unlike any I had felt before that I couldn’t describe what I was feeling to Mother. All I could really say to hear was that I wasn’t at peace. She told me I was experiencing a strong temptation, and that having difficulty adjusting to such a different lifestyle is normal. She had experienced similar feelings during her first week. She didn’t feel immediately at peace, either, but that came in time as she adjusted to monastic life. I did my best to ignore those feelings, and prayed they would disappear soon. The last thing I wanted to do is give in to a temptation and say no to God’s plan for my life. I resolved to do my best to adapt to my new way of life and learn how to live as a Carmelite.

Some adjustments were unexpected. When I sat down to lunch, I noticed I didn’t have a fork to eat the pasta. I knew that meals were eaten in silence, and that if a sister was lacking something on her table, it was the responsibility of the sister beside her to notice. I found out that I didn’t have to rely on a sister noticing for this meal- in celebration of my entrance, the silence was broken for that meal. Before I got the chance to ask for a fork, I noticed the other nuns piling their pasta on spoons. No one appeared to have a fork. Seeing my confused face, the nun next to me told me that they don’t use forks. I asked why, but she simply said she didn’t know. I admired the simplicity in her answer- it showed her willingness to be perfectly obedient. She knew that in obeying Mother Superior, she was obeying God, and that was reason enough to follow the rules. I wondered for a moment if I was being too forward with my question. But I realized that I was asking “why” not to challenge the rules, but to better understand their purpose. In time, I hoped to get to the point where I would obey without question, but for now, I wanted to learn as much as I could about this new way of life. So, I asked Mother Superior, who told me “It’s one of many small ways we set ourselves apart from the world.” I was just beginning to see how different this life was from the one I had left behind.

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Of all the sacrifices I was prepared to make, I didn’t realize how difficult it would be for me to eat what someone else chose for me on a daily basis. Because I ate much smaller portions than the other nuns did, being made to finish everything on my plate seemed physically impossible. I talked to Mother about giving me smaller portions. She agreed, and then told me told me that there’s something about potatoes that don’t agree with most Vietnamese people. The majority of the nuns there are Vietnamese, but, the monastery serves potatoes almost every day. She had no idea the Vietnamese had so much trouble with eating potatoes until years after they entered the monastery because none of the sisters complained. Once she learned about this, she asked the nuns if they had trouble eating potatoes. They simply said, “not anymore.” I was inspired to make a better effort at accepting things the way they were instead of trying to change them to make me more comfortable. After all, I came to the monastery to do penance. I wanted to accept this opportunity to sacrifice for others. But, as it turns out, while the spirit may be willing, the flesh is a whiny wimp. I discovered that my appetite varies so much on a daily basis that I had no way of knowing how much I needed to eat. Some days I would feel starved, weak, and mentally foggy. Other days I would feel stuffed and lethargic. This is not the penance I was prepared to do. I didn’t expect penance to affect my energy level, mental ability, strength, and peace.

I couldn’t verbalize how I was feeling to Mother Superior or to God. I offered my sufferings to Him during daily adoration in the chapel. Prayer solely consisted of a soft internal whimper directed at God. It brought some relief from the turmoil in my soul, but God, who seemed to have spoken so clearly to me before entering the monastery, was now silent. Outside of the chapel, I could distract myself somewhat with chores and conversation. But, during the times I was alone in my cell, the strange new emotions intensified. They were so strong and complex they manifested themselves in a variety of ways. After four years of reflection on this time in the monastery, I still can’t adequately described them. Only in the past year or so have I even been able to even attempt to say what they were like. I felt a weight hanging around my neck, bearing on my chest. Every movement took a tremendous amount of energy. It was as if I had been thrown into a pool of molasses. I felt constricted, as if everything around me was closing in on me, slowly suffocating me. I had trouble focusing my mind on anything. The darkness was so thick, everything seemed to be obscured. Nothing seemed to make sense. It felt as though the darkness would crush me. The feeling that disturbed me the most was one of abandonment. I felt totally alone, isolated from everyone I loved, even from God. I felt no consolation from God, and no peace. The intensity of the pain frighted me. I thought I knew what it was like to experience severe physical and psychological pain, but this was a new sort of pain that I had never experienced before.

