Those are difficult words to pray when life has taken on the characteristics of a desert.
There are still moments when I miss the “green pastures” and “still waters” of religious life. There are still moments when I miss the hours set aside for prayer, simplicity of our cell, the laughter and smiles of the community, the folds of our habit, the quiet and simple work, the Stations of the Cross leading to the cemetery, the rattle of our side beads, the bells… Now there is even more that has been taken away due to the pandemic. So much more. I miss being able to pray with others. In person. In a Church. I miss being able to enter a Church. I miss going to Mass. I miss the Eucharist.
Yet I shall not want.
Jesus, the good shepherd, is the shepherd of my soul. He is mine, and I am His. That is what is important. That is all I need. Even when so much as been taken away, Jesus remains and He alone is enough. Although He has bound Himself to the Sacraments, He is not bound by them. He will continue to nourish my soul somehow and in some way. He will continue to lead me on the path of righteousness the Father has marked out for me from all eternity. He continues to come to me, and I can find rest and restoration in Him. Even here. In this desert. Even now. In the midst of the challenges and uncertainty.
Jesus is the green pasture. Jesus is the still water. Jesus is the restoration of my soul.
He always has been, and He always will be. And He cannot be taken away from me.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil; for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
What has struck me most in the Gospel readings lately is how often Jesus seeks someone out and goes to them. “Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him…” (John 9:35). “Jesus himself drew near and went with them.” (Luke 24:15) “she turned around and saw Jesus” (John 20:14).
How fitting it is that we should see Jesus seeking out His sheep in the days when He walked among us. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11). Jesus laying down His life is not confined to one moment 2,000 years ago. The burning love that made the sacrifice of Calvary possible is still alive here and now. Jesus lays down His life for His sheep in the little things and the big things. No act is too small for love. He who hung upon the cross for me will not abandon me in the bitter valley.
When St. Therese found herself in the midst of darkness, she found herself turning not to the cry, “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” but rather, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me.” Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He will not abandon me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
At first the verse “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” seems nonsensical. Why would the good shepherd prepare a feast in the presence of enemies? Wouldn’t far away from the enemies be better? Yet in doing so, Jesus shows His true mastery over that which causes distress. So often I just want the difficult and unpleasant parts of life to just go away. Jesus shows His true power not through eliminating the difficulty, but rather through inviting me to feast in the midst of the difficulty and uncertainty. This harkens back to Isaiah 11:6 with “…the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” To be at peace in the midst of tranquility is expected. To be at peace in the midst of tribulation and distress is a gift. A gift that Jesus invites us to receive each day.
In the end, we are all on pilgrimage to our heavenly homeland. “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says; “I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father” (John 10 14-15). Jesus knows us. We are not anonymous to Him, the creator and shaper of our hearts. He knows our rising and our resting. He knows the path that will lead us home to eternity with Him. Some of us will spend the pilgrimage in convents and monasteries which are like little vestibules of heaven. Others of us will spend this pilgrimage reflecting the love of the Trinity through the Sacrament of marriage. Others of us will spend this pilgrimage living the mystery of Nazareth through the seeming ordinariness of our life. Many and fleeting are the paths that we take. One and eternal is the destination. May our steps always remain homeward bound. May our gaze always remain fixed on Jesus.
After leaving I wanted to know where to go, what to pursue… And instead of answers there was stillness – an odd stillness that I didn’t quite know what to do with. Inside I sort of felt a “where to next?” that was only met with silence. It felt as though I were a sailboat left in the middle of a sea on an overcast day with no wind and no sense of direction. At least the sun was still there. Somewhere.
What finally broke into the restlessness were Jesus’ words “I am the Way.”
He always was the way. He was The Way as I discerned which monastery He was calling me to. He was The Way during the day to day activities at the monastery. He is The Way now, in this stillness. And He will continue to be The Way as I journey ahead on this pilgrimage.
Sometimes discernment can feel as though it is some sort of enigma that I must solve lest I be eternally doomed to a life that is less than what had God intended. But that isn’t love. Part of discernment, especially during the silence and stillness, is trusting that whatever I choose Jesus can and will make it work for good. Then discernment becomes something truly beautiful. Then discernment isn’t about what I do, but about Whom I love. It is trusting that as long as I love Jesus, everything will fall into place.
