“And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfillment.” –TS Eliot
This is a love story. An often painful, sometimes messy, always grace-filled love story. To tell the journey of my faith, it must begin this way. Dostoyevsky wrote, “Beauty will save the world.” My story is one of a beautiful love that, when all seemed lost, saved my life.
The summer I was seven, my mother finally died. It was a long time coming. She had been in the hospital for over a year. Every Saturday I would climb into the car with my grandparents for the long drive to visit her. We would sit in a hospital room that stank of disinfectant and fear and make small talk. I would tell my mom about my school, maybe read her a story or hear one read. I would give her something I made in art class. I don’t really remember, but I’d like to think I did those things. I’d like to think her suffering was made a little less by my presence.
My mother was no stranger to hospitals. Eight years before I was born, her kidney disease was discovered. She was pregnant, and partway through her pregnancy, she got dangerously ill. The doctors discovered that her kidneys were not functioning. Her baby, my half-brother, was delivered early and died a few days later. My mother nearly died as well. It was while she was in the hospital that she began thinking of becoming Catholic. There was a priest there who answered some of her questions. Without knowing all the details because she is not here to share them with me (how I wish she were!), she decided to become Catholic and completed RCIA.
A few years later she met my father and they were married in the Church. My father was a cradle Catholic, though he certainly didn’t live his faith in any meaningful way. I was their only child, as my mother only had one working kidney; one pregnancy had been risky enough for her.
By the time I started kindergarten, my parents were separated because of my father’s substance abuse problems. Mom and I moved in with her parents, my Nannie and Pop. Around the same time, Mom got sick again and needed another transplant. She had one; there were complications. Thus began the year of Saturday car rides and hospital visits. It was pretty clear that if she didn’t make it, my father would not be fit to take care of me, and I would stay with my grandparents. Before she died, my mother made a request of them. Although they were not Catholic, she asked them to make sure I would be raised in the Church. They respected her wishes without question. Of all the things for which I owe them gratitude, this gift is chief among them.
I received all of the Sacraments. They came to all the parents meetings, met all of my ccd requirements. They made sure I made it to Mass with neighbors who were Catholic.
This is probably no shock, but I was enamored of Mary. I loved the statues and windows which depicted her beauty so exquisitely. I didn’t quite understand that she was my spiritual mother, but in my little soul I longed for her serene smile to comfort me.
As a child I attended Mass; somewhat reluctantly as I got into my teen years. I always went to Sunday school, and really liked it. I didn’t receive the best formation, but it certainly wasn’t bad either. All of my teachers really were faithful, if not always ready with answers for my many and varied questions.
I learned the basics; the prayers, the sacraments, the Bible. What I didn’t learn then, or for a long time afterward, was that I could carry my scarred and broken heart into the arms of a God who knows the true meaning of suffering. What I couldn’t even begin to understand as a sad, broken, abandoned girl was that there was a Father who loved me enough to suffer with me and give me peace, by holding nothing of Himself back from me.
I was a sad, lonely teen and young adult. I desperately craved love and affection, and as many, many girls do every day, sought real love in the arms of boys who were incapable of giving, only taking. Each time my heart was broken, I would crawl back to God, licking my wounds, begging for another chance. I had rejected His love again, for the promises of the world, and was let down time after time. I wanted to believe that His love was enough, but I lacked trust in God’s goodness.
After all, how could a good and loving God let my mother die and my father abandon me? Isn’t that the question we all have to ultimately wrestle with: Why do bad things happen to good people?
I didn’t know, and the lack of answers made me angry. I was so angry that I stopped going to Mass when I went to college, despite being at a very Catholic college. I was also angry because I had been reading a lot of feminist writing, and believing their (misunderstood and misleading) words about the Church and women. As an angry young woman who had been hurt by men, I found it easy to believe the feminist rhetoric.
Through my first couple of years of college, I continued to feel both angry at, yet drawn to, the Church. I still believed that the Catholic Church was the place where Jesus was most fully present, in the Eucharist. This made my flirtation with other denominations feel silly and forced. As time went by, and I returned to the campus chapel late at night to pour my sorrow out at the feet of Jesus after each heartbreak, I knew I had to make a choice: Either be Catholic, and live it, or to walk away altogether. There could be no halfway.