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By the morning, the emotions would subside enough that I could get out of bed and join the nuns for prayer, chores, and meditation. But, whenever I had to spend time alone in my cell, the weight came back. With every new episode, the heaviness intensified. It was like being hit repeatedly in the same spot over and over again. The pain became familiar and every recurrence more painful than the last. Every day when Mother would ask me how I was doing, I could only tell her “not very well. I have no peace.” I couldn’t say anything more than that. I had no words to describe what I was feeling. Because I couldn’t say anything more than that, and because I was using every fiber in my being to be cheerful and obedient, Mother had no idea what I mean when I said “no peace.” She only grew more convinced as each day passed that it was a temptation, because it seemed by all appearances that I was adapting beautifully to the new lifestyle.

On the fifth night, the weight was so heavy that I like I had to run away or be crushed by it. I didn’t see any other escape. Every time I tried to talk to Mother about how I felt, the words just couldn’t come out. In order to fight the temptation to run away, I did jumping jacks for a while as I prayed for peace. That calmed me down enough that I felt like I could get through the night. I told myself this would be my last night in the monastery. There would be no way I could stay another night. I wrote down on a piece of paper “remember how you felt tonight” in the hopes that the memory of this night would help me communicate to Mother the seriousness of my situation.

I told Mother that I couldn’t stay another day at the monastery the first chance I had the next morning. She didn’t seem concerned at all. She told me that this feeling was common in the first month, and several sisters had experienced this feeling, but soon overcame it. She reminded me that I had been so sure that God had called me here, about all I had left behind to follow Him, about all the souls my vocation would save. Did I really want to give that up based on feelings that would go away in time? She asked me to give it at least a month. If after a month, I still felt the same, it was probably a good indication that I wasn’t called to Carmel. It was simply too early to know at this point what the lack of peace meant.

What could I say in response to this? She had seen women enter the monastery with the same concerns who were now professed nuns. They had found true peace and joy in the monastery. She had a far deeper relationship with God than I did. Who was I to argue with her if she thought it was a temptation? Try as I might, I still couldn’t even begin to describe to her what I was feeling. I felt like I was trapped in a glass room, banging on the door, praying that she could understand what sort of state I was in. She could see me, but seemed to be unwilling or unable to see my distress. As she got up to leave, I felt defeated, completely helpless and totally alone.

Nimbus Fractus

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I noticed that all the cool blogs have titles, so I thought I should come up with one too. I hope a latin name doesn’t make it sound too pretentious. I chose to keep it in latin for its double meaning, which I’ll explain below. I also wanted to incorporate the top picture into the title. It’s a picture I took of the light breaking through the clouds and shining on mountains in Greece. I love seeing rays of light shine through clouds onto the ground- it reminds me of the grace and love that God shines on the world.

Nimbus Fractus is latin for “broken rain cloud.”  Firstly, it’s a reminder that every rain cloud eventually breaks apart. Suffering, no matter how bleak, no matter how unrelenting it appears to be, is always temporary.

I also think of the sky/sunlight as a representing God and heaven. Most of the time in our lives, it is as though a dark cloud covers God’s presence and the joys of heaven. But there are times when we experience a break in the cloud- a glimpse of God’s face, a taste of Heaven’s banquet, the warmth of His love. Those experiences do a lot to sustain us during the times when the sky turns dark with rain.

As it turns out that nimbus is one of those strange contronyms (eg. “cleave”) that has two definitions with nearly the opposite meaning. Nimbus  also means “halo” or an “emanation of light”.  So, nimbus fractus can mean “shattered halo.” Our first parents were created without any blemish on their soul- they were living saints who perfectly reflected God’s love and grace. In the movie Noah, they’re fittingly depicted as shining so brightly their bodies are difficult to see clearly. Whether or not they literally glowed isn’t important- if we could see their souls, they would most definitely be shining brighter than any star.

