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Devon Wattam Ink Slingers Spiritual Growth Testimonials

The Prodigal Son’s Older Brother? That’s Me.

“To err is human; to forgive, divine.” -Alexander Pope

When I was thirteen, my parents got divorced and then, in a surprising turn of events, remarried each other again six years later. Everyone expected my younger sisters and I to be overjoyed, but instead we were conflicted. After enduring a second marriage, a subsequent divorce, an annulment, and the mess that comes with all of those things, we were confused by their reconciliation, to say the least. 

As a sophomore in college, I just couldn’t comprehend how they could forget all of the things they said and did to each other and simply start again. I didn’t understand forgiveness.

Now that I’m married and a mother to my own children, it still baffles me to think about all of the hurdles that my family experienced during that period of our lives. Instead of confusion, though, I’m filled with awe. What we thought was a dark period where God had abandoned us was really a time of renewal, conversion, and healing. He was working to make each one of us new.

Even with such a profound example of forgiveness to aspire to, I’m easily distracted when it’s time to put it into practice. After all, we live in a world that knows nothing about mercy, only justice.

Recently, I heard the story of the Prodigal Son again at Mass. I’ve heard it a thousand times, and my focus is usually on how much I can relate to the son who wanted everything his way and in his own time – right now. What young person hasn’t felt that way?

For years I’ve brooded over how similar I am to the prodigal son and how much I adore the father for waiting to run out to him, ultimately restoring him to the family, despite his unworthiness. 

But there is a third person in that story who more often than not, I ignore altogether: the older brother. 

By getting married, working, having children, and no longer depending on my parents for financial support or permission to live my life, it’s easy to feel like I have little in common with the prodigal son anymore. That connection was from a previous life of immaturity and naïveté. 

In the meantime, however, I’ve unknowingly shifted from one son to the other.

The older brother works hard, does what he is told, and stays faithful to the father, but then becomes angry when he sees not just anyone, but his own brother being welcomed and rewarded when he doesn’t deserve it. He becomes indignant. He wants justice, a consequence for his brother’s foolishness. 

Make him work like a slave! Make him pay back what he owes! Anything to make it feel like he got what he was due. Afterall, what is mercy without justice?

Looking at him is like looking at myself in the mirror.

I knew the Lord was speaking to me during the Gospel that Sunday, but his message became even clearer when I read these words from St. Therese later that week with my book club: “It is because He is just that He is compassionate and full of gentleness, slow to punish and abounding in mercy, for He knows our frailty.” The Lord is merciful even when he is just; “He remembers we are nothing but dust.”

How often I demand justice, when the answer is mercy. How quickly I judge people who make a mistake and don’t reconcile to my liking, or worse, hold a grudge and can’t let it go. 

I may try to trick myself into thinking that I’m better than the fools who squander their father’s money on alcohol and prostitutes, but at the end of the day, I’m the one refusing to come into my father’s house because he welcomed my brother in without asking for a thing. Who’s the fool now? 

I couldn’t understand authentic forgiveness when I was nineteen because there was nothing in the world to compare it to. The world demands consequences for those who are at fault, but Jesus is not of this world. If I ever question that reality, I only need to look at my parents’ marriage. If they can forgive, so can I.

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Alyssa Azul Conversion Ink Slingers Spiritual Growth Testimonials

Loving Me Through Him

image credit: https://pixabay.com/en/hiker-hiking-nature-hipster-solo-846094/

Love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39) we are told. This is the second greatest commandment. What does loving yourself look like? The answer lies in the first (Matthew 22:37), “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”

I realized very quickly that I could not love myself by my own strength. I needed to look beyond myself and my neighbors. My journey towards self-acceptance began in a dark place during my adolescent years.

I was bullied for being short, quiet and more plain-looking than the other kids. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up so I didn’t have the newest, most up-to-date clothes and technology that it seemed everyone else had. You know what they say– “the kids in middle school can be so cruel!” But what was more cruel were the things that I heard in the silence of my own thoughts. I was that 13-year-old girl who buried herself between the pages of Chicken Soup for the Soul. It was a heartbreaking way of coping with the teen angst–you knew that most kids had to endure and attempt to master the awful art of fitting in, yet you felt like nobody could possibly have it worse than you.

The older I got, the more and more I disliked who I was, outside and inside. I was achingly awkward and always treated as a doormat among my “friend” group. I was the last and the least among my peers. I stayed up at night wishing that I could wake up one day and be a completely different person. I didn’t understand why God had made me this way, especially feeling like the fact that I didn’t look like my peers was a punishment of sorts. I hoped and prayed that one day I would get my turn as the heroic female lead. That I would be feminine enough. That I would be strong-willed and fearless. That someday someone else would love me.