Still I rebelled. Like a petulant child in the arms of an ever-patient parent, I pushed away while simultaneously grasping. In my mind, I knew the truth of the Church, and God’s love, and a life of virtue. In my heart, I wasn’t ready for radical acceptance. I wasn’t ready to let God love me, and to let go of my past mistakes. Like the prodigal son and so many others, I let fear of being rejected keep me from seeking forgiveness. Like the prodigal son, God loved this prodigal daughter enough to run out when I was “a long way away” and meet me where I was.
I wish I could say that after this revelation just before my senior year of college, that I turned over a new leaf. It would be more apt to say that I sprouted a new blossom. A place that was dead inside slowly came to life. However, the rest of the tree was still standing, and there was so much pruning left to do.
Then I moved to Chicago and all hell broke loose. No, really. Stay tuned for part two; that’s where it really gets good. If I can say that. I think I can.
“Your love is like a shadow on me all the time…” – Bonnie Tyler
Is it wrong to start a blog post with lyrics from “Total Eclipse of the Heart?” Well, if it is wrong, I don’t want to be right. The song is very cheesy, but it’s good. And the above line, it’s just the perfect one for starting part two of my story. God’s love has always been as close as my shadow. It took me so very long to turn around and see it.
When I graduated from college, I had really started to embrace my faith. I was back to attending Mass weekly, and I had even added theology to my studies during my junior year. The last semester of college had been so bittersweet; I was going to really miss The Mount (what we call Mount St. Mary’s MD), and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do post-graduation. I thought about going for another degree, perhaps in Theology. But the truth was, I had grown weary of academia, and was itching to do something “real”.I’d done three service learning trips during spring and fall breaks at the Mount, so the possibility of doing a year of volunteer service after graduating appealed to me. Two girls who graduated the year before me had gone on to Maggie’s Place and ACE (Alliance for Catholic Education), respectively.
I liked the idea of ACE, so I applied for the program. I also applied for several other programs that were similar, one of which through Loyola University Chicago. LU-CHOICE. As it turned out, I was wait-listed for the ACE program, but accepted into LU-CHOICE and decided to go with the sure thing, rather than wait and hope for a spot in ACE. I was headed to Chicago.
Let’s pause there, while I tell you something about me. I grew up in a small town, a small, small town. We got a McDonald’s when I was in high school, and it was a huge deal. I’m not even kidding. Then I went to a college that was the same size as my high school, and which was located in a town whose population declined by half when the 1,200 or so students from The Mount went home for the summer. I went from that to Chicago. Not just Chicago, the south-side of Chicago. You might be able to see where this is going, and add a “rut-roh” for effect. I, on the other hand, was about as ready for what was about to happen as those gents on board just prior to The Perfect Storm.
I graduated in May, moved to Chicago one month later. I’d live on the Loyola campus for the summer, have 8 weeks of training on how to be a teacher, and then be put in charge of my very own 6th grade classroom in a under-resourced Catholic school on the south-side. I spent the summer trying desperately to learn how to be a teacher, and not even beginning to realize what I was in for.
You might be wondering what this has to do with my faith story: bear with me please, you’ll find out why it’s important.
Spiritually, Loyola was a different world from The Mount. What was I supposed to think when I went to daily Mass my first week there and a woman read the Gospel and gave the homily? I was so confused, I actually thought about leaving, but I didn’t want to be rude. The Mount was the first Catholic school I had ever attended (I was public K-12), so I just figured all Catholic schools were basically the same. Not so my friends, not so.
Since I had added theology as part of my studies, I had learned a lot about my faith and the Church. I knew a lot about God’s love and grace, and all about the importance of the sacraments and prayer.
In French, there are two different verbs for “to know” – one means to know in the factual sense, “I *know* that the sky is blue.”, the other means to know in the intimate, real sense, “I *know* Paul well.” One could say that I *knew* all about God’s love and grace, but I did not *know* it.
