Teaching Alongside St. Thérèse, and Learning to Love My Littleness

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Photo by Thomas Curryer on Unsplash

"I shouted at them a lot this morning," I said as I buried my face in my hands, successfully masking my face but not my shame. "I'm just tired of talking over them all the time."

My colleague, fellow elementary teacher Kat, sat beside me on the bench outside the front doors of our school. It was a balmy 46 degree October morning in Denver, and, desperate for some fresh air and the perspective that comes from a change of scene, we'd decided to eat lunch outside during our prep period.

Kat made a general sound of assent but didn't interrupt, gently encouraging me to continue.

"I just... As a perfectionist, I think I measure the worth of each day by how many times I lose my patience with them. Like, if I yell at them, then the whole day is shot. I'm not teaching them everything they need to learn that day, because they're not paying attention, and I have to stop class a hundred times. And," I hesitate, because for some reason this particular imperfection is the hardest one to admit to, "in those moments, I know that I have failed, again, to love them well."

As if failing to love people well is my special skill. As if this isn't something that every human runs up against dozens of times a day.

But because I know the heights of holiness I am called to, I can't shake the shame I feel when I so blatantly miss the mark.

Kat nodded thoughtfully, and that in itself was a grace, to be received with understanding and empathy. I get it, she seemed to say. I've been there. "Can I read you something by St. Thérèse?" she asked me.


Referring to a photo her soon-to-be sister-in-law had texted her, a picture of a page from Fr. Michael Gaitley's 33 Days to Merciful Love, she read this excerpt from St. Thérèse's own writings:

"And if the good God wants you weak and helpless like a child... do you believe that you will have less merit? .... Agree to stumble at every step therefore, even to fall, to carry your cross weakly, to love your helplessness. Your soul will draw more profit from it than if, carried by grace, you would accomplish with enthusiasm heroic actions that would fill your soul with personal satisfaction and pride."

After supplementing my reflection with some of her own challenges, Kat concluded, "The Lord wants us little right now, Sarah." 

I would like to be perfect. I would like to have classroom management totally figured out by now. I would like to be the kind of teacher who never raises her voice, who exhibits total control of the happenings in her classroom. And if none of that is possible immediately, I would at least like to be cured of the irritation and impatience I feel along the way to achieving it.

But my frustration provides an example of my littleness, and the more I can recognize and accept without bitterness or shame my littleness -- that is, the myriad ways I falter and fail each day -- the more I allow God the room to fill my heart with Him, to do what I am incapable of -- in other words, to be my Savior.

The shame I'm tempted to feel when I mess up is not of God. Instead, it is a projection of my own human weakness in desiring perfection and the false belief that I am only worthy -- of others', but especially, of God's -- love if I never succumb to my frailties.

Is it possible, though, that God delights in my weaknesses, because, when recognized and surrendered, they are the very paths that lead me closer to Him? "[The Lord] said to me," Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, "'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.' I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me." (2 Cor 12:9)

And the secret to embracing my littleness lies, not in hiding my face in shame each time I make another mistake, but in running to the Lord in freedom, asking for His grace to abound and heal me, knowing that He welcomes each tiny return with the jubilation of the father whose prodigal son has returned.

Shortly after our conversation, Kat and I embarked on the study of Divine Mercy outlined in Fr. Gaitley's 33 Days to Merciful Love, and now that we've completed it, I can say that I have learned to trust God and His goodness, and to surrender everything over to Him, more in the last five weeks than I ever have.

That's not to say that I never struggle at all anymore when I mess up. And it's not also not admitting blithe complacency in areas I really do need to work on.

But if I, as Fr. Gaitley proposes, keep trying and trusting in the Lord's goodness, He will, as Thérèse says, "know how He can come and get me," to help me the rest of the way.

And learning to see my failings through the eyes of a merciful God, who longs to draw me closer to His heart at every moment of every day, and isn't repelled by my weaknesses but wants to be invited into them, is making all the difference.

"Music Always Round Me." Students Always Amazing Me. God Always Surprising Me.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Photo by Marius Masalar on Unsplash

Some days, I spend a disproportionate amount of time confiscating student "science experiments" cultured in makeshift Pringle-can petri dishes. Or counseling students to make better choices than sticking their bare hands in the snow. And reminding myself that they are only nine years old, and their frontal lobes are still developing.

On other days, we explicate poetry. And I'm floored by the depth of insight in their young brains.