At 17 years old I entered into a relationship with someone who showed me that love was…conditional. That loving someone meant you had to compromise your dignity. The idea that “if you give me what I want, or if you measure up, then I’ll love you.” Sadly, I am one of many girls who share this experience of attaining love, whether it be from a boyfriend, friend, or family member.

Because I was young and this relationship was not Christ-centred, I had no idea how to love someone else. I had lost my self-respect, settling for giving my all to someone else in order to prove myself useful and worthy. Sometimes I wonder why God didn’t wake me up from this bad dream. Why didn’t he reveal himself to me as, putting it lightly,  the man I had been searching for all my life.

All this time I was looking to be noticed by God, He was really waiting for me to notice Him first. My insecurities broke me from the inside, enough for God to find His way in. He didn’t embrace me like a heavy storm, but like a soft, gentle rainfall. Often, only through tears did I see Him.

I truly believe that these painful growing experiences really do show you what you are made of. Our brokenness is an offering that brings us closer to God, and ultimately who we are meant to be (Psalm 51:17). It’s like starting life from taking your first steps, finding out which things are stable enough to hold onto, versus the things that falter when you lean on them. I think we often end up choosing the weaker, more unsteady foundations. Like that child, what we need is someone to take our hand and carry us. We are lost sheep, in need of guidance. (Isaiah 40:10-11).

Today, I still have times when I don’t love who I am. Loving myself was never about seeing myself as a new person healed from all the hurts of the past. Loving God showed me that my brokenness had a purpose. It’s about seeing yourself as God sees you, even with the cuts and bruises of our sin. What does loving yourself look like? It looks like mercy. Our journey towards holiness is learning how to love as the Father loves. This doesn’t mean we will be able to love perfectly, but we know that we aren’t able to love ourselves fully without knowing and loving God first.

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The Rainbow after the Storm

The Rainbow after the Storm

I always told myself I’d be satisfied with the family size we had, whether that was one child or many. And so it came to be that five more children would follow the first – and in an order that proved God has a sense of humor, girl boy girl boy girl boy. What we didn’t expect was the storm that was brewing unbeknownst to us. It would be years before the rainbow finally showed its face.

When we got pregnant after #6 was born, we started to brace ourselves for what was to come. We had recently downsized from a rather large home into a much smaller one to be close to our home parish. Multiple daily trips there and back for Mass, youth ministry, RE, volunteer meetings, parent meetings, children’s choir, altar boy trainings, weddings and funerals, and spiritual direction, it just seemed like the right move. We wanted the neighborhood – or so we thought – until we realized that our size 10 shoe of a family was being squashed into a size 5 shoe of a house.

But it wouldn’t matter.

That was November 2014 – almost four years ago when our entire family experienced our first and most devastating miscarriage. It was the most devastating only because we didn’t see it coming. It was my grief, my husband’s grief, our grief together as a couple…then there was our children’s grief, both individually and collectively. And lastly, it was our family’s grief. It was almost too much to bear, but we muddled through it. We gave her a name right away, following our birth order, of course – Felicity Gertrude, or baby Gertie. We asked her in our nightly prayers to pray for our family and the practice of normalizing her place in the family began with such mixed emotions.

My due date came and almost went. I realized it on the actual day as I lay in bed, ready to go to sleep. Sad thoughts crept into my head, but I brushed them aside. I made it a priority to focus on the fact that God is good all the time. I had spent a considerable amount of time in grief after the loss of our little one and allowed myself to experience all those emotions.

Our oldest was 18 at the time and always went to her own favorite Mass time, while the rest of our family went to our usual 9:30 a.m. Mass time. Going all together as a family was a rare treat, usually only enjoyed on Thanksgiving. And so it happened that the first Mass we went together after our loss on November 15, 2014 was ON Thanksgiving. The woman leading the rosary before Mass prayed the St. Gertrude prayer at the close of the rosary – and that’s when I lost it. Ugly cry, don’t care WHO sees me, this crying is happening NOW kinda cry. We were all together – our whole family – because during Mass, heaven and earth meet and our lost little was with us.

TWO MORE LOSSES

Little did we know losing Gertie would be the beginning of multiple losses. Soon after her burial on Our Blessed Mother’s solemnity, the Immaculate Conception, we would find ourselves pregnant again in January – Michael Christopher. It was cautious optimism followed by almost instant grief. A week passed from learning of our next baby to his death. It was over almost as soon as it had started.

