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Ink Slingers Prayer Stephanie

Improving My Relationship with the Real Presence

Improving My Relationship with the Real Presence

Several years ago I spent quite some time not practicing the faith. I felt like I was stuck in a cold and empty space, ripe with isolation and distraction. It took the birth of my first baby to slowly drag me out of it and back into the warm and familiar waters of Catholicism. First I eased into learning more about the faith I was raised in, but later it morphed into a relentless pursuit for all the knowledge I could handle. 

Through my prayer and studies, I thankfully came to know (unshakably) in my heart that the Eucharist is the greatest sacrament. I began to think on a more personal level about why we need the Eucharist and that it is indeed the most amazing gift anyone in this life could receive. The more I grasped how incredible it is that Christ continues to give Himself to us, the more seriously I regarded Communion. This was one of the any fruits of my conversion.

For the most part, this quest for a deeper understanding and more sincere love for the Church was a blessing. It was great that I was becoming more spiritually accountable. What wasn’t so great was that I started second-guessing myself to the extreme. I had an unhealthy distrust of my own motives which stifled my potential to love God better. 

Amidst my renewed awe for the Eucharist, I made the mistake of scrutinizing the sincerity of my own belief in the real presence. Catholicism 101 basically starts with the fact that we believe it is not a symbol but is in fact His body. So, like someone carrying a secret, I wrestled internally with my own faith in the true presence. I kept thinking, if I really do believe, wouldn’t I feel more within myself while walking down the aisle to communion? Why am I not overwhelmed by the miracle before me? What if I don’t believe enough?

These questions brought me nothing but doubt and discouragement. I finally mentioned it to one of my best friends and her brief response was perfect. She said, “the miracle itself is part of the mystery, so that’s where our faith comes in. We cannot understand it completely.” I reflected on her words for a few weeks and prayed with them until I finally felt the burden of my self-imposed guilt start to fade. 

My pursuit to be an authentic believer was noble. The problem is that I placed myself at the center of my pursuit instead of Jesus. Insisting that I must fully and intellectually grasp the miracle of the Eucharist was essentially to put myself on the level of the divine. Our earthly life comes with the veil over our eyes, appropriate to our imperfect state due to sin. The more logical approach to the mysteries of our faith is indeed one that is childlike—lacking in some understanding and wisdom, but confident and trusting.

The habit of dotting the “i’s” and crossing the “t’s” of my spiritual life, searching for answers inside myself which rely solely on myself, will never bring me closer to God. The real fruits come when we make an effort to think less and love more, and only looking inward when we acknowledge that God dwells within, ever ready to love and guide us. 

My worrying about motives was all pride and no humility. Only when I let it go and told God that I wish to have as much love as possible for the Eucharist, leaving the level of my understanding to Him alone, did I feel the joy in receiving the gift of His Son. A genuine and grateful smile now erupts when I hear, “The Body of Christ”. 

What I have learned from this journey is that my faith in God and the mysteries of faith increase when my dependence upon myself decreases. If I am front and center, along with all my wavering human feelings and emotions, then I am only distracting and exhausting myself while drifting away from the truth of God’s love. When I quiet the storms of my own intellect and curiosity, then the peaceful waters of Catholicism can nourish me as I drift closer to God. 

If you are prone to second-guessing your own motives like I am, these words from St. Francis de Sales in The Art of Loving God may be worth reflection: “The mistrust of ourselves proceeds from the knowledge of our imperfections. It is a very good thing to mistrust ourselves, but how will it help us, unless we cast our whole confidence upon God and wait for His mercy?” Each of us  needs His mercy in one way or another and we can place our shortcomings or doubts of faith completely in His hands while we focus simply on loving Him. St. Francis also adds that, “Simplicity banishes from the soul that solicitous care which so needlessly urges many to seek out various exercises and means to enable them, as they say, to love God…They torment themselves about finding the art of loving God, not knowing that there is none except to love Him. They think that there is a certain art needed to acquire this love, which is really to be found only in simplicity.” May we always walk the communion line with lightness of heart, with simple love and gratitude for Christ!

