Personal

Drawing Inspiration from JPII on Reconciling Suffering in Our World

Pain is a reality for us all. It is the sad truth of our world that perfection is out of reach.

(Far out of reach, actually. Most of us can’t agree on what perfection even is.)

And there are many kinds of pain: the sorrow of loss, the sting of hate, the ache of loneliness, the distress of being unwanted. Some of these things I have felt. Some I’m privileged not to have experienced for myself. But each of us has a story to tell, and every one of those stories features pain.

Whatever your experience, all suffering is a tragedy. And all of it has shaped us—for better or worse—into the people we are now.

Sometimes we shroud our pain with silence, feeling averse to vulnerability. Too often, we feel like our pain is weakness—as if we should be able to “let go and let God” or “rise above” or “focus on gratitude.” And to some extent, that mind-over-matter attitude is important.

But it can also negate the redemptive promise of our suffering.

Did Christ not suffer for us, more deeply than anyone? Was he not shamed, whipped, mocked, tortured, and nailed to a cross to pay for the sins of others? Did he not weep? Did he not die?

Suffering is not worthless. Pain is not weakness. No one is stronger than Jesus, and it is by Christ’s trials that we are redeemed. So, by our own trials, we can feel him and the depth of his love for us. And that is powerful.

But Why?

I, as I’m sure you do, sometimes catch myself in abject disbelief in the face of pain. Why does a loving God let a neighbor hate his neighbor? Why does the Divine Physician let a pandemic run rampant?

Why did the Father deliver his Son into the hands of murderers?

The answer is not simple. And, put simply, God does not send any evil or ill wishes upon any of us. Our world is broken by our own free will and the imperfections of reality on this earth. Imperfect people just cannot expect to live in a perfect world.

I recently read a book of essays from Saint John Paul II—recently published, though written before he became pope—called Teachings for an Unbelieving World: Newly Discovered Reflections on Paul’s Sermon at the Areopagus. In it, the great JPII discusses the nature of belief in God in a culture of unbelief.

John Paul II explains how God made us in His likeness: “God creates the human being both rational and free, wanting above all to express his image and likeness in the human person. Even at the cost of abusing the great gift of freedom” (page 31).

We are free to do as our rational thought compels us. God wants this freedom for us—because, without it, how can we truly, deeply experience love? Love never arises by force.

That freedom, though, comes with responsibility. It means that God can’t dictate every development in our journeys or the world around us. It means pain is a part of this life.

What to Do?

Central to a handful of JPII’s teachings in this book is the notion that suffering does not separate us from God—indeed, it actually unifies us to Him in a bond that reflects the two-fold nature of Christ, who is both God and man.

God is the creator of both the ultimate justice and the ultimate love—and sometimes, these concepts are difficult for us to reconcile. Isn’t judgment inherently hurtful? Isn’t love inherently joyful?

But this is not so—not at the heart of what these virtues entail. As John Paul II outlines in this book:

God himself is the “reconciliation” of justice with love. … All that Jesus “did” and “taught” testifies to the “reconciliation” of justice with love in the dimension of God himself, just as the Cross and the Resurrection constitute its supreme witness. (51-52)

Take, for example, the sacrament of Confession. Just as God holds us to high standards when it comes to doing what is right, He is delighted by the prospect of wiping our slates clean again and again—no matter how many times we fall—and drawing us into His embrace.

Likewise, God can work joy into our lives through the pain we endure. The way He created us might have allowed for suffering to enter the world, but it also allows for more authentic love between us and Him, and us and each other.

After all, without death, we would have no need for Christ. And oh, what we would be missing if Christ had not come for us.

In the miracle of Christ’s humanity and divinity, comingled in one truly perfect person, we are given a glimpse of what it means to be human and what it means to know God. In his suffering, we can see how justice and love are, in fact, quite easily reconciled—even if the depth of that reconciliation is beyond our understanding. JPII explains:

During his prayers in Gethsemane, “Christ united himself to the Father in a special way, and in a special way drew near to him, entering into the eternal dimension of the redemption of the world. However, it must also be emphasized that in this prayer Christ also drew near to humankind in a special way. The words: “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me” testify to his participation in the suffering of all people from the beginning to the end of the world. Christ united to the father—“Yet, not my will but yours be done”—is at the same time united to every human being, and is in “solidarity” with the destiny of humanity on earth. In this prayer, Christ opens, so to speak, a special space in which every person can find himself in the most difficult and crucial moments. The prayer in the garden of olives remains the specific paradigm of the “universalism” of Christ in the history of humankind. (104)

I love this. I love how, with faith, we can see suffering not as pointless pain in an empty world, but as an opportunity to grow—into better versions of ourselves, into more principled people, into closer relationships with Jesus, and into gratitude for the salvation that will ultimately deliver us from every kind of pain.

Suffering Quote

St. Paul touches on this in Romans 8:15-18: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (emphasis mine).

May we all endure suffering with our eyes toward Christ, do what we can to lessen the suffering of our neighbors, and offer up our pain for the salvation of the world. It is a heavy cross to bear, living in these times. But great rewards await us. Justice—and love—shall prevail.

It’s Okay to Be Wrong

Have you ever had a real doozy of a day and just collapsed onto the couch to treat yourself to a few minutes of laziness? You open Instagram on your phone, wanting to scroll through bright colors and the happy faces of friends and family.

But soon, all those snapshots of happy faces, perfect ponytails, handmade masterpieces, and messages about working hard and “soaking up every minute” make you feel like an abject failure.

We know that social media plants seeds of damaging perfectionism in our hearts. It is a blessing to connect with others from afar, to be sure. It is a joy to see their joys. But sometimes, when we only see everyone’s most polished moments, it’s easy to feel like every scene of our lives should be tailored toward impressing others. It’s an impossible standard.

Trying to meet that standard crushes self-esteem, triggers anxiety, and even influences suicidal ideation. It makes us feel like we aren’t enough unless we constantly exceed all expectations.

Thankfully, in my circles, friends and family often share the less-than-ideal memories they make each day, not just the perfect ones. We commiserate and laugh at ourselves daily. And I hope this is the case for you, too, so we can embrace social media for its supportiveness instead of defining ourselves by its embellishments.

