Faith, Family, Hope, Jesus, Personal Reflection, Prayer

Sunbeams and Prayer Time

There’s a quote from Flannery O’Connor that resonates with me as a writer: “I write to discover what I know.” Within the act of writing out my thoughts on a matter, there is often a sorting-out that occurs. Clarity arises. In writing a fiction story as well, certain ideas give me pause, making me question where the words came from within me. Writing teaches me a lot about myself.

This morning, that quote came to mind after I spent a bit of time in prayer. I thought how appropriate it’d be to say instead, “I pray to discover what I know.” Because sometimes – not all the time, but sometimes – at the close of your prayer, you are left with nothing more than what you know, and that is enough.

I had dropped the kids off at the sitter a few minutes ahead of schedule and was on my way to my office. I’d only driven a quarter mile though before I pulled over. I stepped out of my car, sat down on a curbside bench on a hill overlooking Lake Michigan, and stared at this:

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I stared at the sunbeams. I stared at the clouds. I stared at the barely-there waves lapping the beach. Then, I prayed.

My family was exchanging text messages for the past hour or more as my oldest sister Cheryl prepared for her latest doctor appointment in Milwaukee. Today she’ll have a biopsy of one of the growths they’ve found, then she’ll wait approximately a week while it is analyzed to determine the exact type and stage of the cancer that has spread throughout her body.

Sitting on that bench, I thought of the specific things for which Cheryl had requested we pray. Then my mind went blank, wiped by the emotions that cluster into my throat and chest each time I pray for my sister. My own words disappeared and I resorted to what I know:

“Our Father, who art in Heaven…”

“Hail Mary, full of grace…”

“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son…”

I whispered the words, as secure and comforting as home, and I discovered what I know:

I know that God is our father. Our perfect father who has us in his care at all times even as he allows our free will and the natural world to run their course.

I know that God provides our daily bread. He places in our path the people and resources and situations to meet our souls’ and bodies’ needs.

I know that Jesus listens to the prayers of his family, and that like any Queen Mother who has the ear of her son, the King, we have Mary praying for us at Jesus’ side.

I know that God – the Holy Trinity – is worthy of all glory and praise. I know that he is unchanging, all-powerful, infinitely wise, and good without exception.

I don’t know what answer God will give to our family’s prayers, but I do know He’ll answer. Sometimes it only takes three minutes of prayer time and some stunning sunbeams to help us discover what we know.

Advent, Christmas, Faith, Family, Hope, Jesus, Scripture

The Paradox of Suffering and Hope at Christmas

Photo provided by Trisha Hummel

Today is my cousin Trudi’s 44th birthday. It is her 23rd birthday in eternal life. I was still stumbling my way toward my teen years when Trudi was murdered. Trudi and her older sisters were thick as thieves with my older sisters while I was just one of the little cousins in our extensive family circle. I remember her as cool; fun and beautiful; bold and humorous.

This weekend I spent hours addressing Christmas cards. As I scribbled the names, streets, and cities of my cousins, I couldn’t help wondering about Trudi. Would she live in the same area, like her sisters, or would she have established her life elsewhere? Would we have attended a wedding? Would our children have played together by now? Would we have that comfortable, enjoyable dynamic that develops between family members after the years have placed us on level ground?

Hypotheticals. They do an excellent job of muddling the mind and stinging the heart. There’s nothing like loss to leave you wading through a pool of hypotheticals. And there’s nothing like Christmas time to amplify the wound of loss.

This isn’t a direct quote, as I can’t remember where I heard it, but I once read that St. John Paul II said suffering is created by feeling cut off from good. We live and love and link ourselves to sources of good. When one of those links is severed, we are left trying to patch the tear.

What has severed a link to good in your life?
Death
Divorce
Job loss
Infertility
Disease
Rejection
Betrayal

Every cut in our connections to what is good is felt keenly in this season of celebration. For some, the suffering renders Christmas undesirable. Potential joy is swallowed up in misery. Sounds of peace are drowned out by the roar of hypotheticals that can never be.

Oh, the paradox of Christmas. For Christmas, my friends, is the arrival of the Divine Response to every wound and cut and tear you carry with you. It is Almighty God dwelling amongst us. He made Himself vulnerable to encounter our vulnerability. God entrusted Himself to the arms of a mother, to the home of an earthly father, and to a community of imperfect, suffering individuals.

Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst

Christmas is the issuance of God’s answer to our suffering, to our feeling of being cut off from good. It is a resounding song of hope: “You are not cut off. You are not abandoned. You are not lost. For I am with you. Here in the deepest cuts, I abide with you. I may have allowed pain and loss, but I fill the voids. I AM the source of all good and I AM here.”

Christmas, when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) is the root of our conviction “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Hope

Something Big?

Do you ever get the giddy, stomach-jumpy feeling that something big is coming? I don’t feel it too often. The details of my life are mundane and consistent, laced with blessings but still rather ‘as usual’ from day to day. Lately though, I can’t shake the aforementioned feeling. It’s a heightened awareness, a standing on my tip-toes wondering what’s over the bend perspective.