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Books Ink Slingers Lent Liturgical Year Saints Stephanie

A Little “Light” Reading: Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross

A Little “Light” Reading: Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross

I have taken a different approach to Lent this year. Normally, I give up one or two things, and by “give up” I mean to say that I will give them up and ultimately fail, then do my best to ignore the rest of Lent with as little guilt as possible. It’s been rough. But, as Lent approached this year I felt called to do something else. I decided I would not give any “thing” up. Instead, I would read Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross and be open to recognizing the intangible attachments that require purgation. The result? This is the best Lent of my life. It is telling, and hard, and necessary.

As we near the close of the Lenten season, I am still in the thick of the text, with about 80 pages left to go. But…I’m starting to finally get it…the purpose of this liturgical season, the reason for it occurring every year, its calendar position right before Easter. These were all things I always understood on a superficial level, but now it makes so much sense. Now, I see that it is a gift. Now, I see how special it is that the Church offers this season each year. It is an invitation. God is tenderly asking us to seek union with Him (contemplation) by becoming purified, so we may participate in Christ’s Resurrection (eternal life).

I could write pages upon pages of my reaction to St. John’s writing, but this is not the place for it. All I will say is that I would encourage everyone to read or re-read it when the time seems right, during Lent or not. To conclude, I will offer some highlights of my reading so far and why the timing is awesome. 

Four Reasons This is the Perfect Book to Read During Lent

  1. St. John outlines the imperfections which are common for beginners based on the capital sins. He addresses the sins in the spiritual context as the soul struggles in the beginning of its pursuit of God. This has been a helpful guide to point out which of my sins I ought to focus on first and to ask that my soul truly be open to becoming purged of them.
  2. He clarifies contemplation, a concept that has intimidated and confused me up until now. He defines it multiple times in similar terms. My favorite is, “Contemplation is nothing else but a secret, peaceful, and loving infusion of God, which, if admitted, will set the soul on fire with the spirit of love.” He frequently reminds the reader of the beautiful potential of a soul being purified for union with God. During Lent, we must not forget that eternal fruit is born through sacrifices and contrition. Eyes on the Prize.
  3. He speaks of the reason for pain during the purification of the soul. He does not simply acknowledge that the soul must suffer as it becomes more perfect, but he lovingly explains why it must be so. Here’s a tidbit: “…there is nothing in contemplation and the divine inflowing, to cause pain, but rather much sweetness and joy, as the soul will find later. The cause is the imperfection and weakness of the soul, and dispositions not fit for the reception of this sweetness. And so, when the divine light beats upon the soul, it makes it suffer in the way described.” Lent is not a bummer—my imperfect soul is!
  4. Several times he illuminates passages in Scripture that l have often skimmed over throughout the years. I particularly love his attention to Job and David. St. John uses the words of these tested men of faith to illustrate the state of their own souls during their respective dark nights. Their words clarify his meaning, and his explanations bring life to their words. Letting Scripture sink in on a more personal level for the rest of Lent and beyond motivates me, during private prayer and at Mass. 

I pray that this approach to Lent and reading Dark Night of the Soul helps me and others to truly rejoice in Christ’s Resurrection. I may reread it in some capacity each Lent. Perhaps it would make an excellent text for a Lenten Book Club! 

 

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Ink Slingers Series Stephanie The Crossroads - Where Faith Meets Mental Health

Imagining Ourselves Away from Anxiety and Into the Arms of Christ

Imagining Ourselves Away from Anxiety and into the Arms of Christ
If you spend time around children, you know they tend to have vibrant imaginations. Anxiety does not riddle them. They use their minds to create or immerse themselves in something that they cannot see. They simply imagine a setting, characters, and situations, and they are able to transport themselves into a game or an environment that exists only in their minds. Then, something which previously was not, comes to life. I would often admire my own children’s ability to imagine almost anything and to participate in it fully, and I’d think, I wish I still had such an active imagination.”
 

AND THEN…

 
Then one day something hit me. It turns out that I have an excellent imagination. As someone who often crosses the border into hypochondria, and always has, there are times when I bring something out of nonexistence and give it life and power over me.
 
No imagination?
 
I cannot begin to count the times I had a new or odd physical symptom, and within 10 minutes of letting my imagination run amok, I thought myself to be knocking on death’s door. And I do not limit myself to hypochondria; I can worry about almost anything if I put my mind to it.

