Little Monsters (Part 2)

The next morning I thought back to what the doctor said. My head was swimming with it all. I thought back to when she looked at me sternly and said “this is VERY difficult to treat. I’m going to give you a prescription and I need you to take it EXACTLY as I prescribe. You cannot take this more than two weeks. Do you understand?”

I looked at the tube of medicine she prescribed: clobetasol. I do a Google search and see that it’s the strongest topical steroid I could have got. I looked down at my shins. In the past week, my rash had gone from red bumps to a large pale patch of raised skin that covered both shins. The skin had toughened up and felt like plastic. It was unnaturally shiny and glassy, with lots of small raised bumps all over. They looked similar to goosebumps but smaller and much closer together. It itched and burned like crazy. Words fail to describe the intensity of the itching. Last night I had put the steroid on for the first time. My skin immediately started burning horribly and turned bright red. Sleep was pretty much impossible. This morning my skin was still the same bright red color. I was really reluctant to put the steroid on again after the intense burning from the night before. But I was so desperate for relief I figured that it was worth trying again. This time the burning didn’t last nearly as long. About 30 minutes later, I told myself “I think I’m actually started feeling some relief from the itch.” but didn’t want to think about it too much and get my hopes up.

I look up “clobetasol side effects” on my phone:

Common side effects: burning/red skin at the application site. Thinning of the skin with chronic use.

Less common: scaling, crusting, oozing of skin.  

And then side effects of prolonged overuse: adrenal system failure, resulting in death. 

Then, I look up Facebook support groups for dealing with chronic skin conditions. One really gets my attention- “Topical Steroid Withdrawal-Red Skin Syndrome Support Group”. I scroll through the group and start feeling nauseous. I see pictures of people covered head to toe in lobster-red skin. They say their skin literally feels like it’s on fire. Others have skin crusting over their face, lips, eyes to the point where they are unrecognizable from who they were before. Others show their skin peeling off. “it feels like my body is literally falling apart”. Some have been suffering for months. Others several years. YEARS. I can’t imagine.

The reason for this makes my stomach drop. It’s not a disease they have. No, they’re suffering for one reason only: chronic steroid use. Some took steroids every day for decades. Then once they stopped, this happened. But the ones that really scare me are the ones who say “I only took it for a year”. One says “this happened after only one week of clobetasol”. Other say they only took it for a few weeks or a month.

I search the posts for any mention of “clobetasol”. One member refers to it as “poison”, another “the devil’s drug”. One says “I get PTSD from just seeing that word” 

I look on Wikipedia for more information on topical steroid withdrawal. It says the condition is “rare”. Further down the article is said “one survey estimated that maybe up to 12% of people with atopic dermatitis have steroid addiction.”

My takeaway from this is if I use steroids for more than a year, I have a 1 in 8 chance of developing topical steroid withdrawal. That’s truly a terrifying thought.

I remember my dermatologist telling me that steroids only work for so long- then they just stop working. It’s like having only a certain amount of money to spend over your life, and once that money’s used up, that’s it.

So with a condition like lichen amyloidosis, something that’s going to be with my for life with no great treatment plans, I need to be very intentional and prudent about when and how often I use steroids.

Not all doctors share such a cautious view of steroids, though doctors seem to becoming more aware of their dangers than they used to and prescribing them more cautiously. Similar to what happened recently with antibiotics or opioids.

I read some more posts in the topical steroid withdrawal support group:

“My doctor was adamant that steroids are perfectly safe for longterm use. The only thing to watch out for is thinning of the skin”

“My doctor told me to slather the steroids on like lotion. This was so irresponsible of him and the reason why I have topical steroid withdrawal today.”

I read somewhere else that steroids are especially dangerous for use on the face and hands. And that some people wear gloves when applying a high-powered steroid so their hands aren’t affected.