In 17 days, I’ll turn 30. I’ve concluded this has a lot to do with the current feeling. Until just the last few days, I’ve given little thought to this mile marker birthday. It hasn’t bothered me or worried me or excited me. Celebrating birthdays is a great love of mine so I have simply looked forward to enjoying this one in a fashion similar to the rest. My sister and my boyfriend have undertaken the plans though and I am not privy to details. This arrangement certainly warrants some happy anticipation. For some reason though, it is more than that. It is more than the expectation of a fun, memorable celebration. It is a hope.

An undefined but hearty hope. I am hopeful. I am hopeful about my still unpublished novel which I am working diligently to revise and improve and nervously submit to my fellow book club ladies for their reading pleasure (ideally…). I am hopeful about the man I love with all my heart, who is gradually welcoming a faith in Christ and the Church and all the life giving goodness that comes from a sacramental relationship with our Lord. I am hopeful about the things in myself that need significant growth – those habits and virtues and courses of action that will lead me daily closer to the best version of myself.

Whether it’s the Holy Spirit or my own persistent optimism, I am expecting big things.

For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope. (Jeremiah 29:11, NAB)

Faith, Hope, Intentionality

Rediscovering

On Saturday, I began reading Matthew Kelly’s Rediscover Catholicism and it has me all fired up in the best way. His message has me recalling my love for this sort of material – spiritually themed, practically applied and authentically communicated. Oh how I love the Church. I neglect that love sometimes, letting it fall to the back of the line of the things that occupy my days. This book is an effective rearranger of that line.

The pages of the first chapters already host plenty of underlined passages and small margin notations. Plenty of statements Kelly makes have struck me as significant with a lot of, ‘that is so true’ moments. The one that’s staying with me since yesterday reads, “God always wants our future to be bigger than our past. Not equal to our past, but bigger, better, brighter, and more significant. God wants your future and my future, and the future of the Church, to be bigger than the past. It is this bigger future that we need to envision” (pp. 23-24).

I’ve been thinking plenty about the future in recent days. Plenty. Sometimes I want to just stop thinking about it for a while and remember to be present in the present. However I can’t claim I’ve thought about the future in such terms as Kelly suggests. What I love about this declaration, that God wants our future to be “bigger, better, brighter, and more significant,” is the beautiful reality that when God wants something, He always, always makes a way for it to be possible. He doesn’t do it for us. He makes it possible. This means that I can have that future. You can have that future. If God desires it, He will provide means necessary for you to attain it. And He does, undoubtedly, desire it.

Hope, Love

Fresh


My lover speaks; he says to me,
“Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one,
and come!
“For see, the winter is past,
the rains are over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of pruning the vines has come,
and the song of the dove is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines, in bloom, give forth fragrance.
Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one,
and come!
~Song of Songs 2:12~

I have two double daffodils on my desk. It is baffling how the presence of fresh flowers changes a space. They were among the few blooms in our front flower bed that came through this spring. Once their stalks bent to the ground, I rescued them to spend the last of their bright yellow days in a mug of water on this desk. Perhaps when I have a true writing desk, a space consecrated to that activity, I will aim to always have fresh flowers of some sort at hand. Someday…

It’s a season of freshness – Spring – overly wet and slow in coming though it may be. The branches of the many maples in my neighborhood are decked out in their green buds. Daylight comes at such an early hour again. Walks and bike rides and softball games are filling the evenings. My summer calendar is already heavy with plans but for now, for a few more weeks, I feel like I can breathe a bit slower, deeper, and the air I catch will swell in my lungs with the freshness it lacked through the lengthy winter.
My niece became engaged this past Sunday. For several years it was a frequent (and nearly funny) joke in our family that she might marry before me or a couple of my sisters. The idea of that happening was a lonely one indeed. The past year changed my perspective on a heck of a lot though and with my hand in Matt’s, I am able to rejoice with her. Granted the fact that my niece is getting married makes me feel a bit old, but not lonely. In a single year, I have tasted what it means to have a companion, to be beloved, to give and receive wholehearted affection, to fight for and with each other, to question and subsequently dig for the answers, to rest in another’s arms and trust them to hold you well. I say ‘tasted’ because even with all the depth of the relationship thus far, I have a back-of-the-mind sense that we have yet only skimmed the surface.
In the last few months I’ve read several books that remind me why I love reading. They remind me of what I am trying to do and why I try at all. Water for Elephants, The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, Inkheart… The words of others wear away my apathy and hesitation. I have no small task in redeveloping Aillinn’s character and backstory in order to give more depth to her part in the story of Full of Days. The invigorating pleasure of taking up that task outweighs the difficulty though. I am freshly ambitious and as such I feel more like myself in this realm of things than I have for nearly a year.
There is such beauty – not vain beauty but tangible, effective beauty – in a person pursuing what God has designed them to do. To love, to create, to believe, to hope, to give of themselves in their unique ways. When the talents and qualities He has given are taken up by their possessor, those close by are able to witness that spark of life, of truly living, which I believe we all wish to experience day by day. Each day truly lived is indeed a radiant bloom.
Catholicism, Faith, Hope, Jesus, Love, Scripture

The Fundamental Decision

(originally written for/printed in “The Bells of St. Mary” parish newsletter)

If questioned on what it means to call yourself a Christian, how might you respond? Do any of the responses that come to mind reach to the heart of what it means to live under the title of Christian?

