When the Ordinary Prepares the Way for the Extraordinary

When the Ordinary Prepares the Way for the Extraordinary

Kids are really good at living in the moment.  It is what gives them the ability to swing from laughter to tears in a matter of seconds.  They can have great joy eating an ice cream cone and then become distraught with five minutes in time out.  Right now, right here is the most important thing for kids.

My niece is a prime example of both sides of this.  I gave her a mermaid tail blanket for a belated Christmas present.  She was enthused as she slipped it around her legs and then flopped along on the floor.  Coming to me, she grabbed my legs and exclaimed, “I look exactly like a mermaid, Trish!”  Contrast that scene with several weeks prior when she fought against the injustice of being forced to sit at the adult table while her two older brothers sat at a kid table.  “Not fair!” she sobbed, pointing at her brothers, “They get to sit at the little table!  No fair!”  A few minutes later, having switched places with one semi-willing brother, she was more than content.

Adults can be similar, but we also are more prone to live in the past or the future.  Sometimes we can forget that the present is all we really have.

Precious moments can slip away because they don’t come shrouded in the extraordinary.  Everyday moments, ones that are ordinary yet give life beauty, are some of the most treasured once they have passed.  I’ve heard it said that people often miss the ordinary moments when they lose people close to them.  I have found that to be true in my life.  My paternal grandfather died a few years ago and one of the things I miss most is giving him a hug before leaving his house and hearing him say, “Come again.”   Continue reading “When the Ordinary Prepares the Way for the Extraordinary”

Unnecessarily Beautiful

Unnecessarily Beautiful

Beauty is unnecessary.

I thought about how unnecessary beauty is as I sat in the Cathedral and listened to an orchestra play.  Although an amateur lover of beauty, I was able to see the magnificence of the architecture and the glory of the music coming from a variety of instruments.  Providence placed us nearly as close to the orchestra as we could be without holding an instrument ourselves.  Yet several times throughout the evening I would think about how unnecessary this all was.

If the world came from chaos and all of life means nothing, I am struck by the existence of the beautiful.  Beauty is unneeded for life to exist.  It is entirely extra and unnecessary.  Yet while unneeded, it is the joie de vivre of life.  While we could live without it, we would not want to do so.  It enriches life ten-fold and I think that is as the Lord wanted.

We have a place in our hearts for the beautiful.  It is why some people spend so much time staging pictures.  We are drawn toward the beautiful.  Although any mug would work for coffee, I am far more likely to choose the ones I deem more beautiful in some way.  It is beauty that makes me notice the trees etched in silver or the special smile on my niece’s face.  Beauty bypasses the need for reason, although we can give reason for why we find something beautiful, if pressed.

The Lord is the one of which all the beautiful, transitory things on earth reflect a glimmer.  My heart is being prepared to encounter Beauty Himself when I take in the toothless grin of my nephew or the majesty of the Sistine Chapel.  When I encounter Him in the simplistic beauty that surrounds me, I am widening my heart to receive more of Him later on.   Continue reading “Unnecessarily Beautiful”

Pierced by Beauty

Pierced by Beauty

Nearly all of my students disagree with me, but you cannot convince me that beauty is not one of the most compelling arguments for God’s existence.

I understand, at least in part, the seeming flaws of the argument.  They protest that beauty is subjective and that nobody would believe in God simply because someone says there is lovely music or they saw a sunset.  Perhaps, perhaps most people would not listen to Bach and then profess belief in God.  But, perhaps some would, perhaps some have.

When I was in middle school, I read the book A Memory for Wonders.  It was by a French woman who was raised in Morocco because her parents, staunch atheists and communists, didn’t want anyone to speak to her about God, filling her mind with such superstitions.  Despite her parents’ best intentions, her initial experience of God took place when she was three years old.

“Suddenly the sky over me and in some way around me, as I was on a small hillock, was all afire.  The glory of the sunset was perhaps reflected in the myriads of particles of powdery sand still floating in the air.  It was like an immense, feathery flame all scarlet, from one pole to the other, with touches of crimson and, on one side, of deep purple.  I was caught in limitless beauty and radiant, singing splendor.  And at the same time, with a cry of wonder in my heart, I knew that all of this beauty was created, I knew God.  This was the word that my parents had hidden from me.  I had nothing to name him: God, Dieu, Allah or Yahweh, as he is named by human lips, but my heart knew that all was from him and him alone and that he was such that I could address him and enter into relationship with him through prayer.  I made my first act of adoration.”   A Memory for Wonders, Mother Mary Francis, p. 30

My parents spoke freely to me of God while I was growing up.  So this experience of seeing the beauty of a sunset and being unable to name the author of it, isn’t something I can share.  Yet I can share, in part, the feeling of piercing beauty at different sights and sounds.