I start to think to myself wait, how DO I apply the steroid? How much do I use? Do I rub it in? Do I put it only on my rash or all over my legs? I suddenly realized how many things my dermatologist didn’t cover.

I’m really not someone to really stress over small details- I’m laughing at how this is so much not like me. But I can’t get over how stern my doctor was about how this was to treat and how I needed to follow her directions EXACTLY as she told me.

Then I think to myself “oh no, I took triamcinolone a few weeks ago when I thought it was poison ivy and didn’t tell her. Did taking a lower-powered steroid ruin my chances of recovering?” That’s silly Nicole, I tell myself. But I’m realizing how dangerous steroids are, especially when used incorrectly.

I call the dermatologist. No one answers so I leave a message. A nurse calls me back later. “As far as whether you should take the steroid the full two weeks or stop once the rash clears up- you should stop once the rash clears up. So if it clears up in 5 days, stop then. And only apply the steroid to the area of the active rash. Apply a thin layer and gently rub it in”

The next day, the steroid gives me instant relief once I apply it and it lasts for most of the day. I get small bouts of intense itching/burning throughout the day, but it’s generally controlled and manageable. Ice packs help for those times in between steroid doses. For the first time in a while, I can sleep again. I feel rested. I can walk comfortably for short periods. I can sit outside in the warmth for a an hour or so before the heat gets too uncomfortable on my skin.

After about 5 days, the rash is completely gone. There are huge dark scars wrapping around my shins, but it’s gone!

I come back to the dermatologist’s office the next week for a followup appointment. She says, “I’m so glad to see it’s cleared up. And the scars should lighten over time. Just keep watching it and you can use clobetasol again if it comes back after two weeks. Well, that’s it for today unless you have any questions.”

“Oh, aren’t we doing the biopsy today to confirm it’s lichen amyloidosis?”

“Oh no we didn’t have that scheduled for today. I really don’t see a need to do the biopsy- we are very confident in the diagnosis. It’s a standard presentation of lichen amyloidosis.”

“It would just make me feel better to know for sure what I have.”

“Absolutely, I get that. Would you like to come in tomorrow?”

The next morning I’m on my way to the doctor’s office. I don’t normally get anxious about procedures, but I’ve already experienced so much pain over the past few weeks I’m really not looking forward to any more. I had made the mistake of watching a punch biopsy procedure last night. They take a pretty good chunk of skin out. I’m about to pull in to the office when I get a call from the doctor “I am so sorry but we’re having supply issues- we didn’t get out shipment today of the supplies we need for the biopsy. Can we call you next week when we get them in?”

On one hand, I was happy to not have to experience the pain of the biopsy. But on the other hand, I really really wanted to know for certain what I had. The doctor seemed very confident. But I was still holding out hope that she was wrong. I really didn’t want it to be true. 

Little Monsters (Part 1)

Sometimes life-altering events happen so quietly we don’t even know exactly when they happen. No matter how often we retrace past events, we can’t point to exactly when things changed. All we know is somewhere along the way, between “then” and “now”, our world changed forever. One of those quiet, unnoticed, life-altering changes happened last summer. 

It started with red dots. Small little dots all over my shins that sprung up right after shaving. I can’t remember the exact day I noticed it. It didn’t seem important. Sometime in the first week in June is the best I can pinpoint a date. I’d had razor burn before, but this was by far the worst case I’ve ever had. I mean I know they call it razor burn for a reason, but WOW does this burn. 

In the past, razor burn cleared up in a couple of days for me. But this was now going on a week with no relief yet. I Googled “how long does razor burn last” and the answer made my stomach drop. 3-4 weeks. Wow. Remind me again why I ever started using cheap razors without shaving cream?

It was a bit embarrassing going out in shorts with unshaven razor burned legs, but I didn’t really have much choice. Shaving my legs right now would just further aggravate them and set back my healing. And having any clothing touching my legs was unbearable. 