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The Watchers in Noah fascinated me. They are angels who turned away from God by taking man’s side after The Fall. Because they helped the humans, their spirits are trapped in earth. They lost the ability to fly, and are severely limited in their movement. Walking is laborious. Rock, moss, and dirt covers their beautiful soul. It obscures their expression and voices, making it more difficult for them to communicate. I heard someone describe The Fall as like defacing a beautiful Rembrandt painting. In a defaced painting, only fragments of the former beauty are visible. I thought about this as I saw light shine through cracks in Watchers’ rock bodies.

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God’s grace and love is still present in them. Their sin hasn’t completely snuffed out the light of God. if you look closely, you can see glimpses of what they once were in their pure state. This image gave me a powerful meditation on how much sin deforms us. The Watchers’ appearance is a metaphor for our souls. We are “shattered halos.”

God redeems the Watchers in the movie. Unlike Lucifer and the fallen angels, their sin isn’t fatal. They repent, sacrifice themselves for others and for God, and are rewarded by finally shedding the chains of sin that encapsulated their spirits.

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The Watchers, freed from the earth.

I know others did, but I didn’t take this to be a gnostic interpretation- as if the body were something evil that weighed us down and had to be shed in order to be purified. After all, the Watchers were originally created as pure spirits. Their rock body was a direct result of sin, not their primal state. After they prove their love for God by heroically sacrificing themselves, God cleanses them of the sin that was weighing their spirits down. This is how it will be for us after we die. We will also finally shed sin and be glorified in the resurrection. We were created body and soul, and God has redeemed both. But in the meantime, we are like the watchers- plodding around on earth, weighed down in the muck of sin- only catching a glimpse here and there of the light of God’s love that is in each of us.

As I write this, I’m thinking of one of my favorite songs by Rich Mullins, Peace. It beautifully sums up what I’m trying to communicate with the title:

Though we’re strangers, still I love you
I love you more than your mask
And you know you have to trust this to be true
And I know that’s much to ask
But lay down your fears, come and join this feast
He has called us here, you and me

And may peace rain down from Heaven
Like little pieces of the sky
Little keepers of the promise
Falling on these souls
This drought has dried
In His Blood and in His Body
In the Bread and in this Wine
Peace to you
Peace of Christ to you

And though I love you, still we’re strangers
Prisoners in these lonely hearts
And though our blindness separates us
Still His light shines in the dark
And His outstretched arms are still strong enough to reach
Behind these prison bars to set us free

What God’s Voice Sounds Like, Part I

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Some of this draws from previous blogs posts: God, the Giver of Cookies and My Vocation Story, Pt. 1. Forgive me if I repeat myself below- I thought this background information was essential for part two of this post. 

Reading certain books can be dangerous for me, though they’re probably not the kind you would think. The ones I’m talking about have a common theme- young woman gives her whole life to God in a radical way and reaches a high level of sanctity. Every time I read one (whether it be St. Therese of Liseuix, Theresa of Avila, or Mother Teresa), I ask myself- why can’t that be me? Why can’t I also give up everything to follow God and serve others like they did?

God has given me so much, and I want to give it all back to Him. By taking the vows of poverty and chastity, I can do that. I want to be absolutely certain that I’m following God’s Will. I want to know deep down that I’m pleasing Him. If I were in a monastery I could know for certain that I am. As long as I followed the direction of my superiors, I would know that I was living the life God wants me to live. The idea that God could speak to me through my superiors and all I had to do was obey was very appealing to me. There is freedom in the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience that I find very attractive.

Besides desiring the security in knowing God’s Will, I also want to live the best life I can. I don’t want to live a life that’s just “good enough”, I want to live the best life I can live and do as much good as I can. Of all the religious orders, I’ve researched, the Carmelites seem to be to be the best way to live a life of prayer and penance for others.