The numbness sets in.

Loss three would be the following January 2016 – Sarah Olivia, whom my daughter named. My due date was to be our anniversary, on the actual date. I found solace in this connection, but it was stacked alongside inevitable grief. God was done with our family here on earth, I was sure of it.

Remember when I said I had always worked hard to be happy with our family size? Six children appears to many as a very large family and sometimes the outside perception is that it’s too many or pangs of sadness aren’t necessary seeing as we already have “too many children” by society.

And yet both mine and my husband’s heart desired to continue to be open in the face of what felt like a continued string of miscarriages – lost babies.

It wasn’t until I saw the look of sadness on my sweet Josie’s face when we became pregnant for a 10th time that I realized the depth of the grief and impact of those losses on our family. However, my hcg numbers were strong, everything looked good, the doc (and personal friend) had me on progesterone (again). It was more hope than we’d seen since my pregnancy with #6 in 2011. I did my best to assure my sweet five year old girl that it seemed like we might get to meet this little one.

And so we did. In January 2017, we welcomed our sweet Emmaleine Rose (Emmie to friends and family). When I was pregnant with her, I did a lot of soul searching, talking to God, and putting in petty requests like, I want her to have green eyes and curly red hair. He, however, did NOT give me a red headed green eyed girl like I wanted, lol, but she has the MOST FABULOUS brown curls and STUNNING blue eyes that may turn green, as most of our kiddos have some shade of green or hazel eyes.

My pregnancy with Emmie was by far one of my most physically difficult, ending up with SPD, which made it practically impossible to walk, and affecting my ability to walk even months after her birth. And yet my pregnancy with her carried with it some of my best memories. I cherished each moment we had together. I talked to her, played with her when she rolled around like a barrel and tried to break my ribs with her feet – fun times! 

I wrestled quite a bit with coming to terms that these beautiful children first belong to God and that ultimately I shouldn’t dwell on despair of their losses. That’s easier to type and read than it is to really take in and make my own. I credit our priests who lifted our family in those hard times and availed themselves to us when we needed them most, showing up late at night to talk to us and help us out after they had no doubt invested 12+ hours into their work day already, or just sending a text to see how I was doing. Pastoral didn’t even begin to cover how they made our family feel in those troubling times.

Looking back, I know it wasn’t only the hope and desire of a baby after three losses that brought that catharsis full circle. Instead, it was a combination of Emmie, our priests, and the complete surrender to God’s will that brought a final sense of peace.

God is in control.

And God is good, all the time.

 

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Devon Wattam Ink Slingers Spiritual Growth Testimonials

I see Him, and He sees me.

 

One of my earliest childhood memories involves my grandparents taking me to a church very early in the morning. So early, I remember thinking it was still night and the world must all be sleeping. We found our way into a small chapel that I recall little about except the warmth of its glow in the blackness of night. I was confused as to what we were doing there, but I was happy being with them all the same. Years later, I realized that my grandparents had taken me to their weekly adoration appointment, at 4AM.

That memory has stayed with me over the course of my life, and while the details of it are now a blur, the feeling it gave me then revisits me now when I feel the pull on my heart from our Lord to make it back to Him.

I have gone to adoration in many churches over the years—some big and ornate, others small and barren. Fortunately, I’ve been able to find Holy Hour or perpetual adoration at every place the Navy has brought us, even in the smallest of towns. My memory of each duty station is colored with what church I would run to to find solace paired with what intention was weighing on me at the time: anxiety, family issues, illness, marriage problems, forgiveness, loneliness. The list could go on.

But no matter where I found myself or what burden brought me there, the motive was always the same. Jesus was there. In the flesh. Looking at me.

One time in college, I was in a particularly confusing state that left me riddled with anxiety and restlessness. I ran to my parents’ house, flopped down on the couch, and turned on EWTN. I needed clarity. Mother Angelica was on, whom I love and reminds me so much of my grandmother. She was talking about going to Holy Hour even when you don’t feel like it. You might have a headache, be tired, and have an ingrown toenail, as was her case, and the last thing you can think of is what to say to Jesus, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is being with Him, along with your imperfections, and even when you have nothing to say. She said: “I see Him, and He sees me. That’s enough.” I’ve carried that with me ever since.