I looked up home remedies for razor burn: apple cider vinegar, tea tree oil, witch hazel, or an oatmeal bath. I had plenty of witch hazel; I use it as a daily toner for my face. So I tried it on my legs. And instantly regretted it. My skin burned worse after putting it on. As the day went on, it got itchier and itchier. As a rule, I never scratch any itchy red mark on my skin. My parents had drilled into my head from a young age that scratching only made things worse. Anytime I would even think about putting my hand on an ant bite, mosquito bite or poison ivy rash, they would yell out “don’t touch it!” 

“Why?” I had no problem following the rules, but I wanted to know the why behind them. 

“It will make it worse”

Fair enough, but I wanted to know why it would make it worse. 

Turns out scratching an itch triggers mild pain in the skin, distracting from the itch and giving some relief. The nerves temporarily send pain signals to the brain instead of itch signals. But while that area of the body is temporary itch-free, another part of the body might start itching in its place. The body secretes serotonin in response to the pain of scratching. In addition to dulling the pain, serotonin activates itch receptors, intensifying the itching. With more itching, we feel an urge to create more pain to counteract it, making us want to scratch harder, which releases more serotonin making us itch more, which makes us want to scratch harder and… you get the idea. It’s a vicious cycle. I didn’t know all that as a kid, but based on my experience it made sense not to scratch. I could see for myself that scratching made the red bumps redder and bigger and more itchy and painful. After a few times of trying it for myself, I believed my parents and never scratched over a rash again. I would often scratch ~around~ the rash (that seemed to help), but never ~on~ it. No matter how itchy or miserable I was, I refused to scratch and make it worse. Not even the time when I had about a hundred chigger bites all over my legs (yes, I counted every single bite). I couldn’t even walk; any movement inflamed the bites and made them unbearably itchy. Or the times when poison ivy rashes would keep me up at night. No matter how bad the rash, I resisted every urge to scratch.

But this was the one time I broke my rule. I did it without giving it a second thought. I scratched furiously all over my shins, all over the hundreds of angry red dots. It was exactly as I described the itch-scratch-itch cycle in the last paragraph — the more I scratched the more I itched. I had never felt this level of itchiness before. It was uncontrollable unbearable burning itching. I could feel that scratching the rash was only making it worse but my hands were like a magnet stuck to my shins. I started whimpering, summoning all my willpower to slow my hands down. After a few more scratches I pressed down firmly on my shins, held them there for a moment, gently patted my legs, then pulled my hands off and sat on them. The battle was won for a moment, but it wasn’t long before I stopped sitting on my hands and started scratching again. 

Have you ever had that one strand of hair that’s out of place hitting your forehead, nose or mouth? (only those with long hair can relate) Or how about that itch in your back you couldn’t reach? Think about that feeling but imagine thousands of those feelings all at once all over. That gives you an idea of how it felt not to scratch. If I wasn’t scratching, it was all- and I mean ALL- I could think about. 

As the days went on, the dots disappeared but something more ominous took their place. Patches of hardened skin sprung up along my shins. It looked the same as normal skin but it felt hard and unnatural. I’ve had a year to think of the words to describe it and I still don’t exactly know how to explain to you what it felt like. The best I can say is it felt like alien skin. (alien in the sense of “foreign and unnatural”. Not green and slimy). It was kind of like having a thick layer of plastic stuck below my skin. Imagine a disease that makes your skin slowly turn into plastic over time. That’s probably the closest to how it felt. As the days went on, more and more of my skin hardened. It felt like at first it was deep below the surface, but over time the top layers of skin hardened too.

Everything in me was telling me “this isn’t natural and needs to be removed RIGHT NOW.” I had the intense urge to scratch my skin off- and I mean scratch it ALL off until my skin bled. But scratching did nothing.

As the days went on, I noticed a pattern. One area of my leg would harden up and then would erupt in a rash the next day. It looked a lot like poison ivy, but itched much worse. It got to the point where I would get a sinking feeling in my stomach with every new spot I felt hardened up on my skin. It meant more unbearable itching by the next day.