The Effects

Over the past couple years, I have recognized the negative effects of this pattern. Using my imagination only for the worst-case scenario takes me out of the present moment. I allow myself to be smothered by fear and hypothetical woes, thus disengaging with the actual gifts before me. This draws me away from my family, and even more so, from God. When I realized that giving into my anxiety through my active imagination is an impediment to holiness, I knew I had to train myself out of it. It’s a work in progress, but progressing I am.

But first, a DISCLAIMER

Before I continue, let me say that I am talking about anxious tendencies rather than a medical diagnosis of anxiety. (I firmly believe in seeking professional or medical advice when it is appropriate.)

Strategies that helped Anxiety

Now, back to my particular experience. I developed a strategy to intentionally reduce my anxiety, and it is simple. First, when I notice myself imagining something rooted in fear, I tell myself to step back and acknowledge reality.
 
What is my actual reality at this moment?
Is there any action I must take right now with regard to that reality?
 
If not, then I ask God to help me let it go and I try not to waste any more energy or imagination toward it.
 
A second strategy helps me in my quest to resist worry. That same over-active imagination which had previously been operating at full strength, though to my detriment, needed an outlet compatible with the desire for holiness. So I resolved to use my imagination not for anxious purposes, but toward getting to know Jesus”, a phrase that has long intimidated me.

Rest leads to prayer

I am no stranger to fatigue. I often feel the need for rest and comfort. So, for prayer time before going to bed, I began imagining myself resting with Him. Maybe He would be seated and I would rest my head on His lap. I could imagine myself letting go of all fear because Jesus was on watch while I slept. Eventually, I would imagine us walking together, looking at beautiful things, or I would speak my heart and let Him be an empathetic friend. This led to wonderful surprises.
 
I started to feel drawn to His Sacred Heart. Out of the blue, it seems, I would imagine myself approaching His Sacred Heart, becoming completely enveloped in it. The Sacred Heart is now a familiar weapon against fear and one which brings me peace and calm. The other surprise is that after significant time imagining myself with Christ in simple, brief moments, I one day heard Him speak to me. Not an audible voice, but one my heart understood clearly. I’d been doing some housework, silently offering my prayers before Christ as I did so. I remember exactly where I was, walking across my bedroom. I heard Him say, I ask that you desire only Me.” This was such a gift! After all these years of wanting a personal relationship with Christ and wishing I could hear His voice, my imagination was the instrument that made it happen.
 
I can tell you, I was mighty proud of myself for coming up with this stuff about imagination, Jesus, and anxiety. For a hot second I applauded myself for the discovery, but a face-palm moment quickly followed. After giving this just a little more thought, I recognized that the notion of prayerful imagination is deeply nestled into the heart of the Church.

What the Church encourages

Here are a few instances the Church encourages the use of imagination to attain holiness:
 
Jesus taught his disciples (and us) through parables. A parable is simply a story. By teaching a lesson in story form, it encouraged the use of the disciples’ imaginations in order to find the meaning in his words. We can imagine these rich stories which illuminate the way to God.
 
Ignatian Spirituality: St. Ignatius invites us to engage our senses through imagination to deeply reflect on the life of Jesus. We might pick a Gospel passage and imagine ourselves to be a character. What sights, smells, sounds are present in this scene? What is my role in this passage? How would I feel if I experienced this event? This can help us to gain more insight into the life of Christ so we may know him better.
 
The Holy Rosary: Our Lady gave us these prayers to recite while we meditate on the mysteries of the life of Jesus. By immersing ourselves into the scenes of His life, we can grow our love for the Son and honor His Mother. Our imagination can take us to a new level of intimacy with Jesus and Mary as we seek to increase our faith, hope, and love.
 
There are countless other ways we can use our imaginations for the good of our souls. If we take time to train ourselves in using our imaginations prayerfully, we can more naturally tend toward the good, the true, and the beautiful, rather than every hypothetical that is decidedly not. 
What are some ways you can think of that uses our imagination for the good of our souls?