During lent of 2010, I had a deeper desire to pray and sacrifice for others than I ever had in the past.  I regularly prayed and sacrificed for people before this year, I was much more devoted to it than I ever had been. This desire only intensified as lent progressed. While watching a movie about St. Therese, I was inspired by much love she showed others through prayer and sacrifices. This was exactly what I wanted to do! After watching the movie, I went straight to the chapel. Now, I know that prayer is a conversation with God, but it rarely feels that way. But this prayer felt like a true conversation with Him- just like I was talking to a friend After telling Him that I just wanted to serve and love others in the best possible way, I heard Him say “go to the Carmelites.” It’s a good thing I was the only one in the chapel, because I laughed out loud! The laughing quickly stopped when I realized He was quite serious. I was so excited I couldn’t sit still. I bolted out of the chapel wanting to run to the nearest monastery.

The next day I visited a friend. I didn’t tell her about anything that had happened the day before. When I was about to leave, she gave me a vial with oil that had touched the bones of St. Therese. She told me that she felt that God wanted me to have it. I was speechless. I told her that I would explain to her later why I was so struck, but I couldn’t at the moment. I just saw it as yet another sign that God was calling me to Carmel.

During the next few weeks there were so many reminders of Carmel around me- whether it would be hearing something on Catholic radio, or at Mass, or seeing a pamphlet- everything seemed to be pointing me to Carmel. I finally scheduled a visit at the local Carmelite monastery. As I was walking up to the monastery, I was quite nervous. I prayed that God might speak through me and that the nuns might see in me what God wanted them to see. As I waited for them in the parlor, I saw a plaque reading “Be not afraid”. It seemed to be there just for me.

After hearing Mother’s peaceful voice and seeing her warm smile, any nervousness faded away.  I spent a few hours talking to her. The more I talked to her, the more at home I felt there. Though I hadn’t planned on it then, I decided to ask her for an application. After getting home, I tried to come up with a good reason why I shouldn’t apply, and I couldn’t think of any. I felt that I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.  The more I thought about it, the more confident and excited I got about joining the monastery.

Once I decided, I felt that I couldn’t get to the monastery soon enough. Mother smiled when I told her this and said, “love is impatient.” The next week or so was my honeymoon phase. I felt a peace and joy like none I had ever experienced before. I couldn’t stop smiling, friends told me I was glowing.  I wanted to embrace the world! One of my co-workers knew something was different and asked me what it was. He said “the change I’ve noticed in you is because now you’re doing God’s will. You’ll only be truly happy by doing His will.”

I still had about a month left of the school year. I was excited about starting my new life and couldn’t wait to enter the monastery. However, I also truly loved teaching and was doing my best to savor the last few weeks I had with my students.  One of my fondest memories I will have of my time at Faustina is telling my students about the Carmelite lifestyle. I decided to use it as a teaching moment and devote an entire class period to describe the cloistered life. I could see the happiness and excitement for me in their faces. Just to look out and the classroom and to see their smiles as I told them was such a comfort. I realized that of all the things that I’ve taught them over the past three years, they all paled in comparison to this.  The most important thing I could teach them was that God is worth giving up everything for to follow. This is the only way we are truly free, truly happy, truly living.

I had never been happier than the day I entered Carmel. During Mass, I told God how happy I was to be giving my life to Him, and I only wished I had more to give. It was so little in comparison to His sacrifice for me on the cross. After Mass, I joined the Carmelites as Sister Ann Maria. One by one, I said tearful goodbyes to my family and friends from behind the grille.

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Saying one last goodbye…

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I came back and had dinner with my new family, the Carmelites. I tried my best to match their cheerfulness, but they could all see that I was emotionally drained. They did what they thought was best for me and sent me straight to my room after dinner. This was probably the worst thing they could have done for me. Alone in my cell, the joy I had earlier about giving God everything had been overshadowed with a deep sadness. I kept thinking about all the people I missed. I thought about how I would never get to hug any of them or see most of them until we were in heaven. I told myself that it would get better in time. If God had truly called me to the monastery like I believed He had, I had confidence that I would find true peace and contentment there. The thought that I could do more good for my loved ones in the monastery through my prayers and sacrifices helped console me that first night. 

