An Extra Hard Mother’s Day with an Extra Bit of Grace

I thought I was ready for Mother’s Day. I spent the week meditating on what a gift mothers are and on how spiritual motherhood is real motherhood. I read a few old messages from former students thanking me for being their mom. I woke up today to a dozen people wishing me a happy Mother’s Day–the mothers of my godchildren, a friend from high school (who offered her Mass for me today and not for her mother), one from college, a former student, a new friend, my own mom. Most of them are moms themselves, but they reached out because they see me as a mother, to them, to their children, to other spiritual children the Lord has given me.

I went to a different church today because yesterday’s had been rather more focused on motherhood than on Jesus, and the music at today’s church was powerful. I praised God and thanked him and surrendered my heart to him for the thousandth time. It was beautiful.

And then they asked all the mothers to stand. And as much as I try to believe that spiritual motherhood is really motherhood, I knew they didn’t mean me. So I sat. And they handed flowers to every woman I could see. They asked me to pass flowers to the women who had earned them. And I trust God so much and I love him so much and I’m so content to be in his will, I really am, but I sat there and sobbed.

Not just for me, for the thousands of devastated women in pews around the country. Women who have lost children or aborted children or placed children for adoption, women who long for motherhood or resent their motherhood, women for whom today is already painful. And then they’re asked to watch every other woman stand and be recognized, not knowing if they should stand too, or certain that they shouldn’t. I thought of the hearts being broken by well-meaning people in churches across the country, and I wept.

This is why we ask you, Fathers, not to do this. It’s not because people get offended, it’s because people’s deepest pain is laid bare in a place that ought to be safe.

I didn’t sing the closing hymn–I couldn’t sing without starting to ugly cry. And the moment the song was over, I knelt, hoping that the people around me wouldn’t turn to tell me what a nice voice I have or ask if I was visiting. I didn’t want to deal with it.

But a young woman came over, a student at Texas A&M, and told me she recognized me from St. Mary’s. She thanked me for the work I do and told me how much it matters. And she prayed over me, a little balm for my soul.

Another lady came over afterward and asked how I was doing. The body of Christ, my friends.

And when I finally got myself together and finished talking to Jesus, I turned around to grab my things and saw that someone had given me a flower. Had given me *her* flower, most likely. Had seen me in my pain and reached out to tell me that I count, too.

So I cried some more and took the flower over to Mary, who had asked her Son to send those women to love on me. And I didn’t really feel any better, but at least I felt seen.

If you’re struggling today, I see you. I’m sorry it’s hard and I’m sorry we’ve made it harder. If you’re missing your mother or wishing your relationship with her was different, I offer you the Mother of God to take her place. If you’re feeling your empty womb or empty arms or empty home, I promise you this: spiritual motherhood is not a consolation prize. It’s not the same as physical motherhood, but it’s real and it’s essential for the salvation of souls. You matter. Your motherhood matters.

If you’ve got someone in your life who might be struggling, take a page out of the book of the many people who love me far better than I deserve and reach out. Tell her how she’s been a mother to you or your children. Thank her for the way she loves the people around her. Offer to pray for those grieving the loss of their mothers.

I wanted to spend today just celebrating the many, many amazing moms I know. But instead, God asked me to sit with the many other women who are suffering. Their pain shouldn’t take away your joy–you don’t have to feel guilty about having children or a great mom. But knowing how other people are suffering today should make you even more grateful for what you have and should call you to reach out to them in their pain as well.

It’s a hard day. It’s a beautiful day. Because motherhood–womanhood–personhood–is hard and beautiful. Happy Mother’s Day, friends. I hope the Blessed Mother holds you close today.

What I Mean When I Say, “Jesus, I Trust in You.”

This evening, I finished my Divine Mercy novena before Mass and began my meditation. I was, as usual, rather spacey, without any particular focus to my prayer, but I kept internally murmuring, “Jesus, I trust in you.”

It’s a good prayer–Jesus himself taught it to St. Faustina. And it’s a powerful thing to pray even when you don’t totally mean it, in the hopes that the Spirit will make it true. But I wasn’t paying a lot of attention, just staring blankly in the direction of a Divine Mercy image and occasionally tossing it out there: “Jesus, I trust in you.”

And then I felt him ask, “Do you trust me with your fertility?”

Oof.

Friends, I am 34 and very single. I spent all week rejoicing over the Easter pictures of your beautiful families on social media (and, if I’m being honest, having some less delightful feelings, too). I am supremely aware that the odds of my ever having a family of my own get slimmer with every passing year. I know 34 isn’t old. I get that. But it’s Catholic old. And when most of your friends have at least 5 kids and none of the men your age are single, it’s hard not to see your biological clock as more of a time bomb.

I don’t share about this kind of thing often because it makes me feel rather pathetic. Also because when I do, some people seem inclined to try to make me feel worse. Or write entire blog posts excoriating me. You know, because that’s helpful.

And I’m not trying to start a pity party, I’m just trying to give you a sense of what his question to me meant. “Do you trust me with your fertility?”

Because the answer to that is absolutely yes, spoken in a soft and shuddering voice. I trust him with my (waning) fertility. I trust him with my lonely heart. I trust him with my homelessness and aimlessness.

I do not trust him to give me a family.

I do not trust him to give me a home.

He never promised me those things.

When I say, “Jesus, I trust in you,” I’m telling him I trust him to be God. I trust him to make the calls. I trust that whatever he gives me–or doesn’t give me–is best. I’m saying, “Your will be done.”

I do not trust him to give me what I want. At some level, I don’t even want him to give me what I want. A God who exists merely to satisfy my whims is no God at all.

I trust him to tell me no. I trust him when he tells me nothing at all for years and years and years. I trust him when he feels incredibly distant at the time I think I need him most. I trust him to be God.

