Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Advent of Hope

In this Advent period we will once again experience the closeness of the One who created the world, who guides history and cared for us to the point of becoming a man.   - Pope Benedict XVI

A few weeks ago, I visited the local Science Center with another postulant from the Daughters of St. Paul. The exhibit that most impressed me was the timeline that illustrated the age of the universe and the evolution of man. 

Astronomers estimate the age of the universe to be around 13 billion years, give or take a billion or so. Scientists believe that life began on our planet between 3 to 4 billion years ago. It is estimated that the species to which we belong, Homo sapiens, has existed for only 100,000 years.

Just take a moment to think about that vast expanse of time and the extremely minuscule portion of it that contains human life.

Now think about this. We live in one galaxy that is only one among what scientists estimate to be hundreds of billions of galaxies in the entire universe.

At the Science Center, when I considered this historical time line and the vast expanse of physical space we live in, I have to be honest, I was shaken. In that moment, I understood why a lot of people can lose their sense of God when they study science. I cannot really describe the feeling except that it felt like an overwhelming despair, an understanding of how empty the world would be without God.

I think the enormity of the concepts were what caused the momentary crisis. Humans have a tendency to do this, at least I do. If my brain cannot wrap around something, it shakes my faith. I want answers the moment an idea or concept clashes in my mind and I cannot make sense of it. This is positive in the sense that if something does not make sense, I seek out answers and do not rest until I am satisfied. But unfortunately it reveals that I have an underlying assumption that my intellect has the capacity to understand anything that does not make sense in the world. This is not true for anyone, no matter how intelligent they are, and certainly is not true for me.

But faithful to my inquisitive personality, I returned home from the Science Center on a mission to understand more about evolution. The first thing I was relieved to find out was that the Catholic view of evolution and science in general is very reasonable: 

Methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. (Catechism of the Catholic Church,159)

Thankfully, the Church does not automatically reject science that is contrary to the literal interpretation of the Bible. I can understand why atheists and agnostics are infuriated by this tendency in some Christian denominations. When we deny our reason, we are denying a fundamental aspect of our humanity.

But this preliminary foray into the issue of evolution left me with even more questions: "When did the human soul come on the scene? What about Adam and Eve, how do they fit into this? What about the dinosaurs, what were they all about? I continued my research into evolution and I have read online and listened to four podcasts so far and they have been helpful but I am not even close to having an understanding of this issue to write a blog about it, which was my original purpose.

However, recently I realized that this tangent that I have allowed myself to get lost in has been very fitting for the season of Advent.

During this blessed season we contemplate the mystery of the Incarnation. The idea that we as Christians profess: God Himself, the Creator of this vast and amazing universe entered human history and became a man named Jesus.

This idea is ludicrous. Really, if you are bored with Christianity, it is because you do not really let yourself absorb the insanity of what we believe. It is insane, so insane humans could not have made this up. God Himself became a zygote and then later a fetus and then a beautiful child who could not speak. God, the Creator of all, the Omnipotent, All-Knowing God, the force who created the entire universe with its billions of galaxies, became a little, helpless baby born into poverty to parents who were refugees.

Why did God do this? Because He is Love and He could not do anything else.

I encourage each one of you to take one hour (or more!) this Advent to contemplate this amazing mystery, perhaps before the Blessed Sacrament in adoration. It is a mystery that one hour will not exhaust and I am slowly realizing that my entire lifetime will never be enough to understand the height and breadth of God's love for us.

Blessed Advent my dear friends.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Free Your Mind

No, I am not going to encourage you to take drugs in this post despite what the post title may lead you to think.

There are many ways that we exercise what we think is freedom in this world. We choose what we want to do no matter what the consequences to ourselves and others and we call that freedom. And then when we are tired or hurt from exploring and crossing moral boundaries in the name of freedom, we begin to talk about the importance of inner freedom.

The idea is so often written and talked about (and taught in yoga classes) that it has become cliche. But what does it really mean to gain "inner freedom"?

My journey on this road of thought began a couple months ago when a friend wrote a note on Facebook putting forth the possibility that maybe it is better for a person to sin and learn from it than for a person to follow rules mindlessly without really understanding why something is forbidden. This hypothesis did not sit well with me but I let it simmer in the recesses of my mind for several weeks and eventually I found it helpful in understanding inner freedom.

When I first got to the convent several months ago I unconsciously began to try to be perfect. I could tell I was not being real with myself or others but I think I was somehow under the false impression that I could continue the charade indefinitely and convince my fellow postulants and myself that I had come to the convent free of problems and flaws.

Naturally, it did not take long for my flaws to begin to shine through. In one case, I voiced my opinion about not wanting to do something late at night in a rude, petulant way. I was the victor in that situation and everyone went to bed. As I headed to bed, I began to beat myself up, not really for being rude but for letting the cracks in my perfect facade show so obviously. But after lecturing myself I just felt relieved that I was going to bed after a long day.

A few days afterward, I joined the postulants on a trip to a retreat center in the black of morning before the sun had risen. We were instructed to walk around the grounds and pray as the dark of night changed to light.

I made my way to the labyrinth on the grounds and sat under a tree in the middle of it.  I immediately thought, "Bingo, this is the best place to be on the entire grounds. It is peaceful and other people have been here before - that is comforting. I am going to stay here until the sun rises."

I set about eating my breakfast, feeling very satisfied with myself. Several minutes later, however, I looked out into the darkness, into the unknown and I suddenly felt an urge to leave ground already tread. I felt a deep need to make my own path literally and figuratively and I suddenly knew that this is a deep and critical part of who I am. I left my safe spot beneath the tree and as I set out into the darkness I felt God say to me,

"Theresa, stop trying to be someone you are not. I made you to be honest, sometimes painfully so. I made you to voice your opinion with strength and without fear. I made you to be a trail-blazer, someone who should not be afraid of anything. I need you to BE YOURSELF. Try to do it nicely, but if you make more mistakes along the way it is better than if you keep trying to fit this mold of perfection that does not exist. I prefer that real Theresa to this faker I have on my hands right now. Make your own path."