But another type of perfectionism has sunk its teeth into the social media age. And it is just as damaging.

Social Sanctimony and Cancel Culture

I don’t follow the news closely. This isn’t to say I’m ignorant to the goings-on of the world around me; it’s just that I’m not cut out to be a news junkie.

I dislike the 24-hour, for-profit news cycle. From my viewpoint, it has encouraged journalistic integrity to step aside so that bias (specifically on political subjects) and view-earning drama can step in. I can’t completely trust any single source of news, so I have to peruse many to get the big picture on a story—and even then, I must accept that my perspective is limited.

This is true of mainstream media outlets, many of which have presented consistent partisan leanings in one direction or another. And I can’t even express how damaging it is from downright fake news outlets.

In the same way the idyllic images on social media make us feel pressure to always “live beautifully,” the slanted language of the nonstop news we are served makes us feel obligated to believe a certain way, or form a specific opinion, or hold up one version of the truth without examining every side.

Then there are social pressures like “cancel culture” and imposed relativism, which suggest a need to protect ourselves from perceptions of bias that could hurt us—at least when it comes to biases that go against the mainstream.

So we speak loudly on issues we haven’t fully explored, or jump on board with shaming others for saying something counter-cultural or making a bad joke or being ignorant—while neglecting to seek important context and first-hand perspectives. Then we decline to engage with those who disagree because they are simply wrong, as far as we know. Which is, in today’s narrative, about the worst thing you can be.

To be clear, on some issues, what’s socially acceptable really is the right answer. It’s never okay to be racist, or to kill, or to bully (to use a few examples that should be painfully obvious).

But many other issues—economic policy, education reform, gender roles, social support systems—deserve healthy and respectful debate. Their positive evolution is, in fact, driven by that debate. Too often, though, popular culture labels one or another position as “unacceptable.” And then cancel culture kicks in, or at least debasing comments that all too often attack the individual instead of the issue.

It is a vicious cycle. The inherent bias we ingest from the news and day-to-day conversations gives us a sense of being unwaveringly right in our understanding. Next, social pressure pushes us to demonstrate to other people that we’re right (lest we be ostracized for being wrong, or for being too quiet). This leads us to share the biased content as if it is unbiased proof, which presents it to someone else—and the spin continues ad nauseum.

It’s Okay to Be Wrong (As Long As You Want to Learn How to Be Right)

What we’ve forgotten is that it is downright impossible to be correct in all things, at all times. Just like it’s impossible to be Instagram-ready in all things, at all times.

It is tempting to see history as a line on an upward slant: a neat chart that shows us starting at zero and growing to perfection. We want to see human progress as black and white, beginning with the dark ages and ending with paradise.

But this simply isn’t reality. History, though positive growth is certainly clear, is also a squiggly line of peaks, valleys, progress, regress, goodness, and badness.

We may have markedly reduced poverty worldwide, but we’ve also notably increased the wealth gap in the last century. We may have 216 million fewer hungry people than we did 30 years ago, but obesity is contributing to the premature deaths of 4.7 million people every year. Global violence by genocide has declined over human history, but infant mortality for black babies remains 2.5 times higher than white babies in the US.

Human history is a relentless game of good versus evil, and we cannot expect to achieve perfection.

Now, I know it may not sound like it, but I am an optimistic person. We should always be striving to make the world a better place for our neighbors and children. I will always try to influence positive change, especially in regards to respect for human life. So I don’t point out these gaps in human progress to make you sad.

Rather, I outline them as a reminder of humility.

People are inherently good.

People are also inherently flawed.

There is no perfection in this life—not until we are saved from the shackles of death. Can we do better for ourselves and each other? Absolutely. But we can’t do it alone, and we certainly can’t do it by diminishing one another in the process.

So if you’re called out on social media for sharing a misleading article, or misrepresenting a counterpoint, or failing to see another perspective on an issue—I hope you’ll listen.

I hope the person who’s offering criticism is doing so thoughtfully, without vitriol. I hope your response is respectful, too.

I hope you don’t feel ashamed for being mistaken. I hope you aren’t scared of hard conversations or challenging research. I hope you know when to turn away from a discussion that isn’t productive without dehumanizing the person on the other end.

I hope the same for me, too. For all of us, growth takes grace.

Most of all, I hope you don’t let the despair of this world drag you down into the pit. I hope, instead, you can look up and marvel at all that is beautiful about this life—and know that you are not alone, and you’re not perfect, and no one should expect you to be either of those things.

You can always join hands with your neighbor, learn something new, and gain a better understanding of the many perspectives. You can minimize the alienation of “us” versus “them,” and unite as people who want to live in a freer, fuller world.

Even if nobody changes their mind.

This isn’t perfection. But it is progress.

When Pregnancy is Scary: Motherhood After Miscarriage

I am pregnant with my sixth child. But I’ve only met two of my kids.

Three were lost to back-to-back miscarriages, and while I’ve come to cherish the babies I’ve never held and the lessons they taught me, the pain of those losses has left me scarred. I am desperate to meet the beautiful child I’m carrying now.

For some time after the miscarriages, my husband and I chose to delay conceiving another pregnancy and focus on making sure I was healthy. It was a difficult choice, but it felt like the only choice. We were terrified of another loss. We were paralyzed by the thought of more grief. And I did not trust my own body.

After months of work and close consulting with a specialist, we regained enough confidence to try and grow our family again. My husband was stronger on this front than me—I was still so frightened and so distrustful of myself. Though our first two pregnancies were perfect and healthy, the next two were anything but, and I had no idea what to expect next.

It took longer to conceive this time than it did for any of our other pregnancies, and the waiting was very hard on me. The stress over timing and taking precautions just in case and not knowing for several weeks at a time, followed by the disappointment of failure, did a number on my anxiety and my self-confidence. Overall, our struggle was hardly that—it was only a few months more than we expected. But it gave me great empathy for those couples who face infertility. Those families are now in my prayers daily.

When we did confirm pregnancy this time, the real unease set in. I was hard on myself—strict about how optimistic I should feel, how far ahead I should think, how secure I should be in this new possibility.