It was during a semester studying abroad that the power of beauty become real to me.  Surrounded by history and architecture unlike any in the United States, I was continually amazed at what I saw.  In Switzerland, my heart ached as I walked around a lake and soaked in the beauty of mountains.  I was nearly in tears as I surveyed God’s handiwork, and I kept thinking, “No atheist can live in Switzerland.  How could you deny God in the midst of such splendor?”

I climbed a radio tower on a mountain in Austria and watched the sun rise.  As the light spread across the mountains, I felt fully alive.  My heart was in awe at the magnificence, at a beauty that did not need to be there even if the sun was necessary for our survival.  The glory of a sunrise is entirely “extra.”

gaming sunrise2

My awareness of the power of beauty began during my European adventure, but it has continued ever since.  Probably three times this week I have been near tears as I watched the sun rise or set.  My heart cannot stop itself from aching and expanding, my mouth uttering the briefest of prayers, “Lord!”  Beauty is not always warm and delightful.  Sometimes it aches: it is a blade, a spearing of the heart, a breaking into my world, and an unearthing of the hidden wellspring within.

For most, beauty may never transform their hearts of disbelieving atheism into ones of faith.  Yet for me, beauty is one of the most potent reminders of God’s presence.  It is a sunrise offered to millions and I look at it, bold colors covering the expanse of the prairie skies, and I think, “For me, Lord?”  For a little girl in Morocco decades ago, it was a sunset that started a relationship with the living God, one that grew into her conversion to Catholicism and her entrance into a religious community.

A heart that is able to see beauty is one that is more fully alive.  Beauty opens us up to an experience of something outside of ourselves.  It places us in a feeling of smallness at such majesty and yet a feeling of greatness to glimpse such sights.  You must be open to such beauty, however, to be transformed by it.

So, perhaps my students are right.  Beauty will never force people to believe in God.  It cannot overcome your free will.  But beauty, if you are open to it, can seize your heart, providing the ineffable conviction that the Creator of all this splendor must be worth seeking, following, and loving.

melk abbey

Where is Jesus in it?

It is painfully beautiful to be alive.

I’ve experienced the piercing blade of beauty.  It makes you wince and feel more alive all at once.  The delicate blanket of fog that covers the lake nestled amidst the Swiss Alps.  A sunrise view atop a radio tower on a mountain in Austria.  Glorious fields of grain stretching to the horizon.  The crinkled eyes of a loved one when they are smiling.  Late nights spent talking with a friend you haven’t seen for too long.  In these moments, the beauty strikes our hearts and it is easy to see, take in, and embrace the glories of being alive.

Sometimes the emphasis seems to fall more on the side of pain as opposed to beauty.  Yet in most moments (I’m not certain if I can argue for all moments yet), one can find beauty in the pain, if one is willing to look for it.

The beauty found in the pain of: waking up early for work, a morning run with a dear friend when talking takes far too much effort, a heart overflowing with all sorts of emotions, and speaking difficult words that later bring peace.

And then there are the moments where life seems to blindside you, where the pain is evident but the beauty is masked.

A young person I barely knew recently died.  I guess I am uncertain what type of response I expected to have.  My heart ached and a heaviness filled it.  At one point, as captive tears broke free, I wondered if this is what it means to have a mature heart, one that can feel pain even when the tragedy doesn’t really change one’s life.  The pain didn’t just last for a few moments but seemed to linger, clouding my thoughts and casting a pallor over the next couple days.

It was uncertain how he died, but I kept imagining the different scenarios I was told.  At Mass on Saturday, I couldn’t help it.  My brain insisted on replaying the possible options, my heart aching with each dramatic death I imagined.  I hoped that maybe I would be able to speak to my spiritual director about it and gain his perspective.  Then I realized that I already knew what he would say to me.

He would ask, “Where is Jesus in it?”

So I tried it.  “Where is Jesus in this tragedy?”  I replayed the awful images but inserted Jesus into the mental video.  There He was–walking right beside the boy, tears coursing down His face, gently whispering his name.  It was a painfully beautiful experience as I watched Him carry him.  Soon I was including a guardian angel and the Blessed Mother into the picture.  It was transforming the scene.  The tragedy was still there, but the beautiful pain was making an appearance.