During the reading of the Passion on Palm Sunday, I was struck by Mark 15:32, when the bystanders taunted him, “Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” It wasn’t really a prayer, but still: they called to God with a request and he said no.

Thank God he said no. Where would we be if he had consented? Thank God for his mercy poured out in unanswered prayers, whether we understand it in this life or not.

Jesus, I trust in you.

5 Things I Love More after 5 Years on the Road (And 5 Things I’m Over)

A month ago, I celebrated my 5th hoboversary. It’s become my habit to write each year around my anniversary with some reflections (Here’s year one, year two, year three, and year four) but this year I just didn’t have much to say–I know, it’s unusual. I thought about sharing lessons I’ve learned, but I’ve done that. I was tempted to list the things I don’t take for granted anymore (putting things in a drawer or having extras of something that you keep just in case) but it just sounded like a list of complaints.1 Maybe share a few stories? But I share them all on Facebook as they happen.  How about this: five things I love more than I did five years ago (and five I don’t).

LOVE:

The Saints. For all I talk about Saints, you’d think I’d been obsessed from childhood, but I wasn’t that into Saints until a few years ago. Then I read Modern Saints by Ann Ball (volumes 1 and 2) and began to realize that the Saints are more than cool, they’re amazing. And I read The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas and saw for the first time the incredible power of storytelling in the service of evangelization. So I started to get to know the Saints as they really were, not the dull, whitewashed stories we’re usually handed, and now I just can’t get over them. You’ve been following my Saint stories over on Aleteia, right?

Downtime. I’m really extroverted. I can stay up for 30 hours if there are people to chat with. When I drive I have to listen to narrative-driven audiobooks because that’s close enough to social interaction to keep me awake; if there are no characters, I have to pull over to take a nap. So when I started hoboing (by which I mean a life of constant small talk every moment of every day forever) I thought it was awesome. I chatted all day every day (driving and prayer time aside) for 18 months before it was too much. Then I took a day to myself and was ready for more friends. But that kind of thing begins to wear on you and these days, I’m thrilled when people tell me they’re going out for the afternoon or–miracle of miracles–putting me in a hotel. For Easter this year, a stranger offered me her house while her family was out of town and I’m pretty sure I cried. I’m still an extrovert, I’m just also a human being and human beings need some time alone.

Books. I wouldn’t have thought I could love books more, but since I started using a Kindle for the sake of travel and general hoboness, I’ve become even more aware of how wonderful it is to hold a book in your hands, to mark in the margins, to flip to a random point and find a spot you once loved. I’m grateful that I can take hundreds of books with me when I’m abroad for two months, but it sure makes me miss real books.

InstagramSeriously, it’s the best social medium. No drama, just beauty and laughter and support. Plus, you don’t have to follow people back, so unlike Facebook (where my news feed is absolutely out of control) I only follow 22 people and it’s so manageable. And when I scroll through someone’s page, I don’t see controversial links or ugly formatting, just a glimpse of the beauty and struggle of their lives. Heart-eye emoji.

Being Known. It’s the desire of every human heart to love and be loved, to know and be known. When you spend your life with a constant stream of strangers (many of whom think they know you very well from your internet presence), you become very aware of how powerful it is to be known as you are, not just as you present yourself. One of the biggest ways this has been hitting me recently is in my constant battle to be called by my name. My name is Meg. It’s not Megan. It’s actually short for Margaret. It’s not Megan. At all. In any way. But several times a week, people call me Megan. Introduce me (on stage) as Megan. Advertise that Megan Kilmer is coming to speak. Hand me a name tag that says Megan. And I’m a ragey person with feelings that are far bigger than is healthy, so I correct gently while internally berating the entire world. It’s been happening even more recently, so I took it to prayer: “Lord, is this something I need to get over?” But names matter. And no, I shouldn’t be angry, but I don’t have to be okay with people calling me by the wrong name. Your name is your identity, it’s your self. When people confidently (and repeatedly) use the wrong name, they’re acting as though they know you while refusing to see you. I’m not accusing anybody of anything; I get that some people have memory issues or whatever. But when people know me–know my name, that I love lilacs, that I’m obsessed with Bl. Peter Kibe, that I loved country music in the 90s–I feel the gaze of the Father. I used to take that for granted.

DON’T:

Bananas. They’re disgusting. And I know, because I keep trying them. During the Triduum, I ate three and almost puked in my car. Please don’t feed me bananas.

Conflict. The trouble with being a public person, and especially a public person with an online presence, is that apparently you cease to be a person and are instead a target. People tend not to be terrible in person, though often enough they are.2 I know I should offer it up and rejoice to share in Christ’s sufferings and imitate the Lamb without blemish who opened not his mouth, but I just want to shred them. I’m too afraid of conflict, though, so instead I rehearse pithy responses in my head while saying nothing in actuality. Which is better than flying off the handle? But not much.

Talking about myself. Seriously. I used to joke that I didn’t need someone to introduce me–“I’ll talk about myself,” I’d say. “I’m my favorite topic.” But after 5 years of answering, “How did you decide to do this,” I’m over it. It’s all I can do to remind myself that repeating the answer to this question for the 3000th time is an act of charity. (But if you’re planning on having me to dinner, feel free to read the FAQ.)

Itinerancy. I do love seeing all of you, and if the time ever comes that I stop hoboing, I know I’ll miss having the freedom to spend time with everyone I love. But there’s a reason people live in a place, and for all it’s great to go all the places and do all the things, there’s a lot I would trade to be able to own clothes that don’t pack well and buy more chocolate than I can eat in one sitting.3

Twitter. I still don’t get it. There’s no room to say anything of substance and you can’t have real conversations because things get lost if you don’t tag stuff right. I’ll stick with Facebook, thanks.