I called up my sister Cecilia. The only place I could think that I would have gotten it is at my parents’ house out in the country. I was out in the fields playing with her two kids, Bernadette (5) and Mireille (3).

“I think I have poison ivy. Did any of your kids get it?”

“No, the girls don’t have anything. I think they might be immune to it though- I’m pretty sure we have some poison ivy here at our house that they’ve gotten into before. And that would make sense since both Eric and I never get rashes either.”

“Well I’m glad they don’t have anything! I would have felt so bad if they did. I wonder if maybe the girls got into the poison ivy and then spread it to me. I’m always so careful about looking out for poison ivy and I was sure that I hadn’t stepped in any of it.”

“Yeah that makes sense! Or maybe the dog got it. I mean it’s on your shins- maybe he rubbed against your legs?”

“Yeah that does make sense. I didn’t think about Alto spreading it. Oh well, at least it will go away in a few days.”

“Feel better Colie!”

“Thanks Sis”

My dad called me a bit later, “I heard you got into some poison ivy out at our house.”

“Yeah, I think maybe Alto got into it and brushed against me”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Come on over- I have some medicine for it the doctor gave me last time I had poison ivy.”

I was so desperate for relief, I didn’t think about the morality or prudence in using my dad’s prescription drug. I wish I had before taking it because it’s something I regret doing. In hindsight I wish I had just gone to the doctor immediately. But at the time my mindset was I had a bad case of poison ivy and would take anything and try anything that promised relief. I was in too much pain to think clearly about the consequences or best plan of action. I looked at the tube- “triamcinolone acetonide” – a mid-grade topical steroid. I slathered it on-  instant relief. About 30 minutes later it would start itching again. The tube said apply no more than three times a day. I didn’t count how many times I applied the steroid that day, but it was probably in the double digits. As long as I kept applying the steroid, the itching was controlled. The rash didn’t go away, but at least the unbearable itching had. 

Aside from the itching, my shins were red hot with pain and hot to the touch. I wasn’t sure what it would do, but I suddenly had the idea to try an ice pack to cool down my skin. Instant relief. It was like a crowd of a thousand angry voices had been silenced. Dead silence.

I realized the key was keeping cool. Not the easiest thing to do in June in Dallas! I kept my apartment at 68˚ and limited my movements. Even walking around caused my legs to warm up to the point where they would itch uncomfortably. I spent most days laying on the couch with ice packs covering my legs. I rarely ever watch TV, but I couldn’t move much and I was too tired and in too much pain to focus on reading, writing, or working. I started watching Stranger Things

I thought it was funny that of all the shows I could have picked, I picked one where I could so strongly identify with the characters. I felt like Will when the monster invades his body. It crawls under his skin and gets angry when it’s too hot. He has to stay in ice baths to keep the monster clam. I couldn’t come up with a better way to describe how my condition felt. The feeling that there is a monster below my skin that needs to get out- crawling and scratching under my skin. And the hotter it gets, the angrier it gets. Strangely, it helped me feel less alone in it- that I could watch someone else suffer through a similar thing with bravery and acceptance inspired me to do the same.

It took about a week with the triamcinolone, but the rash eventually went away completely. But then came back just a few days later. I had thought up until now that was poison ivy (which is why I hadn’t seen a doctor), but now I was wondering if maybe it was a food allergy, bed-bug, or some kind of contact dermatitis. So I got a new mattress protector (my old one was pretty rough- and I wonder if maybe my legs were rubbing against the hard plastic and getting irritated) and my microfiber sheet was thread-bare. So I got new cotton sheets and got rid of my box spring. I was so hopeful that I had finally found the solution to my rash. But my rash was only getting worse. The itching was so strong and persistent I was running on little sleep. I collapsed in my bed, preparing for another night of tossing and turning. I needed to try and get some sleep because I had a dermatologist appointment the next morning. It was just a routine screening for moles- I wasn’t even planning on telling her about my rash. I figured there was nothing she could do about it- that she would tell me it’s contact dermatitis and I needed to find the source of the irritant in my house.