RESOURCES

DBSA {Depression, Bipolar Support Alliance}

NAMI {National Alliance of Mental Illness}

NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION HOTLINE

MTHFR {genetic mutation associated with depression, bipolar, and schizophrenia}

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Ink Slingers Stephanie

Life on a Budget

 

Most families know what it’s like to live on a financial budget. We have always had to live within our means, and that is especially important now as a family of five with one income. It takes discipline and practice. There is a set amount of money coming in and it should be more than the money going out. 

Ten years ago, as a new bride at the age of 22, I became very ill from mononucleosis. A year later, almost to the day, I relapsed. About three years after that I had it for the third time. My earliest years of marriage and parenthood were spent struggling to find balance and health. We eventually decided that I would stay home with our children, and it ultimately led us to choose to homeschool. I am now embracing this lifestyle with enthusiasm, as it offers peace and better health to us all. 

This lifestyle, while suitable for us, still requires of me the same discipline and planning that our finances demand. I have an energy budget. My energy and stamina are finite. I have four people and a home to attend to each day, and only so much of myself to give to them. My body gives me signs when I am close to reaching my limit. If I overspend, my family and I end up paying for it later. After years of testing the boundaries of what my body will allow, I now have a good feel for when rest ought to be a top priority. The tug of war between the conservation and expenditure of my energy is as routine for me as adhering to our financial budget. The idea is to spend less, save more.

We are in the middle of our first year of homeschooling, which means we’ve barely crossed the starting line. During the Christmas break, I reflected on the highs and lows of our first semester in order to make necessary improvements. And this led to a rather startling realization about the “routine” I had been so proud of during our inaugural year. I have been budgeting another one of our family’s greatest assets: joy. 

School objectives, nap schedules, in-home therapy sessions, meal prep, laundry, appointments, dishes, diapers, discipline, work schedules, field trips, and everything else in between can put my energy budget on overdrive. I act so carefully to retain the stamina I have for fear of losing too much energy. My day gets reduced to the necessities, with room for little else. This means less room for silly voices, knock-knock jokes, dancing in the kitchen, acting like a robot, and the like. I know the way to my kids’ hearts, and the way is usually simple and silly. I end up missing out on these opportunities to connect with them.

There are certainly times when rest must rule. But always living in fear of what I might lose deprives me and my family of the simple joys that we seek. And what exactly was I afraid of? If I indulge in too much silliness, every last shred of order and discipline will disappear forever? Ten minutes of playing in our spoon and Tupperware band will cancel out my previous night’s sleep? Fear had become a big motivator for me—a red flag that something was not right. So, I brought my petition very simply to God in prayer: Lord, I am tired. I tend to opt out of simple and joyful moments in my daily routine out of fear of becoming more exhausted. Help me to cooperate with Your grace so that I may recognize the life-giving moments presented each day. 

The very act of taking this to prayer reminded me of God the Father’s unconditional love for us. I had no doubt that He was waiting to hear the needs of my heart because He is ever-willing to give. There is no fear in His perfect love. Even our sinfulness and our brokenness do not deter Him from remaining present and delighting in love for His children. For my children to learn about God the Father’s love, they will have to first witness that kind of love from us.

The Holy Spirit has led me to two simple ways to stop budgeting my joy.

First, I ask the Lord each morning for an openness to the graces of the day. Sometimes it takes a few extra moments to feel sincere in this request, but sincerity is a must. Second, I mentally or physically note one particular action I will initiate or consent to during the day: if a very silly request is made by one of the kids, I will make it a priority that very moment; I will randomly dance to a fun song that plays while we’re in the kitchen; I will use a funny voice when responding to a question. It seemed ridiculous to me at first that I have to be so intentional about joy at home. But, we’ve seen the fruits of this already. I have fussed less, said “yes” more, and have even had more confidence when my answer is “no”. 

Our financial budget is as fixed as ever but my joy budget is slowly disappearing. I thought I could not afford to give of myself in the little moments in order to save myself for “bigger” things. No doubt though, I can’t afford not to give in to the little moments, as those often make the biggest impact upon our children. I want my kids to see love and joy in simple opportunities, rather than assuming love is complicated and joy is elusive. I have hope that I can become more compliant in purifying the love in our home. As a reminder of how to best approach my role in the home, I am posting this quote on my wall from St. John Paul II: “Do not forget that true love sets no conditions; it does not calculate or complain, but simply loves.” 

