I have a colorful scar from a serious illness. When I first got sick, I delayed going to the doctor for treatment because, at the time, I didn’t recognize the meaning of the symptoms I experienced in my body. However, my doctor now says there is a 50% chance of having this problem again, so I’ve been on high alert for symptoms ever since. Going to the doctor as soon as I notice something will (hopefully) keep it from becoming so acute.
Periodically I notice a slight ache or pain. When this happens, I immediately pay attention to every symptom and try to assess if the illness is coming back. But I’ve noticed that the scar area will hurt for a little while and then go away. Now that I’ve realized moderate discomfort doesn’t signal impending doom, it’s become a source of amusement. (I guess that’s been my way of keeping myself from being overly anxious).
I’ve chosen to look at it as though it were Frodo’s stab wound from Weathertop in The Lord of the Rings. Because the injury profoundly affected Frodo, it occasionally bothers him on anniversaries and other significant days. In this spirit, I’ve chosen to view this sporadic pain as a reminder of what I’ve been through and an invitation to prayer and gratitude.
As I pondered this phenomenon, I realized it might be helpful for me to view other parts of my life in a similar fashion. After returning from the convent, I was extremely distraught and in a great deal of misery. Fortunately, as time has gone on, this has slackened. But on occasion, I am still confronted with a dull pang of sadness or some other emotion.
This used to make me fearful because I wondered if I was about to spiral back into the crying, mourning, and active grief. But now I recognize that it’s simply a reminder of a very significant event in my life.
I need these reminders because I have a tendency to want to rush forward to the next thing, especially if the previous time was difficult. For example, I say: “Being sick was awful, but I feel better now, so I’d prefer to forget about it.” Or, “My time in religious life radically changed the course of my life, but can I please just move on?”
But then that twinge of sorrow, longing, or ache hits me. Sometimes it’s more subtle than others. But I need to give heed to these feelings. If you ignore a small child tugging on your clothing and wanting to be noticed, he or she will either start screaming or tragically give up.
I don’t want my important life experiences to suffer from either extreme. Instead, I need to let that gentle nudge be enough to help me remember what I’ve been through and show reverence, love, and respect to my experience. I now see that it’s an invitation to pray for deeper healing and grieve this time more fully.
Let us all pray for each other during these times, especially when memories unexpectedly pop up. When you are confronted with old pain, how do you respond? I would love to hear about it.
Like many people, I suddenly started to work from home in March 2020 because of the government lockdowns. I was at home and in my neighborhood all day long. When the weather was nice, I would sit in the backyard during my lunch break. I intended to read or pray, but instead, I often found myself just looking around.
During that time, I began to notice the patterns of the animals. I saw squirrels, chipmunks, and various birds like woodpeckers going about their day. But for some reason, I was intrigued by the cardinals, and I began to notice them everywhere. When I saw one, I felt like God was saying “hi,” and they became a little ray of light in my life.
How did it come to this? I’m not entirely sure. I do know that I was initially resistant. However, I slowly became more open to noticing this little “hello” during this time of anxiety and loneliness.
Over that year, I became more aware and alert. As a result, I began to notice cardinals all over the place. I would see a cardinal mug in a shop window or a decorative cardinal in someone’s yard while out for a walk. Though these were not live birds, I still felt that God was saying “hello.” I needed to be open to a new way of communicating. If I had been stuck in the mindset of “live birds only,” I would have missed these cardinals.
In my life, I know I have a tendency to be very black and white, and I am extremely disappointed and hurt when I feel that others aren’t showing me love in the “right way.” But the Lord showed me and taught me other variations of the same message.
I also learned the songs of the cardinal, which helped me notice their presence even more often. The sound of a cardinal told me that it was nearby. I got into the habit of stopping my walk when I’d hear the cardinal and try to find it. But there were many times when I could not locate the bird itself even though I could hear it. This helped illustrate a spiritual truth I have heard in various ways: just because you can’t “see” God doesn’t mean He’s not there. What other senses can you use?
I also noticed something funny about myself while trying to find cardinals. I would hear the song but couldn’t get a clear sense of where it was coming from. When trying to find the bird, I would always look up into the tall trees. But after straining to find the bird, I would often see it perched in a low bush. A great reminder of humility! Look down!
I have found all of this to be a beautiful analogy of the spiritual life. I have struggled with the idea that God has a particular love for me, and I have wondered if He pays me any attention. This has been even more pronounced after returning to lay life.
Because of this, I have been trying to become more aware of God’s presence, and I’ve prayed specifically to vibrate at the Spirit’s touch (Novo millennio ineunte, Pope John Paul II). My experience with cardinals has helped me a great deal in this regard.