I started making time for weekly adoration from then on. Wednesday nights at 9pm in a small, simple chapel right down the road from my college. The lights were dimmed, the incense rose, and there sat Jesus, week after week waiting for me to lay it all out to him, and so I did. My favorite part of those weekly dates happened at the very end, when it was time to say “goodbye” until the next week. As Father raised the gold monstrance to bless us one last time, the Divine Praises were sung in a way I had never heard before or since, in such a powerful, joyful, holy way that it gave me chills then and still does thinking of it now. Once again, the Lord had provided a light in the darkness of my life and my restlessness began to fade.

Since then, weekly adoration has not always been practical. I get so busy and distracted with my children, husband, and own life that Holy Hour is often not made a priority, but it never fails. In the midst of the busyness of life, Jesus will knock on my heart and whisper, “It’s time. Come sit with Me for a while.” And I will. And even though there will always be a laundry list of things I feel like I need to tell Him or ask Him to do for me, it usually ends with me simply whispering back, “I see You, and You see me.” That’s enough.

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Elle Stone Respect Life Testimonials

Visiting the Imprisoned – An Encounter With An Inmate

Visiting the Imprisoned

Disclaimer: This post is about my correspondence with Dahvie Holmes, with whom I run the blog Housewife // Savagelife (www.housewifesavagelife.com).  This post for Catholic Sistas has been edited for a general audience, including only a brief description of violence. 

Because Housewife // Savagelife shares Dahvie’s unique voice and experience, the blog contains adult content, including violence, sexual content, drugs, and language.  Discretion is advised if you chose to access Housewife // Savagelife.

 

yoooo

I have a friend who’s…different from my other friends. For one, we communicate via letter (basically a medieval undertaking). Second, on the return address where the name should be there’s a number: 20141008200.  Third, when I open this letter, it’s not uncommon to read something like this:

yoooo what’s up Elle? you crazy, man.  I be laughin like a MF whenever I think about this.  I always look at the “other side” (outside of jail) and wonder…how do they think.  How do they kick it?.

My friend’s name is Dahvie Holmes, and he’s an inmate at Cook County Jail.  Over the past year and a half, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know him, attempting to understand his world, and starting a blog with him. Through encountering his experiences and thoughts, I’ve “visited the imprisoned”–which has radically changed my life.

I could get into how we met (a crazy story with a couple of miracles sprinkled in–if you’re curious, you can read it here: https://www.housewifesavagelife.com/blog/2017/6/8/a-housewife-encounters-the-savagelife).  But I want to give Dahvie the stage. 

“I love her to death”

Dahvie doesn’t play pleasantries.  He gives such a raw insight into his life.  He sent me a letter which started with this story:

So I call the house, first my mama was talking to some dcfs (Department of Children and Family Services) agent so she asked me to call back.  That blew me to hear who she was talking to because I already have 2 siblings in foster care.  Well they adopted now but it’s the same thing to me.  They not with they birth family.  I don’t even know them.  Never meet them either.  It’s a sad story.  

Now to hear she talking to the dcfs again while she in custody of my baby sister scares the eff out of me cuz that’s my heart.  I love her to death.  I would never forgive my mother if she loses her.  But the guilt really eats at me because I’m in jail and can’t do a darn thing to help.

It gives me chills to read that.  I can’t help but think about my family.  How heartbreaking would it be to call up your mom and hear that? That your mom was sending one of your siblings into foster care?  And you couldn’t do a thing about it?

A little backstory: Dahvie’s mom is addicted to crack.  She was probably using it while she was pregnant with Dahvie.  Maybe all her kids.  I couldn’t help but to think: wouldn’t foster care be good for his sister to get out of a bad situation?

His response:

My mom isn’t the best parent but at least she has support.  My sister needs to be around family.  Her family not no darn strangers.  SO I believe it isn’t best for her.  But if it was, of course I would want the best then yeah.

The thought of having a sister disappear while your away, into the hands of strangers.  It’s hard to even wrap my head around it. I had reduced Dahvie and his family to equations and statistics.  But in this, I experienced his pain. 

An inmate doesn’t just become a cold representation of his crime. They still encounter devastating heartbreak.  They still encounter brokenness.

“I’m actually numb to it.”

This next letter completely underscored the discrepancy between Dahvie and I.  We live in two completely different worlds. It’s eye-opening and devastating:

To see your homies on the news.  Mama cryin and stuff. It’s a effed up feeling.  I wake up to the deck screamin my name sayin my block on the news.  I jump up to see two brothers was gunned down at the restaurant. Face shots.  Them was my lil bro’s too. Even though we had some differences I still loved them.  It hurt me to found out like this. This war stuff real. 