When I decided not to pursue a doctorate in literature at this time in my life (check out my letter for The Catholic Woman for more of the story on my discernment), I did grieve a little bit for my time in academia, for a part of my life I wasn't sure I'd see again. And some days -- on my "grass is greener" days, as a colleague of mine calls them -- I still grieve. Through rose-colored window panes, I remember my life as a graduate student, joyfully ensconced in literary conversations and weighty tomes. I spin fantasies of the professorship I could instead be working for right now, and I long for the elusive "what might have been" -- which ultimately boils down to simply thinking beautiful thoughts about deep topics, within ivy-covered walls.

And time and again, I tell myself I'm right where I need to be. Or someone else tells me so. Or God Himself does.

Over the last two days, my fourth graders have begun studying Walt Whitman's "That Music Always Round Me," (see the photo below) in preparation to recite it at our school's First Trimester Presentation of Learning Day next month. We read it through a few times before I asked them what Whitman was writing about there -- music like the kind we're familiar with (country, hip hop, pop, folk)?

No, they said. The music of everything. What the whole world makes!

Now we're talking. I sat up straighter in my chair at the front of the room, and my heart raced with the giddiness that comes when my students are on the edge of an epiphany. Tell me more. 

I asked them to turn to a partner and create a list of all of the sounds they hear around them on a daily basis, sounds that also "make music" in the world. The list in the space underneath the poem here captures what they came up with:

Their list left me awestruck -- and not just because they'd focused well enough and long enough in their partnerships (without descending into out-and-out chaos) to come up with all of these examples, but because the eagerness with which they took to the activity and shared their thoughts speaks to their earnest desire to listen to the world they're in. And ultimately, to look beyond what they hear to the reality of the One conducting the symphony, filling this world with light and majesty and movement everywhere they look.

If I'd been afraid that fourth graders couldn't ascend to the level of contemplation that the students I may sometimes wish I taught at the college level could, over the last two days, they reminded me I have no reason to worry.

I really believe that the human spirit is prone to wonder, to marvel, and to connect the dots back to our Creator. To yearn homeward, heavenward. And perhaps education is nothing more than the work of teaching us how to wonder well.

College students can do so with more articulation, perhaps, than fourth-graders can, but the latter are every bit as perceptive. Maybe even more so.

And as I turn all of this over in my head, I see God smile at me and hear Him say, "Do you see? Do you see what becomes of your longings when you just give everything to Me?"

I am not -- for now, at least -- on the road to becoming a professor. But I am leading my students to beauty, truth, and goodness. To Him. To wonder. And they are leading me in turn. It looks a bit different than I thought it would, this time last year.

But He is good. And I am grateful.

And fourth-graders? They are just amazing.

For the Fighters and the Figurers-Out: I'm With You.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Photo by Liam Simpson on Unsplash

I haven't written here in quite a while, and if I'm honest, it has nothing to do with "not having the time" to do so -- though I could easily blame it on that if I wanted to. I'm a first-year teacher, after all. When I'm not feverishly lesson planning or desperately plotting new classroom management strategies (because a "class dance party" one afternoon yielded far too many students dancing "the floss" on top of their desks for me to be okay with the safety hazard that posed), I'm usually trying to steal a few minutes with a book, or else a glass of wine and a good friend. And also I have absolutely no stamina for anything that happens after 7pm anymore.

#adulting, am I right?

I told my friend Tracy tonight that part of the reason I've been silent here for so long is that, as a perfectionist, I'm not comfortable with a regular (as in, two or three days a week) posting schedule. There's not enough time, with that kind of frequency, to make sure things are perfect before they're released into the world! I'd rather take my time polishing and perfecting, but then, by the time the insecurity fades and I'm ready to publish, whatever it is I've been writing about has already passed the point of relevancy. And with an uncomfortable amount of pressure in the blogosphere to stay current on world and cultural events, and to post frequently enough to garner an audience, I feel I can't -- or maybe, I just don't want to -- keep up.

But this blog has always been less about profiting and popularity than it has been about simply... accompanying. Journeying. Letting others know they're not alone, and letting you know that you have a friend. A friend who is also just figuring things out one day at a time.

I closed a chapter of my life back in May -- that of being a student -- and now I am a full-time 4th grade Catholic elementary school teacher. And honestly, you could measure the interior movements of my soul over the last two months on an EKG (some super high highs followed by some very low lows, and then a plateau-ish period of relative calm and routine before another spike). I expect to share some -- or a lot -- of that experience here because it's central to my life now.

But this isn't a "first-year teacher blog", even though I am a first-year teacher.