But it was the first thing she noticed at the appointment. Her reaction made me realize this was something I should have seen her about right away.

“I thought at first this rash was razor burn… then it got worse, so I figured it was poison ivy. But it never went away. And it moves around a bit throughout the day, so I thought it was some sort of allergic reaction. 


I stopped taking my multi-vitamin and probiotics just in case that was triggering it. Then I went through everything in my diet that could be causing an allergic reaction. I narrowed it down to cheese, and it seemed to be getting better for some time- but then it came back.

So then all I could think of was maybe it was something on my bed. So I threw out my box spring, got a new mattress protector and sheets. I was so certain that I had finally figured it out… but that night was the worst night yet, then itching was so intense I couldn’t sleep at all. And it’s only gotten worse since then- sleeping has been very difficult. It feels like something is crawling under my skin”

“Does anything help?”

“Only ice. That’s pretty much the only thing that relieves the itching for a bit. And heat just intensifies the itching, so I’ve been avoiding the outdoors. On a bad day, even walking around inside can be too painful. Any movement, any heat just makes the itching/burning unbearable. So I lay down with ice bags, then I can get up and do things for a few hours while my legs stay cold, but once they warm up, I have to reapply ice.”

At this point, the doctor turns to her PA. “What’s your differential?”

“Contact dermatitis?”

“No.”

“Psoriasis?”

I offer “it kind of feels that way- it definitely feels like there’s these layers of skin that need to come off”

“It’s not psoriasis.” Turning back to her PA, “What typically presents on the tibial area?”

“I’m not sure…”

“Amyloidosis.”

Turning to me “You have a cutaneous form of amyloidosis- most likely lichen amyloidosis. It’s a rare disease where the body makes misshapen proteins. It can happen anywhere. For example, when it happens in the brain it’s called Alzheimer’s. In your case, the bad proteins clumped together under your skin, causing irritation. Hence the feeling of something crawling under your skin. Cutaneous amyloidosis generally doesn’t become systemic and stays contained in the skin.

Unfortunately we really don’t have great treatment options for it. No matter what we try, there’s a high chance it will come back. But we will start with the highest-strength steroid and see how it responds. We’ll order a biopsy and meet back in a couple weeks.”

The doctor leaves and the PA turns to me, “Do you have any questions?”

“What did she say I had again?” I caught the last part she said- amyloidosis. That was the rare disease in House, MD, whereonce Dr. House made that diagnosis he would go home, leaving the patient to die in the hospital because there was nothing else for him to do. I knew that was systemic amyloidosis and I had localized, but it still sounded like a very grim disease.

And the first part- did they say lichen? As in the algae-fungal composite? Was this a fungal infection?

“lichen amyloidosis.”


She looks at me, seeing that I’m not taking the news well, puts her hand on my shoulder and says “Oh honey, it’s nothing you did. These things just happen and we don’t know why. We’ll do everything we can to beat this.”

My eyes fill up with tears but I keep it in until I get into my car. I immediately take out my phone and start Googling lichen amyloidosis. Information is scant. I searched YouTube, finding several videos on systemic amyloidosis, but only a few on lichen amyloidosis. When my dermatologist told me it was very rare, she really meant it.

The videos aren’t that helpful. As I’m watching one guy is detailing his exfoliation routine to help reduce itching and skin buildup, I scroll down the comments and see “help please my body is crumbling before my eyes and I can’t take it anymore. Suicide is the only thing that makes sense.” I take a deep breath turn off the video. That’s enough researching for today.