I promised myself and my husband that it would be better after 5 weeks, when we lost Gabriel; it wasn’t. I made the same promise about after my hCG levels came back strong. After an initial ultrasound. After 8 weeks, when we lost Karol and Julian. And on and on.

It hasn’t gotten much better, although it has improved some. I still find myself guarded when I talk to this new child or rub my belly or think about plans for our expanding family. I’m currently telling myself I’ll feel better once I start feeling him or her move more consistently, but who knows?

The truth is simple: You can’t trust an anxious mind to find peace in anything. Even the most natural thing in the world. Even something you’ve done well several times before. Even a pregnancy that your doctor tells you seems, by all accounts, perfect.

Anxiety—especially maternal anxiety—isn’t about rational thought or logic or coherence. It’s about the dread of danger for your children. It’s about the fear of pain. It’s about feeling out of control. And it’s disordered.

Pregnancy after miscarriage is never the innocently beautiful experience it was before a loss. I can’t see the big statistics I fit into anymore—only the small, scary ones that might catch hold and drag me down. I can’t rest in this new motherhood. I complain about the nausea and the fatigue and the moodiness, but in some primal part of my soul, I am also deeply grateful to feel these physical reminders that my hormones are doing what they should be.

Instead of trying to hide my quickly growing belly under loose clothes, I take time to look it over in the mornings and hope it’s bigger than yesterday. I cannot stop questioning my body and its strength—cannot avoid a small, squeaky voice of panic every time I head to the bathroom or feel a twinge.

But I want very desperately for this baby to know that I love him or her more than words can say. I plague myself with guilt over my fear of connecting with this tiny, sweet person. I hate that it’s more scary than exciting to buy and start filling out a pregnancy journal this time. I hate that the first gift I’d like to buy for this new child is still sitting in my Amazon cart, waiting for some immeasurable milestone to embolden me enough for its purchase.

So, to this new life in my womb, I’d like to say some important things:

I am so sorry, little one, that my heart is too guarded to open the floodgates and let loose the love and devotion I already feel for you—that I’ve felt since the moment I knew you existed. Please know that the love is there, nonetheless, and behind these walls, I’m bursting with it. I promise to do my best to break down the barriers, brick by brick, so that I can show it to you.

The fear isn’t your fault, baby. It is no reflection on you.

I pray for you every moment of every day. I can’t wait to meet you. Hang in there.

From here, I want to be positive. I want to cherish every moment of time I have with this baby, even though I know none of them can be taken for granted.

So this is my honest confession about how it feels to be pregnant after loss. But this experience is still all about love—even if it’s the scary side of love most days. And I want this baby to know that.

If you’re a mom like me and you’re feeling guilty over feeling frightened, please don’t. I’m here with you. You’ll be okay. God and your baby are with you.

5 Reasons Stories of Traditional Romance are Still Valuable for Little Girls

I’ve been watching a lot of Disney movies lately.

(Or, more accurately, I’ve been watching the same three or four Disney movies a lot of times in a row lately. #lifewithtoddlers)

And it’s got me thinking.

There’s an admirable trend in recent Disney princess movies that removes a traditional element from the genre: romance. Moana, Frozen, and Brave, for example, set aside the trope of ending in “married and living happily ever after.”

Moana ends up leading her people into adventure. Elsa settles into her position as queen with no need of a king, while Anna has a love interest that is delightful but still somewhat casual when Frozen ends. At the close of Brave, Merida is a princess allowed to live for herself and find love on her own terms—whenever that may be.

Of course, these aren’t the only ladies who’ve discovered their independence and didn’t end their stories with weddings. Mulan and Pocahantas can relate.

I’m not the only one to notice this evolution, of course. And I agree that it’s a good thing to recognize that princesses—or any women—don’t need to be rescued by or married off to wealthy, handsome men to be happy.

But I also dearly hope we don’t veer too far in this direction with the princesses (and generally heroic young women) who will star in future animated features. Because traditional romance is still a valuable thing of beauty that little girls deserve to see and admire in their fictional heroes.

I have no misgivings about unconsented kisses from strangers or the value of disobeying and then abandoning one’s family for a guy (looking at you, Ariel). But romance is inherently good, because it teaches our daughters (and sons!) some very valuable lessons.

#1: Teamwork

In my favorite Disney princess movies, the girl and her Prince Charming work together to get stuff done—whether it’s defeating the Hun or discovering her true identity.

I like that my daughter and son watch these movies knowing that it’s possible to find someone who’s willing to take risks, go on adventures, and fight for what’s right with you—someone who will stay by your side and add their talents to yours for the betterment of everyone.

#2: Chivalry

It’s not dead. Not every Disney prince has treated his princess as well as he should (*ahem* Beast), and some of them needed warming up, but many of them do provide examples of treating women with respect and admiration.

I, for one, still think it’s appropriate and lovely for a man to hold a door open for a woman, or let her take the last seat on the train, or prioritize her safety even when it causes him pain or puts him in danger.

#3: Complementarianism

Men and women are different. We were made to be different—both sexes fully express the beauty of human nature, but do so in different ways. And not just different ways. Complementary ways. In other words, both generally (across the species) and specifically (couple to couple), we balance one another.

I think it’s wonderful for kids to see examples of traditional—and less so—roles for men and women, and how they showcase the wonderful things about the sexes, the beauty in our differences, and the relationships between us.

#4: Fantasy

Kids should dream! They should put their big, beautiful imaginations to good work, drawing up the futures they have ahead of them and all the adventures they might go on in their lives. And it’s good and healthy for part of those dreams to be about finding true love.

Encouraging big dreams, exciting futures, and wholesome relationships is a good way to raise happier kids. It also gives them the ambition and confidence they’ll need to learn the skills and life lessons that will help them maintain and achieve those goals (even after they learn they likely won’t involve magic or “happily ever after”).

#5: Agape

True love is an inherently good thing. We don’t “throw our lives away” by getting married or starting families—even if we choose to do so at a young age (ask me how I know). Women don’t give into the patriarchy or subvert our independence by pursuing a vocation of marriage, and men don’t suppress women by wedding us.

Can the pursuit of true love lead us to bad places? Certainly it can. But that’s why we need to give our children positive examples of healthy, selfless, self-giving love—even those mired in fantasy. Because I’d much rather show my kids “magical,” healthy relationships than the ones they’ll see on teen TV and reality shows in a few short years. Not every Disney movie offers this, but many do, and I’m not about to think less of them for it.