I once heard a story about a woman who was returning to her faith. She would find dimes (small American coins) and felt they were a way that God was expressing his love to her. With some amount of bitterness and resentment I thought, “well isn’t that nice? Good for you. God doesn’t show His love to me.” I also found it strange that she took such a meaning from something so simple. But now I can begin to understand that story because I’ve been experiencing something similar.
St. Therese speaks about the bird trusting that the sun exists behind the clouds, even though the bird cannot see it. Now that we know about UV rays, etc., we have other ways to demonstrate the presence of the sun even when one cannot see it. I feel that way with the cardinals. I don’t need to see them to know they are there once I know their song. And now that I know they live nearby, I don’t even need to see or hear them to know they are present.
During that spring and summer, I noticed the cardinals were everywhere. But then, sometime in the fall, it seemed as though they disappeared. These birds do not migrate. Yet, I did not hear them or see them anymore. Did God no longer care?
As I struggled with my own faith and various wounds, the lack of this sign became more difficult. After all of the gentle reminders of His presence, the absence became harder and harder as time passed. I tried to remind myself of His presence and the truths I had learned, but it was incredibly difficult.
After what seemed like forever, they began to return! I hadn’t noticed before how much Christmas decor features the cardinal. There they were, saying hello to me on a Christmas card from a friend or on the ornaments on my parents’ Christmas tree.
Now I suddenly see and hear the birds again! It’s bitterly cold, and the snow just keeps piling up. And yet they are here. Spring seems impossible, but the birds tell me that it is coming.
Throughout that year, I learned much about the Lord through the cardinals. Have you experienced anything similar? Please share your comments below!
Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says: “You shall indeed hear but not understand, you shall indeed look but never see. Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and be converted, and I heal them.” But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear. Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.
One of my favorite things is praying in the church when the only light is the gentle glow of the sanctuary lamp. It reminds me that no matter how dark things get, as long as Jesus is with me there will be light. And He is always with me. I need only turn my gaze to Him. As St. Elizabeth of the Trinity prays, “O my beloved Star, so fascinate me that I may not withdraw from Your radiance.”
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
This verse at the beginning of John has always intrigued me. The tense “has not” seems to allude to my own human uncertainty and the necessity of remembrance. When I am in darkness, I can wonder if we will ever see the light again. I can wonder if we will ever find happiness. I can wonder if God is love. But the darkness has not overcome the light. I can remember how God has come through, not just for His people but also in my own life. He who said, “let there be light” (Genesis 1) wants to speak those words into the dark corners of my heart and re-kindle Christ’s life within me.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2).
There may be times when it seems like light has vanished, but somehow in some way, it returns. In Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis reflects on how “the star is as much a character in this drama as are the Magi, Herod, and the Child. It appears and disappears at will; and it moves with total certainty and obedience toward the place that draws it toward itself.”
Just like the Magi, there may be moments when I cannot see the Great Light. But that doesn’t mean He isn’t there, continuing to guide me home. Even in the darkness.
“Even the darkness is not dark to you, the night is as bright as the day; for darkness is as light with you” (Psalm 139).
When I am in darkness, when I want light, I sometimes think I find myself asking for the wrong thing. This light isn’t consolation. It isn’t knowing what is going on or where to go. This light is the light of a God who is with me. A God who reveals Himself as Emmanuel. This is the light that isn’t overcome.
That is why “they will need no light from a lamp or the sun…” and “awake o sleeper arise from death and Christ will give you light” (Ephesians 5:14). That is, Christ will give me Himself. When I ask for light, I need to remember that I am asking for someone and not something.
As St. Bernard writes, “It is good for me to be sad, O Lord, as long as you are with me, rather than to be a king apart from you, to feast without you, to boast without you. It is better for me to embrace you in tribulation, to have you with me in the furnace, than to be without you in heaven” (Office of Readings for St. Pancras, Martyr).
The light is a person. The light is Jesus. The light is Emmanuel, God-with-us.
“I am the light of the world; he who follows me will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
Light, and our interaction with it, is fascinating. Our eyes do not see the objects themselves, but rather the light that is reflected by the objects. If there is no light, I cannot see. And this is very true for the spiritual life. I cannot truly see other people, situations, or things apart from Him.
When I cry out, “Master, I want to see!” it is the same as saying, “Master, Jesus, I want You!” I want You to be near me. I need You in order to see, because without you—without the light of the world—I am merely grasping at shadows. I want to see things as they really are. I want to see them in Your light.
Advent is my favorite season of the liturgical year. But all the liturgical seasons are different for me now than when I was in consecrated life. The hustle and bustle, invitations, social expectations, shopping for gifts…it’s a far cry from the quiet preparation I had become accustomed to. It can be a challenge even to find time for a few moments of prayer each day.