As I came away from that experience, I felt a wide freedom inside of me like a child lifting her arms to heaven.

I have left behind the freedom of the world for the freedom of God - a freedom that does not lead me to crossing moral boundaries and hurting myself and others, a freedom that does not call me to be a perfect robot, but only perfectly WHO I AM. We are all called to embody and live out charity in our own unique way. We can only do this by being ourselves.

And we can only be truly ourselves by following God's will in our lives because He is the only one who knows who we truly are.
You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother's womb ... My very self you knew; my bones were not hidden from you, When I was being made in secret, fashioned as in the depths of the earth. Your eyes foresaw my actions; in your book all are written down; my days were shaped, before one came to be. - Psalm 139
May we have the courage and the strength to leave behind our own choices in life and follow the only path that leads to inner and outer freedom.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Dead We Know

The other night I dreamed about Eric, a friend of mine who died several years ago. We were never that close but I had known him since middle school and I always saw him around until I left Oklahoma for college. When I saw him, I would always say hello and I can still remember his goofy, shy grin as he said, "Hi Theresa" and then looked quickly at the ground.

Eric was a dreamer. Most people thought he was slow but he had a huge heart and I think his naive kindness made people think he was not as intelligent as he was. He was easily led by other people and he got mixed up in things he shouldn't have, probably in part because of his laid back and simple nature.

One time in middle school a teacher asked him if he had a homework assignment and he started to dig in his backpack, throwing pieces of paper all over the floor. His book bag was literally crammed to the brim with wrinkled paper. We were all astounded. It was like Mary Poppin's bag, the crushed paper wads were never ending.  He slowly uncrumpled each piece, occasionally looking at my teacher with an amused and embarrassed smile that said, "I can tell you are annoyed and I am kind of enjoying this but please don't give me detention."

Eric died suddenly, he was shot by someone who was supposedly his close friend. I was told that it involved drugs. When I found out about his death I cried bitterly. He was innocent and simple and his life ended so savagely and in such a dark place. Even though I did not know him well, I had this irrational wish that I could have protected him somehow, sheltered him from the world.

Eric appeared in my dream the other night. He was the same - simple and kind. But he was also different. He was as child-like as ever but wise at the same time. He seemed to see everything, to be aware of everything, in a way he never was before. And his eyes told me that he knew true Love now, that he was in a place of rest.

As we enter November, the month where Catholics pray for all souls in the state of Purgatory (those souls being cleansed before they enter into full communion with God in Heaven), I am remembering the friends and family close to me who have died.

I remember Elinor and Charles Shea, the matriarch and patriarch of the Shea family who are looking down at all of us from heaven with a smile.

I remember Paul and Phil Noble, two men I wish I had known better.

I remember parents of friends - Gabe, Brooke, Anne, Marilene, Angela, Teresa and Lucie - who have died.

I remember Eddie and Caia, two people who died too soon. 

I remember Joe, my friend who also died too soon and whose death deeply affected me - it was one impetus that caused me to reevaluate my own life and eventually convert back to a faith in God.

I remember Stubby, another sweet and simple soul gone too soon who smiles down at me from heaven, healed and whole.

I remember everyone who has died and I hope that when I get to heaven, they all will be there to spend eternity with God.

If you would like me to include someone you love in my prayers this month, please comment on this post with their name or message me on Facebook.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Illogic of God's Justice

The founder of the Daughters of St. Paul, James Alberione always emphasized an attitude of studiosita, that is, to learn from all experiences in life.

While some of Alberione's teachings are not intuitive to me, this is one that rings true immediately. This is an attitude that I have always had; I think about everything that I experience and try to integrate it into my ideas and thoughts. If an experience clashes with my currently held beliefs and ideas, I wrestle with it until it is more or less resolved in my mind. Some things I have never resolved and these questions reemerge in my mind throughout my life in the hope that one day they will be resolved by prayer, an experience, a person, or a book.  I know some of my questions will never be answered until I reach heaven, but I like to try to work out whatever I am capable of working out, which probably is not much.

One thing that I have been thinking about is justice and fairness. As I live in community, I have noticed how consumed I am by these concepts. It is a necessary part of community life to always split up things; chores, work time in the book center, food, gifts from others. And I have found myself obsessing when I feel like something is not fair, maybe one person has asserted her needs over the needs of others, or another person got to choose something first before anyone else got a chance. Sometimes I am at the winning end of the situation because I have asserted myself or by sheer luck I ended up with exactly what I wanted and other times I am at the losing end.

The other day I was at the losing end of one of these situations. But before I voiced my complaint I checked in with Jesus in my mind and He clearly told me to keep quiet so I did. I did not vocalize that I thought the situation was unfair but in my mind I threw a serious temper tantrum and later when I was in the chapel I let Him have it.

"Why do I have to keep quiet Jesus? I'm so tired of compromise! I want to go back to my old life where I could do exactly what I wanted, when I wanted! Am I going to constantly be giving up my needs and wants for other people. I HATE THIS, it is getting old."  

As I prayed in chapel, I felt Jesus' empathy and sweet love. Jesus does not react to our anger in the same way that people do. In fact, when I am honest with Him, I can tell that He appreciates it. He likes it when I am real with Him, because lets face it, He can already see our hearts.