Introverted Moms: You Can Still Find Your Tribe

One of the most beautiful things about Catholicism is its quiet sanctity. There’s nothing like walking into a near-empty church, filled with the lingering scent of incense and the Holy Spirit, with Christ himself sitting in the tabernacle behind the silent but sturdy altar.

I am an introvert—quiet and solitude are almost synonymous with peace for me, especially in the context of my Catholic experience.

But while these moments are beautiful and deeply meaningful, the Church isn’t about solitude. She’s about community. And if you’re like me—no social butterfly, happy to stay home, easily stressed by new situations—that community can be hard to find.

In college I got my first big taste of Catholic community. I attended the University of Dayton, a Marianist institution where the word “community” is used at least as often as “study.” Having gone to college alone, five hours from home, it was difficult to jump into new friendships—but it was also easy, because I was with the same people most days and had no choice but to forge new relationships.

After college, I started working in a tech company and married my high school sweetheart. Though I enjoyed spending time with my coworkers each day, we didn’t have many common interests when it came to extracurriculars. And anyway, as a newlywed, I was happy to simply return home to my husband in the evenings and build our own little community—our domestic church.

It was a fruitful time for my vocation. Dedicating so much time to my marriage made me a better person—a more selfless daughter of God and a more devoted wife. These years prepared me for the sacrifices of new motherhood.

But you know what they didn’t prepare me for? The solitude of new motherhood.

And here I thought solitude was something I was good at.

Bringing home a new baby was surreal for me. It was beautiful, of course, but in many ways, also quite baffling. I would gaze at my sweet daughter’s sleeping face and think, Thank you, God, for giving me this child!

And then, the very next moment, she would scream and I’d think, Oh God, how could You think I could do this alone?

I’d heard that it takes a village to raise a child. I had no idea where my village was.

Please don’t get me wrong. My husband was especially wonderful during that time. Our closeness kept me anchored to myself in a season that was deeply confusing (Am I still me, or am I “Mom” now?). My family and friends were supportive, too.

What I realized, though, was that I knew no one in the same life stage as me. My girlfriends and sisters either had no children yet, or their children were much older than mine. My husband did so much for me but just couldn’t relate to my confusion about breastfeeding or my impatience with my suddenly unfamiliar body. When he was away at work during the day, I was alone with a baby who needed me desperately but couldn’t convey just what she needed.

So new motherhood was rarely the peaceful solitude I expected. Instead, it was something dimmer: it was lonely.

I knew having a newborn would be exhausting and stressful. But I didn’t know that hacking it alone would be so isolating.

I joined a local breastfeeding support group and investigated whether my parish had a mothers’ group (it didn’t, though I later found a neighboring one that did). Even when I managed to attend events designed to help me find my village, I struggled to build any sense of community.

Many of the mothers there were already close, and I’m not skilled at inserting myself into conversations as the “new kid” in the room.

Most of the other mothers were stay-at-home parents, but I was only on maternity leave—in a few weeks, I had to begin my work-at-home mom life. That meant, though I would be home each day, my daughter would be with a babysitter while I worked a full-time job on a rigid schedule. Any daytime playgroups I was invited to simply weren’t in the cards for me.

And the evening meetups? Well, frankly, those meant swapping precious little time with my husband for time spent with relative strangers (either with a newborn who obviously wouldn’t be doing any “playing,” or with the new-mom stress and physical discomfort of leaving a breastfeeding baby at home).

I just couldn’t make any of it work, and it made me feel like a failure. It made me feel like I just needed to hack it out on my own—that that’s the kind of mom I would always be.

As weeks passed and interpreting my daughter’s needs consumed me slightly less, I spent what time I could on Facebook. That was a safe social connection—a way to feel close to my friends and family, on my own time, even when I wasn’t physically with them.

But when you’re checking your phone every fifteen minutes and most of your friends are adults with day jobs, your timeline quickly runs out of new things to show you.

I went exploring and discovered groups—most notably one that was dedicated to support around the Creighton method of natural family planning (which, thanks to postpartum changes and my difficult adjustment to motherhood, had suddenly become a high-stress part of my life).

The sheer number of like-minded, thoughtful people who were there to answer questions about NFP and other struggles related to Catholic life was staggering and so deeply helpful. Eventually, I found a larger Catholic group that focused on even broader topics.

I had a place—a safe, not too in-my-face, unscheduled place—to ask questions about my growing family and even my faith. It was rejuvenating, and it made me feel more confident as a new mother.

Eventually, I joined a group for young, Catholic mothers that has since taken up a firm, cozy place in my heart. I consider the other members my friends. They are my tribe now—my village. They’ve been there to answer all my questions, laugh at my jokes, pray for me, and support me both emotionally and physically in the darkest of times. I am so thankful for them. I hope I’ve done a decent job giving these same gifts right back.

Their friendship has also made me more confident in finding friends “in real life.” Having a readily available and supportive social outlet makes me feel stronger and more worthy of new friends when I attend local events for Catholic moms, or see a family I’d like to get to know better at Mass on Sundays. Slowly, I’m building a network of local friends, too, who can add to my village in more tangible ways.

I’m here to tell you that you can be introverted and be a member of the greater Catholic community. I’m here to tell you that you are worthy of faith-centered friendships in whatever context you seek them—whether that’s in online forums of like-minded women, or in-person groups where you might be the only fresh face.

Take baby steps if you need to. Send a text to an acquaintance just to say hello. Compliment a woman you’ve admired from afar (we all see those familiar, happy faces Sunday after Sunday) as you’re leaving your parish this weekend; next week, smile at her as you see her family arrive at Mass; the week after, introduce yourself.

Search for Facebook groups that line up with your vocation. Once you join them, let loose your questions and, even more importantly, provide loving answers to others’ questions. Comment on Instagram posts by people who embody the kind of woman you’d like to be. These platforms can be abused, but they can also be used to give glory to God and to build the Church in today’s always-connected world.