Another huge emotional knockout.  Knowing those people, and seeing it on the news…I couldn’t imagine.  And I told that to Dahvie, I really could not imagine. I knew exactly zero people who had been shot at. Zero. Zilch.  Nada.

He responded:

It’s everyday life for me.  I’m actually numb to it. It’s weird to me hearin how y’all live.  I believe you know somebody who been shot they just ain’t tell you or embarrassed to admit it.  If you really don’t know someone (besides me) then my life, my cellie life, and everybody around me life really been messed up.  Darn SMH. Darn. That would be so hard to accept.

Dahvie couldn’t even imagine a world where people hadn’t been shot at, where this wasn’t a regular occurrence.  He couldn’t imagine my comfortable suburban life, my violence-free, gang-free existence.

This got me thinking. What if I grew up in a neighborhood where people had been shot at, all my friends had been shot at or were shooters?   How would my life be different? Pope Francis said:

Each one of us is capable of doing the same thing done by that man or woman in jail. All of us are capable of sinning and making the same mistake in life. They are not worse than you and I!

I have not committed a crime which could land me in jail. But I’ve been so guarded from making mistakes like that. Let’s say that I commit sin 30% of the time (I had a tough time coming up with a number so let’s go with that).  That means that three out of ten times I’m turning away from God. 

What if for those mess ups, instead of being in my safe little apartment, I was in a neighborhood like Dahvie’s?  Personal choice is a big part of it, but I personally choose to do all kinds of evils. I haven’t had the same opportunities for evil as Dahvie.

Pope Francis says:

They haven’t had the opportunities that I have had of not doing something stupid and ending up in prison…This makes me cry inside. It is deeply moving.

“I had failed to love that child…”

From the start, Dahvie was vulnerable with me, but I put up walls.  I’m very guarded. It took me months to open up to him, to share with him about my life.  Finally I sent him this:

My period is late.  I think I might be pregnant.  Which, to be honest, I don’t know how I feel about it.  I had a miscarriage a couple of months ago, and that process was tough.  Like, the whole thing from start to finish. 

The pregnancy was a total surprise, and I really struggled to be happy about it.  It just was so not my plan, so much not what I wanted my life to be. I wanted my independence for a little longer.  Which I was ashamed about because I knew that I was being called to love that innocent little life. 

And then, when I had the miscarriage, I was heartbroken, because I had failed to love that child as much as I should have.  I wanted to learn how to love the child (my husband named her “Poppy”), and I lost that shot. Seems like I might have that shot again.

I was in a really broken spot.  I had failed, I was wounded. I needed true rehabilitation in my heart.  Pope Francis underscores the need for rehabilitation, saying some people:

…do this in their own homes and in their own professions. Others, like you, do this in a prison. But all of us, all of us — anyone who says they do not need to go through a process of rehabilitation is a liar.

I needed something that Dahvie knew well.  A process of rehabilitation. A time of focus and change.  I could do this hidden in my home, but he does this behind bars, every day.  Perhaps this is why his response was moving, filled with understanding and care:

I’m confused at your reaction.  I thought you was ready for a football team of kids? Haha you thought you was.  But you was really scared. That’s how it be for everybody who think they ready for a responsibility whole time when the situation present itself we freeze up.  Get nervous. Don’t worry that’s normal. Love always grows so don’t think different. I’m sorry y’all had a miscarriage. God knows best and your chance will come again.

Dahvie gave me something that I had almost given up on.  In my self-loathing and self-pity, I had given up on the chance of change, the chance of things getting better.

Pope Francis says that those in prison: 

…are serving a penalty, a penalty for a mistake committed…But let us not forget that, for punishment to be fruitful, it must have a horizon of hope, otherwise it is enclosed within itself and is only an instrument of torture, it is not fruitful.

God never encloses us in our sin and brokenness.  He always gives us a horizon of hope, a chance at forgiveness and true change.  In the face of Dahvie’s broken world and mistakes, in the face of my miscarriage, Pope Francis says it best:

…the horizon is bigger than the problems, hope goes beyond all the problems…

Quotes from Pope Francis come from: https://www.ncronline.org/news/vatican/there-grace-god-what-pope-francis-thinks-prisoners and http://www.lastampa.it/2017/08/24/vaticaninsider/pope-francis-to-studentinmates-punishment-must-have-a-horizon-of-hope-gKo3YCXEVTnLJclJO4hvGL/pagina.html\