As I prayed, I was staring at the outline of a cross that stands up on the bottom of our kneelers. When I closed my eyes, the shape of the cross was etched in my mind, outlined in light. Suddenly, I realized what Jesus was trying to say to me.

"Was it fair that I died on the cross? I am God, your Creator.  I was innocent and I died on a cross to save you, a sinner. Fairness is not what I am all about Theresa. I came to serve. If you are going to follow me, you need to do the same."

I suddenly thought of when I was a child and I would split a dessert with one of my siblings. We would make sure that each piece was exactly even, not even a centimeter different. I thought of our society, how we are obsessed with equality, sometimes at the expense of everyone's overall well being. I realized that I was giving into the ways of the world and Jesus was pulling me back to the illogic of the Christian message - it is not about perfect equality, it is about serving the other in love.

As I return to my life after this prayer experience I am honest with myself. I am still going to throw temper tantrums, in my mind and probably out loud, (I apologize in advance to the patient sisters I live with). I am still going to assert my needs and I hope that Jesus helps me to discern when it is necessary. But I hope that from now on I try to see situations that are not fair with the eyes of faith.

Jesus allows everything that happens to us to occur. I have to believe that when I am on the losing end of a situation that I really am on the winning end, because Jesus is using it to teach me something.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Penance of Love

"So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love."      

Luke 7:47
Penance is an interesting word, it literally means the desire to be forgiven. Christians talk about it in the context of desiring to be forgiven by God for our many sins against Him and against others. 

But often, Catholics and other Christians use it as a verb as well as a noun. 

Please Note: I unwittingly began writing this post based on a thought that I had in prayer but as I familiarized myself with this topic, I realized that I was putting my little toe in the choppy waters of a pretty extensive and complicated theological battle between Protestants and non-Protestants. Please forgive this amateur's attempt to contribute a small thought to this discussion that involves far more complications than I can read and understand at this moment.

For those who do not know what I am talking about, I will summarize. Basically, the Reformers held that penance is a noun and there is no need for the verb or in other words, sorrow for one's sins is a necessary state of the mind and heart to be forgiven by God, but an act of penance is not required. Catholics hold that both are necessary, that we should act out our feelings of contrition in some way to demonstrate our sorrow for our sins but that we also must feel contrition in our hearts. Leave it to the Catholics to keep the suffering a part of their theology.

This whole difference of ideas hits on the old faith vs. works debate. I won't pretend to know a lot about this. But I will note that I am side-stepping the entire discussion as to whether or not acts of penance are necessary.  Ultimately I go with the idea that our thoughts and our mind and heart are inextricably connected with our actions. They must be bound together. Sometimes one acts without feeling or one feels without acting, but the ideal is that we do both, and that I think is something everyone can agree on. 

A New Idea of Penance

My ideas of penance are a mixture of the normal, the odd and the gruesome - fasting, self-flagellation, penitential self-discipline and wearing sackcloth and ashes. 

Fasting is a standard form of penance and one that all Catholics participate in during the season of Lent. I try to fast whenever I can. I have realized that it really is a powerful form of prayer that allows us to literally empty ourselves so that God can fill us. It is a way to grow closer to God and a very effective way to pray for our intentions and to fight evil.

But Jesus has been showing me something else about showing my sorrow for sin recently.

Every day the sisters at my convent meditate for a half hour on the Gospel reading of the day before we begin morning prayer. I have been very moved by how much more I get from the Gospel reading when I take the time to really think and pray about it, asking God what He has to say to me that day. 

A few weeks ago we read about the woman, traditionally believed to be Mary Magdalene, who goes to Jesus while He is at dinner and bathes His feet in perfumed oil and washes them with her tears. This reading has always stirred my heart. I recognize myself in that woman, someone who, in the face of the Divine presence of Jesus, sees her sins clearly and feels deep sorrow for them.

But when I meditated on this Gospel reading several weeks ago, Jesus' response to the woman snagged on the edges of my consciousness. His response literally means - "her many sins have been forgiven, seeing that she has loved much."

I was confused by this, what exactly did Jesus mean? It seems he is saying that she is forgiven because of her love. I was contemplating this when I noticed the words by the tabernacle in our chapel. 

In every Pauline chapel, the same words translated from Italian can be seen engraved - "Fear not, I am with you. From here I want to enlighten. Atone for sin." These are the words that our founder Blessed James Alberione heard Jesus say to him one day when he was praying before the tabernacle.

Suddenly the last phrase "Atone for sin" and my preconceived ideas of negative penance transformed in my mind.

The woman in the Gospel was forgiven because "she loved much." I realized at that moment that Jesus was telling me that I must show my love for Him and my thankfulness that He has forgiven me by doing my penance in love. 

We can practice aestheticism in our lives by fasting and doing penance "negatively" and these are effective ways to show God our remorse for our sins. But Jesus was showing me what my patron saint Therese of Lisieux knew long ago - that the fast that gets to the heart of who Jesus is and who He calls us to be is the fast of love.

Jesus is calling us to the penance of love.

He is calling us to love even when we do not want to, to love until it hurts, as Mother Teresa would say. He is calling us to love everyone including people who anger or hurt us deeply, people who are selfish, people who hurt those we love, people who have different ideologies than us, people who are our enemies and people who are enemies of God and the things in the world that are good. He is calling us to love in our thoughts, to never assume we know a person's motivations or the workings of their heart. No one is exempt from this fast. In fact, the people who we find it most difficult to love are often the people God is calling us to show love the most.

God is calling us to love others as He loves them in the hope and the knowledge that in seeing our love, God will forgive us for our many sins, those we know and those we do not know, and will love us in return.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Joy Rising from Pain

When people ask how I am doing in the first few months of postulancy, it is hard to respond with a one-word answer. The way I feel is very confusing and discordant. I want to say to them, "I feel a deeper joy than I have ever felt and an excruciating pain at the same time."

