The Connective Tissue of Art

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Photo by Magnus Lindvall on Unsplash


Tonight, my friend Emily showed me the series of paintings she's been working on this summer -- all impressions of movement, reflection, shadow. A cloudy lavender sunset. The gentle play of rippling shadows on a stone wall, or amongst eager shoots of grass. Twinkling sunlight filtering through rustling leaves. She explained that the cornerstone for her series is a favorite quote from Mary Oliver: "My work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished."

"But, I don't know," she said, putting her phone back in her bag. "I still feel like I'm not doing anything important."

I get where she's coming from. Both creative types (Emily is getting her MFA in painting and I have my words), we've expressed a mutual fear that we're just not doing important work. Physicians? They do important work. People who work for nonprofits with noble mission statements? They're doing important work. My college friend who is volunteering with the Peace Corps? She's doing important work. Another college friend who is earning her Ph.D. in biochemistry and is (I feel certain) going to find the cure for cancer one day? She's doing important work.

So many people setting the world ablaze in ways that excite and inspire me. It's easy for me to affirm their work and question the value of creativity, which can feel self-indulgent and not as earth-shattering.

And yet, still reeling from the beauty of the works Emily shared with me and the profound implications of learning to stand still and view the world through new, ever-astonished eyes, I said, "You are doing something important. What you just showed me changed my heart. It changed the way I want to engage with the world. And that's pretty amazing."

She nodded. "I think all art is like that," she acknowledged, leaning back on her hands. "Connective tissue."

Let's just say it's been a while since I've taken my last science class, so I needed to refresh my memory on what, exactly, connective tissue is. The good news is that it's pretty self-explanatory: the first Google result that came up defined it as "tissue that connects, supports [and] binds... other tissues or organs..."

Tissue that connects, supports, and binds.

I'm thinking now of a line from the opening number at this year's Tony awards that has stuck with me since hearing it for the first time. In referring to all of the nominees who would walk home empty-handed -- and heck, everyone in theatre who never even garners that honor -- Josh Groban, Sara Bareilles, and ensemble members from each of this year's nominees for best musical sang, "If you make art at all, you're part of the cure."

We live in a world that is fractured in so many ways. And art -- in all of its manifestations -- helps bring us together. Whether it's the art of fine cuisine and a shared meal together; the art of a good conversation; the art of a quality piece of literature, poetry, film, music, theatre, or dance; the breathtaking visual art produced by a professional or the fingerpainting at the eager hands of a five-year-old... art is connective, supportive, binding.

So go make art today, friend. Take photos. Sing into your hairbrush. Dance along to your current favorite song. Learn calligraphy. Sketch the tree outside your window. Write a poem. Write a story. And please, for the sake of the original Artist, our loving Creator, whose work we share in every time we do something creative, don't worry about making it perfect.

Create. Share. Connect.

What Surrender Looks Like

Monday, June 4, 2018

Photo by Will Li on Unsplash

I've always thought that to surrender looks like letting go.

Like a balloon drifting quietly away into the atmosphere, surrender must involve a relinquishment of some kind.

And I've been on enough retreats, and sufficiently combed through Scripture, and heard enough about the lives of the Saints, to know that surrender also means a total abandonment of oneself to God.

In other words, surrender is an act of letting go.

But it's also a tenacious holding-on.

To surrender is to let go of what isn't important, and to cling to the One who is.

I've been thinking a lot about my future lately, because my first year of graduate school is over already, and in less than a year I'll either be a) navigating the job market again, or b) preparing to continue my studies if I decide to pursue my doctorate.

And I am trying to picture what it would look like if I surrendered both of these options to God. If I said, "Okay, Lord, here's what's on the table. These are the two things I see myself wanting. You know how indecisive I am, so why don't You just take it from here? Throw up roadblocks if you need to. Plant obvious signposts by the exits I'm supposed to take. Just get me wherever it is I'm supposed to go."

Of course, there are action steps I need to take to move in both of these directions. Network. Set up informational interviews. Research companies I'd like to work for and schools I'd like to teach at. Polish my resume and CV. Work on my writing sample. Solicit letters of recommendation from faculty members. Write that personal statement.

And honestly? I've been looking at this list recently and feeling paralyzed by overwhelm. It's just as tempting to stand back and say, again, "Okay, Lord, here's what's on the table. Why don't You just take over and do the thing?" But surrender that arises from a place of paralysis is not really surrender, either.