In Story of a Soul St. Therese speaks of “having savored the delights of walking without seeing” (Manuscript A 23v). May we too delight in placing one foot in front of the other as we remain close to Jesus, The Way.
One of the challenges outside of the monastery was the seeming contradiction between what I know and want to be true, and what was actually happening. There were many difficult emotions after leaving the monastery, and initially I was rather dismissive of them. I shouldn’t be angry; I wasn’t told to leave out of malice. I shouldn’t be sad; I am still the spouse of Jesus and a beloved daughter of the Father. I shouldn’t feel abandoned; the sisters are praying for me.
But the reality was that I felt angry, and hurt, and sad.
When I finally allowed myself to enter into those emotions – as illogical as they may have seemed at times – I found Jesus there. Almost to my surprise. Yet those emotions are a part of the reality of my experience. And of course He who is the Truth would meet me in the truth of what I was experiencing.
It took a lot of courage for me to stand in the truth of what I was experiencing. Nice, neatly-packaged theological explanations such as “I am still espoused to Jesus through Baptism” were so much easier to engage than the interior struggle going on within. Yet when I stood in the truth of the heartache, the anger, the frustration… I found Jesus there. He who is the Truth continues to meet me in the truth of my experience and work His redeeming love from there.
AND THE LIFE
Leaving the monastery left me feeling stripped of the way of life through which Jesus would help me grow in holiness. But there was something greater than a particular charism, horarium, or apostolate that I did not lose. Something that was present the whole time – or rather Someone. The Catechism highlights how each Christian is called to live the mysteries of Christ’s life within each of their own lives. It reads:
“Christ enables us to live in him all that he himself lived, and he lives it in us. ‘By his Incarnation, he, the Son of God, has in a certain way united himself with each man.’ We are called only to become one with him, for he enables us as the members of his Body to share in what he lived for us in his flesh as our model: ‘We must continue to accomplish in ourselves the stages of Jesus’ life and his mysteries and often to beg him to perfect and realize them in us and in his whole Church. . . For it is the plan of the Son of God to make us and the whole Church partake in his mysteries and to extend them to and continue them in us and in his whole Church. This is his plan for fulfilling his mysteries in us.’”(CCC 521)
Jesus’ life is the life I am to live. It was the life I was called to at my Baptism. It was the life I was called to as I discerned religious life. It was the life I was called to through living monastic life. And it is the life I will continue to be called to live. It is beautiful to find reflected in my own life the flight into Egypt, the miracle at Cana, the Saturday after His burial, His joy, His sadness, His desires, His charity…
May Jesus give us the grace to recognize His life reflected in our own life.
We are currently in the midst of a loneliness epidemic in the western world. I’ve heard about research that has come out recently regarding this subject, but unfortunately, the media aren’t reporting on it very much. I’m sure, though, that you feel it within your heart and see it in the world around you. As women who have been in religious life, I think we can feel the sting of this loneliness in a particular way: we felt called to community, but yet we are not experiencing it in the same way now. Our world is getting progressively more isolated as people spend more time online and less time with friends and family. Even in faith communities we can feel as though we don’t belong. If we’re single and don’t have a defined state in life vocation, it’s easy to think that we are invisible and don’t matter to the Church. But this isn’t true.
I recently had a beautiful phone conversation with one of you. She said she hoped that 2020 transformed longing to belonging for me. I found that an encouraging thought. And I wish the same for all of you.
I hope that you are able to spend this year, especially this season of Lent, around people who love you and are supportive of you and your journey. If you feel particularly lonely I encourage you to take risks, be vulnerable, and reach out to others. If you have a home filled with love (and kids), please try to invite someone over who may be alone during this time (single people don’t care if your house is a mess btw). We all need each other. And the evil one does what he can to whisper lies to us and encourage us to put up barriers to protect our hearts. We think that these barriers will keep us from being hurt. They might do that. But they always keep us from experiencing love. And that is unfortunate because love is what we truly desire.