That night, as the rash had spread to my forearms, waist, and forehead, and I lay on the couch covered in ice bags, I start thinking about the future. Is this every day of my life going to be like this now? I pray I don’t think I can suffer every day like this for the rest of my life.

Immediately, I feel God reminding me that He gives grace day-by-day. We don’t get a lifetime’s worth of grace all at once. The things I’m worried about in the future haven’t happened yet. I had no way of knowing what the future would be like. I certainly would never have dreamed even a few weeks ago that I would be dealing with something like this. I calm down, confident that every day won’t be this bad.

Brother maybe I can’t be your shelter

We all have those songs that just irritate us from the moment we hear the first note on the radio, and make our skin crawl until we change the station. “Brother” by NeedtoBreathe is one of those songs, but not for the usual reasons. The lyrics are meaningful, the tune isn’t annoyingly catchy, and I actually really like the singer’s voice.

Here’s a link to the song, and the lyrics:

Ramblers in the wilderness
we can’t find what we need
Get a little restless from the searching
Get a little worn down in between
Like a bull chasing the matador is the man left to his own schemes
Everybody needs someone beside em’ shining like a lighthouse from the sea

Brother let me be your shelter
I’ll never leave you all alone
I can be the one you call
When you’re low
Brother let me be your fortress
When the night winds are driving on
Be the one to light the way
Bring you home

Face down in the desert now there’s a cage locked around my heart
I found a way to drop the keys where my failures were
Now my hands can’t reach that far
I ain’t made for a rivalry I could never take the world alone
I know that in my weakness I am strong, but
It’s your love that brings me home

Lyrically, it’s brilliant. It expresses a beautiful desire to help someone along life’s journey. Lord knows we all need people in our lives to “light the way” home. Without their love and support, we might never get there. That desire to be someone’s shelter is biblical [“a faithful friend is a sturdy shelter, he who finds one finds a treasure” (Sirach 6:14)]. Not only can a friend provide shelter they can even be life-saving [“a faithful friend is a life-saving remedy” (Sirach 6: 16)] The desire to be that life-changing force is something I strongly identify with, and probably why this song evokes such strong emotions, both positive and negative.

God the Father told St. Catherine of Sienna said he purposely gave us a unique combination of gifts and needs so that we have no choice but to depend on each other. God has chosen us as the primary vehicle to dispense His gifts and make His love known. Because we aren’t sufficient unto ourselves, we are constantly reminded that we are in need of God and others.

But why have I established such differences… For I could well have supplied each of you with all your needs, both spiritual and material. But I wanted to make you dependent on one another so that each of you would be my minister, dispensing the graces and gifts you have received from me. So whether you will it or not, you cannot escape the exercise of charity! Yet, unless you do it for love of me, it is worth nothing to you in the realm of grace.” (The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena)

So, I think there’s a lot this song gets right. But, my inner monologue won’t shut up during the chorus: But what if you’re stretched too thin to be his shelter? What if you aren’t strong enough to be his fortress? What if you’re not the one he needs to call when he’s low? Wait, so you’re the one who’s going to bring him home? What makes you so sure you know the way? The singer seems so sure he has the answers and strength that his brother needs- but how can he know that?

I know I’m being too harsh. He’s expressing his desire to help, and he may be all too aware of his limitations. But really, the person I’m directing my irritation toward isn’t the singer, but myself. As you might suspect, my strong feelings about this song are rooted in my life experiences: my failed attempts at saving others and being on the receiving end of people who wanted to be my savior but went about it the wrong way.  Those experiences have made me realize how hard it is to temper the desire to help someone while keeping in mind that, no matter how badly I may want to help, I may not be the one who can do the saving.