So what is surrender, exactly?

In Catholic tradition, one figure stands out as being the epitome of what it means to surrender: the Blessed Virgin Mary. When the angel Gabriel appeared to her and told her she would conceive of the Holy Spirit and bear Jesus into the world, she had every reason to react with paralysis and fear. But she didn't. She surrendered to love, and said a bold "yes" to what was asked of her in the moment. And she continued to do so for the rest of her life.

Mary's surrender wasn't as much of a letting go as it was of a holding tightly to God's will for her life, and an eagerness to always do the next right loving thing.

On a seemingly different note (I promise it's related!), I love how excited kids get to share their artwork with other people. "Look at this!" they'll say, holding up an abstract fingerpaint masterpiece, or shaking glitter onto the floor from their latest project. I sometimes think of God this way, grabbing me by the hand and leading me through my days looking (to use one of my sister's favorite phrases of late) "pleased as peaches" to show me all of the good things -- all the works of art -- He's giving me right now. No waiting required. "Look at this! Now look at this! And this!"

But usually I am too caught up in what I want to see that I don't notice the blessings right in front of me, and the myriad opportunities to say "yes" to love again and again.  I'm usually too worried about the logistics of how it will all work out to realize that God will take care of it if I just keep showing up. To surrender, I'm slowly learning, is to let myself dig into the reality of where I am, of where God is finding me in this moment, and of how He is asking me to serve others and myself.

To surrender is to hold a little less tightly to my expectations for life. Instead, it asks that I hold a little more tightly each day to the outstretched hand God offers me, and follow wherever He leads.

An Open Letter to the Woman Struggling Against Fear and Doubt

Friday, May 18, 2018



Photo by Quentin Dr on Unsplash

Dear friend,

I see you, scrolling relentlessly through your social media feed, witnessing all of the incredible things others are doing with their lives and wondering if God has forgotten to give you a life as grand and glorious and beautiful.

I see you, living your ordinary life, hearing people talk about how they’ve surrendered their dreams to the Father and been given a reality surpassing their wildest imaginings, wondering if perhaps you’re dreaming too small, believing you might be destined for a life of insignificance.

And it terrifies you. It terrifies you because, in spite of how everyone always seemed to say, when you were in school, that you would go on to do amazing things, the most amazing thing you feel you’ve done recently is remember to get your oil changed on time (#adulting). And that’s hardly something that will tilt the world off its axis.

Honestly, what terrifies me infinitely more than that, though, is knowing that you and I have something only we can give, but we’re waiting, and waiting, and waiting for the right moment to give it. You hear this -- that you have something unique to give -- and it sends you into a tailspin of anxiety because, well, how do you know what that is? Self-discovery is a jungle, and you’ve been going at it this long at night without a flashlight. Finding your passion is a path fraught with tangled weeds of indecision and the fear of missing out and second guesses and self-doubt. How do you know you’re headed in the right direction? How do you know you’re doing any of it right?

I get it, friend. I’m scared, too.

But it terrifies me so much more knowing the world needs all that beauty and brilliance and goodness of yours and mine right now… and we keep it carefully sheltered in fear and doubt and shame.

And so I’m here to tell you that finding the thing that only you can give is actually so much simpler than we make it out to be. You don’t have to go searching for it, because that thing you have to give away?

It’s your heart.

Nobody else in this world has a heart just like yours. God fashioned it just for you. 

Give your heart away.

I think what complicates this solution is our wondering how best to do this, but that answer, I think, is actually pretty simple, too: just show up for your life. In Fr. James Martin’s The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, he says that if we want to know what the will of God is, we need only look to this moment. That’s where God wants us to be.

So, show up for your life, my dear friend. Show up wholeheartedly. Show up completely. “Your every act should be done with love” (1 Cor 16:14). Say yes to this moment. Give your heart to the task at hand, and then, listen, listen, listen. Trust that if God is calling you to something else, you will hear that still, small voice in the depths of your heart. And when that happens, take the next right step. Do that in love, too. Let God take care of the details; the Lord of pine cones and pollen, of every grain of sand and every unique flake of snow, is the God of details, and He will not forget about you and me. Try to trust this with all your heart.  

You’ll probably still doubt anyway from time to time, and of course, I’ll be right there with you, worrying, wondering, letting strangers on Instagram and old high school acquaintances on Facebook dictate where I “should” be right now.

But they don’t have my heart. And they don’t have yours.