In fact, I am beginning to wonder if the pain I feel is the source of my joy. The two emotions seem so closely connected that it is as if they are layered over each other, snuggling against the other for warmth and the assurance that yes, I am still alive and perhaps more alive than I ever have been.

Maybe this is not exactly a ringing endorsement of my beginning to religious life but I can only be honest.

So, the question is - Where does this pain come from?

The life of a Christian is nothing but a perpetual struggle against self; there is no flowering of the soul to the beauty of its perfection except at the price of pain - Padre Pio

I am experiencing the pain of separation from both the concrete and the possible, the good and the bad.

I feel a deep tear in my heart when I consider all of the different possibilities that I am leaving by the wayside to follow a definite path. Marriage and family being the highest good that religious life calls me to leave behind.

There is also a hole in me that is left from the physical absence of my dear family and the friends I can no longer see and talk to with the freedom of my previous life.

This pain is real and cannot be denied. It is visceral and at times I wince from the way it can wind its way through my body like a serpent and lashes out when something reminds me of my sacrifice.

But my pain does not just come from giving up good things.

We all search for happiness in different ways. It is a part of the human condition that we often search for it in the wrong places and in the wrong ways.

We find happiness in control, in food, in the misuse of sex, in drugs, in alcohol, in lording over others, in misusing power, in basically becoming our own little gods. Without God, we find our own happiness in making our own choices. Like addicts we experience a short flood of happiness from these things that feels real but we have to continually search for our next fix because the things of the world can never lead us to true and lasting happiness.

It may be obvious that I already left this life behind when I converted to Christianity but many of you know what I mean when I say that this way of life always haunts you, beckoning you into the darkness with the idea that you haven't exhausted all the possibilities of sin, that you still don't know all that you are missing.

I have found that the strength of this haunting has become stronger in religious life, not weaker - at least in these first few months. So the pain is multi-layered. It is a pain that comes from many directions. From leaving behind the good, from past sin, from human concupiscence, or as our Catechism calls it "the tinder for sin," and from temptations from the Devil himself.

But, where does the joy come from?

God cannot fill what is full; he can fill only emptiness... It is not how much we really "have" to give, but how empty we are--so that we can receive fully in our life and let him live his life in us.  - Blessed Mother Teresa

The answer to this question is not so ready on my tongue and I think the answer will come over years, not months.

But so far in my journey with God, I  have learned this: He hands us all crosses, but only as a Father. He teaches us how to grow and often the only way to grow is through pain. In my case now, it is necessary to grow through the pain of separation from myself, my friends and family, from sin and from my own desires - the good and the bad.

Right now, by the grace of God I have the strength to say yes to this cross. I do now know if I can hold it for long; I do not know if I can hold it my whole life. This is the pain of my discernment at the moment. I do not trust myself and I must not trust God because I do not trust He will continue to sustain me.

And yet, despite the halfhearted commitment that I am able to make to God today, He is showing me that the fruit of this sacrifice is true and deep joy.  I am emptying the cup of my soul for Him and He is rewarding me with a taste of a joy that lasts longer than the things of the world. It is a joy that points to an eternal joy that we will all experience in Heaven. It is the intense, heated joy that can only come from following God and discovering what He made you to be in the world.

As I continue in the way of the Cross, I thank Jesus for the grace to experience at the same time a little sliver of the joy of the Resurrection. Thank you Jesus!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Knocked Off My Horse

On his journey, as he was nearing Damascus, a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him. He fell to the ground.  - Acts 9:3-4

I entered a week ago today as a postulant in the Daughters of St. Paul, and today was the first day that I could actually greet Jesus in the chapel with energy and light.

Almost immediately upon my entry I was struck down with a dizzying array of symptoms (literally) and spent most days in bed sleeping the day away and hoping for an end to the confusion and pain.

Things were so bad it crossed my mind that maybe I would not get better and it was the convent life that was making me sick. I imagined returning home, suitcase in hand, searching for Systems Analyst positions in Tulsa and settling in an apartment near Cherry Street, making my way to daily mass and recalling the time "I tried to become a nun" with fondness.

I was dizzy, exhausted, nauseous and had lost my balance, swaying from one side to another, often falling over on myself if I tried to genuflect or do some other necessary movement of the day.

Sr. Rebecca, our postulant formator, made the interesting connection between my symptoms and how Paul must have felt when he fell from his horse on the way to Damascus.  It truly was as if I had been knocked off my horse and could not recover my senses. I was not blind, like Paul was after his fall, but I did feel lost and confused as he must have, wondering when my life was going to begin again.

This connection to Paul made me reevaluate myself, how ready was I for this step in my life? It was not like I was completely off course, like Paul. It seemed like I was calm and collected, following God's will, but was I really?

As I lay in bed passing the hours, I realized one of the possible sources of this mystery illness. This summer, instead of dealing with the terror of entering postulancy I repressed it to maintain a calm exterior. I was not being realistic and facing the unfortunate fact that I was scared.

We all try to be "above" our human feelings at times in our lives. We really want to be ok with life, with another person, with changes and to follow our dreams with courage. But the truth is, we are not always ok. Life scares us. The future is unknown and that is always hard. We are not sure who is going to take care of us. We may be really angry with another person. We are not sure if we are going to be able to handle a situation. We are not sure if we really can forgive and continue to forgive or love someone and continue to love.  But, in the end, as I have learned, it is better to share your feelings with someone.

But first you have to face up to the basic fact that you feel them. I didn't even do that.

I truly was in denial of the fact that I was scared. I really did not want to deal with my fear this summer while I was enjoying time with my family so when feelings of anxiety cropped up I just neatly pressed them back down again.