I’m speaking all week at a big diocesan youth camp and thinking that one thing that hasn’t changed in 5 years is how much I love large groups and crowds of people to love. If you’ve got a conference or know someone who runs a conference (youth, women, men, everybody–I’m equal opportunity) and you’d like me to come, drop me a note. As of right now, everything in my life is a giant question mark once mid-August hits. We can add discernment and uncertainty to that list of things I don’t love more….

  1. And after the few nasty responses I got to the vulnerability in my Mother’s Day post, I didn’t want to risk dealing with the fallout. []
  2. I’m looking at you, man who stood up, restated my explanation that confession in the early Church happened in public, then said, “INCORRECT!” while pointing your finger at me. I was less gentle in correcting him than I usually am. []
  3. Everything melts. Everything. []

Duplicity

How cute were we?

I wrote this song a decade ago (with my brilliant sister‘s help on instrumentation and harmonies) but it came back into my head with a vengeance last week and I haven’t been able to get it out. All I could think is that one of you needed it, so here’s my very honest depiction of what my fancy words in prayer are often masking.

Feels like these days every time that I pray I seem to lie to you.
I say I want and I need and I love you completely, but it’s not true.
Cause when I raise my hands and close my eyes,
My lips can speak what my heart denies:

I want you!
        Or at least what you give me.
I need you!
        But just if it’s easy.

I’ll follow you!
        If you take me where I want to go.

I love you!
       Just don’t tell me no.

Looking for feelings or just understanding, it’s me I seek.
And if I want and I need and I love me completely, it’s not complete.
And if I raise my hands and close my eyes,
My lips can speak what my heart denies:

I want you!
        Or at least what you give me.
I need you!
        But just if it’s easy.

I’ll follow you!
        If you take me where I want to go.

I love you!
       Just don’t tell me no.

Cause if it’s all about me then I can’t even see your face.
And if I’m trying to prove you how can I be moved by your grace?
This is not what you planned when you held out your hand
And said, “Give your life up to be free.”
And I’m not the one with the work to be done.
All I can do is surrender to you and let your will be done to me.

Till I say, kneeling before you, I’m here to adore you. You’re all I need.
And to want you and need you and be yours completely, I’ve gotta let you lead.
I’ve gotta raise my hands and close my eyes,
Let my lips speak what my heart cries:

Shake me! Tear me from all my weakness.
And break me till I’m torn into pieces.
Then take my heart, make me what I’m meant to be.
I love you–this can’t be about me.

It’s a very rough recording, but there’s something about that line in the bridge, that image of Jesus gently reaching out his hand and saying, “Give your life up to be free,” that’s been speaking to me lately, or at least trying to. I go through phases in prayer, often just trying to sound good or to excite emotions or to *discern discern discern*1 and usually all he’s asking is for me to let him be God. Pray for me, will you?

  1. Goodness but I’m sick of discerning; when you have no constants in your life, though, there’s really no way around it []

What I Wish We Understood When It’s Not Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is hard for a lot of people. For birth mothers, for mothers who’ve lost children, for children who’ve lost mothers, for those who long to be mothers, for people who love any of the above. And you know what? The world seems to have figured this out.

Maybe I just have particularly kind and sensitive friends, but my news feed yesterday was filled with words of encouragement for those who struggle with Mother’s Day, with affirmations of spiritual motherhood, with acknowledgments of women who aren’t mothers in the traditional sense. It was beautiful. Women seeing other people’s pain through their joy and other people’s joy through their pain. And while Mother’s Day can be tough for an unmarried woman in her 30s, my heart was full with all the kindness I saw.

But today isn’t Mother’s Day. Or tomorrow. Or the next 362 days. For the next year, we go back to our own lives, where sometimes it’s hard to see any cross that isn’t similar to our own. So we complain about our overly-attentive mothers to people with absent and abusive mothers. Or we gush about the beauty of breastfeeding without noticing the tears in the eyes of a woman struggling to conceive.

I’m not saying don’t be real, don’t share your joy or your suffering. I’m saying remember that your way of being a woman is not the only way, your cross is not the only cross.

Let me come to you from a place of being single and childless. I am very blessed in that I understand kids and I’ve been a foster mother and I live in people’s homes surrounded by their children all the time, so in many circles I get a pass. I’m allowed to participate in the mom conversations that most childless women are excluded from. I manage, as a friend recently said, to “walk in every world,” so people talk to me about mastitis and let me discipline their kids and listen to my marriage advice. To the many, many married women who love me and let me share in your lives, thank you. I can’t imagine the mess I’d be if you didn’t look so thoroughly past the label and let me walk this with you.

But.

I’ve been told they’d never ask me to speak at a mom’s conference because I’m not a mom. Never mind that I’m a Christian and a woman and a spiritual mother and deeply involved in the lives of countless mothers and free of charge, I don’t count.

I’ve been told all people are selfish until they have children.

I’ve been told you can’t know love until you’ve had a child of your own.

I’ve given talks to women’s groups–more times than I can count–where there was not a single unmarried woman in the audience. Not one.

I’ve been told I can’t come to a particular women’s group–even once–because I’m not married. I’ve been told I can come to another just this once, “even though you’re not a mom.”

I’ve gotten blog comments (on a party about neither marriage nor children) saying, “I’m so sick of this author. She’s not married and doesn’t have any kids, so who is she to be telling anyone how to live?” Lady, if you don’t want to get advice from unmarried and childless people, you should probably pick a new Church because 95% of the priests and 95% of the Saints in the Catholic church have been childless and unmarried.

When people have found out I’m single, they’ve rushed to reassure me that they were single once, too, when they were 22, and they were so unhappy until God finally gave them their perfect husband, so don’t worry–he’s out there!!!!!

I’ve listened to platitude after platitude telling me it’ll be okay and God’s got a plan and you’re praying that I’ll get my happily ever after and I’m sorry did I tell you that I’m wasting away desperately longing for a man to fill my empty life? Did you think you needed to tell the missionary that God’s got a plan?