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Ink Slingers Parenting Respect Life Stephanie Vocations

All Things Visible and Invisible

Over a year ago, we learned that our third child would be born with Down Syndrome. The doctor called about a potential marker for Trisomy 21 following my 32-week ultrasound, and in a way, I was not totally surprised. I had noticed it. Our little baby’s tongue extended far out of her mouth several times on the monitor across from me. This being my third child, I’d had many ultrasounds before. I remember uttering these words (which were met by silence from the ultrasound tech): “Wow, I’ve never seen that before.”

My doctor sent us to a specialist for more detailed scans. It was our first time to see any of our babies in the impressively clear 4D view. The specialist told us that the baby might have a condition resulting in a large tongue which may require surgery, or the appearance of a larger tongue could be associated with one of a few syndromes, most commonly Down Syndrome. He kindly printed several pictures of her for us to take home. I studied them carefully. And I saw it. I could detect the features of Down Syndrome from those sweet images. My husband agreed and was the only one to tell me so. 

She was indeed born with Trisomy 21. All the cliches you hear from parents of these wonderful souls have become our new reality. Y’all, it’s all true. It’s so wondrously profound to have a child with Down Syndrome that in a crazy kind of way, I wish everyone could experience it. Since that’s not possible, I will reflect on what I find to be one of the richest aspects of Down Syndrome: often, individuals with Trisomy 21 share common physical characteristics. Almond-shaped eyes. Small ears and mouth. Larger-appearing tongue. Flatter facial features. Did I mention the big beautiful eyes?

Upon receiving the prenatal diagnosis, the physical features caused anxiety for me. Would it be obvious to everyone? Will people stare at her all the time? Will I have to bring up the fact that she has Down Syndrome to strangers? Is Down Syndrome going to be all I see when I look at her? 

She was born and I spent hours staring at my beautiful little girl. I’m not really sure what I was looking for, but I just pored over her face when I held her.  As time passed, I eased up on the whole ‘can people see it/what are they thinking’ thing and just got to know my daughter. The most amazing, relieving, and most common-sensical realization I had was that I do know her. She is mine. She belongs with us. 

As I adjusted to life with three children, I read tons of blogs, articles, and a couple books on Down syndrome and a beautiful thing eventually happened. When I looked at pictures of strangers who share her diagnosis, I felt a feeling that was not present before she arrived: familiarity. In pictures, videos, and out in public, I began to recognize my sweet M in the faces of strangers. Gorgeous, prominent eyes which squint so much for smiles that they nearly shut altogether. Little mouths and ears. The gap between the thumb and index finger. That’s my daughter whom I love. And I so easily see her in strangers. 

What initially caused worry has become a gift. These visible, physical features are present in my child. I got to know them and quickly loved them. They helped me to instantly connect to a group of people I formerly thought of as distant from my world. Now I am grateful to be connected to them and to their parents, caregivers, friends, and family. I am so privileged to know them. I get to look at those features every day and know instinctively the infinite value of the person beneath them. I am so grateful to God for the visibility of Down Syndrome. 

If only I could see every person with that same familiarity and sense of community. But, isn’t that exactly what we are called to do as Christians, to see Christ in all people? God is present in every single person. He is present in us. We are all connected. We are one body (1 Cor. 12).  

Finding Christ in all people is challenging for me. There is a population of individuals that I easily greet with a heart of love. I see them and I know them because they are just like my own. I never before would have expected to relate more easily to strangers inside of the Trisomy 21 community than to those outside of it. 

I feel like I have an advantage with baby M. I have a constant reminder of something I cannot un-know: we are all one body. I bear responsibility for the care of its parts. For me, Down Syndrome and its physical characteristics help to further reveal a truth of the faith more fully in my heart. We are all part of the body of Christ, which consists of the visible and the invisible. It is through faith that we accept this mystery which exceeds our human intellect. Trisomy 21 is an intellectual disability, but as I see it, the world would suffer greatly without these special souls who can reveal a deeper understanding within a person’s heart in a few seconds than any attempt at intellectualization ever could.