"I can deal with this later, it's not that big of a deal," I reasoned.

Well, I guess it was. Or at least God thought so. At least it seems like He saw it necessary to put me in bed for a few days so I could deal with it whether I liked it or not.

So, now I return to life as normal and face up to the fact that I am SCARED! I admit it! I am human, I am weak. I cannot live this life without the grace of God and I am completely dependent on Him.

So please, as you go back to your lives today, take a little piece of advice with you. It is better to admit you feel something, than for your feelings to find another way out, morph into Muhammad Ali and knock you (or someone else) square in the face.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


No, this post is not about chocolate, although I should write a post about chocolate one of these days. There is a cafe in Oakland named Bittersweet that sells peanut butter hot chocolate that is to die for but then I digress.

Goodbyes are coming closer and my heart grows heavier. Occasionally I feel the pangs of separation when I think of the future so I try not to think too much about it.

I have already said goodbye to California and my dear friends there but now comes one of the most difficult goodbyes I will ever have to say, the goodbye to my family.

I know, I know - I will be 6 hours away and will be able to see them every year but something is happening in this goodbye that is hard to express. It is a more permanent movement away from my family and towards God. A sister I spoke to recently put it this way, "Your departure is an action that is directly from the Gospel. Like the apostles left and followed Jesus when he said, 'Come Follow Me' so you too must leave behind your strongest attachments to follow Jesus."

One of my strongest attachments is my family.

This is not a bad thing. When most people see my family together they are moved by the love between us. Each sibling would easily die for one another and for either of our parents if it was required. We are very close and people envy the closeness we have compared with many other families torn apart by bitterness, anger and grudges.

In our modern society, the most common problem found in the family life is that the bond between family members is not strong enough. The traditional family structure is not seen as a necessary part of God's plan. Divorce is common. Separation and fights between blood relatives is an ordinary occurrence.

The family is powerful, it can lead us to good and it can lead us away from good. But if we are afraid to follow God because our family members will be upset or will reject us, this is when the family bond can be too strong.

There is a reason that Jesus tells his apostles:

"Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me." - Matthew 10:38

We can put anything in those blanks and it retains the meaning that Jesus is going for here - Money, Security, Admiration of Others, Success, etc, etc. But it is surprising to see Jesus talk about familial love, something that usually has the best connotations in a negative way.

To understand what Jesus is saying here, we need to understand the purpose of family. These days it looks like many people believe that the purpose of family is to satisfy their own desires - Parents live their youth another time through their children, women force their bodies to bear children at whatever cost; there are many examples in modern society of how we try to control what "family" means. We have lost the notion that we do not begin families, God does. And we do not define family, God does.

"The family is the first appropriate environment for sowing the seed of the Gospel and the one in which parents and children, like living cells, go on assimilating the Christian ideal of serving God and the brethren." - Pope John Paul II

God created the family to teach us about Him. This does not happen perfectly in most cases and sadly hurt, division and abuse in the family often cause some of the deepest wounds in each of us. This causes some of us, in our hurt, to reject the divine meaning of family and to insist that it is not important. It is understandable but when we stop trying to meet the ideal that God has given us to reach for, we are selling ourselves, our children and our society short.

Fortunately for me, although there are the same hurts and wounds in my family life, overall we are very happy and love each other very much. My parents taught us about God and the importance of living life for God and that is one of the main reasons I am able to enter religious life. The seed was planted in me very young.

But now is the time for me to test to make sure these roots do not go down too far. I can cling to my family insofar as it brings me closer to God, as that is the purpose of family but there comes a time when I have to let go so that I can follow God and inspire others to do the same. This does not mean that my family does not remain in my heart. They will always be in my heart and I will always remain close to them. Right now, I cannot imagine loving anyone more than I love my family.

But I know God is calling me to live in service to Him and to widen my definition of family. And this points to the ultimate purpose of family; the family is the incubator of the human being. Ideally it creates a place of security and love for a person so that when God calls us to follow Him in many different ways of life, that person has the confidence and trust in God that enables them to do so.

So thank you Lord for my family, thank you God for the beauty of family life. Please support and continue to help families to grow in holiness.

And finally, please help me and my family to accept my departure with grace and to give thanks to you, our Loving Father for the grace you have given us to follow your call to holiness.


Monday, August 9, 2010

Crossing the World to Encounter Christ

My family's trip to Croatia and Medugorje was a huge success. We have pretty low standards for success for a family vacation. Basically if everyone stays out of the hospital and there are no fights that comes to blows or last for more than a day, we are doing a great job. Well this trip exceeded expectations and then some.

Our family trip began as a plan to make it to the Marian apparition site of Guadalupe. I wanted our family to make some sort of pilgrimage in honor of Mary and that seemed to be the most practical place.

As news in Mexico got gradually worse, our plans to drive to Guadalupe soon faded. I knew Mary had put this desire for a pilgrimage on my heart so something inside of me told me to have hope. Soon after our plans for Guadalupe fell apart, it occurred to us that our cousin Mike was getting married in Croatia, fairly close to Medugorje, a city where Mary is allegedly appearing and has been for 29 years, something unprecedented in Marian apparitions. At first most of us thought this idea was out of the realm of possibility but I knew that if it was in God's plans, it would happen. As things began to fall into place, including provisions for the huge financial cost, I began to realize that this trip was meant to be.

Our trip began with my cousin Mike's wedding in Rijeka. Mike's story of conversion, a walking away from a life separated from God and addiction was one that was always close to our family's heart. He is now a strong Catholic and is working on his PhD in Theology. His story is an inspiration to us all and his marriage to a beautiful Croatian woman who experienced a conversion as well and also has a PhD and studies theology is a fairytale beginning to what I am sure will be a truly blessed life.