I’ve been told, by people who are evidently sure that they’re letting me in on a secret, that I shouldn’t pin my hopes on marriage because “marriage is hard, too”–which is good to know, because I definitely don’t know anyone who’s married, so I thought it was a 50-year romantic comedy.

None of it’s terrible. I know people who’ve heard much worse. I’m sure I’ve heard much worse, honestly. But the sum total of it all is that when you are an unmarried Catholic woman in your thirties, you feel very much as though you don’t count.

When you’re a single mother, you feel the same. When you’re a married woman in college, when you’re infertile, when you have so many kids you can’t volunteer at preschool, when your husband isn’t Catholic, when you’re an early empty-nester, when your kid has special needs, when you’re a working mom, when your kids are in public school, when you’re widowed young, when you’re raising grandkids. I expect that every one of us feels, at one time or another, that we don’t count because we don’t match the model of Catholic womanhood that our friend group (or the internet) presents us with.1

We often don’t say anything because it sounds like bitterness, to find pain in another’s joy. So we build walls of resentment between ourselves and the very well-meaning women who love us. We feel guilty for our selfishness and berate ourselves for not being happy for them.

I’ve spent more than a decade looking with great gladness on the beautiful lives of my beautiful friends thinking in the words of L.M. Montgomery (about an unmarried Anne Shirley visiting Diana and her sweet baby): “it is sometimes a little lonely to be surrounded everywhere by a happiness that is not your own.” I rejoice in the good things in your life. I grieve over your deep suffering. I want to share in what I understand and in what I don’t. I don’t want to compete over who’s more tired or who’s bearing more fruit. I envy you, but I try not to. I sometimes gloat internally, but I try even harder not to do that.

All I’m saying is this: it’s hard. Being a mom is hard. Being childless is hard. Being in an abusive relationship is hard. Being trapped in a small town is hard. Being completely unrooted is hard. Having a job is hard. Being unemployed is hard. It’s just hard. All of it.

One day a year, many of us have learned to consider what might be hard for other people, how different lives involve different crosses and how we can respect that. I’m just wondering if we can be more mindful of the way people are different from us.

  • If your girlfriend has a pack of kids ask if you can bring ice cream after bedtime or get a sitter so the two of you can grab coffee.
  • If you’ve got a close friend struggling with infertility, ask her if she wants to come along for ultrasounds or would rather have you talk as little as possible about pregnancy stuff around her.
  • If your friend is divorced, consider that your moms’ group shouldn’t read a book about marriage.
  • If your friend is single, either find someone great2 to set her up with or shut your mouth about how “fun” it must be to be single or about how she should really try Catholic Match.
  • Ask advice of a friend who “shouldn’t” have any–parenting advice of the childless, dating advice of the long-married, career advice of the stay-at-home mom. She may not have much input, but actually she may. You don’t need to have experienced something firsthand to have wisdom on the matter and often being well on the outside of a situation can give you some perspective.
  • Cultivate friendships with women in different phases of life. It’s unnatural that nearly all of our friends are living just as we’re living–it was never that way in the village. The more varied your relationships (widows, young moms, moms of teens, consecrated women, young professionals) the harder it is to be insensitive to struggles that are not your own.
  • When your friend shares her deep pain with you, DO NOT respond with, “Yeah, well, at least you don’t [have the cross I have that you would love to have/have the cross I have that’s so much worse than yours and so your pain doesn’t count].” Do not use your cross as a bludgeon against those who carry a different one.
  • Don’t try to fix it.
  • Don’t feel you have to give advice or say anything other than, “Oh, friend. I’m so sorry. That’s really hard.”
  • Listen and love.

I don’t want to feed into a culture that delights in getting offended.3 But when we surround ourselves with people who are just like us, it becomes very easy to alienate and to begin to mold the Gospel in our own image. You don’t need to censor everything you ever do for the sake of some woman who might be hurt by your joy. Just consider that in your happiness, there may be someone lonely. Do what you can to build bridges, not walls.

 

(Before you comment, will you please just ask yourself if it’s a platitude? Nobody needs to hear, “God’s got a plan” or “You’re still young.” Thanks.)

  1. Forget the fact that female Saints run the gamut from scholar to harlot and working mom to homeschooler to single mom. We ignore the Saints and see only the alienation the Devil wants us to see. []
  2. Not just the only guy who’s left. []
  3. I’m generally rather hard to offend unless you’re actually attacking me personally. But I write on the einternet, so that’s a lot. []

16 from 2016

What with being on pilgrimage and all, I sort of missed the New Year. Then I remembered that a recap of the year in pictures has sort of become a tradition (2013, 2014, 2015). So without further ado, some highlights of my year.

This year, I spent a lot of time snuggling babies.

This is my godson Elijah. Also I had an insane amount of hair–it didn’t seem like that much at the time!

After 4 years (and 130,000 miles) of a very temperamental car/home, I got a brand new one!

Meet Stella!

I visited a lot of Saints. At least 100, I’d guess–that I knew of.

Pictured: St. Bernadette. Not her statue, her actual dead body. Looks like she’s napping, huh? Only Catholics see the body of a long-dead person (looking entirely healthy) and ask if it’s a statue or a real body.

I fell in love with the Sacred Heart.

The image from Paray-le-Monial, where he first appeared to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque.

I visited Lourdes, Fatima, and Champion, WI (the only approved Marian apparition in the States).

I got dolled up for a few weddings.

See my fancy hat for the wedding I went to in England? Full disclosure: it was a repurposed centerpiece. But I think I looked adorable (and I was entirely sober).

I visited Spain and Portugal for the first time.

A Roman aqueduct in beautiful Segovia, Spain.

And finally made it to my 50th state.

I hiked a glacier! I also saw moose, orcas, belugas, Iditarod dogs, and the Northern Lights (3 times). And went deep sea fishing. I’m pretty sure I won Alaska.