When you feel ready, find out when your parish (or another one nearby) has their next mothers’ or young women’s gathering. Ask for whatever help you need to make attending a reality. Bring cookies or another goodie to share, introduce yourself with confidence, and be an attentive and thoughtful listener when others speak. Exchange phone numbers and make plans right then and there.

If these things are hard for you, I understand. I am right there with you. Turn to Christ and ask for his help in forging the relationships that will make your burden lighter and your journey straight. He won’t lead you astray.

What I Learned When I (Sorta) Stopped Complaining

I gave up complaining for Lent this year, and it was not without some reluctance.

This idea was on my heart for weeks before I formally declared my intention to follow it. I hesitated.

“God, isn’t there anything else I can do to better appreciate You during this season?”

After a lot of prayer and reflection I got a resounding “Nope,” and that was that.

Why did I hesitate? Not because it was going to be a hard habit to break. Not because I enjoyed being a brat. Not even because I was afraid to let God down.

Honestly, I knew I inevitably would let Him down. We all do—and not just during Lent. But by His great love, He forgives us every time.

No; I was afraid because I struggle with trust. I had a creeping feeling that shutting the door to complaint would invite God to challenge me in all sorts of ways. I knew the experience would test me—after all, Christ himself was tempted by actual Satan in the desert for 40 days. If that huge test could be fruitful for him, how could it not be for me?

After all, it’s pretty safe to say I need more practice at virtue and faith than he ever did.

Turned out that creeping fear was correct. During Lent, I faced challenges in almost every area: my home life, my motherhood, my job, my physical health, and my self-esteem. My patience (of which I  have precious little, I admit) was tried again and again.

And, again and again, I let the exasperated sigh slip past my lips and the nasty spiral of self-pity swirl about my mind (even if, to my credit, I didn’t voice it nearly as often as before). I tried to catch myself whenever this happened and replace my complaints with prayers.

It was a frustrating cycle, but it was incredibly eye-opening. I learned to better differentiate negative things and negative thinking. I learned that one doesn’t necessitate the other.

Negative things happen outside of my control. They can be trying, exhausting, or unfair—but they are outside of me.

Negative thinking, on the other hand, is completely within my control. It poisons my mood and my perceptions in ways that are more trying and exhausting than the external event ever was. Worse, its tight grip is difficult to loosen if I let it get away from me.

Awful things happen. They just do. Something I’ve discovered about myself recently is a deep-seated, unhelpful myth of control that ultimately makes me weak in the face of adversity. I stubbornly want to believe that I can foresee and control the things that happen in my life; I want to believe that, despite all indications to the contrary, I can keep my life under control by some impossible exertion of will.

As a result, I have a hard time facing trial without really just diving deep into that trial. I hold onto my faith at my core, but my perspective narrows into despair. I struggle to see the good on the horizon—to see the good that’s right beside me even during such trials.

Complaining is voicing that despair. It’s an attempt to offload some of that despair onto whomever might be near enough to take it from me, in the hopes it will ease the pain.

But it never does. Despair doesn’t divide; it multiplies. Sharing it with someone else doesn’t make my struggle any smaller—it just makes our mutual struggle even bigger.

When it comes to day-to-day habits, it’s hard to be less productive—and less Christian—than that, right?

So 40 days without complaining (let’s be honest: with minimal or at least more mindful complaining) taught me that giving in to my own despair is hurtful not just to me, but to those around me.

That being said, negative events still suck. And sometimes we need help to get through them.

I struggled, early on, to understand how I was supposed to ask for help if I wasn’t allowed to complain. That sounds ridiculous now.

Now I see that there’s a glaring difference between complaining and seeking support. One is selfish; the other is an important way to participate in community and humanity, especially in the context of our own families.

God Himself said: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). Even when things were perfect in Eden, we were not meant to live this life on our own.

Now, long after the Fall, how much more must we need the companionship and support of our neighbors, friends, and family?

So I’ve learned to ask for help, honestly and lovingly, instead of complaining about my circumstances and hoping someone overhears and steps in to lend a hand.

And I’ve learned that that’s how things improve—that’s how I feel better on a tough day. Not by venting my frustrations or offloading my despair, but by approaching people I love with an honest expression of my struggles and asking for a shoulder to lean on. They always provide it. And I always feel lighter when I stand upright again.

Have you tried to set aside negative thinking and complain less? Find me on on Facebook and tell me how it’s going. I’d love to hear about your experience!

How to Stop Complaining and Start Being More Honest

I was accused of being a complainer as a teenager. To be fair, I think many teenagers are—but I heard it often enough to become self-conscious about it.

As an adult, I figured I was better. But then I started paying more attention.

Every “ugh” muttered under my breath, each text of anger or anguish sent to my husband during a hectic spell at work, and all the “vents” shared with my mommy friends on tough days with the kids—they added up.

I don’t think of myself as someone with entitlement issues or a pessimistic attitude or a lazy disposition. But that’s the person I sound like when much of my self-expression comes out as a complaint.

So, for Lent this year, I promised God and myself that I’d give up complaining. Here are the tricks I picked up to help me catch myself before I complained—and turn those thoughts into something productive instead.

#1: Just breathe for goodness’ sake.

I forget to do this in difficult moments. I rush from one thought to another without pausing in between, jumping to conclusions and recalling missed expectations and wishing for different outcomes. It’s not helpful and it’s a ticket straight to Self-Pity City.

So, when I can feel my thoughts start to spiral, I try to pause for a second and focus on breathing instead. It’s impossible to empty my mind completely (at least for me), but it can help to pace my breathing and give my higher intellectual functioning a break. Then, I can make a conscious decision on how to step forward—so it’s easier to move in a positive direction.

#2: Before you voice your thoughts, bleach them of entitlement.

I realized during this exercise that so many of my complaints come from a place of entitlement:

  • “Why won’t these kids sleep when they’re supposed to? I need a break!”
  • “I can’t believe this appointment is running so late—I don’t have time for this.”
  • “Couldn’t he/she have just done that one thing right? It shouldn’t be on me to fix it.”

Sound familiar? I have never sensed this about myself so acutely before, but it’s huge. Huge. And I hate hearing it come out of my mouth.

So, when I’m frustrated over a situation that isn’t going the way I’d like, I’ve learned to examine the source of that frustration. Is it because I feel I deserve something better? Or maybe an unspoken expectation I had for someone else was not met?