The wedding was in a beautiful church where the house of Mary is said to have appeared at one time for a week. The site of the apparition was a strong place of peace and there were hundreds of candles all over, the wax dripping in a huge mound of accumulating prayers.

All of the wedding guests were pinned with sprigs of rosemary and the wedding couple walked up the aisle together. The ceremony was a mix of Croatian and English, Mike saying his vows in English and Ksenija in Croatian.

I have not been to a lot of weddings but I always feel blessed when I am at a wedding where both couples know and understand that their union is also a union with God and through their marriage they will bring each other closer to God. This was such a wedding and I think everyone could sense the presence of God as the most important witness of the promise between this couple.

After the wedding, we all went to the reception. My sister Sarah sat down at the end of the night and said, "This night has truly been one of the most fun nights I have ever had" and I have to agree that it really was one of the best parties I have ever attended.

We spent the night laughing and crying with family and friends. I sat next to a Christian Metal band called Effatha that Ksenija, the bride, is friends with. One of the band members encouraged her in her conversion to Christianity. These guys were really awesome. Totally in love with Jesus, really down to earth and hilarious.

Mike's side of the family represented on the dance floor. Bill, my siblings, Fred, Karina, Kara Lee, everyone was having a fun time. All of the Shea side really boogied down. It was a blast.  And the food just kept streaming. Shots of mistletoe liquor when we entered (or so that is what we thought they said), platters of bread, fish, pasta (squid ink pasta Marilene!) and delicious trays of smalls cakes and cookies. It was a feast to top all other feasts.

At the end, all the single women were called up to catch the bouquet. I went up and stayed near the back figuring if it comes right to me I would catch it but otherwise I would let the other girls have fun. The bouquet practically fell in my hands. As I went back to my seat, tears came to my eyes as I thought Jesus must have known that weddings can pull at my heart. It is a difficult thing to give up, but Jesus was reminding me that I am getting married as well, just in a slightly different way and that He is going to be my spouse. What an honor it is and I am thankful for this sweet reminder from my Beloved.

The night ended with laughter and sighs of relief from the older members of the family as we headed back to the hotel at 3AM. The next day we left for the next part of our trip. I spent the ride to Zagreb, another large Croatian city talking to Kelly, my cousin who is closest in age to me and was heading home to Dallas that night. I always tell people that I can never predict who will understand my vocation to religious life. Some Catholics understand it very little but some people, including some of my cousins who are not Catholic, have been very open and accepting and have a deep understanding of what it means to give up your life to follow Christ. This connection means a lot to me and I am thankful to have such wonderful family all around me.

That afternoon, as our family and my sister Elizabeth's boyfriend Joe, boarded the bus to Medugorje there was some trepidation in my heart. Not all of my family members were completely on board with the pilgrimage aspect of the trip and I wondered how they were going to react. I prayed that I would be able to detach sufficiently from their views to be able to experience the pilgrimage completely.

Medugorje is not a Marian apparition site approved by the Catholic Church yet. The reason for this is that the Church usually waits until the apparitions are over before investigating and putting their official seal of approval on an apparition stating that they believe Mary actually appeared somewhere. The apparitions have not ended in Medugorje yet so there is controversy among Catholics as to whether or not Mary is really appearing in Medugorje.

I went to Medugorje with an open heart but not completely sure of the apparitions. As the trip began I looked around with a discerning heart asking God for guidance and I believe He came through. By the end of the trip I was convinced that Mary is indeed appearing in Medugorje.

I will not spend time explaining the history of Medugorje, this page from EWTN is a great place to start if you are interested in learning more. I will simply convey my experience in this little town of Bosnia and Herzegovina and hope that it is useful to you in some way.

When we arrived most of my family was stunned by the literally thousands of pilgrims in the small town for the Youth Conference. There were over 50,000 people there for the week long festival. And it was difficult to weave between so many people to make it from one place to another. But underneath the chaos, I felt a peace in the town that was stronger than the temporary havoc. At one moment of struggle with the crowds, my heart cried out to Mary for help and I felt her say, "Jesus is in your heart, He always is. Find Him." I immediately felt a sort of vibrating core inside of me and I placed my mind and my heart there. I will never forget that moment of peace and the subsequent experience that was so much more peaceful than it would have been because I was holding on to the King of Peace inside of me.

The first afternoon we listened to several testimonies from priests and religious and I was particularly moved by the talk by Sister Elvira Petrozzi, the founder of the Community of the Cenacle in Medjugorje, an oasis for addicts and all those who have sought meaning in the illusory things of this world and lost their happiness and sense of identity in the process. Her spirit was full of joy, she jumped around the stage calling out to everyone telling them that the most important thing is to always smile. Her joy was contagious and pretty soon the whole crowd was singing and dancing along with this 80 something year old woman.

Later that afternoon we went to hear two of the visionaries talk to everyone, Ivan and Marija. I was especially moved by Ivan's talk. He began by urging all of us to pray for the visionaries. "We are ordinary people," he said "trying our best to be holy. But just as it is hard for you, it is hard for us as well." With that introduction, he spent the rest of the talk focusing on the message of Mary, particularly that of peace. As I listened to him, I could feel an actual peace that came from his voice, it was as if by seeing the Queen of Peace, he was better able to communicate peace to us, even in the manner in which he spoke to the crowd. As I left the park, I considered what the visionaries would act like if the apparitions were a farce. Would they be peaceful? Would they be prayerful people? Humble? No. I could sense their genuineness and I was impressed by the focus of everything they said, it was all about Mary and Jesus. Nothing was about them or their personal opinion.