To be continued…

Love Means Having to Say Sorry Quite Often

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Most days, it seems like God is silent. But other times, right when I need to hear from Him the most, it’s as thought God is speaking directly to me. I had one of those experiences this evening. I was praying before Mass, and feeling really down. I had made more than my usual share of careless mistakes and boneheaded decisions today, and was beating myself up over it. Thoughts like these kept running through my head: “How could I have done that? What was I thinking? Was I even thinking at all? ”

I knew that it was enough to repent, learn from my mistakes, and resolve to do better in the future. God had forgiven me. But I just couldn’t let it go. Then, I opened “Give Us This Day” (www.giveusthisday.org) and read this:

On the days we are not at our best, Catherine LaCugna reminds us of the reassurance we want: ‘God only and always loves.’ It is not in God’s nature to be petty, vindictive, or to have dastardly human traits we might attribute.

I felt like God was letting me know that I could let it go. He already had. He wasn’t going to hold my mistakes over my head and berate me, like I was doing to myself. God only loves. What a comforting thought!

I thought more about why I was so upset with myself. Was it because I had let God down? That’s definitely part of it. But if I were honest, a bigger part of it was because I felt embarrassed and weak. Here’s another passage that really spoke to me this evening, from “Searching for and Maintaining Peace” by Fr. Jacques Philippe (highly recommended!) “We would like to present ourselves before the Lord only when we are presentable, well-groomed, and content with ourselves. But there is a lot of presumptuousness in that attitude! In effect, we would like to bypass the need for mercy. That last part really hit me. That’s exactly why making mistakes are so difficult- I have to admit that I failed, that I’m not perfect, and I need God’s mercy. When I forget that, I’m really forgetting that I am dependent upon God for every single moment of my life.

I thought about what Jesus said after the sinful woman washed his feet with her tears, “So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” (Lk 7:47) 

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The deeper our recognition of the mercy God has shown us, the greater our love for Him. Because we have sinned against God, any sin, no matter how small, incurs an infinite debt. We have all inured this debt, and those who realize this and seek God’s forgiveness love Him more than those do not realize their need for God’s mercy. Let’s say I accidentally knock over a vase at a friend’s house. I’m apologetic and quickly offer to pay for it, but because I don’t know what a Ming Vase looks like, I don’t think much of it when my friend tells me not to worry about paying for a new vase, he will take care of it. If instead, I knew the value of the broken vase, my reaction to my friend’s forgiveness of the debt would be very different. In both cases, the offense is the same- a priceless vase in broken. What differs is my understanding of what happened. I think that’s what Jesus is saying in this passage, too. Unless we understand how serious our sins our, and how much God has forgiven us, we will only love Him a little. The more we realize that we owe God everything, the deeper our love for Him.

Fr. Philippe says that while we should always strive to avoid doing evil, it actually would be very dangerous for us to go through our lives only doing good. This is because it is nearly impossible for us to perform good actions without attributing at least a little of it to our own abilities, merits, or sanctity, instead of giving all the credit to God. Thinking that we are the source of our good actions is dangerous because nothing gets in the way of love like pride. To keep us from that, God allows us to commit lesser evils so we are reminded who we really are (sinners) and who God is.

One who accepts to be weak, small, and who fails often, who accept to be nothing in his own eyes or in the eyes of others, but who… is animated by a great confidence in God and knows that his love is infinitely more important and counts ever so much more than his own imperfections and faults, this person loves more than one who pushes the preoccupation of his own perfection to the point of anxiety.

God couldn’t have made his voice louder or clearer to me when I read this in Searching For and Maintaining Peace. This is exactly what I needed to read to understand why God wanted me to let it go. It’s a trap to think that to be truly sorry for something, we have to beat ourselves up over it. That’s not what God wants. He wants us to repent, resolve to avoid that sin in the future, and then move on. God was asking me to forgive myself, because He already had. C.S. Lewis said, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” Sometimes that means forgiving ourselves.