I had lots of fun with lots of kids.

I dragged this suitcase to 8 countries (though only one cemetery, I’m pretty sure).

 

What? Anything to visit Chesterton.

I made some amazing new friends.

First time at a prison!

And spent beautiful time with some old ones (real and fictional).

Reread the first 5 Anne books this year and started reading the first to my niece. I love her even more now than I did the last time I read them!

I took some amazing young people to France, Spain, and Portugal,

others to Italy,

and some on a pilgrimage a little closer to home.

The highlight of the year, though? Every minute spent with Him.

 

My Jesus Year (Death Wishes You Shouldn’t Worry About)

When I was 18 I was in the throes of intense vocational discernment (perhaps better described as grabbing Jesus by the throat and demanding that he tell me I didn’t have to be a nun). After months of talking to God only about myself–and ignoring any contribution he might try to make to my prayer time–I realized that I had a problem and decided to fast from discernment for a month. Only a month because I had already committed to spending that summer with the Missionaries of Charity and figured it would be a waste not to discern while I was literally living in a convent for an entire summer.

So I spent 30 days trying not to pray about my vocation. It was incredibly freeing, giving me time to love on God instead of just demanding that he act as a magic eight ball for me. The day before this fast was supposed to end was June 21st, the feast of St. Aloysius Gonzaga. Father began his homily with this line: “St. Aloysius Gonzaga died when he was 24 years old.”1 Suddenly it hit me: what if I’m going to die when I’m 24? What if I’m wasting all this time obsessing about a vocation that I don’t even have because I’m going to die young?

It’s not as morbid a thought as it sounds. In fact, if heaven is the goal of your life, it’s not morbid at all. And while I went on to discern and plan for a long life, there was a part of me that didn’t think it would happen. To the point that I was actually disappointed when I turned 25. I remember sitting in the car, driving back from a retreat, and sighing when the clock hit midnight. “Ah, well. Looks like I’m not getting off the hook that easy.” So I prepared to live.

"Hang on, Jesus, I just need to finish respectfully lambasting the Holy Father before you take me home."
“Hang on, Jesus, I just need to finish respectfully lambasting the Holy Father before you take me home.”

But not all the cool Saints died at 24. A bunch died at 33.2 And this year, I’m 33.

I spent last week with my marvelously inquisitive 5-year-old godson. All week we were talking about Saints, about martyrs who were killed because they were telling people about Jesus. As I was leaving, not to return for another year, he looked miserable. “Hugo, my love, I have to go. I have to go tell people about Jesus!”

Very seriously but without a trace of sorrow, he asked, “And will you be killed?”

I responded honestly, “Probably not. Probably I’m going to be just fine. But if I die, is that a sad ending?”

“No,” he said, with absolute conviction.

“No. You’re allowed to be sad, but it’s not really a sad ending because I’ll get to go be with Jesus.” He nodded solemnly, gravely agreeing with my assessment.

Of course, he doesn’t really understand death. But he gets it more than most of us do. I have a habit of flippantly mentioning my desire to be a martyr,3 to which most people respond, “That’s so depressing!”

But it’s not. Arrogant, yes—presuming that I’ll have the fortitude to withstand threats and torture and death. But it’s not depressing because the death of a Christian is not a tragedy except for those left behind. I remind my poor mother of this from time to time. For all I’m shockingly guarded by Providence, I do live a fairly reckless life and I think it’s good to have my bases covered. “Remember,” I say, “the goal of my life is to die well. If I die doing God’s will, that’s not tragic.” It’s the beginning of a marvelous adventure.4

For years, the passage of the Chronicles of Narnia that’s struck me the most powerfully has been the desperate longing of the mouse Reepicheep to make his way to Aslan’s country:

pauline-baynes-dawn-treader“My own plans are made. While I can, I sail east in the Dawn Treader. When she fails me, I paddle east in my coracle. When she sinks, I shall swim east with my four paws. And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan’s country, or shot over the edge of the world into some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise.”

On my best days, this is how I feel. I just want so badly to go home. This world is beautiful and you people are amazing and I’m so grateful for the work I’m able to do, but I miss my Father and I want to sit with my Love. I feel like I’m on an extended, arduous trip abroad, far from friends and family and everyone who loves me. And it’s wonderful and exotic here and I’m meeting all kinds of marvelous people, but I want to go home.

Except that I’m not actually ready yet. Emotionally, perhaps; but morally and spiritually I need major work. So he leaves me here to let me grow, much though I’d rather be a poor, weak Christian in my Father’s lap than a mature Christian far from him. But he loves watching me grow, so here I am.

I’ve spent the week since I turned 335 thinking about death. It’s a sign of how much I’m formed by this world that I feel the need to tell you again and again not to worry about me. I think about death the way I think about going on a cruise one day—it will be amazing and I’m not going to do a thing to hasten its advent.

Odds are good this isn’t the year I die. So I’ve been asking the Lord what else it means to be 33, to spend a year the age he was when he laid down his life for his loved ones. And it’s got me wondering if maybe the point of all this isn’t to prepare me for imminent death but to prepare me to be like Christ in all things. I ought to focus on all this every year, but maybe I can double down this year and see if it sticks once I get past the mild disappointment of turning 34.

What did Jesus do the year he was 33? He loved deeply. He listened to people with broken hearts. He spoke truth, whatever the cost. He went away to pray, even when it meant abandoning people who were certain that they needed him more than he needed the Father. He forgave those who loved themselves more than they loved him. He brought new life to the dead, both physically and spiritually. He sacrificed himself again and again in the days leading up to his one sacrifice for all. He allowed people to love him. He walked into hard places to do hard things he could easily have avoided. He laid down his life every day.

That’s what my Jesus year needs to be: learning a thousand times to die to myself and live for him.