Leonie’s Longing has some great ideas that we are trying to put into practice soon. My particular hope is that we will be able to facilitate more connections and community between you all. Please pray for us as we explore ways to do this. And if you’d like to help volunteer so that we can move forward more quickly with these endeavors we would love to hear from you.
A few months ago in prayer, I kept hearing the words “wait for it.” I sensed that it was part of a longer passage I had heard at some point in life. I figured that it might be somewhere in scripture but I had no idea where. Thanks to modern technology and searchable Bible apps, I was quickly able to locate the source. It came from the book of Habakkuk (certainly wouldn’t have guessed that one). I was struck by the beauty of the entire verse:
For still the vision awaits its time; it hastens to the end — it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. -Habakkuk 2:3
At this point I don’t even recall what I was reflecting upon, but the verse brought me hope. I began sharing it with others whom I thought would be encouraged by it. One of my friends asked me if I might handletter it as a gift (a talent I have been trying to develop), which gave me more opportunity to reflect upon and memorize the inspired words.
When I was asked to give a talk (in Spanish) on hope at a healing retreat recently, I knew that this verse had to be part of my sharing. In the Spanish language the verb for to wait and to hope are the same—esperar. As I worked on my talk, which focused on having hope even when we wait for healing, I saw the intimate connection between these two words.
Waiting often feels like a burden. Maybe you can relate to my hate for waiting, whether it be something as trivial as standing in a long line at the grocery store or as important as awaiting the fulfillment of a deep desire of the heart.
But if we see waiting in light of its cousin hope, our perspective shifts. What seemed to be a fruitless and tiresome waiting can become a hopeful waiting. We wait in hope, in expectation, of something good to come.
Our ultimate hope is that of Heaven. We know that even if we lack fulfillment in this life (and we will, since we are not made for this world), we can hope for true fulfillment in the world that is to come. Jesus tells us that in this world we will have trouble. There will be sickness, loss, unemployment, depression, poverty, sadness, etc. But St. Paul reminds us that this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:17). The book of Revelation promises that every tear will be wiped away from our eyes (cf. Revelation 21:4).
But even in this life, we can hope for the fulfillment of God’s promises. He desires to answer our prayers, to fill us with good and holy things, to make straight our paths, to heal us, to lead back those who have wandered, to bring to completion desires that He has placed on our hearts…all in His timing. That’s the hard part. I recently prayed a novena to the Sacred Heart in which I wanted to receive a clear answer to a question on my heart. At the end of the novena I heard the word “wait.” Not the answer I was hoping for, but one which I will embrace in hope.
Returning to the words of the prophet Habakkuk, I have no reason to be discouraged. Even if the vision—the answer, the healing, the clarity, whatever it may be—awaits its time, we can trust that it will indeed come. God will not deceive or disappoint. He invites us to wait upon Him, to hope in His word, and to wait with joyful expectation, as He is faithful.
As I know the power obedience has of making things easy which seem impossible, my will submits with good grace, although nature seems greatly distressed, for God has not given me such strength as to bear, without repugnance, the constant struggle against illness while performing many different duties. May He, Who has helped me in other more difficult matters, aid me with His grace in this, for I trust in His mercy.
– Saint Teresa of Avila, from the Preface to The Interior Castle.
A reflection by Penny.
If you type the words ‘Chronic Fatigue Syndrome’ into a stock images website, chances are it will bring up pictures that look like this:
When in fact, it looks more like this:
(note compression sleeves on my arms to help keep my blood circulating – reduces risk of fainting)
(light intolerance is one of the symptoms of CFS, so I spend most of my time in the dark)
(photo taken by my mother last month, after I lost 13 pounds in a week because I was too sick to feed myself and made an emergency trip home to stay with her.)
This is ‘moderate’ CFS – meaning that I’m still able, sometimes, to leave my bed for work, grocery shopping, or Mass. (Severe CFS involves paralysis, tube-feeding, and sometimes death. This is the disease still derisively labelled ‘yuppie flu’ by the media, and which many doctors, including two that I’ve encountered personally, diagnose as a form of hysteria solely because most sufferers are women. I could rant for days about sexism in medicine, but I’ll limit myself to one observation: in basically every case I’ve heard of, including my own, this condition starts with a viral infection that gets worse instead of better over time. It’s an illness. It exists.)