That evening my whole family went to mass and I was struck by a thought that kept coming back to me throughout the trip - the biggest miracle I will ever see on this Earth is the miracle of the Eucharist. It exceeds even the Virgin Mary appearing to me in person, not that it has happened! Mikki, our guide told us that all miracles are intended to bring us closer to Jesus through the Eucharist and this became so true for me during this trip. Even Mary makes this clear in her apparitions. She frequently gives a Motherly Blessings to those she appears to but she makes it clear that her blessing is not the same as getting the blessing of Jesus through any priest. She also at one point told all of the visionaries that if they had a choice between coming to see her and going to mass, they should choose the mass.

It was also the focus of the messages that convinced me of their veracity. Mary gives very simple messages. Just as David slew Goliath with five small stones, she encourages us to use five weapons against evil: Pray, Fast, Go to Confession, Read the Bible, Go to Mass to receive the Eucharist.

One of the last days we were in Medugorje we all met with the visionary Mirjana. Immediately I could sense a kind of holiness that I really admire, a holiness that is similar to one of my favorite saints Padre Pio. She was very intuitive and I could tell she could immediately sense what was in my heart. She was kind but I knew she would not hesitate to tell me by her eyes or her words the truth, even if it hurt my ego. This is a charity that we often do not appreciate because it can cause us to feel bad about our faults. But it is one that does not judge but rather urges us closer to Jesus.

She answered many questions but the thing that stuck most in my mind was her urging to love and to love always. She kept saying, "Do not judge, this is how we can love. Do not judge." And this message is one that I think really hits at the core of what love is. Love is not kindness at all times. But even if our love requires us to say or do something that might hurt another, it is always done in charity and without judgment; this is very difficult to do.

I was also impressed by her answer to my question about how she deals with high expectations that result from being a visionary. She immediately said, "I feel sorry for anyone who focuses on me and I pray for them. I am not what should be focused on, but rather the message of our Lady is what is most important. I am not important."

She responded to all of our questions with an almost unnerving directness and humility that really left me with a sense of peace. After leaving my conversation with her, I told my sister Elizabeth, "I was not sure about this when I came but I am sure now. I believe in Medugorje."

I did not need the final experience that I am going to share to be convinced of the apparitions but I will be eternally grateful to God for the blessing of the final night we spent in Medugorje. My family climbed Apparition Hill, where Mary first appeared to the visionaries for an apparition that was going to happen to the visionary Ivan. I did not expect to be present for an actual apparition and I was at one moment excited but also nervous. I was afraid that if I did not feel anything I may walk away doubting again but I am glad that God did not test my faith. Instead He allowed me to feel the presence of His mother in a very strong way.

As we waited for 10PM, the hour she was going to appear, several things happened to cause unrest among the crowd. First a woman came up the hill guided by two other people screaming at the top of her lungs. Her scream did not sound human. It was haunting and gave me chills. My friend Erin explained to me that this might happen, that people who are unwell spiritually or mentally are often brought to Medugorje for healing. But even though I knew what was happening it gave me a very sick feeling inside. After her screams died down a group of pilgrims came pushing through the crowd and inserted themselves directly in front of us, blocking our view of Ivan and the statue of Mary. My family immediately protested but the people in front of us remained in their hardened wall, completely surrounding us. I knew that the hour was approaching so I closed my eyes and begged God to take these negative feelings away so that I could peacefully experience whatever it was that He wanted me to experience.

A few moments later I experienced the presence of Mary. The feeling I felt did not creep up on me or gradually enter my heart, it came upon my like a tidal wave of peace and love. I could feel my veins vibrating with the intensity of peace that I was feeling. If anyone had spoken to me at that moment, I would not have heard them. I knew immediately that the presence I was feeling was Mary. There was something in her spirit that connected with mine, a kind of femininity that I never had sensed before in the spirit of God. I immediately gave her all of my concerns and the deepest longings of my heart.

She could hear that my deepest love was for my family and she said to me, "Hope. Hope. Always have hope." I then saw Mary in my mind with her mantle around my family guiding them from their earliest years. I felt that she was saying to me that she has always been protecting my family as a mother and always will. I felt her say to me that I feel love for my family but my human love will never compare with the love that our Heavenly Mother feels for them. I then received for the first time a very tangible feeling of what her motherly love is like. It was deep and intense and like nothing I had ever felt before. It was a perfect love. A love that is like the best aspects of a human mother's love but much deeper and more powerful. When the intensity of the experience faded I was left with a joy and strength that I had never felt before.

I cannot explain how I am different now after my trip to Medugorje, I think I will never really know until I get to Heaven what happened in my soul over those four short days. But I am thankful to my Heavenly Mother for her love and for allowing me to experience what happened in my heart during that time. As I prepare to enter as a postulant, I pray that she will continue to guide me in order to follow Christ with my entire heart and to "do whatever He tells me."

A song to leave you with:

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

My Mother Mary

"Never be afraid of loving the Blessed Virgin too much. You can never love her more than Jesus did."                                         

- Saint Maximilian Kolbe

I should be preparing for my family trip but I am nervous so I thought maybe writing something on my blog would be cathartic and help some of my nerves disappear.

For the first time ever my family is leaving on an international trip. We will be in Croatia first for my cousin Mike's wedding and then we will be traveling to Medjugorje for our first family pilgrimage.

My journey with Mary began some time after my conversion. It began as a purely intellectual exercise. I realized as I looked around me that Mary seemed to be very important to the people I respected most in the spiritual life. I also saw that she had  a big presence in the lives of several saints who I loved, especially St. Padre Pio.

From this intellectual observation, I saw that a devotion to Mary would help me grow closer to Jesus. But there was a problem, this devotion did not come naturally to me. When I thought of Mary, I did not feel very much. I did not feel love, I did not feel admiration. In fact, in many ways I did not think her life was impressive at all.