Too bad, bub. If I want to feel any better or improve the odds at a better outcome next time, I need to get rid of that sense of entitlement and make an effort instead of demanding more effort from others. (Especially from toddlers.)

#3: Request help instead of demanding it (and that goes for passive aggressive demands, especially).

Speaking of demanding, I also learned that I used complaining as a crutch. Although negative feelings are natural and allowed, I saw that I would give voice to them—subconsciously—in such a way that some small, ugly part of me thought might procure sympathy and, thereby, help.

This is passive aggression at its finest. I’m not here for it anymore. It’s petty and it’s icky.

Instead, if I find myself in a difficult position and I need help to get out of it, I ask for it. So this:

“This day has been an absolute nightmare. Everything went wrong and all of my energy is gone. I need to go cry with a glass of wine for a while.”

Turns into this:

“I’m having a tough day and have a lot going on. Could you take this task for me so I can recharge a little before I need to get started on the next thing?”

Who knew I could sound so human when I feel like a complete zombie?

#4: Make it a habit to be positive first.

The best offense is a good defense. I try to block complaints completely by making a habit of thinking positively and praying without ceasing during times of trial.

Frustrating encounter with a stranger? As soon as things get tense, I utter a quick prayer for them (even something as simple as “God, send Your love” helps). Who knows what they’re going through?

Endless tantrum from the toddler? When I feel my temper coming up short, I ask Mary to remind me of her shining example. She’s a tough act to follow, but God’s grace can help me close a tiny bit of the gap.

Car trouble in the middle of a busy day? I thank God for getting me where I am safely, and ask for a little help taking the next step to hold onto that safety.

It doesn’t always work, but I’m learning to make this kind of positive, prayerful conversation my first reaction to stress (instead of the typical anxiety/disappointment/fury).

#5: Don’t complain about your complaining.

This one seems obvious, but it isn’t. Scrupulosity is real, and it can destroy your confidence while subverting the love of God. It’s easy to get sucked into feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy when you’re failing at trying to improve yourself.

The thing to remember? You’re not failing. You’re actively walking on a path of progress. Even if you stumble, you’re still moving forward.

Unfortunately, it’s very easy to complain about ourselves. Interiorly, there is no one to defend us from our own attacks—making self-criticism a resistance-free outlet for negative emotions. Expressed aloud, self-deprecation can be funny and others may miss what we’re inflicting on ourselves.

I learned that, when I stopped giving myself permission to complain about my own shortcomings in this oh-so-easy way, I started complaining about things outside of me much less. I changed the shade of my mind to something more pleasant and forgiving, and that was easier than expected to share with others, too.

Think this is something you’d like to try? Hit me up on Facebook for questions, prayer requests, or support. I’m here for you, friend!

Am I Doing This Right? Thoughts on Prayer (Part 2)

Prayer is a skill with which we are all born, because each of us is naturally inclined to seek God. But, as with all things, practicing will help us engage in prayer more effectively—and help us better see the fruits of our prayer in our daily lives.

Think of developing your prayer life like learning a language—not a secondary language, but your very first one.

A child spends the first few years of her life absorbing the spoken word of those around her. She takes this in like a sponge, learning the sounds of the words, what they mean, and what changes they affect when uttered aloud. Then, as she gains confidence and the physical ability to do so, she begins testing the words out herself.

At first, only her parents may understand her unique combination of slurred syllables and physical gesturing. But, as time goes on, her language becomes clearer to others—she joins in the conversations of her community.

Prayer is much the same.

At first, we must immerse ourselves in the language: attend Mass, read the Scriptures, study the saints. We listen closely to what prayers and insights are uttered there, and watch for the effects and insights they have not just on us, but on the world around us.

Participating in the sacraments and this type of spiritual study is a prayer in itself. But as we learn more and feel our passion inflamed by these encounters, we begin to utter our own prayers. They may be messy, highly specific, disorganized—they may sound like “gibberish” to another student. But God understands them easily.

Finally, by engaging deeply and keeping our lines of communication with God always open, we can fully participate in the community of the Church. We can recite the prayers during Mass and truly mean them, because we’ve come to better understand their weight. We can receive the Eucharist and be more closely joined in fellowship with our neighbors, because we better grasp what it means to be a part of the body of Christ.

St. Thomas Aquinas on Righteous Prayer

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, all prayer should have five qualities: it must be confident, ordered, suitable, devout, and humble. (Check out a brief look at deeper insights from St. Thomas here.)

In short, this means our prayers must:

  • Be said with sureness that God will deliver us, that Christ will advocate for us, and that the Holy Spirit will bring us grace. We know that God hears us, even if we don’t understand or even recognize the ways in which He answers our prayers.
  • Include only petitions that are good for us. When we ask God for something, we should genuinely believe that this thing will help us to grow physically, emotionally, or spiritually, in a way that will ultimately make us more holy sons and daughters of God.
  • Express moral and upright desires. In prayer, as in life, we must “seek first the kingdom of God and His justice” (Matthew 6:33).
  • Display genuine, heartfelt piety. As devoted members of the Church, our prayers to God must acknowledge His glory and arise from our love for Him above all else.
  • Acknowledge our weakness and our need for God’s mercy. We are imperfect people, and when we pray, we should understand our lowliness and thank God for His desire to be united to us in spite of it.

Insights from the Catechism

So: confident, ordered, suitable, devout, and humble. Great, but what do we say (or not say)?

Let’s look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church. You can read some of what is has to say about prayer online here (and use the arrows at the bottom of the page to thumb through the broader section on prayer, if you’re interested—it’s great reading), but the short of it is that there are five main forms of prayer for the faithful:

  1. Blessings and Adoration. Blessings are “an encounter between God and man.” It is time spent in the presence of God, in which His grace descends upon us and our acknowledgement and reception of that gift ascend to him. Adoration, meanwhile, is our recognition that we are a creation of God—our exalting of His greatness and expression of our love for Him.
  2. Prayer of petition. These are any prayers in which we ask God directly for something—whether that’s meeting a physical need we have, seeking His forgiveness, or praying for His kingdom on earth and our cooperation in its coming.
  3. Prayer of intercession. This is how we participate in the communion of saints. Prayers for intercession are made on behalf of others, including not just our friends and neighbors, but strangers, enemies, and those who reject the Faith.
  4. Prayer of thanksgiving. Not limited to thanking God for good fortune, prayers of thanksgiving help us show gratitude for all of the ways God works in our life. According to the catechism, “every event and need can become an offering of thanksgiving.”
  5. Prayer of praise. Finally, a genuine prayer of praise “lauds God for His own sake and gives Him glory, quite beyond what He does, but simply because HE IS.” In these prayers, we express our wonder at the marvels of Christ, the power of God, and the actions of the Holy Spirit.