Whenever I come to the realization that I can’t help someone the way I want to, I try to ask myself why I’m so upset about not being able to help. Is it because I truly desire what’s best for that person, or is it because I, and only I, wanted to be the one to help them?  I know that true love is disinterested and may mean being at peace with the fact that the people I love need to look for help outside of me. True humility means acknowledging that I don’t have all the answers, I don’t have all the resources, and I can’t be someone else’s “everything”. Anything I accomplish is only because God has chosen to work through me to accomplish it. Sometimes He works through me to help others, and other times He doesn’t. Logically, I understand all that. But it still doesn’t do much to comfort me when I’m in the midst of seeing someone I care about in pain, and the frustration I feel when my efforts don’t help.

During those times of frustration, I try to be honest with myself: why do I really want to be that person’s savior: is it to help them, or so I can feel good about myself? Do I only feel useful and worthwhile when I’m helping others? For myself, that is often the case. As a teacher, nothing beats the “high” I get when I help students, in big ways and small, day-after-day. Long breaks over the winter and summer are always hard for me. To go from daily impacting 100 lives to maybe a handful is a tough transition, and it does make me wonder if it’s possible to feel meaningful and fulfilled without helping a large number of people on a daily basis.

I often think about the quote from John Paul II, “Man cannot fully find himself, except through a sincere gift of himself”, and wonder if this explains why I’m so drawn to helping others. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I realize that helping is only one of several ways we can make a gift of ourselves. Sometimes the best gift we can give someone is showing up, but not helping. In those moments when we don’t help, it’s because we know that that any attempt to help would only hurt. It’s not abandonment, but lovingly recognizing our limitations and acting accordingly.

And, I would argue that we are even more loving when we accompany someone in their pain, knowing that in the moment we don’t have anything more to offer than our presence and prayers. Compassion literally means “to suffer with”. Being compassionate doesn’t necessarily mean easing someone’s pain, but it does mean choosing to suffer with a hurting person. There’s no guarantee we’ll get that good feeling that comes from solve someone’s problems.

When we abandon our neighbor to God he continues to be supported by our love and the pain of being unable to help him accomplishes more than any self-confident action.” -Hans Urs von Balthasar

It may sound counterintuitive that a friend who can tolerate not curing is a friend who cares- but a true friend is someone who loves the person for who they are, and not for what they can do for them. A true friend knows when to be there, and when to step aside.

I wonder why else I want to help others. Is it because I can see myself in them? Do I see my own pain in them, and hope that by healing them, I can heal myself? Do I want to store up “social capital” in the hopes that one day if I’m in a similar position, they’ll return the favor? Is it because I can’t stand seeing them in pain, because it’s uncomfortable? Maybe it reminds me that I may someday find myself in that same situation, or maybe it reminds me of a pain that I know all too well?

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” -Henri Nouwen

I think this hits on why “Brother” irritates me so much: it makes me confront my limitations in helping others, and my selfishness behind my seemingly selfless actions. It shows me how small my capacity to love truly is, and how far I still have to go to love as Jesus does. But, in the midst of that, I am comforted in knowing that no matter my selfish motivations behind helping others, it does not diminish the objective good that I did for another. No matter how pure or impure my motivations, the times that I helped them were real, and nothing can take that away. But most importantly,   the times that I cannot help are times when God wants someone else to be my friend’s shelter, and I simply need to step aside so they can do that. Knowing that is the easy part, being at peace with that will be a lifelong struggle, and why I will probably always change  the station when “Brother” comes on.

Your Face is a Billboard

“Do you have 10 of these model airplanes?”

“Yes we do! Buying for your kids?”

“Oh no, I’m a science teacher… they’re for a physics lab.”

“I could tell you were a teacher right when you walked through the door of my shop. You intimidated me right away, and only two kinds of women can do that- nurses and teachers. Back in my day, one had a needle, the other a paddle, and they were both headed to the same spot.”

I’ve always found it very difficult to know how I appear to others. Even when people tell me, I usually don’t believe it. How could a 5-foot-nothing girl be intimidating? Others tell me I have a melancholic look, which is much easier to believe. But after a friend told me I reminded her of Wednesday Addams, I haven’t thought about that melancholic look the same way ever since. I’ve made efforts to make myself seem more approachable- make eye contact when approaching someone, offer a small closed-lip smile (don’t show your teeth- you don’t want to scare them away) and whatever you do, don’t cross your arms.