How is it possible to make myself worthy of celebrating Christmas when I can’t enter into Advent the way I want to?
The good news is: I don’t need to make myself worthy. In fact, I cannot make myself worthy.
Even if I am faithful to my Advent meditation every day. Even if I dutifully light the colored candles of my wreath. Even if I resist materialism and put up my Christmas tree at the “proper” time. Even if I put a piece of hay in a little manger for every sacrifice, making it soft for Jesus.
Even if I do all of this, as good as it may be, I cannot make myself worthy of Christmas. I don’t earn the right to celebrate the Incarnation by behaving well during Advent. Jesus alone can make me worthy!
On Monday of the first week of Advent, we heard the Gospel of the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant. When Jesus makes it known that he will go and heal the servant, the centurion protests, in words that have become very familiar to us:
“Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed” (Mt. 8:8).
We make those words our own at every Mass. And we can make them our own this Advent. I am not worthy to receive Christ anew this Christmas, but at HIS word, I shall be healed.
If you’re struggling with spiritual perfectionism or discouragement because this Advent has not quite been what you had hoped, be very much encouraged! The Lord meets us in our weakness. He comes not a perfect humanity, but a sinful one. He comes to redeem us, not expecting us to have already redeemed ourselves.
As we enter into these final days of Advent, let us dispose our hearts to the action of Jesus. Even if we haven’t done all that we had hoped this season. Let us remember that it is Jesus who does the doing. We offer Him our feeble efforts and wait with HOPE for the only one who can make us worthy.
A book review ofThe Hidden Face: a study of St. Therese of Lisieux by Ida Friederike Görres, Ignatius Press, 1959.
The best summary I can give to this book is “WOW!—but not the kind of “wow” that would indicate something extraordinary was revealed about St. Therese in this book. On the contrary, she is more ordinary than her statues and all the hype and all the “sweetness” that drips off her writings at times. (By the way, the “sweet” quality of her writings was not actually from her…but more on that later).
Not only that, but she was less than ordinary as a young girl when she experienced a type of suffering that these days would possibly have counted against her entrance to the convent, namely, what had all the signs of a mental illness, which afflicted her around the age of 10.
Yes, you have probably heard of her becoming ill as a girl, especially how she was thoroughly healed by the smile of the Virgin Mary statue. (Or maybe that detail is all that you ever heard about?) I was admittedly very astounded to read details which are understandably often “hidden” when speaking of that dark time of her life—such as how at times she “contorted her face, rolled her eyes” and “saw monstrous and nightmarish figures everywhere.”
At least once she “had to be forcibly restrained” and “could not be left alone” (page 79). Ironically, the more I read of her extreme condition at that time, the more hopeful I became that any of us can become a saint.
Other misconceptions of her were also broken down. For instance, as I mentioned above, the “sweetness” of her writings was not so much from her. Rather, a lot of it came from the hands of her sisters, who found her writings to be too simple and not “like” a saint’s writings. So they just added some sweetness to what she had penned before it became public.
This book not only made St. Therese seem more real, but also made me see why she stands out as someone to be venerated, even in her convent. The author states that “if we assemble and consider the evidence scattered through many sources on the nuns inhabiting the convent at that time, the picture is on the whole not very glowing…” (page 197).
You may have heard, for instance, that one of the superiors, Mother Marie de Gonzague, was a very difficult character. Yet St. Therese loved even her and would not join in when other sisters engaged in critical talk about her .
Therese also tried not to just “go with the flow” in the convent, as she kept to the rule when others were violating it. Her sisters, holy and good examples in many ways, still did not match Therese in these points.
If you love St. Therese and want to know more about her—or if you are repulsed by her, as some are, because of how “perfect” she seems to be, you will find this book eye-opening, refreshing, hope-inspiring, and challenging.
I could have done without the lengthy commentary on the part of the author at times, but the book is worth “watching”—giving you a unique glimpse into the life of a saint who is not as well-known as you may think.
Photo of the Chapel of St. Therese in Belgium taken by Jmh2o on Wikimedia Commons
Jennifer shares her magnificat of what God has done in her life since leaving the monastery. She battled depression and anxiety, but through all of this, she has grown so much. She’s not called to be a nun, and that’s okay. God has called her to marriage, and this is the vocation through which she will serve Him.
Jennifer wanted to be a nun since she was 14, and she put her all into it. Sometimes we feel so sure about something, but God has another plan. It’s hard to let go. Jennifer offers encouragement to all who are struggling with letting Him lead.