The Wrong Way to Pray

Though we all pray differently, using our unique voices, it’s important to know one thing: there is a wrong way to pray.

The catechism states that “humility is the foundation of prayer.” It goes on: “Only when we humbly acknowledge that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought’ (Romans 8:26), are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer” (CCC ¶ 2559).

This is what I meant when I said in a previous post that prayer is a mystery. But while we may not know the perfect way to pray, we can certainly recognize the wrong way to pray: selfishly.

Prayer is not like writing a letter to Santa and asking for our favorite things. We know this because Jesus himself taught us the ideal form of prayer in the Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Here we acknowledge the personhood of God, our relationship with Him, and His holiness.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Next, we submit ourselves and our world to God’s will for us, because we know it is what’s right.

Give us this day our daily bread.

We ask for the necessities of life—the things that will make us healthier people, which will help us do His will.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Then, we ask for His mercy—it is what saves us. We also vow to have mercy on others, as an expression of our love for His children and our desire to follow Christ’s commandment.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Finally, we seek His grace to follow a righteous path in life, to fulfill our vocation without backsliding into sin, and to keep us safe on this journey.

These are very high-level analyses, but the different components of the Our Father reveal profound insights on what prayer should be.

Above all, prayer cannot be selfish. To seek only our own gain in prayer is to not pray at all.

How do you keep your prayers focused on God and His glory? What tricks do you have for developing your prayer life and praying without ceasing? Let me know in the comments or on Facebook—I’d love to learn from you!

Am I Doing This Right? Thoughts on Prayer (Part 1)

My son recently broke his leg—what they call a “toddler fracture.”

As we shuttled him back and forth from doctors’ offices and the ER, we were trying to explain to his big sister why he needed so much help.

We like to be accurate with our kids when we can, rather than dumbing down facts for them. So we told her: “Sweetie, your brother fell in a bad way and broke a bone in his leg. We have to take him to the doctor so they can give him the bandages he needs to keep it steady and help it heal. That way, after a while, it won’t hurt anymore.”

A three-year-old doesn’t understand that beneath our skin are layers of fat and muscle, and beneath those is a bone that makes our limb sturdy but can be broken under certain circumstances. She looked at her brother’s leg and, like the rest of us, saw no bruising or swelling or blood. This was not like any “owie” she had seen before.

But toddlers are smart, and they can be excellent with context clues. She heard “hurt,” “broken,” “doctor,” and “heal” and knew what those things meant. She could see that his leg was causing him pain despite having no visible wound.

She looked at me, nodded gravely, and said “My brother’s gonna be okay, right?”

I assured her he would.

Then she promptly ran to the kitchen to get him a frozen toy—something she knew helped with hurting teeth, which likewise could not be seen but were painful nonetheless—and brought it over to him to put on his leg. In his frustration he slapped it away and she, undeterred, rubbed his back and said, “It’s gonna be okay, Byron. I’m sorry it hurts.”

And that was all she needed to know. Though she could not understand the science of his injury, she could see that he was hurting and that he needed tending. That was that.

When I think about the concept of prayer, I think about how my daughter must feel in confusing moments like this. When it comes to prayer, I’m the child—I’m the one trying to grasp a topic too deep to understand.

Prayer is Beyond Us

I heard something at a recent retreat that, intellectually, was incredibly dense: “Prayer is a conversation with God, in which we get to know Him, He gets to know us, and we get to know ourselves.”

How can prayer be like talking with God when I’m doing all the actual, verbal talking? How can I get to know Him when He doesn’t literally answer my questions or tell me about Himself? How can I get to know myself by trying to grasp what He has to say to me?

Instead of becoming discouraged by my unknowing, I wanted to dig deeper. I wanted to be like my toddler: to pick apart what concepts were familiar to me and try and pull some understanding from how they all worked together in that statement. I wanted this lesson to make me better at prayer.

The truth is that, like many components of the Faith, prayer is a mystery. We aren’t able to fully understand it because we only see one small piece of the puzzle: what we experience as the Church Militant. Someday, we’ll know it deeply when we really can talk to God face-to-face and ask Him. But until then, we need to accept the unknown.

That doesn’t mean we must languish, though. There is so much fruit to be born from even the limited knowledge God has blessed us with in this life.

Try This as You Pray

During the retreat, Father Eric Sternberg of St. Cecelia Parish in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin went on to talk about how the nature of prayer frightens us. It could be easy to simply ask God for the things we want, but to go further than that—to use prayer as an opportunity to examine our faith and ourselves—can be intimidating.

We don’t like to admit to, let alone study, our flaws. But, Father Sternberg said, prayer is the safest and most fruitful place to do that.

What do you pray for most often? Which seemingly unanswered prayers most disappoint you? Do you pray mostly for yourself? For your family? For strangers?

How much of your prayer life is dominated by thanksgiving? What about praise? Is prayer time your self-care, or is it a time in which you can glorify and adore your Father—or is it both?

Which saints do you invoke in prayer? What unbidden thoughts tend to come to you while you’re reciting a rosary or chaplet? What topics do you shy away from when speaking to God, and where do you think your shame comes from?

These are all beautiful questions—but they are challenging. They’re challenging to keep in mind during your prayer routines, and the answers to them may challenge your perspective on yourself.

If you have a prayer journal, write down whichever of these questions speak to you—and whichever others you come up with on your own—and revisit them immediately after concluding a prayerful moment each day. Record your answers and give yourself the grace to recognize their meaning. Uncover what’s beautiful about you. Uncover what needs work.