Do You Want to Be Healed?

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Today, I read this passage from “Give Us This Day” (www.giveusthisday.org). It really struck me, so I thought I’d share it.

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The fifth chapter of John’s Gospel recounts Jesus curing a man who had been sick for a long time. He walks into a group of people by a pool in Bethesda who are waiting for a healing, zeros in on one individual, and asks him, “Do you want to be healed?” We might imagine that the man would immediately say YES! But instead he lists the reasons why he can’t be healed. His frame of reference is confined to the healing waters at Bethesda where he has come with the hope of finding a cure.

Instead of a cure, the man has found only a bunch of people looking out for themselves who haven’t been able to help him get into the restoring water… Indeed, the sick man states, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” His thought patterns and expectations are closing him off the possibilities of a different type of healing offered by the man (by God) who stands right in front of him and asks him, “May I cure you? Will you let me?” He can’t imagine that Jesus could operate outside the possibilities known to him. Jesus shows that something beyond our wildest imaging can break open our world and change us completely.

I thought in my own life of the times where God was standing right in front of me, asking if He could help me, but like the man at Behtesda, I didn’t think to ask. When I’m faced with a difficulty, my first inclination is to try to resolve it on my own. But, just like it was impossible for the crippled man to move himself to the healing water, sometimes it’s impossible for a problem to be solved by myself. When I realize that, I’ll turn to others for help. Sometimes that’s all it takes, but other times people fail. At that point, I can get stuck. It seems like I’ve exhausted all possibilities, and I can see no way out. The crippled man had endured 38 years of rejection by others. He must have thought he was never going to be healed. He didn’t see any other way beside being carried to the healing water, and no one in those 38 years had bothered to help him. Then, after he’s all but given up, God heals him in a way that he couldn’t have imagined.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t take responsibility for our problems and seek out the help of others when needed- after all, we’re all here on earth to help each other get to heaven. But, relying too much on our own strength and understanding can leave us crippled. It’s in those times that God is before us asking, “Do you want to be healed?” Instead of telling God why He can’t heal us, all we have to do is say yes, and He will take care of the rest.

God As a Parent in the Hospital

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I feel guilty for thinking this way, but lately I’ve been thinking of God as some sort of sadist. Like we’re His playthings, made only for His amusement.

When I heard this, I paused for a long while before responding. I knew that years of pain were behind these words. He didn’t really mean what he said- this was an expression of the hurt he was feeling. He wasn’t looking for a theological debate- just someone to acknowledge and understand the pain he’s gone through. After expressing my sympathy, I clumsily offered this story.

When I was young- around 4- I wound up in the emergency room. (I think had been inspired by the song “5 Little Monkeys”- I jumped off the bed and broke my head.) Anyway, the doctors wrapped me in a papoose so I couldn’t move while they stitched me up. I remember being really confused. I saw my mom standing off to the side looking at me. I didn’t understand why she wasn’t stopping the doctors from hurting me. Through my groans, I was doing my best to let her know that I was in a lot of pain. She even seemed to be in some sort of pain herself- what was stopping her? As a child strapped to the hospital bed, I thought the most loving thing for my mom to do in that situation was to rescue me. But if she had said, “Alright, that’s enough. I can’t stand to see her in this much pain. We’re going home!” what would have happened? Without stitches, I would risk developing a life-threatening infection and have a large, disfiguring scar on my face. Those things are much worse than the pain I experienced while being sewn up, but I didn’t know anything about that at the time. I couldn’t. I was too young to understand. I had to trust that my parents knew best, even if it at the time it seemed like they dropped the ball.

So it is with God. Sometimes He “abandons” us, just like my Mom “abandoned” me to the hospital bed, in order to allow us to heal, grow, or stop a greater evil from happening. As time passes, sometimes we can see the wisdom of God’s plan. As I grew older and learned more about how the body heals, I understood why I needed stitches. If my parents had waited until I was old enough to fully understand why, I might have been dead. 

