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

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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

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“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

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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

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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.  

Not Today, Satan.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Photo by Chad Greiter on Unsplash

For Christmas this year, I received a proper grown-up alarm clock, and the excitement I've been feeling about it is indicative, I think, of the degree to which I've "arrived" at adulthood. But before you go on thinking that I whooped and hollered over a dinky little digital clock, let me tell you about the beautiful contraption known as a "wake-up light". Designed to slowly gradually introduce you to increasingly intensified light during the last thirty minutes of sleep, it supposedly primes you to wake up more refreshed when the alarm does at last go off and the lamp is at its brightest. And get this: you can even choose to awaken to the soft sound of birds chirping, instead of a grating buzzer.

I know. I basically feel like a Disney princess when I wake up in the morning.

But what this means is that I can now leave my phone happily charging in the living room every night when I go to bed. And I no longer feel tempted to look at it first thing in the morning, which usually puts me on the wrong side of the bed before I even get out of it.

Instead, I've been waking up with my journal and Henri Nouwen's devotional, Bread for the Journey. With a short meditation prepared for each day of the year, the book gives me a chance to ground my thoughts in God's truth before being bombarded with all of the other extraneous noise of my day, which fights to pull me, harried, in a hundred other directions.

Yesterday, I penned the following words in my journal after reading them: "The temptation is to get stuck in our negative emotions, poking around in them as if we belong there..." As if we belong there. Meaning: our natural state is one of not belonging to negativity.

In today's reflection (January 10) Nouwen prescribes the solution for the self-criticism and "self-rejection" born from negativity: humility. Humility, as he defines it, is not self-deprecation, or the desire to minimize our gifts so as to please everyone or seek approval. It is not acting "less than" or trapping ourselves in debilitating thought patterns for the sake of not appearing proud. Rather, it is "the grateful recognition that we are precious in God's eyes and that all we are is pure gift. To grow beyond self-rejection we must have the courage to listen to the voice calling us God's beloved sons and daughters, and the determination always to live our lives according to this truth."

I mulled these over with yesterday's potent Gospel reading from Mark, in which Jesus casts out a demon in the synagogue. The man possessed has just spoken some rather hostile words to Jesus, who responds by calling out the demon directly: "Quiet! Come out of him" (Mk 1:25, NAB).

I am imagining the power Jesus exhibited in that moment. I am envisioning how the whole room must have fallen silent enough to hear the rustling of Jesus' robes as He moved toward this man. I am trying to feel for myself how awestruck and dumfounded (and maybe even frightened!) they must have been to witness the Son of God's incredible ability to drive out the demon in His presence. Can you imagine standing by while this happened?

The craziest part of all of this is that we actually have this power, too.

Say what?! 

Yep. We, endowed with the Holy Spirit, get to call on that very power of God to expel the demons in our own lives.

For me -- and probably, for you, too -- Satan's envoys take the belligerent shape of negative self-talk, just as Nouwen highlights in his devotional. You're not ____ enough. You can't do this. The voices in our heads can be so mean, and for whatever reason, we indulge them!

Can we make a pact to end that now? Because let me tell you something. Those voices? They definitely don't come from God. The "truth", as Henri Nouwen so comfortingly reminds us, is that we are God's beloved.

We are God's beloved. 

We are God's beloved. So much so that He gives us the gift of Himself in the Eucharist at every Mass.

And you know what that means.

It means our bodies are living tabernacles, filled with the actual Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ Himself, of this Person who drove out demons. We can call upon the full power of God, literally present in our very selves, to drive out Satan when the Enemy's criticisms pummel us once again. We can return to the truth of our belovedness in God's eyes, and begin walking toward a fuller understanding of our truth.

Quiet, Satan. Not today.

Come out of me.  

Beginner's Mind. Advent Heart.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Photo by Andres F. Uran on Unsplash

Hey, friends, I'm back!

It's been three-ish months since I've last published a post. And while I could say that's because I've just been "too busy" to write for my blog, what with all of the papers I've been working on for graduate school, I think you'd be able to see right through that one.

Because it's a lie.

I mean, yes, I've been doing a lot of other writing during the past few months (grad programs in English lit are no joke, people). But I would have scheduled time to write here, too, if it were that much of a priority to me. And it hasn't been.

That is the truth.

My first semester of graduate school rattled me a bit. A lot, actually. See, I'm a recovering perfectionist, and as much as I would like to have already reached the point of emotional maturity where criticism doesn't bother me (read: doesn't personally attack my worth and dignity as a human being), I'm not quite there yet. And what I learned very quickly in this first semester was that... well, I still have a lot to learn.

This vulnerability of mind means that I didn't respond to feedback with humility of heart. My semester vacillated between days of feeling like I was totally rocking everything, and moments of crippling self-doubt.  My professors and classmates were nothing but kind and supportive as I tried to make my writing better than it's ever been, but pride still found ways to creep in, twist around all of their well-meaning critiques, and lock every door God was trying to use to slip into my heart in a very specific and necessary way during this season of my life.

I was afraid of blogging again because, essentially, I was worried it just wouldn't be good enough. Not in light of everything I was learning I didn't know.

...Which brings me to this post, and to you.

I'm willing to bet you've been there, too: thrashing about in the throes of "not good enough-ness," trying to make a name and a life for yourself. This is a very human reality, and frankly, for me, it's my own personal form of darkness -- the shadow that lurks behind me as I attempt to do any sort of good work, the demon that tries to keep me small, the gremlin who would have me believe (falsely) that I myself am responsible for creating my worth.

But tomorrow is the third Sunday of Advent, the liturgical season in which we await in hope the Light who will scatter the darkness. The God who seeks to make all things new -- to make us new. The God who continues, every hour of every day, to break His way into our hearts and our lives, as He did over two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. The God who is Emmanuel -- "God With Us".

When we want to give ourselves permission to grow from failure, we have to cultivate what's known as "beginner's mind" -- the ability to go from failure to failure without fear of judgment or loss of childlike enthusiasm, and to trust instead that it's all part of "the learning experience". Advent is a season when we're encouraged to think this way with regard to our spiritual lives as well -- to keep making room for God, even if -- especially if -- we struggle.

So two weeks ago, when Advent began I asked myself where I needed God to breathe new life into my story. What did I need to do to grow closer to Him? Where do I need to make room for His coming?

The answer was immediate: surrender perfectionism and pride for humility.

It's definitely not easy. Like, not even a little bit. Praying for humility, in my experience, results in, um, humiliation. And I'm not about that life.

But I should be, because a humble, Advent, teachable heart gives God room to enter into it more and more, not just during Advent, and not only at Christmastime, but all year -- and all life -- long.