On good days I can get up and do a couple of things, provided I pace myself. Mostly, though, I’m in bed, listening to podcasts at minimum volume in the dark and occasionally trying to sit up for a few minutes at a time. If you’re wondering why the blog’s been low on activity this year, that’s why! Theresa has done yeoman’s work keeping our social media active and answering emails without the usual level of support from me, and I want to express my admiration for the extra effort that she’s been putting in to do so. If you’d like to submit content for the blog, PLEASE DO – we still need your generous contributions to keep the website interactive and would love to hear from you! Please just be aware that it may take me a while to respond, and that the delay doesn’t mean lack of appreciation!
So, why am I writing all of this?
At Easter this year, too unwell to go out to the Vigil, I stayed home and watched an old black-and-white film called The Miracle of Saint Thérèse. In one scene that particularly struck me, Thérèse is struggling to climb up a flight of stairs in her Carmel, gasping with the effort and pulling herself slowly hand-over-hand up the bannister. I felt that viscerally, because it’s exactly what I have to do when confronted with a staircase these days. (Before I got sick two years ago, by contrast, I was a martial arts student who did high-intensity training several times a week.)
It got me thinking again about illness, and its role in spiritual life. So many saints, especially women, became seriously ill in their teens or twenties and lived through years of disability and suffering: of those whose lives I’ve been listening to on audiobook recently, Saint Bernadette died at thirty-five, Saint Faustina at thirty-three, Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity at twenty-six, and Saint Thérèse herself at twenty-four. Little Nellie of Holy God, to whose biography I’m currently listening, made it – spoiler alert! – to the grand old age of four.
I’m not a saint who can bear illness the way they could – if they’d had blogs in the nineteenth century, I can’t imagine Saint Thérèse getting on one to vent about sexist doctors, for example – but I can still take them as my examples and learn important lessons from the way they carried themselves in suffering.
1) Don’t assume you’re being punished by God. Same as when you have to leave religious life, or any other dream falls apart: it’s not a personal failure on your part, or a sign that He has rejected you. As a consequence of the Fall, we live in a world where we’re surrounded by viruses, toxins, dangerous people and animals, sheer drops and large, fast-moving objects, and eventually something’s going to smack into the just and the unjust alike. Illness is impersonal; don’t take it personally. As I know from experience, blaming yourself for drawing down God’s punishment by your actions is the very best way to learn to fear and resent Him. He’s with you while you’re struggling, helping you to live through it.
2) Don’t overthink things and start denying your own experience. I’m not really that sick – I don’t need to rest. (Yes, you probably do.) Maybe I’m subconsciously making myself sick because I’m afraid of life. (You’ve read too much pop psychology.) I need to restrict myself to healthy foods, and if I eat that slice of pizza I deserve to stay sick. I need to try all the medicines/supplements/treatment programs/etc I read about on the Internet, or I’m not really trying to get well again.Maybe I’m just milking my illness to get out of things. Maybe I’m being lazy. Maybe I’m just being dramatic about the effect this is having on me.
The saints didn’t do that. They were honest about the fact that they were suffering terribly – think of Saint Thérèse warning her sisters never to leave a full medicine bottle within the reach of someone in pain, or Saint Bernadette wondering aloud how she hadn’t died yet – and they did what they could each day. Some days Thérèse could write, and on those days, she wrote. Other days, she couldn’t, and she offered up to God the frustrations that came with that. Some days you’ll be able to do things. Other days, you won’t. That’s okay, and you’re okay.
3) DO figure out ways to make your life easier. My go-to meal is a double handful of mung beans and ripped-up bean shoots dumped straight from their containers into a bowl, with low-FODMAP chicken or beef stock in hot water poured over the top to make a healthy soup. Preparation time: about thirty seconds. If you have days where your arms aren’t strong enough to use a spoon, try pre-puréed fruits and soups in sachets; cut off the corners and suck them. Keep a bag of nuts beside your bed so that you have something to ease your hunger if you can’t get up. Cook lots of chopped potatoes and mincemeat on a good day, and store individual portions in the freezer to heat when you need them (they go well in the mung-bean soup to bulk it up).