This truth that I had learned before was once again re-impressed on my heart: Christ never leaves us.  Regardless of what we do, how far we try to run, or what we tangibly experience, Jesus is always present, gently whispering our names, and desiring to enter into the wounds we try so hard to fill with insufficient medicine.

Throughout life, none of us walks or falls or lives alone.  Christ is always there in the midst.  And that is what makes life painfully beautiful.

“There is no evil to be faced that Christ does not face with us.  There is no enemy that Christ has not already conquered.  There is no cross to bear that Christ has not already borne for us, and does not now bear with us.”     -St. John Paul the Great

El Cuerpo de Cristo

Setting: June, Rabanal del Camino, Spain

We are upstairs in the pilgrim house dorm room when piano music reaches our ears.  The playing is beautiful and my sister and I guess who is responsible for the beauty.  I guess one of our fellow pilgrims, Michael, and my sister guesses Fr. Javier, our beloved priest.  Curious, I creep down the outside garden steps and past the window that looks into the conference room with the piano.  It is Fr. Javier playing.

I leave for the chapel across the street for Confession.  When I return, the lovely music is still filling the house.  I peek into the room and my two traveling companions are there, listening.  I join them.  Sometimes I watch Fr. Javier play, glancing between his fingers and the music.  Other times, I sit with my eyes closed, simply delighting in the sound of classical music washing over me.  He finishes, we clap, and he smiles.

“What else?  Something by a Spanish composer.  Ah, yes.  This one.”  He finds the page.  “I’m a romantic.”  I want to chime in, “Me too!”  Fr. Javier continues, “This one is called “Eva and Walter,”  It is very nice.  Very simple.”

It is both.  As he plays, I am picturing Eva and Walter sitting on a bench or walking through a park.  At one point I believe I am in the perfect moment in time.  Fr. Javier is filling the house with music, a gentle but steady rain is pouring through the opening in the garden roof, and Patricia (the hospitalera) is it the kitchen preparing supper.  Here we are–a lovely family that eats together and prays together.  This is “El Cuerpo de Cristo.”

                                                   A little “Eva y Walter” for you to enjoy!

God is in the detail

“The Devil is in the detail” is a phrase I’ve heard but never really used.  It came to mind today and I thought, “Actually, God is in the details.”  Turns out, “God is in the detail” was the first phrase and the devil one is a spin-off.  Just like him, too.  Never being creative, simply sloppily redoing something of God’s genius and trying to pawn it off as his own invention.

God is found in the details of everyday life.  The other day, I was driving back to my house and took a moment to look around the road I was on.  I mean–to really see.  I noticed the pieces of icy snow alongside the road, the way the sun was shining on the cars driving under the bridge, and the lines of watery dust dried on my windshield.  It was a moment where I stopped and saw.  Too often I skim over the details.  I’m lost in my thoughts as I drive or I will drive past the exact same scene and never notice it really.

Today I went to Mass at the hospital, and I was absentmindedly staring at the stained glass at the front.  For as many times as I’ve seen the window, I should be able to draw it from memory.  But I couldn’t, even though my mind has often wandered to finding the different patterns in the window.  Or the other day, I was driving to the interstate ramp and noticed that the trailer court extended much further than I realized.  The stoplight consistently forces me to read the entrance sign for the trailer court, but that day as I drove by, I glanced back and saw how far it extended.  It was an entire community that I had only thought of as a handful of trailers settled near a busy road.

I realize that it wouldn’t be possible to notice all of the details all of the time.  With the rows of houses and flashing digital signs, I would be inundated with too much stimuli if I truly took all of it in.  However, I can do a better job at noticing my surroundings, of taking the time to pause, look around me, and truly see.

God is in the details of my daily life and maybe I am just not truly seeing Him at work.  My goal is to slow down and see the beauty that is found simply in the present moment and place.

Beholding Your Beauty

 

“The acute experience of great beauty readily evokes a nameless yearning for something more than earth can offer.  Elegant splendor reawakens our spirit’s aching need for the infinite, a hunger for more than matter can provide.”                                                          -Fr. Thomas Dubay

An acute experience of great beauty.  Sometimes beauty pierces the heart and the soul.  It catches your breath.  It very nearly makes you weep.  It is a heart-rending experience of something that makes you long for far more, yet causes tremendous gratitude that you were able to experience that small glimpse.