And it isn't a blog "for women in their late twenties" -- even though I am technically one of those now, too.

It is, first and foremost, a place for me to tell my story, and to hope that you, dear reader, find something of yours here, too.

So maybe it’s okay if it’s not perfect.

Because we're all in this together, and transitions can be so scary, and change isn't a one-and-done kind of deal, but something we experience every day if we're doing life right, and you are not alone if, even after taking the next right step, you're still afraid you don't actually have a clue what it is you're doing.

But we are the fighters, you and me. We are the figurers-out. We will keep going.

And yes, I will keep writing.

...All this to say, I'm back! And I'll be posting more (semi-) regularly from here on out. Would love to have you along for the ride! :)

The Case for Beauty on College Campuses

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

I received my bachelor's degree from the University of San Diego, a school renowned for its beautiful, Spanish-Renaissance-inspired campus. And upon revisiting it over Memorial Day weekend, I found myself struck by the aesthetic improvements made to campus, just in the time since I graduated in 2015. The highlights of the transformation over the last four years include an ornate nursing practicum building, a new quad on the west side of campus, and a few new seating areas (one of them featuring a pair of comically-sized Adirondack chairs, which seemed an admittedly superfluous addition; see below). Though it was hard for me to imagine when graduating that the campus could possibly get any more beautiful, somehow it has managed to become so.

Gorgeous as it is, the school sometimes catches flak for its appearance. I've heard people wonder, for example, why the university would spend tuition dollars on surface improvements when there are surely other things that need attention, or else murmuring about the privilege represented by the campus environment. And I can see where they're coming from. In some ways, perhaps it seems irresponsible for universities to spend so much money on trivial concerns when there are scholarship funds to attend to and student services to enhance. 

But the cultivation of beauty is not a sin. Rather, I believe it is a virtue, and so did the founder of USD, Mother Rosalie Clifton Hill.  

Per the USD website, Mother Rosalie Hill believed that having a beautiful campus would not only inspire students to perform well academically, but to seek after goodness and aspire to the Lord's truth: 

"'Beauty will attract them; goodness will lead them; but the truth will hold them,' she said.

This has been interpreted to mean that beauty will initially attract people who come to the campus, and when they are here, they will encounter people in whom they find a certain goodness. This, in turn, will lead them to the truth, which will hold them. For Mother Rosalie Hill, the search for truth was the purpose of the university (History of the University of San Diego)."

The University of San Diego's beauty ultimately propels its students to seek its source, the Lord.

The reading from today's Mass reinforces the idea that beauty is vital because it points us to Beauty Itself. In Acts 17:26-27, Paul says, "[The Lord] made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for Him and find Him, though indeed He is not far from any one of us.

The phrase "ordered seasons" in this passage seems to act as a synecdoche for all of the natural processes and beauty signified by the world around us --  a single phrase that represents the myriad intricacies and wonders that populate the planet and echo God's creative genius. And Paul reminds us that each of those things, from the smallest blade of grass to the highest mountaintop, points us back to Him, the one who gave everything to us to begin with. Beauty, Paul agrees, leads us to seek God, to seek the truth of His existence and our being.

As Pope St. John Paul II would add centuries later, in his "Letter to Artists," man-made beauty allows us to reflect the image of God and share in the sacredness of His creative work:

"God therefore called man into existence, committing to him the craftsman's task. Through his 'artistic creativity' man appears more than ever 'in the image of God,' and he accomplishes this task above all in shaping the wondrous 'material' of his own humanity and then exercising creative dominion over the universe which surrounds him. With loving regard, the divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of His own surpassing wisdom, calling him to share in His creative power (1)."

In other words, even carefully tended college campuses, stewarded and shaped by human hands, can share in the divine creative mission that calls hearts and minds heavenward. They signify a partnership between humanity and the Creator who fashioned them, and allow people the opportunity to echo His creative work. Those who are attracted to the beauty fashioned by human hands out of the raw materials God supplies will ultimately find in such beauty a reflection of the divine, which in turn causes them to keep seeking truth.  

Seen this way, beauty on college campuses is not only permissible, but admirable and necessary, as it  signifies something greater than itself and encourages us to seek the truth of the One who "gives to everyone life and breath and everything" (Acts 17:25) -- including aesthetically pleasing learning environments.

Because the beauty that exists within the boundaries of a university doesn't stop there. It keeps us yearning and searching for the source of that beauty. And then we build lives that do the same.

And that... well, that is something to be celebrated.