A few years ago, my birthday fell on Sunday so I got different readings from the usual St. Matthew ones. The Epistle struck me: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain,” Paul said.6 Ever since, it’s been this verse I come back to on days when I long for heaven, either out of love of Christ or despair over the state of this world. It will be marvelous to go home, but until then, let me be Christ in this world.

to-live-is-christ-homescreen

 

  1. Turns out he was 23. I wonder if my life would have played out differently if he’d gotten that right. []
  2. Okay, my research is only turning up Catherine of Siena and Jesus, but statistics suggest that there have to be more than that. Why aren’t there websites that list Saints by age at the time of death? Come on, internet. []
  3. “I stay at strangers’ houses. If somebody tries to serial kill me, I’m going to yell, “I love Jesus!” while they do it and then I’ll be a martyr. Jackpot.” []
  4. If you’ll excuse me paraphrasing Robin Williams in Hook. []
  5. Happy octave of my birthday to me! []
  6. Philippians 1:21 []

What Keeps Me Going: Doing His Work

My last post was a glimpse into how God speaks to me in prayer, even when I don’t notice. Even more often, I find he speaks through me, often also when I have no idea he’s doing anything particular. Twice this summer I was blown away by his power at work in me, so stunned by his goodness that I just couldn’t help but share.

The Right Place at the Right Time

img_20160620_232608
Meh. I’ve seen worse.

I was at a super posh school in England. So posh you thought you were driving up to Pemberley when you approached the school. So I was a little nervous, because that kind of school isn’t always thrilled with the “Stop sinning, Jesus is all that matters” message I give. But I knew the Lord had sent me, so off I went to shout about Jesus.

The kids were pretty good, laughing in all the right places and generally attentive. I wasn’t expecting much in the way of conversation afterward, but I told them I’d be around if they wanted to chat.

As most of them filed out of the gym, eight or ten of the cool girls walked up to me.

“You were talking about, like, not drinking and not dating boys,” the leader said. “What did you mean by that?”

Interesting, because I’d said hardly anything about either. But okay. So I talked a little about drinking in moderation and dating.

“Don’t date boys, though, date men. Boys treat you like a thing, men treat you like a person. But you’re too young to date men, so I’d say it’s best not to date at all right now. When you get out of high school and start dating, remember this: you’re looking for a man who’s going to love you like Jesus does, who’s going to be crucified for you.” On and on, with the usual “you’re so beautiful” and “God loves you so much.”

Until one of them started crying. “I wish you’d come a few years ago.”

And I pulled her into a hug and kept telling her how God loves her and she doesn’t deserve to be treated badly and God wants to forgive her. And girl after girl started to cry.

“Girls, if I had a priest you were never going to see again, would any of you want to go to confession?”

The leader of the pack’s hand shot into the air and I motioned to my friend, whose husband is a Catholic priest. “Will you ask Father if he can hear confessions?”

Then I stood for an hour in the hallway while most of these girls went in to confession with an incredibly compassionate priest. (If you’re a woman concerned with how a priest will handle your very painful confession, a married hospital chaplain is a good bet.) Each one came out crying and I hugged her, telling her how proud I was, reminding her that she was brand new, that she never had to confess those sins again.

img_20160826_164438Some took a little more persuading than others. One girl in particular sat silently crying for nearly an hour, shaking her head every time I suggested that she go to confession. Finally, when there was only one girl left with her, she looked at me solemnly and asked, “Do you think I should go?”

“Honey, we just ripped the scabs off some really deep wounds. You can go in and get healing or you can just keep bleeding and hurting. I promise you’ll feel better.” Off she went.

I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve given some variation of that talk at least a hundred times. It was so obviously the Holy Spirit who had spoken to them, the Holy Spirit who had sent them to talk to me, the Holy Spirit who had put a girl who believed in confession in the alpha position in the group. It was the Holy Spirit who’d sent that priest with me, the Holy Spirit who’d given us a believing teacher who was happy to excuse the girls from missed classes. I was stunned and thrilled and absolutely overwhelmed by God whose mercy is powerfully at work even when I’ve written people off.

Who knows how long-lasting that moment of conversion will be? But on that June day, those girls knew that they were loved. Whatever happens next, I pray that the devil doesn’t rob them of that feeling of love and mercy. If they can look back and remember that, God will continue to do amazing things.

God Speaks When I Write, Too

I didn’t start this blog because I wanted to be a blogger or a writer. I didn’t start it because I thought I could make any difference with what I write. I don’t really consider myself a writer.1 I only really write so that people will hear about me and invite me to come speak. That’s always felt more like my real mission. And sometimes (the last several months?) I don’t manage to write anything at all because it doesn’t seem like the best use of my time when there are talks to give and people to counsel.

God’s blessed me with a lot of positive feedback about my blog from people who’ve really encountered him through the words he gives me. And often they approach me and tell me the ways he’s used my blog to speak to them. But this one was particularly striking.

“Your blog made me Catholic,” she said.

“Aw, praise God! Thanks so much!” I assumed she meant she’d been looking for truth, had been searching for explanations on the Eucharist or Church authority or something, and had found my apologetics articles. It’s very exciting to have been a part of that process, but I’m not saying anything every other apologist isn’t saying. And if you were searching, the Lord was going to lead you to truth eventually.

“I was raised Catholic but had become an evangelical years before. I was actually an evangelical missionary. I had two degrees from evangelical schools and a friend of mine who’s an Anglican priest shared your Advice to Priests.”

“Oh, and you got sucked down the rabbit hole?”

“Nope, I just read that one. And suddenly I realized how much I was missing. I saw this beauty and power and love and I wanted to come home.”

“Wait, you only read my advice to priests? And that did it?”

Just call me Catherine of Siena.
Just call me Catherine of Siena.

“I just knew I needed the Eucharist and confession and all of it. So I went to confession and went back to Mass. And the next week I told my boss that I’d gone to a Catholic church. ‘To evangelize them?’ she asked. ‘No, to worship.’ And I was fired.”