But, despite years of effort, I think there are some things that just can’t be changed. I’ve experienced chronic pain since childhood, and I think that has a way of transforming your face. The lines around your eyes become pronounced from squinting from pain, which makes your eyes more intense. The muscles around your mouth get used to turning downward, and it takes more effort to smile. It’s not automatic- it requires making a conscious attempt- and somedays it feels like you’ve forgotten how.

One day I was feeling miserable with a headache that I just couldn’t shake so as a last resort I went to Panera to see if a cup of coffee would help. I was in too much pain to be aware of how I looked, but I must have looked awful. A woman passed by me on her way out, gave me a concerned look, looked away for a moment, with her hand on the door turn around, gave a tentative smile as she said “I hope you have a blessed day.”

A few minutes later, after I had sat down with my coffee, looking as unapproachable as possible with headphones in my ears, my head bowed down and fingertips pressed against my temples, I saw her come back into the door and walk over to my table. Almost apologetically, she said, “This may sound crazy, but I felt called by God to pray for you, and to come back and ask if there was anything in particular I could pray about.”

I asked her to pray for discernment, and she offered to pray for me there. As she did, tears welled up in my eyes. Her prayer was simple, unscripted and spontaneous. It came from the heart. It’s probably the kindest thing a stranger has ever done for me. It was the truest representation of God’s love I had seen from a stranger. She had nothing to gain from the exchange. From her unpolished delivery and hesitation in offering to pray for me, I could tell this was something she didn’t normally do, and this wasn’t something she was very comfortable doing or wanted to do, but she felt called to do it anyway. Though this wasn’t something she really wanted to do, she did it because she loved God, wanted to follow His will in everything, even in the smallest things, and show His love to a stranger.

“Are you a missionary?”, I asked.

“No, just a college student. I just came from Michigan and will be moving to New Zealand next month.”

This made what she did even more selfless. If I were in her shoes- having just moved to a new state, and preparing to move to a new country- the last thing on my mind would be whether a stranger was having a bad day and in need of my prayers.

I thought about how easy it is to be so absorbed in my own problems that I don’t see the needs of others. Many times, my pain is like an intense light that blinds me from seeing anything else.

She seemed surprised when I told her that I went to church- she asked me at least twice if I did- and didn’t seem convinced even when I told her the name and location of it. From my demeanor, she sensed that I needed prayers, and rightly or wrongly, thought that my face was of someone who didn’t know God.

I try to remember when I’m out in public that my face is sending a message to others. Is it one of hopelessness? One of love?

But, maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. Some days, maybe it really is impossible to have anything other than a pained expression. And maybe that’s ok. Maybe God wants to “advertise” my pain to others so they can help. Having an opportunity to help someone is a blessing, a blessing they wouldn’t have if they didn’t see my face. I can’t even count how many times I’ve been brought to tears when a stranger comes over to me and says something like “I can see you’re in a lot of pain- I’ll be praying for you.” Maybe God wanted them to be a blessing to me, and they wouldn’t have had that opportunity if I didn’t have a pained expression. And maybe I’m supposed send a message to people who are hurting that I am hurting too and they’re not alone in their pain.

But still, I do make every attempt to hide it. The first thing I pray for every day is that I show God’s love to everyone I meet- my friends, family, students, and strangers. There are times every day I fail to be that reflection of His love, but it is my continual prayer and one of the things I’ve made a concerted effort to do throughout my life. But maybe I need to remember that one manifestation of God is Christ crucified. God Himself thought it worthwhile to come to earth and suffer publicly. Maybe sometimes He wants us to be that image to the world as well.

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, 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 describe 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 felt 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

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…