Then, go right back to praying and ask God for His grace to help you do that work.

Check out part two of this series for further reflections on prayer and how we can do it better!

Have You Seen God’s Face?

Did you know that “face” and “presence” share the same word in the Hebrew of the Old Testament? A priest—Father Eric Sternberg of St. Cecelia Parish in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin—shared this fact with some young moms on a recent retreat I attended. In speaking to us about prayer and seeking the Lord, he emphasized that, to meet God, we must approach Him face to face.

That happens in prayer, but, truly and physically, we are given an earth-shattering encounter with Christ in the Eucharist during every Mass and hour of Adoration we attend.

The Eucharist is not iconographic of Christ—it is Christ. His face looks out at us from the hands of the priest at the consecration during each liturgy. Do you see it?

Real talk: sometimes I don’t. And it’s my own fault.

The Mass and My Mess of Distractions

It’s not that I don’t believe in the Real Presence of the Eucharist. Although this truth is the deepest of mysteries, I have faith that it is the truth nonetheless. I believe it with all my heart. How could I not, when our Savior told us this explicitly?

But sometimes, I forget.

I forget that Jesus is standing before me, showing me all his love all over again, week after week during Mass.

How is that possible?

Turns out it’s easier than I ever realized.

My children are beautiful. They are perfect blessings and I’m thankful for them every day. But if toddlers can be considered specialists at anything, it’s attracting all of the attention in a room to themselves. They are tiny, sticky attention magnets.

We moms are good at multitasking. We’re good at wrangling the two-year-old before he destroys a hymnal while whisper-screaming at the three-year-old who keeps trying to leave the pew. We’re good at opening a desperately needed snack for the kids (with minimal crinkling noises) while picking up the coats they’ve knocked to the floor. We’re good at managing distractions before they become too bothersome to the people around us.

This is a noble and holy effort—this shepherding of tiny humans so that they can be part of the Communion of the Church. This is something parents are made to do, difficult as it may be.

That said, work is work. It is a cross that we bear in our vocation—yet another way we give less to ourselves so that we can give more to our children and their participation in the world.

It is not easy to be a parent of small children at Mass. And yet our work doesn’t end with the distractions while we’re there, does it? We are called to be present despite them.

Am I Seeking God’s Presence?

This is not to say that our struggle to draw spiritual nourishment each week is something we can simply set aside. It is most certainly not easy to fully participate in Mass—it’s not easy for anyone. Everyone carries their cross to the liturgy. That’s the way it’s supposed to be: Christ asks us to lay down our crosses at the altar and rest in Him.

But we aren’t so good at that. We resent our crosses and, as we carry them begrudgingly to church on Sundays, we are tempted to let them distract us. It’s all too easy to feel pestered by my children during Mass and let my mind focus on that inconvenience instead of what’s happening right in front of me.

Jesus told us that his “yoke would be easy and his burden light,” in part, not because it really is easy to live as a Christian in a fallen world, but because it becomes a lot easier if we truly believe he carries the load with us. When we focus too deeply on what’s difficult, we fall into the trap of lamenting that difficulty. We turn our faces downward to focus on our own effort and away from God.

And it isn’t just the kids, right? Given a structured hour each week to spend in quiet, following ancient rituals over which we have no control and deprived of our chosen distractions (our smart phones, a book, whatever), our unchosen distractions become louder.

Left unchecked, our minds fill with complaints (“Why isn’t my husband holding this kid right now?”), questions (“What is on my calendar for tomorrow?”), and random thoughts (“I hope I switched the laundry before we left this morning…”) and suddenly, that hour is over. Jesus is back in the tabernacle, the motions have been gone through, and we return to “normal” life.

But that’s not was Mass should be. We all know that, in our heart of hearts. It just takes discipline to keep our faces turned to God throughout that encounter—to seek His face and show Him ours in return.

When we do look up at Him—to give thanks for His love, to give glory to His might, and yes, to ask for His aid—the load really does become lighter.

Give It Up

Okay, you might be thinking, this is all well and good. I feel sufficiently guilty for not seeing Christ’s face in every second of the Mass each Sunday. But what am I supposed to do about it?

The first thing is, don’t feel guilty—we all do it. God knows it. He loves us anyway.

The second has to do with a phrase that is, admittedly, infuriatingly vague: we have to “offer it up.”

What does that even mean?

To be honest, I’m not sure if it means the same thing for me as it would for you. But here’s where I’ve landed with it.

Suffering—even small, seemingly petty suffering, as torture by toddler may sometimes feel—is not inherently bad. It is painful, yes. It is frustrating. It can be infuriating and heartbreaking. But it invites us to grow—to see beyond ourselves and our own pain and understand, on some infinitesimal level, the pain the Christ endured to save our souls and bring us home to the Father’s house.

Each moment of distraction during Mass or pain in daily life is an opportunity.

It is an opportunity we can use to our detriment, by focusing on our own hurt and drawing our attention downward to the harsh reality of this life.

It is also an opportunity we can use to our benefit, by checking our negative feelings and pausing to recognize that, yes, those feelings are valid—but Christ endured worse at no fault of his own. He humbled himself exclusively to suffer the greatest pain, just so he could bring us joy and fulfillment in the Kingdom.

So when I struggle to lift myself out of the noisy, irritating messiness of managing young children at Mass, I am going to try very hard to physically turn my face toward God. If only for a fleeting second before I have to reach out and grab one or both children, I am going to gaze at the face of Our Lord and say thank you before I turn back to the work of this world. Because in truth, I know that this work, especially, will be so fruitful. I am going to catch myself turning down toward distraction and negativity, and shift the direction of those thoughts upward—to prayer, to opening my ears to the homily in whatever snippets I can catch it, to resting in the silence of a beautiful moment in God’s house.

I am raising future saints. And, for at least an hour out of every week, I get to do that in the presence of Jesus himself. What better help is there than that? Even if I hardly hear the homily and stumble through the Gloria because I’m expending most of my brain power monitoring two toddlers, I am seeing God’s face and He is seeing mine. I am bringing Christ under my roof and he is holding me tight.

Treated respectfully and pondered thoughtfully, that’s more than enough fuel to last even the most exhausted mom a few days or a week, isn’t it?