I remember doing an Ignatian spiritual exercise where I imagined I was the slave girl leading the donkey with Joseph and Mary while she was pregnant with Jesus on their way to Bethlehem. In my imagination I immediately protested to God asking Him if there was anything else I could be doing because quite honestly, this was boring! Immediately after my protest I realized that something was wrong. Here I was helping at the most pivotal moment in world history and I was bored. Something about the way that I looked at the world was not working and it was directly connected with a lack of humility.

So I set to work asking God to help me to grow in a relationship with Mary and and while He was at it to help me grow in humility. It felt forced at first, I did not really feel much for Mary and I felt like a fake but I persisted. I found a beautiful picture of her at a yard sale and I put it in a prominent place in my apartment in Oakland. I bought flowers to put in front of the picture every week and I would say a prayer to her as I placed them in front of her.

I began saying the rosary every day. I had begun this early in my conversion but I honestly had not thought of it as a devotion to Mary. I knew it was powerful, I could see how it changed my life and made temptations fade into the background but I did not think much about the person I was actually asking to interceed for me. I began praying the rosary with more fervor and directing my requests for intercession directly to her. I began to feel a powerful presence looking out for me in Heaven.

Feelings of love for her did not come easily. But one day I was expressing my frustration to a priest and he said to me "Theresa, love is not about feelings. You pray the rosary, you express your love to your Mother, what else are you asking for - feelings? Love is not a feeling, it is a willing." That relieved me, this was not about fuzzy feelings. Just because I did not feel anything, does not mean that I did not already love and have a relationship with Mary.

From that rocky beginning has blossomed a relationship with my Mother. Like Jesus did when He was a child I run to her for protection and trust that she will run to the throne of her Son and beg Him for whatever is best for my soul and my relationship with God.

Please keep my family in your prayers as we prepare to leave on this pilgrimage!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

In the Waiting Room

I am at home with my family for the summer waiting to enter the Daughters of St. Paul in September. It's a strange feeling, waiting. But at the same time, I am not really waiting. I am living my life with the notion that there is something dim on the horizon that is going to shake things up.

Honestly, I have this talent for not thinking of big things that are coming in the future. It is something that I have always been able to do and I cannot explain why or even take credit for it. It is as if I commit my future self to something that my current self cannot quite fathom and then when it comes I struggle a bit with the shock and then just accept it. I wish I could bottle this strange ability and sell it.

If someone wanted to blame my decision on entering religious life on someone or something other than God, I think it would be this talent. Every daring and brave thing that I have done in my life is really because when I commit to doing it, I am actually committing another self (my future self) who I don't really identify with enough to realize that it is actually me.

But as my entry date draws near I am having occasional realizations that the future self I imagined as "Sister Theresa" will very soon be my actual self and that is a strange feeling.

I was hoping I could become more perfect before these two selves met in time. I have been trying to smooth out my rough edges as much as possible so that my future self is not too shocked when she meets me. I don't want her to draw back in disgust. And I have been able to work on some things. Or actually, to be more truthful, I have been able to let God work on some things in me without getting in the way (too much).

But as that day draws near I am getting more comfortable with the fact that I am not perfect, I am not going to be a perfect religious and I am all too close to the Theresa I have always been.

I find comfort in the fact that God chose me. He reached out His hand and beckoned me to this life and after much whining, kicking and spitting, I finally grasped His finger and followed. The way before me is foggy. Most times I cannot even see His hand as I am holding it. But I know it is there, and so I walk on.

I am waiting to meet my future self in September and then many more future selves with the hope that in each meeting I will find my imagined future self closer to the person who God imagines and knows me to be.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I'm on my way God

The moment you hear God’s call is a moment of recognition, a moment of receptivity and of deep concern. It is a moment when all we have to do it to realize that we are creatures, and that it is God who makes the call.

- Catharine de Hueck Doherty

God has called me to religious life and after several years of agony, tantrums and a slowly developing love affair with Him, I have accepted His proposal.

I've been thinking about this for so long that I forget that so many people, including Catholics really have very little understanding of what a calling to religious life means. I'm still not completely sure myself.

In fact, when I first heard the call from God to discern my vocation in life, I realized that I had very strong stereotypes of what it meant to be a "nun" and really very few real life experiences that allowed me to hear God's call.

Slowly, God called me on a journey of understanding religious life and the beauty of a life dedicated to serving God, His Church and His people.

At the beginning of the process whenever I heard a prayer for vocations during the Prayers of the Faithful at Mass, my heart would fill with absolute terror - "They are talking about me!" I would practically scream internally.

But one day, at St. Albert's, after this prayer was made I looked around at the young Dominican men in formation, prayerfully standing, strong, and pure in their white habits and I made a plea to God - "If you are calling me to this life - you have to change my heart. I am weak, I am terrified and I cannot answer your call unless you change my heart. PLEASE CHANGE MY HEART GOD."

And He has my friends, He has.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Giving Spirit

An opportunity for a last minute donations! My sister Liz has set up a fund to help cover the cost of books and supplies for some of her former students in Agua Fria, Honduras the mountain town where she did her Peace Corps service.

For some of these students, if Liz was not helping to pay for their school costs, they would not be able to attend school.

Click below to send a payment via PayPal! She has a nice certificate that she can send you to use as a gift (co-workers, family members, neighbors, etc.) if you'd like. Just email me if you are interested.


Arghh the button is not working. If you want to make a donation, please go to my mom's blog and press the Buy Now button and that will take you to Paypal to make a secure donation to a good cause. Most non-profits spend a good percentage of their money on overhead. This donation you can be sure goes straight to kids who are hoping for a brighter future - CLICK HERE