I was stunned. Here was this piece that wasn’t for her. It wasn’t for lay people and it wasn’t for Protestants. But God works where he wills, and this was, somehow, what she needed not only to reconsider the faith of her childhood but to embrace it even at the cost of her livelihood.2 This was clearly God’s work, not mine.

 

I hope it doesn’t come across as bragging, this pair of praise reports, because none of it had anything to do with me. Each of these occasions came as a total surprise to me, as I trudged through my ordinary work. There are times when I know my talk was spot on or a piece I wrote was really powerful, and I can praise God when results come from those things, but they’re God’s work through my gifts. These two are God’s work despite my misgivings or distraction or whatever. And that’s an incredibly humbling thing, both to see what he can do in spite of my best efforts and to wonder what he could do if I were better at getting out of the way.

It does get me wondering: how many people will we meet in eternity who owe their salvation to something we did, never knowing it would impact anyone? Not even something so big as a talk or a blog post, just a smile at the sign of peace or a comment on a Facebook post. Every thing we do ripples into eternity, for good or for ill. May God use us well and may we surrender completely to him.

 

  1. Not fishing for compliments here. I know I do it pretty well, it’s just not really my thing. []
  2. She got another job eventually and is doing fine, though please say a prayer for her mother who’s dying. []

What Keeps Me Going: Hearing His Voice

I live an incredible life. I’m shockingly blessed, getting to visit amazing places and encounter marvelous people. I’m privileged to walk with people as they come back to the Lord or encounter him in a personal way for the first time. Believe me, I’m grateful for my life.

But it’s not always easy. For every exotic location, there’s a 12-hour drive. For every amazing meal, there’s a lunch of cheez-its.1 For every new friendship, there’s an hour of longing for consistent community. And with the online detractors and uninterested audiences and awkward hosts, it can be really tough to keep going.

The Lord knows that I’m weak, though, so he keeps filling my heart by showing me how he’s working in me, often despite my best efforts. Here’s a glimpse into two of these amazing moments.

Hearing His Voice

I was at an evangelization conference in London, surrounded by people who know the Lord intimately. They kept talking about Jesus telling them very specific things when evangelizing people. “God told me someone in the crowd was suffering from divorce,” “the Lord sent me to talk to an old man,” that kind of stuff. And I kept listening to them and getting more and more discouraged. These people are straight out of the book of Acts, hearing God send them to specific people with specific words. Meanwhile, I’m just sowing seed on any soil I can reach. Maybe I’m doing this wrong. Maybe I don’t really know him the way I think I know him.

I sure didn't look mopey, but what can I say? I'm a born performer.
I sure didn’t look mopey, but what can I say? I’m a born performer.

So I was all mopey about how everybody else is a better pray-er than me, and suddenly it was time to go give a talk. I wasn’t feeling it, but the show must go on. I knew, though, that I needed someone to pray over me–now. So I started walking through Leicester Square looking for somebody to ask. Now, I’ve maybe felt a need to be prayed over four or five times in the last four years. But I was desperate for it, and suddenly I saw a guy I’d met a few nights before. I knew nothing about him beyond his name, but I walked straight up to him and asked him. “Will you pray over me?”

Now, this was a very charismatic conference, packed with people for whom this wouldn’t be an odd request. So when he looked startled and just said, “No,” I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I’ll pray for you. But I can’t pray over you!” Okay. So I found some nuns, got prayed over, and went on about my day.

I didn’t think anything of it until he came and found me later.

“I’m really sorry about earlier.”

“No worries, I get it. It was a random request.”

“Well no, it’s just that…when I heard you speak the other day,” (in a talk that wasn’t about prayer at all) “I just knew that I needed to be better about praying with and over people. But I was so uncomfortable with the idea that I kept trying to push it back. This morning, I couldn’t get it out of my head that this is what God is asking me to do. And then you walk up out of nowhere and straight up ask me to do it? It was too much. But now I know: I have to have the courage to pray over people. Thank you.”

Turns out you can hear and follow God’s prompting without even knowing it. I wonder how often God’s doing amazing things like that–through all of us–and we don’t notice.

When God Speaks in Prayer

I was visiting a town I’ve been to a few times before. One of the ladies there is a particular favorite of mine. I don’t know her terribly well but we’ve spent a good 10 hours in conversation over the last few years, so she’s definitely no stranger.

The day I got to town, I was in prayer and I felt that I needed to pray for her and the babies she’s lost. It was a weird thought, since she’s never told me such a thing, but I did. I meant to bring it up when I saw her the next day, but it seemed out of place, so I let it go. Probably just a random thought.

2016-07-31-19-59-52A few days later we were visiting and out of nowhere she mentioned these babies–lost nearly 20 years ago. So we began talking about them and she started to cry and said she’s never told her friends and never cried about them before. She felt so much guilt over not having mourned them properly, about even feeling relieved when she lost them, what with the insanity of her life at the time, and I could see this incredible pain in her eyes.

And there I was, able to tell her that the Lord had asked me to pray for them and for her. That he’d ordained this conversation, called her to open up and called me to love her through this. I told her that it was okay that she had been in survival mode and that during this Year of Mercy God wants to finally let her grieve and be healed. And we talked about how they’re praying for her and they forgive her for the feelings she couldn’t control. She walked away ready to name her babies and ask their intercession and experience mercy and healing.

This is the kind of conversation I’m blessed to have pretty frequently. But the fact that the Lord had put it on my heart to pray for these children before I even knew they existed just made it so powerful. It was such an affirmation that God speaks in prayer, even when you don’t realize it’s him.

 

And that’s why I keep going. Because I don’t have to know what he’s doing to know he’s working. I don’t have to sense that he’s speaking for him to speak. I don’t even need constant evidence that I’m in his will or that it’s not all in vain. But every once in a while it sure does help.