And so, who’s to say, really? Who’s to say that we’re doing any of it “right”?

Just give your heart away, whatever that looks like to you. Give your heart away. To the life you lead. To the people you serve. And most importantly, to your God.

With so much love,

Sarah (Your Friend in the Trenches)

Made for Communion, Not Stress

Sunday, April 29, 2018




Photo by Katie Treadway on Unsplash


For being so close to the end of this semester, I spent a remarkable amount of time this weekend, uh... not writing final papers.

On Friday night, I stayed over at my sister Lizzy's place, where we indulged in pizza and frozen yogurt and favorite childhood films (The Swan Princess and The Princess Diaries, in case you were wondering). I didn't make it back to my apartment until about noon yesterday, since we spent Saturday morning taking a leisurely 3ish-mile walk through Lizzy's neighborhood (which culminated in a stop for coffee, of course). I went to Mass last night and then out to dinner with two good friends. And earlier today, I met Lizzy for lunch at one of our favorite restaurants before going to see a movie together.

I'm not ashamed, because I wasn't procrastinating. I did manage to meet my homework goals for the weekend in between all of those things, after all. Instead, I was prioritizing.

We talk all the time in modern society about making time for things that matter, but how often do we actually do that when stress takes over? How often do we stop to remember that we're alive, not necessarily to accomplish all the things, but because we were made to love and to be loved?

I've been thinking a lot about this recently. It feels so counterintuitive to make time for people when there are just so many things to do! But this isn't another one of those posts telling you not to be so busy making a living that you forget to make a life, or whatever that saying is.

This is me wanting to remind you (as much as I need to remind myself!) that stress is not from God.

Exhibit A:

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or drink], or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not more important than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?" (Mt 6:25-27).

What is from God? 

The desire to grow in communion, with God and with one another. 

I just love the way The Catechism of the Catholic Church begins: "God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness, freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength."

God made us to love Him. So, if you're feeling stressed, the best thing you can do is draw closer to your purpose by seeking God. Go to daily Mass. Spend an hour in Adoration. Double up your morning prayer time. Speaking from personal experience, God always seems to multiply my time when I give it away to Him, but you shouldn't do these things just because they'll help you cross off everything on your to-do list. Do them because God made us for communion with Himself.

Secondly, God made us for communion with one another. Earlier this month, I attended the Lux Conference hosted by Lisa Cotter and Leah Darrow. In her second talk, Lisa outlined five benefits of community, saying that living in communion with others is necessary because it 1) builds holiness in that we can push each other to become our best selves, 2) facilitates the making of disciples, 3) keeps us hopeful, 4) models Jesus' method of compassionate connection and service, and 5) allows us to support each other in times of suffering. 

God did not make me to stress out about graduate school. God made me for Himself and for others.

So I'm going to continue to be intentional about the time I spend with others, and that might come at the expense of getting other tasks done. And that's okay. 

In fact, it's more than okay. It's what I was made for. 

Peace Be With You

Sunday, April 15, 2018




Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash


“Peace be with you” (Lk 24:36).

When Jesus issues this by way of greeting in today’s Gospel, I can’t help but be surprised by its startlingly casual, yet deeply moving, delivery.

“Peace be with you.”

As natural as the “hello” we might expect if this were anyone else.

As commanding as “Let there be there light.”

It’s not presented as much of an option, this peace. Or really, any option at all. It is given to us. And are we really going to reject a gift from Jesus?

...Except I kind of do. All the time.

A natural-born ruminator, prone to overthinking, indecision, and worry, I would not consider myself an innately peaceful person. But peace, as Jesus reminds the apostles (and me) in today’s reading, is something I have already been given.

I don’t have to search frantically for it, or fill my prayers with urgent pleas for it. I need only pray for the wisdom to claim what’s already mine.

On Easter Sunday, the priest asked my congregation if we truly believe that the Resurrection is our inheritance, too -- that we have been redeemed to spend eternal life with God, even though our earthly existence should someday fade. If we do, he said, it should change everything about the way we live our lives.

I think he was referring to this concept of peace when he said that.

If we believe the Resurrection is true and, moreover, that it is our inheritance, we should be able to live our lives in the state of peace that comes from knowing that we will be happy forever with Him in eternity, despite the suffering we might endure here.