Or, to put it another way: I knew all about God, but I still didn’t know God all that well.
I’m floundering about how to put this, but I was just so unsure. I wanted to trust that God loved me and wanted the best for me, but I did not know if I could. I went to Mass every Sunday, I prayed somewhat frequently, but it was as though I was blocked. I could not get past this feeling that if I let God into every area of my life, I would end up old, alone, and unloved. That somehow if I relinquished control, then I would never find the love that I wanted. I was afraid to believe that God could love me enough to give me something truly good.
All of this was going on throughout the summer, and into the fall, when school began. When I started teaching, I didn’t give much time to prayer, and I even slowly stopped going to Mass. I lived in a house with four other people who were teachers in my program, and weekly community prayer was supposed to be one of the things we did together, in order to support each other. Only myself and one other girl were interested, so after a while with no one else wanting to participate, we just stopped doing it.
Teaching was a million times harder and more draining than I thought it could ever be, for so, so many reasons, that really it deserves its own post. Most weeks by the time Friday came around, all I wanted to do was spend the weekend in bed watching tv. Mass and prayer were one of the first things to go.
That fall and winter, I was in a dark place. I hated my job, realizing as each day passed just how much I was not cut out to be a classroom teacher. I hated my boss and her passive-agressive, non-existent, “leadership style”. I never really meshed with most of my roommates. I was basically small, alone, and miserable in a cold city of 3 million people.
After coming back from Christmas break, I hoped things would be better. They weren’t really. Then they got a lot worse. That February, I’d had enough. I didn’t even know myself anymore, did not like the person I was becoming, the person I had to be to survive the day in that school. I did not want to quit, because it was the first time I was ever truly on my own, and I wanted to prove I could do it. Thing was, I could not do it. I was drowning, and I can remember the exact moment that God rescued me from myself.
I was sitting in my room in our crappy apartment. My room was just off the kitchen, it had probably been the maid’s room once upon a time. The apartment got broken into while we were all home the first week we lived there. One time, we saw a rat climb out of an electrical socket in the kitchen. Then there was the time we found the drunk homeless man passed out in the laundry room because the back gate lock never got fixed. It was a hell-hole.
There I was, sitting in my apartment with the bars on the windows (installed after the break-in), on the floor of my room, thinking about what to write for my suicide note, when I was stopped dead in my tracks. I could literally feel God’s presence in that shoebox of a room; He lifted me up in His arms and said, “Don’t you dare! Don’t even think about it! You have a whole lifetime of work left to do for me, and I am not going to let you throw it away over this.”
I cried so hard, the sobs shook my body. I thought to myself then, “What am I doing?” About one month later, in a turn of events both frustrating and absurd, I quit teaching. I was terrified, but I was free.
During that night on the floor in my apartment, something else happened. Yes, God set me free to recognize how much of a gift this life is. But He also finally broke through my walls. The ones that kept me from believing that He really does, always and everywhere, will only to give us love and goodness. He never wills us pain and suffering; He allows it, but He never wills it.
I always thought, in the end, that in order to have God’s love, I would need to be someone else. Someone who did not make my mistakes, and did not have my hard heart. I always feared that in order to have love in any real way, I’d have to go out and snatch it for myself, because God would not ever give it to such as myself. That night, I felt for the first time the truth that I had always had God’s love. That God’s love was the reason my heart continued to beat, and my legs continued to work. God’s love was the reason I was alive. I didn’t have to do a thing to earn it; all I had to do was accept it. I started to know God in a way I’d had glimpses of in the past, but had never grasped until that moment. It was dramatic, but it was real. It changed everything.
I made a vow that night, one which I thought and prayed about over the following days. One that I had made before, which I knew now I would keep. Despite my past mistakes, I vowed to God that the next man I would be intimate with would be my husband. And even if God saw fit for me to never marry, then I would keep that vow all my life. I had let the pursuit of earthly love, and the fear of being alone, keep me from pursuing the Love of my life. The Lover of my soul. I would never make that mistake again. I didn’t.
Two weeks later, I met Atticus. And that’s a story for another time.