 

  1. Okay, the cheez-it lunches far outnumber the amazing meals. It keeps me svelte. []

Candles in the Rain: On Community

A few months ago, in the midst of my whirlwind pilgrimage around France, I had the opportunity to visit Lourdes for the first time. We arrived in the early evening, settled into our hotel, and sat down for dinner. As soon as the dishes were cleared away, we were off again, headed to the main square for a candlelit procession. It had been raining off and on all day but my phone wouldn’t connect to the hotel’s wifi to tell me the forecast and the patch of sky I could see from the door was blue, so I decided to chance it, heading down to the outdoor ceremony with only a denim jacket to protect me from the elements.

Wrong choice.

I’m not usually one for extra ceremony in the best of circumstances, preferring silent time to pray as I like over litanies and processions, so I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit for this rosary parade. But I’m always ready to try to have the full experience (and I wanted to set a good example to the young people) so I bought my 50-cent candle with its very flammable paper bobeche1 and off I went.

The procession started out as expected, with a chanted Latin credo I only knew one word in twenty of2 and hundreds of people walking slowly around the square behind a large statue of the Blessed Mother. Not long into the second decade (led in various different languages) it started to rain. I took a deep breath, offered it up, and kept going, shielding the flame on my taper candle more carefully. The rain got heavier, and my candle was out. So I lit it again off a friend. And once more off a stranger. I shared the light with various people around me, all the while wishing I’d brought my umbrella.

After 3 or 4 times relighting my candle, I gave up. If I’d been there alone, I would long since have gone back to the hotel, but I wasn’t going to leave my friends, so on I trudged, sopping paper dangling from my dripping candle, rain running down my face.

IMG_3902Eventually, someone with an extra umbrella offered it to me, as people around us did for any number of strangers. I invited a friend to share my umbrella, and we kept walking, finally arriving at the front of the square to finish the rosary in lashing rain. The pilgrims around me were cold and bedraggled, each holding an unlit candle.

Then out came the sun, as though she hadn’t abandoned us for nearly the whole ceremony. Tentatively we put away our umbrellas, but the sky promised to remain closed and the whole party seemed to breathe a sigh of relief as we prepared to dry out.

As soon as my umbrella was down, Jared, for whom I’d been holding the umbrella, was gone. I was ticked, thinking only (of course) of myself, of the sacrifices I’d made to hold the umbrella for him and he didn’t even have the courtesy to stand by me when he didn’t need me any more.3

And suddenly he was back, holding out a lit candle to relight mine.

I’d forgotten about candles. It had been impossible to keep mine lit, but evidently somebody, somewhere had managed it. And Jared had remembered why we were there when I’d forgotten anything but self-pity. He handed on the flame and I was off, lighting candles for friends and strangers.

Some sputtered out immediately. “Don’t worry about it,” one young woman said after the third failed attempt. “My wick’s too wet.”

“Then we’ll dry it out,” I said, holding my candle to hers for 2 or 3 minutes until the flame finally burned clean and strong.

“My wick broke off,” another friend said. “It can’t light. But it’s fine.”

“It’s not fine. I’ll melt the wax down until you have a wick again.” Another few minutes, holding my flame to her useless wax stick until it became a candle again.

I held my hand to block the wind for some and fished candles out of backpacks. On and on, the flame spreading, until once again we were a candlelit crowd. And the whole time, all I could think was what a parable it all was.

We’re given this light of faith at baptism, and maybe you cherish it. Maybe you protect it, turning to the community to rekindle it when the difficulties of the world extinguish it.

But it gets too hard. Again and again you light the candle. Again and again the flame is snuffed out until you can’t see anyone around you with a flame and it just seems futile. So you put away the candle and keep trudging through the dim light. Eventually you forget that there ever was a candle and you get used to the darkness.

Until someone walks up beside you and offers you a light. You remember again what this is about. Maybe you’re like me, forcing that flame on everyone around you. But maybe you’re too discouraged. “Don’t worry about it, it won’t work.”

Fortunately, you’ve got a friend who won’t settle for that. “You can’t carry this flame right now, but I can carry it for you. I can stand with you and love you and hold my faith up until God burns away the brokenness and rekindles the light of faith in you.”

This is why we need Christian community. Every one of us4 needs people to remind us of the faith that once drove us. We need to people to fight our battles for us, people to stand with us to protect our faith, and people who we can encourage and support.

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I tell you what, I felt like a hero that evening. I was saving the day left, right, and center with that flame. But I never would have had it if Jared hadn’t remembered what I’d forgotten. I’m blessed to spend a lot of my life lighting people’s candles, but it’s only possible because of the community that supports me, praying for me, holding an umbrella, offering me a light.

We need each other, you and I. We need friends and strangers to keep these flames lit. We need real community, not just handshakes before Mass starts. We need to know each other and love each other if we’re going to hold each other up.

I hope you’ve got people walking with you, helping you keep your candle lit. If you don’t, don’t settle for that. God wants you to live in community and community is possible. So pray for it and then go out and find it. Start a Bible study, join the Altar guild, meet your evangelical neighbors.

Community might not look like a whole bunch of people the same age, race, and marital status talking about things they already agree on—all the better! Get coffee with the little old ladies who pray the rosary every day before Mass. Offer to babysit for that mom your daughter’s age. Invite Father over for dinner. Serve the Church. Because, with rare exception, real Christian community doesn’t just happen. It’s sought and built and fought for. But it’s worth it.

  1. Apparently that’s the word for the cup thing that they put around candles at church to keep the wax from going everywhere. Who knew? []
  2. Don’t worry, I sang the few passages I knew triumphantly. Et ascendit in caelo!! []
  3. I get double cranky when I’m cold and wet. []
  4. Unless God has called you to be a hermit, which he almost certainly hasn’t. []