Pope Benedict XVI looks to the disciple, John, for an answer: “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us” (1 John 4:16). This, our pope states, is “a kind of summary of the Christian life.” Indeed, coming to this belief in God’s love is the “fundamental decision” of the Christian’s entire life. Caught up in the ways of the world and settling for rote prayers and surface-only principles, many men and women carry the title of Christian their whole lives without facing this decision. But for those who do face it, this decision brings transformation.

Faith and hope are made possible; perspective on this life in the context of eternity is gained; obedience to God’s commandments becomes an honor; worship provides nourishment of the soul; prayer holds the rich depths of personal conversation with the Holy Trinity. By this fundamental decision to believe in God’s unwavering, self-offering love, the grace gained in the soul at baptism is activated and all aspects of living as a Christian are infused with meaning.

This single fundamental decision can then be reaffirmed in each particular decision to love, serve, obey and worship. In the daily circumstances of family and work and play, all can be placed under the sovereignty of God. A person can then, with practice and maturity, love as a response to Love. Virtue will be preferred to vice not merely to avoid ill consequences but because the heart recognizes and honors the great, unmerited gift of God’s saving love.

For some, the fundamental decision to believe with the whole heart and mind in God’s love is met with hesitation. There are what might be dubbed “fundamental doubts.” (1) How is it possible, with me being me and God being God, that He could love me so completely? (2) Can I ever be sure in my belief? (3) Do I have the capacity to respond well enough if I dare admit the extent of God’s love for me?

To those struggling with the first doubt, Jesus Christ, who is the embodiment of God’s love, points out that He did not come “to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Awareness of our unworthiness need not produce despair but rather humility and a determination to abandon that which would hold us back from the full acceptance of God’s transforming love. It is not in God’s nature to be inconstant or to love partially. Though we know we are undeserving, we need never entertain the question of whether God wholly loves us.

And to the second doubt is offered the response that faith can indeed be certain. Our world equates faith with superstition or unrealistic idealism but truly the faith of the Christian, when understood and experienced, does not fall into either category. Certainty can be gained in the heart as a gift of the Holy Spirit through prayer and self-surrender. Certainty can be gained in the mind by committed, ongoing growth in knowledge and understanding. When there is a question or an instance of confusion, face it and seek answers. A sincere search for truth will always find truth. The authors of Scripture, the writings and lives of the martyrs and the saints, the summary of the faith found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church – all offer their insights for the sake of our edification in faith.

Thirdly, to the question of our capacity to love in response to God’s infinite love, God Himself answered at the dawn of creation: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). Made in the image of God, we are created with the capacity to love as He loves. We can grow ever more faithful, generous, joyful, merciful and forgiving as He is all these things to the fullest degree. There is no limit to our capacity to image Him and therefore honor Him.

The fundamental decision to believe in God’s love is a matter of saying yes to who God is and who we are as our truest selves. It is carried out in simple, humble ways as we move through our days, relate to one another, and worship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is a decision, if reaffirmed unto the last hour, which will carry us into eternal life.

Faith, Hope

Getting There

I’m nearly ready to write again. The ache is building to sneak off by myself, pen and notebook in hand, ideas in mind. The desire is coming back and that’s a big step in the right direction. It has been sadly absent for many a week.

After reading this post on one of my favorite blogs I am thinking about all that has brought me here, to this spot, this day, this chapter of my life’s manuscript. A portion of that well loved verse in Jeremiah 29 pops into my mind: “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord…” For He knows the plans He has for me; for I do not know the plans He has for me. That is what is carrying me, building me up with determined hopefulness and happy trust. He knows…I do not, and that is as it should be. For it is He who is in possession of perfect wisdom and the fullness of love and it is with such attributes that He gazes upon me, prompts me to follow and leads me into each new day of life.

The path of my career (or lack thereof) that doesn’t seem to fit with the ambitions I had in college or in the years since… the job that is at once boring and terribly unchallenging as well as a perfect fit for my other pursuits, places me amongst great individuals and has led to a particularly blessed relationship… the times I have tried to go elsewhere, to move on to something different only to be thwarted but reassured by the Lord that I must continue to trust in His plans… the writing that has led nowhere professionally speaking but has made me into who I truly am now and taught me what it means to faithfully and diligently pursue a goal… and now the wonderful boyfriend who has captured my heart quite unpredictably…

Instance after instance stacks up to teach me that when it comes to reaching what will bring joy, love, hope and all that my life is to contain, none of it is accomplished by knowing what God has in store or where I ought to be or what I ought to be doing from month to month or year to year but by trusting that He does know, listening to my Shepherd’s voice, and surrendering myself to His capable hand which He keeps firmly placed on the course of my life.