Inner Critics and Inherent Goodness

Monday, April 29, 2019

Photo by Nick Scheerbart on Unsplash

I named my inner critic Marv.

Marv never has anything interesting to say, but that doesn't stop him from following me around 24/7 and commenting on all of my decisions, achievements, and challenges. He's clingy that way.

Marv wears a pinstriped suit that ends just above his skinny ankles and dark-rimmed glasses around his watery eyes. He speaks in a nasal voice.

Marv discourages me from exercising my creativity and scoffs when I make a mistake. He thinks that my worth is defined by what I do and how well I do it, and he keeps relentless score of my days. He believes he knows what everyone else is thinking about me -- always negative things -- and delights in telling me so.

I wouldn't tolerate this kind of behavior from a real, substantial human being who behaved this way toward me, so why do I give Marv -- a mere figment of my imagination -- the time of day?

Well, he can be pretty convincing. Sometimes he disguises himself really well and sounds just like... me. And that's hard to ignore.

"That isn't you," my counselor reminded me during our session today. And then she asked me, "Who are you without that voice?"

In answer to her question, I reflected on Genesis 1, where, after creating humankind and the entire world, God looks everything He has made and calls it "very good" (Gn 1:31).

That means me, too.

I, too, am "very good."

Underneath Marv's voice, which tells me otherwise, there is this deeper, singular truth: I am good. 

And the One who speaks the truth of my goodness is gentle and kind. He smiles when He says my name and sings my identity over me in the sweetest of lullabies. He loved me into and holds me still in existence because He has entrusted specific work to me for the flourishing of His Kingdom -- souls to meet and hearts to help transform.

And He calls me very good.

Dear friend, I hope you, too, believe that you are very good, and that you let the promise of new life this Easter season usher you into a greater realization of your worth and His mercy.

You are loved.

And you are good.

We are the Brave.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

I've been wrestling with this word for a while now:


And its twin, a noun:


I've been trying them on for size, seeing how they feel, struggling to become fluent in their cadences, to settle into their rhythms, to discern their nuances.

I'm a student of literature. I spend a great deal of time attempting to wrangle words into submission as I probe, analyze, and describe themes and theories. And when I can't find the words for something I want to say? When my sentences and the meaning they hold feel clumsy and confused? When there's no clear through-line between the emotion stirring inside me and a definition to give it shape?

I find it frustrating, to say the very least.

That's how I feel about the words brave and courage -- and it's compounded by the conviction that if I knew exactly how to define them, then I'd know exactly how to live them.

Because I'm in a season. A season of not knowing, exactly, who I am or where I'm going -- of feeling that I am, to quote St. Padre Pio, "a mystery to myself." And after nearly a year of therapy, I can't say that I'm necessarily any closer to solving that mystery, per se... though I do think the terms of it, and the fullness of my own complexity, have become clearer.

And there are things I am learning about myself, things I want to hold with care and share with others, that I am only just finding words for (those pesky words again!). But diving into the intricacies of my own story and giving someone else the book to read, unedited, are two different things.

And sometimes, the only word I have for that process is that it's just... hard. It's hard, and I don't have much patience, honestly, for the in-between. I preach the gospel of vulnerability and openness and honesty but am only just learning of the real courage that goes into sharing our hearts. And that it may take a while to develop.

And that's okay.

See, I've always regarded courage as something I either have or I don't. I'm either courageous or I'm cowardly. No middle ground. But when I voiced this to my friend Aura Lee over generously foamy chocolate chai tea lattes last week, she looked confused.

I was telling parts of the story, telling her some of what's been troubling me, line editing for concision and statements that get at the truth but don't probe too deeply, because it was all I could do in that conversation. And I was concerned that I was being a coward for not laying my whole heart bare on the table between us.

"No," she insisted, vigorously shaking her head. "When was the last time you accomplished anything meaningful right away?"

When I couldn't think of a single instance, she provided a poignant example: learning to read started with learning the alphabet, and the sounds that the letters made, before assigning meaning to single words and then, entire sentences.

She continued with something more pertinent to my current state in life: would I ever have dreamed of getting my master's degree in a single weekend, or even after a single class?

Her point being: it takes time to learn how to courage. It is born by degrees.

And the baby steps look like sharing bits and pieces here and there, and acknowledging that sometimes, there are things we aren't ready to share just yet. There are things that are perhaps, right now, only meant for quiet conversations with the Lord. And that's okay.

It's still courageous. It's still brave.

And so, I hope you remember this, the next time you are wondering if you are brave.

I promise, you are.

We are.