4) DO figure out how to adapt your prayer life to your energy level as well. If you say the Rosary, there are plenty of versions on YouTube that you can listen to and follow along with while you’re lying still in bed. This one’s my favourite: a basic, no-frills version without music (I love music, but now it often hurts my ears), and it doesn’t name the Mysteries so you can use the same recording every day. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MjDZeB7DfCo
If you pray the Office, you can download the Laudate app, open up whichever Hour you want to say, and have a screen-reader read it aloud while you listen. (I use the free @Voice Aloud Reader from Google Play, which has a bunch of different voices from which to choose. I like the sophisticated English lady. You can also adjust pitch and reading speed to suit your own preference.) Also, when you get tired of computer voices, there’s an app with a recording of Dominican friars singing Night Prayer in English for each night of the year: just type ‘Dominican Compline’ into Google Play and it will come up.
Basically any prayer you can think of, from the Holy Cloak Novena to Saint Joseph to the Divine Mercy Chaplet to the Golden Arrow Prayer, is available in spoken form on YouTube. Or, on a good day, you can record it yourself and then save it to play back in the future on not-so-good days. On days when the exhaustion and brain fog are so severe that you can’t even remember the words of the Hail Mary (trust me, I’ve been there), this is a gentle, no-pressure way to pray.
Audiobooks on YouTube are a great resource for filling the long, long hours alone in bed – my spiritual life has deepened immensely from the things I’ve learnt on days when I was too sick to read or watch a movie, and they’re basically now my primary way of staying close to God. Even if you’re not unwell but just want something to listen to on the commute to work, these are good resources. Here are some of my favourite channels:
(A friar, almost certainly a Dominican based on the number of OP books in his library, who reads edifying books aloud in his soft, slightly gravelly voice. You’ve got books by Louis de Montfort, Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton, and some of the mediaeval mystics, among others.)
(Orthodox Catholic talks on numerous topics, from lives of Saints to end-times prophecies and the state of the Church. You’re asked to say three Hail Marys for the priest who delivers each talk you listen to.)
(From Julian of Norwich to Saint Francis de Sales, there are numerous books available, read aloud by volunteers from around the world. Some volunteers are much better readers than others, but it’s a great resource overall.)
There are also lots of Catholic books on Google Play quite cheaply (I got a book by Saint Alphonsus Liguori for a couple of dollars) that you can then use the Google Books inbuilt screen-reader to read aloud for you. It’s more annoying than a human voice, but not impossibly so.
Finally, there are television Masses uploaded online every day (you can type ‘Catholic Mass today’ into YouTube if you’re too sick to go out to church), and also live-streamed Perpetual Adoration here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4A6RIOwC2E
Basically, it can be done: there are numerous cheap or free resources out there to help your soul to grow in faith, hope and love in times of illness. I no longer feel as though I’m rotting away in the dark, because I know my heart is hearing and responding to God, and prayer connects me to the world outside my room. In effect, this solitude has become the cloister I once sought in the convent, and the stillness has become a source of contemplation. I would love to be well: to go back to work properly, to resume my studies, to get my brown belt in karate, and to carry on with the life I was living before my illness took all of that away. And yet, being torn out of my ordinary life and compelled to live with God in solitude has given me more graces than I could ever have imagined, and I can share the fruits of those graces with others by my prayers even if I don’t live among them much anymore.
It isn’t easy, but He is here. And for as long as He wills it, so am I.
A huge thank you to those who joined us in the novena during June 2019! We’ve now archived the prayers and condensed them into one page so that you can come back and pray the novena whenever you wish. This page can be found here.
You’re invited to pray a novena with us June 20-28.
Listen to the audio invitation below for more information. Each day I’ll post a new reflection on this page.
Hi Everyone, it’s Theresa!
I’d like to invite you to be an active part of our apostolate by praying with us for two minutes per day for nine days starting on June 20 and ending on June 28, The Sacred Heart of Jesus.
June 16 is Leonie’s feast day so I thought it would be a great day to announce this exciting opportunity.
Each day I’ll post a 2 minute recording with a short prayer and a time of quiet reflection.
I’m confident that at the end of the novena, things will happen. I can’t wait to hear about what God says to you in your prayer and what comes up in your heart.