Photo cred for this one goes to my little sister

It can be something seemingly insignificant.  The most recent things that have caused my heart to swoon have been trees.  Last Friday, I was driving to Mass and passed a tree bellowing the glory of God.  It was the perfect shade of golden-red and I felt tears come to my eyes as I gazed at it.  It was a moment of intimate union in my car as I moved passed the tree.  It happened again last night at my parents’ house.  The tree was filled with beauty and sunshine and the brilliant contrast of golden leaves with scarlet was arresting.  Even with my arms laden with papers, I still took a few minutes to gawk at the loveliness of creation.

Yesterday, the priest at Mass focused on beauty and how it can pull us in to something beyond what we can see.  I was in love with his descriptions of different moments of beauty.  Part of me wondered if this is a common experience, the transformative power of beauty that causes one to stop and stare with unabashed brazen wonder.

It happened to me in Switzerland, a land I became firmly convinced that could never be home to atheists.  I wondered how they could look at their mountains and lakes and not see God.  Yet we can all be in beautiful situations and places and simply pass them by, not concerned with the truly monumental aspects.

Take a few moments to soak in the beauty of fall, the beauty of this world.  Gaze at a lovely painting, listen to a classical work, drive through the autumnal countryside–draw up into your soul all of the beauty that surrounds you and let yourself be drawn up into it as well.

I Desire a Heavenly Mindset

Last night, with the adventures of homecoming safely a week behind me, I found myself reminiscing about my own high school homecoming week.  It was quite easy to slip into romanticizing that time in my life because there is no risk that I will be caused to repeat it again.  My memories centered on the competition of the week, the class rivalries that emerged in full force, the class skits performed in which each teacher was fair game, and the exhilaration that filled the entire school for one precious week.  Throughout the week we would have games each day and the competition was fierce.  Seniors almost always won but it was the goal of each grade to produce an upset, one in which only obnoxious cheating would result in the triumph of the seniors.  My junior year was probably the most competitive.  The skits were hilarious and all of our favorite (and not-so-favorite) teachers were impersonated and analyzed.  (Note: As a teacher now, this is always a fear of mine when the students are given the chance to make fun of the teachers.  I sit in the gym, waiting anxiously, hoping that I wasn’t memorable enough or disliked enough to become the focus of students’ laughter.)  My junior year we won the “Olympics” and the triumph was palpable.  We gathered in our class sections in the gym bleachers and would chant our anthems. “J-U-N I-O-R…Junior, Junior, Junior!!!”  “0-8 0-8 0008”  The shouting echoed off the walls of the gym.  That memory is one of my favorites–the class anthems, the school spirit, the energy, the competition. 

I can almost trick myself into believing that that experience was high school.  It was not.  High school wasn’t traumatizing for me, but it wasn’t the best experience of my life.  I liked school and I was involved in numerous activities: choir, band, volleyball, track statistician, plays, oral interp, and TATU to name some.  It was a great time of development…but it wasn’t perfect.

That is one of my problems.  I am excellent at romanticizing the past and thinking of it in the best ways.  This doesn’t hold true for everything but for many things it does.  I think back (way back!) to college and I am able to make it free from any trials or difficulties.  I think, “Trish, do you remember that time that your job was to read theology books and write papers?  When you hung out with friends several times each week?  When you felt like you were changing the world by being in the pro-life movement?  Remember when you went to New Mexico and twice to Honduras for mission trips?  Remember traveling around Europe?  Wasn’t that the absolute best time of your life?”  And looking at all of those adventures and blessings, I am convinced that I should be there and not here.  What is very easy to overlook is the fatigue, the stress of completing two theses in one semester (even if that was my fault entirely), trying to finish the endless stream of homework, wanting to hang out with friends but not being able to, worrying that we wouldn’t fundraise enough for the mission trips, the excessive tiredness.  All of that is easy to forget in the quest to make college “the best years of my life.” 