Should be able to. I’m still working on it, though. ;)

Understanding His Abundance

Tuesday, February 13, 2018




Photo by Thabang Mokoena on Unsplash

I don't often feel that Jesus is singling me out in the Gospel. More often than not, it's a challenge to puzzle through and glean practical meaning from words spoken and deeds done two thousand years ago. How does this apply to where I am now?

Not today, though. Today I felt I was one of the apostles sitting in the boat with Jesus, stressing out because we had only remembered to bring one loaf and it didn't seem like enough. This is me when I'm worried I won't have enough time to accomplish my latest string of to-do's. This is me when I'm worried about finances. This is me whenever I'm convinced I'm somehow not prepared enough to take the next step.

God knows this about me, which is why I could feel his gaze -- distinct, penetrating, and most of all, tender -- on me when I read these words: "Do you still not understand?" (Mk 8:21)

When I get tangled up in the fear of scarcity, I forget all of the other times God has come through for me -- which is to say, um, every other time I've let my worries paralyze me. I still don't seem to understand that God will always be there to provide.

The exchange Jesus shares with the apostles in today's Gospel could be a conversation He has with me on the regular:

"'And do you not remember, when I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many wicker baskets full of fragments you picked up?' 

They answered him, 'Twelve.'

'When I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many full baskets of fragments did you pick up?'

They answered him, 'Seven.'"
Mark 8:18-20

I can picture the apostles' begrudging receipt of Jesus' gentle chiding. Essentially what Jesus is saying is that He has a pretty good track record of following through in seemingly impossible circumstances. He always provides. And looking at my own life and the things the anxieties that have crowded my mind and heart on a regular basis, I know this to be true.

But still I hesitate. And question. And worry.

As today's first reading reminds us, "...all good giving and every perfect gift is from above" (Jas 1:17). I think the problem is I just don't take enough time to remember them.

Let's begin today by either reminding ourselves (in prayer, in our journals, in our prayer journals, whatever!) of the times when God has come through for us, and assure ourselves that He will continue to do so.

Let's try to understand just a little bit better.

Slingshot in Hand

Wednesday, January 17, 2018



Photo by Felix Russell-Saw on Unsplash

We all know the story told in today's first reading: that of a boy named David who, armed with nothing but a slingshot and a stone, shoots down a giant Philistine named Goliath. It's a pretty impressive feat, and one that's called upon often to encourage us to fight in the face of impossible odds.

Well, I don't know about you... but if someone sent me into battle in David's day with only a slingshot and a stone, I'd probably say, "Um. Aren't you forgetting something?" I'd think about all of the other soldiers who have ever gone off to fight, donning protective armor and sporting swords. I'd think of how much more experienced than me they all were. I'd think of how much taller and more muscular than me they all were. If I were going to have any chance to succeed, I'd have to be like them, I'd think.


Then I'd probably cry.


Most definitely, I would run.


So you can see how this scenario would not have had the same inspiring end if it were me.


Fortunately, David doesn't indulge in the comparison game, even though Saul tempts him to: "You cannot go up against this Philistine and fight with him, for you are only a youth, while he has been a warrior from his youth." (1 Sm 17:33, NAB) You'll never compete, kid. Might as well give up now.


But David insists the Lord will keep him safe, and Saul relents: "Go! The Lord will be with you." (1 Sm 17:37, NAB)


And David goes and shoots Goliath right between the eyes with one of his stones: "Thus David triumphed over the Philistine with sling and stone; he struck the Philistine dead, and did it without a sword in his hand." (1 Sm 17:50, NAB)


Mic drop.


But this isn't just a story for young, small, or weak people who need to know they can stand up against giants. This is a story for all of us who might feel we don't have enough to complete the mission God has set before us -- a mission that nobody else can fulfill.


Henri Nouwen writes, "We are unique human beings, each with a call to realize in life what nobody else can... We will never find our vocations by trying to figure out whether we are better or worse than others. We are good enough to do what we are called to do." (Bread for the Journey, January 17 reflection)


We are good enough to do what we are called to do.


Ralph Waldo Emerson puts it this way: "There is something which you can do better than another. Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that."


So, friends: be brave today. And don't worry about whether or not someone is stronger or faster or more experienced than you. Or has more followers on social media. Or has a more impressive resume, or the kind of job you want, or the family you wish you had, or (fill in the blank with your own answer). 


Just bring your slingshot and take your giant down anyway. "Be who you are, and be that well," as St. Francis de Sales once said.


You are good enough to do what you are called to do.


Now get out there.