But, after I had some time to think about it, I felt like I blew it with that analogy. That story may work for some of the trials we face, but in the face of terrible tragedy, it falls flat. I mean, everyone can accept, and even expect, a few growing pains in life. Most people are comfortable with the understanding of God as a parent who allows his toddler the freedom to walk around, along with the inevitable bruises, scrapes, and broken bones that come with that freedom. Most can accept the idea of God as a parent in the hospital, allowing their child to get stitches in order to prevent further pain. But, it’s more difficult when you see God as a parent who knows that a car is coming towards His child, could easily pull His child away before it’s too late, but instead stands by as the child gets hit. What sort of parent would do that?

After all, a parent isn’t all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving. God is. If God is all-knowing, that means He knows about every single evil thing in the world. He sees everything and know about it before it happens. If God is all-powerful, that means He has the ability to stop every rape, murder, natural disaster, mass shooting, and every other horrific event that happens daily. And yet, He chooses to sit on the sidelines and let those events play out. How could an all-loving God not intervene if He has the ability to do so? That’s what my friend was asking, and something I didn’t have an answer for.

I’m not sure how helpful it would have been to say to my friend something like, “God does not permit unnecessary suffering.” (St. Therese) Though I believe St. Therese, (and more importantly, I believe God), some days it’s not easy. When we’re confronted with senseless evil, it’s impossible to know exactly why God permits it, or how God could bring about any good from it. It’s easy to see why God allows certain evils to occur. The most obvious are the “blessings in disguise”. For example, a week after being laid-off you find a better job with higher pay. After a debilitating illness makes you miss your flight, you realize that there are much worse things than missing a flight. (Man Who Grew Very Angry After Missing His Flight Now Says It’s Clear That God Kept Him Off That Missing Plane)

It’s not that hard to trust God when after losing a job, you find a better one, or when you miss the flight that crashed. But what about the people who were on flight MH370? What about the children who lost their parents that day? It’s much more difficult to see the wisdom of God’s plan in those circumstances. I’d wager to say it’s not just difficult, but downright impossible to see on this side of eternity.

I found this image to be really helpful in describing our limited view of life: “[Imagine] a Medieval tapestry which tells the story of the Pascal Mystery from Genesis to Revelation. God views the tapestry from the front, beholding the drama in its final ideal form, but we who are still in time see only the backside of it. We see all of the random threads of color zigzagging about and the knots and loops and other tricks of the weaving trade that make possible the perfect image on the face side.” (“My Thing With Owls”)

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We could stare at those bits of thread for all eternity, and never get any closer to making sense of them. It’s only when we see the front of the tapestry that it makes sense.

Not only is our capacity to see limited, but so is our ability to understand, as Fr. Barron explains in this video:

 William James said it is as though we were a dog in his master’s study. The dog can look around the room and see everything- the books, globe, pictures, etc. Even though he sees everything, he understands very little of it. The owner could point to a globe and explain what it represents, or grab a textbook of quantum mechanics off the shelf and read it to the dog, but no amount of explanation would help the dog understand. The dog simply doesn’t have the capacity to grasp those concepts. God can’t explain to us why there is evil in the world for the same reason. We simply don’t have the ability to understand. But, we can have hope that some day all will be explained to us. We’ll finally get to the see the front of the tapestry and understand why we had to endure what we did.

While those analogies are helpful to me, what I really wish I had said to my friend that day is this: While God has a plan for our lives, and it will all be revealed to us one day, this wasn’t God’s original plan. God never intended man to suffer. God created man and all the animals on the earth to live with Him in paradise. Even after mankind chose sin and death over God, God didn’t abandon him. Incredibly, He gave man a second chance by emptying Himself of His glory and becoming one of us. He experienced all the pains we experience- loneliness, humiliation, sickness, hunger, abandonment, betrayal, and death. Through the crucifixion- the greatest of all evils- God brought about the greatest good – our redemption. If God can turn such a bleak moment into unimaginable good, we have to have faith that He will do that for our lives as well. Some days it’s incredibly difficult to have faith that He is able to do that. And in those moments, I have to pray, “Lord, I do believe! Help my unbelief.” (Mk. 9:24). And trust that He is a God that keeps His promises: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” (Rev. 21:4)