The point is this: the past is easy to love because we don’t face its challenges in the present.  Of course there are difficulties in my present life but those are more keenly felt because they are the present.  In high school I was left with this feeling that nobody understood me.  The friendships I had weren’t rooted in Christ and therefore often seemed shallow.  In college I had the blessing of making those friendships and seeing how quickly they blossomed simply because we were rooted in the same soil.  Now I am able to see the beauty of those friendships even though I don’t find myself immediately surrounded by them anymore.  Instead I see from afar those friends continue to grow and impact the world.  They are getting married, they are having babies, they are continuing on with their lives.  As for myself, I am growing and changing, even if at a slower pace than I would like.  The past was necessary to make me who I am today, but now I need to live in today.  I need to live in today with all of its trials and difficulties–with the sophomores that won’t listen to me, with the seniors that are quick to roll their eyes at my statements, with the other teachers that don’t quite know how to take me, with the desire to live out my vocation yet being caught in a seemingly indefinite waiting place. 

Perhaps instead of gazing jealously at the past, I should look with anticipation to the future.  Imagine Heaven.  All of the beautiful people I know, all of the gorgeous places I’ve seen, and all of the lovely experiences I’ve been blessed with, all rolled into one and magnified greatly–this is Heaven.  When I focus on that goal, the end prize, the eternal life with God in Heaven, then the pains and irritations of today seem to pale in significance. 

“The Glory of the Lord, therefore, is the super eminently luminous beauty of divinity beyond all experience and all descriptions, all categories, a beauty before which all earthly splendors, marvelous as they are, pale into insignificance.”  The Evidential Power of Beauty

Simple Beauties

I like simplicity.  And I like beauty.  I am continually amazed by things that would be so easy to pass by or discount as being of little importance.  A simple cup of coffee from home on the way to work with the sun shining on the plains filled my heart with joy.  The Sacred Host exposed in vulnerable love as voices rise like incense to fragrance Our Lord’s throne.  A glorious sunset that mixes the palette of colors into a never before seen array of splendor.  The simplicity of a humble priest who, with eyes closed in a concentration that must have been often etched upon Our Lord’s face, raises his hand to absolve me from my sins.  The moment in the confessional when you say the Act of Contrition and you are struck for the first time by the words “but most of all because I have offended Thee, O God, who art all good…”  My heart desiring the simplicity of a human love that will rival all fiction and will lead me steadfastly to Heaven’s embrace.  The conversations with dear sisters placed hundreds of miles away from me.  This song.  A beautiful red tomato freshly picked from the garden and an apple harvested from the nearby tree.  This picture:

A moment to stop, look around at the countryside, and breathe in a deep breath of crisp autumn air.  The silence, the peace, the luxury of looking across the land and seeing no human person in sight.  The knowledge that I am because He always is. 

Sunflowers for the Teacher

Yesterday I probably should have been preparing or sleeping or doing something mildly helpful but instead I was watching the sequel to “Anne of Green Gables” and loving it.  She is a character that I like to think I am similar to.  While many mightn’t see the correlation, it is there–the competitive streak, the stubbornness, the ability to hold grudges forever, the teaching career, the desire to write, etc.  So after watching the movie, I went out and picked some sunflowers near the railroad tracks.  I felt a little like Anne as I did so.  As I meandered into the tall grass, I tried to keep my imagination from thinking of the snakes and various animals that could lie lurking amid the grass and stickers.  I cut some sunflowers, brushing off more than a few bugs, and thought of how Anne-like I would seem as I walked home with a bunch of sunflowers gathered in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other.  I was only missing a long skirt and a head of red hair.  [Not to mention a gorgeous man in love with me since meeting me.  Alas, no Gilbert Blythe for me.  Oh, well…that is of little importance.  🙂 ]

The little sunflowers, now smiling and nodding happily on my desk, have been a source of joy for me this entire day.  They are drinking up some cool, clear water and rest in a vase that I found at a thrift store with my sister.  Pale translucent green and delicate, the vase dazzles with the beauty of simple wild sunflowers in it and the sunlight streaming through the window.  I had prepared the perfect words for if my students asked about the flowers so that I wouldn’t have to lie and yet it wouldn’t be revealed that I live at home.  I’m not certain if they even noticed them.  Nevertheless, they brought joy to the teacher.

The Lord loves me through beauty.  The beautiful look of attention on a few students’ faces…the radiant sun sharing its warmth…the intimacy of Mass in a school chapel, surrounded by youth…the successful completion of my first full week of school…the satisfaction of a classroom of my own…the anticipation of family togetherness tonight…music that makes me dance or think…the knowledge that I have two blessed days that stretch out before me with no lessons to teach…time with my sister before she heads off to school…the enduring hope and eager anticipation of Heaven.  Thanks, Lord.