The Best Pain Relief I Know

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“God does not permit unnecessary suffering”- St. Therese of Lesuix

I was at a theme park watching roller coasters going around the tracks. I watched in horror as two roller coaster cars collided. The collision made a huge explosion that destroyed most of the theme park. After the smoke and rubble started to settle, I found myself engulfed in a crowd of people. They were all sitting on the concrete, sobbing uncontrollably. I walked through the crowd in a daze. I was the only one there who wasn’t in tears. I went up to a lady and asked her, “why are you crying?” she wailed, “Didn’t you see what just happened? Why aren’t you crying?” I didn’t know. I felt so incompetent and small. I wanted to do something to help, but I didn’t know what I could possibly do. I looked up at the sky and yelled “what am I supposed to do?” I almost fell down in shock when hundreds of people turned to me and said in unison, “comfort us.”

When I woke up from that dream, it was the morning of September 11th, 2001. Shortly after waking, I heard the news about the terrorist attack. That weird dream was starting to make sense now. No one I knew lost their life that day in the attack, so I didn’t shed any tears. But, my heart broke for all those people who lost their lives and the grieving families and friends. I felt so helpless as I watched the video of the attack. I felt the same as I did in the dream while in the midst of the crying crowd. Seeing all the faces of pain on TV made me want to DO something, anything, to help take away the pain I saw.  Throughout the day I was inspired by the stories of heroism on the news. I almost wished that I could be in New York to help the victims. But what could I do? I was 16 then, and stuck in my bedroom with debilitating chronic pain.

I had been dealing with chronic pain since I was 14. It started as a sharp, stabbing pain in my right side that would last for a few hours at a time. It had been steadily increasing in duration and severity since. By age 16, the pain would last for weeks at a time. The pain had become so severe that all I could do during those times was lay in bed and listen to music. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I couldn’t even my favorite books. During times of lesser pain, if nothing else, I could distract myself and draw comfort from my books. Now I turned to music to comfort me, because I didn’t have anything else. The night before and morning of September 11th, the pain was particularly bad. That morning I was was feeling really discouraged and was having a hard time accepting the pain. But, after hearing about the attacks and feeling such a strong desire to do something to help, I realized that I could help. I could offer my pain to help alleviate the pain of all those victims. Once I realized that, it made the pain so much easier to accept. The severity of the pain didn’t change throughout the day (in fact, it got even worse), but after that, I almost welcomed the pain. I had finally found what I could do to help those hurting.

I had grown up hearing the phrase “offer it up” countless times. I never found those words to be comforting while I was in the midst of suffering. But, my perspective changed that day. Before, when I heard the words “offer it up” I envisioned my pain as a kind of payment to God that would removing the time I would be spending in purgatory. I saw God as a jailer and my pain as bail. But on that day, I realized how much more meaningful it is to pray for a specific person while in pain. It was astounding to think that my suffering is helping to remove their own pain. I started thinking of my pain more as a gift. A gift that I could give to others. Focusing on someone other than myself while I was in pain was a tremendous comfort to me and did more to alleviate my pain than anything else.

So many days I would lay in bed in pain, begging for it to go away. Asking why. Now the pain didn’t seem so absurd. I thought about the bible verse “And we know that all things work together for the good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28) I focused on the words “all things.” ALL things! There is nothing, no matter how senseless, how painful, or even sinful- that God cannot use to bring about a great good. Nothing is wasted. Even if the pain is from a mistake we made, God can still use that pain for our good. Incredible!

Even though I firmly believe this, I still tend to forget and get discouraged easily when I’m in pain. Whenever I do, I fight my instinct to focus only on myself and wallow in my pain, and respond by remembering the sufferings of others. It’s the best pain relief I know.