Ministry: A Gift I Give That Changes Me

Ministry: A Gift I Give That Changes Me

“You’re pretty comfortable here, Trish,” I was told Saturday night when I visited the prison for Mass.

“Yeah,” I said, “It is almost like I live here.”

This comment was coming from a prisoner who had poked fun at me weeks earlier for how shy I seemed while helping with the prison retreat. While I didn’t think I was quite as reserved as he claimed, I would definitely agree that I have grown more and more comfortable in prison as time has passed. In fact, the most nervous I felt all night was when I walked alone in the dark from the prison building to my car. And as it happened, I had to laugh. I had spent a couple hours in prison without a care and my biggest concern was about someone not in prison. It made sense and yet the oddness of the situation was not lost on me.

Recently, I was talking with a friend about prison ministry. I told him that it felt strange to tell people I was involved with it because I don’t really feel like I’m doing that much. I attend a Bible study in the prison one night a week and I try to visit both prisons for Mass on Saturdays. Sometimes good conversations happen and other times I seem to be just one of the crowd. He reminded me that often that is what ministry actually involves: just being present to others. But I realized in that conversation that while I am not convinced that I have impacted anyone in prison, I know that my heart has been moved through this ministry.

What if that is enough?

In ministry that so deeply concerns the conversion of the heart, there is an indifference one must have toward seeing the fruits displayed. Obviously, good ministry will bear fruit, but so often we fill the role of scattering seeds and someone else is the one who helps with the harvest. We want to see people respond and we want to frequently evaluate what we are doing or how we could be more effective. But conversion is quite often the slow work of God in the soul, something formed through various conversations with others or different experiences. I’m convinced that we will only know the impact the Lord has made through us once we are with Him in Heaven. Considering my overabundant human pride, that might not be a bad thing, even if it causes me to wonder if I’m doing anything productive in anyone’s life.

When I was involved in sidewalk counseling outside an abortion clinic during college, I never saw my words or my actions motivate someone to choose life. Instead, I was often fumbling for words as my heart overflowed with feelings but my mind struggled to form ideas to share. Yet being involved in that ministry radically transformed my heart. It gave me the experience of aching with Our Lord, of encountering the complete exercise of free will, of truly being persecuted by others for the first time in my life, and of growing in trust that prayer does something powerful even I don’t see it immediately.

I know without a doubt that hearts were transformed and lives changed through the prayer, suffering, and sacrifices made in that ministry, but I will never know the specifics on this side of eternity. If I had to point to one thing that changed my heart most in college, it would probably be the cold hours I spent begging the Lord for mercy on a street in Pittsburgh. Even if I didn’t see others change, I saw a change occur within myself.

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Quit Striving: You Are Already Valuable

Quit Striving: You Are Already Valuable

For the past few semesters, I give something called ‘The Preference Test‘ as a way to lead into the Argument from Desire when speaking of God’s existence. This test gives a series of would-you-rather questions but proposed in a slightly different way. I understand why the students sometimes find it silly because it pits options like You are loved against You are not loved. It seems easy enough to be clear about what you would truly prefer, but so many times the students struggle to admit that they desire something when intellectually they are convinced it doesn’t exist or isn’t real.

One question asked if they would rather have their value be innate or dependent on their abilities. This one is always interesting, because the hard-working, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality comes out in full force even if it isn’t really what anyone would truly want. I asked what they preferred. Did they prefer to be worth something just because they exist or did they prefer to strive for worthiness?

So many of them argued that culturally our value is based on our net worth or the skills we’ve acquired or how gifted we are. I told them I understood that, but asked how do you want your value to be determined? Still some insisted that they would prefer that measuring rod of value.

Interestingly, some seemed to fear nobody would work hard if they just knew they were valuable. I wonder if it is because they work hard to be good and then they wonder what it would be like if everyone had value regardless of their skills. Perhaps it is because they feel validated by meeting certain expectations and don’t know what it would mean if those measuring rods were broken and thrown away. Who would they be without grades or athletic giftedness or money or determination?

And it just made my heart ache to see them striving so much. So many of our problems seem to stem from not knowing our true worth or identity. If we all fully understood it, perhaps we wouldn’t be compelled to step on other people or gossip or give up or lie or do whatever we do to get ahead. Or whatever we do to numb the feeling that we aren’t worth anything or can never amount to much. People suffer from not knowing their own true value more than being too full of their own giftedness. I’m quite confident that the ones who seem the most full of themselves are so because they recognize within themselves a radical insufficiency.

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Heaven is like a Symphony

I don’t quite recall how we got on the topic, but I was talking to my first period class about how we will experience Heaven differently.  My reference was to the idea that Heaven will be experienced as deeply as we allow Christ into our lives now.  To be sure, Heaven will be fantastic, beyond anything that I can imagine.  When we get there (if we get there) we won’t be comparing our Heaven and wanting somebody else’s Heaven.

One of the students didn’t understand what I was saying.  How could we experience Heaven differently?  Will we each have our own Heaven?  It was about this point in time that I wondered why I brought this topic up, since it didn’t have a lot of bearing on the subject at hand.

Then the Holy Spirit (He gets the credit/blame, anyhow) provided the perfect analogy for me in the situation.

“Heaven is like a symphony.”  I said it and I liked it, the richness of a symphony and the depth of Heaven.  I went on to briefly explain that we could all go to the same symphony but some of us would appreciate it more.  Perhaps someone knows more about music and they would be able to understand and love aspects of the symphony that others might not notice.  We are all at the same symphony, but we are able to experience it in different ways.

His face seemed to lighten in understanding.  I, on the other hand, was particularly pleased with this off the cuff analogy.  However, I know it had little to do with me…

The Lord provides.  Thank the Lord He provides!

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

Another Weary Day in the Battlefield…

It has been a rough day and a long week.  One of those weeks where I look at how many months it is until summer break and I realize that I have only just begun.  My thoughts should still be turned to those of excitement and eager anticipation of the events yet to come.  Maybe I feel so worn down because I’ve been lacking in prayer.  Perhaps I’m simply tired.

At times I feel this weariness deep down in my bones that shouldn’t be found within the person of only 23 years.  I long for Heaven.  At times, I seem to ache for it.  I’m weary of life.  Already this year I’ve had my fill of teenagers and they are the source of my job.  I’m tired of rolling eyes, softly muttered comments, overly talkative classes, looks of pure boredom, and the list continues.

Last week I asked my students if they would rather work a job where they make lots of money but hate it or a job where they make more than enough to survive but have to forgo fancy extras but love their job.  In one class the majority chose to work a job they hate so that they could have all the things they want, take nice vacations, and retire early.  I always figured I would rather work a job I love but this week confirmed it.  Sitting at the dinner table, exhausted and wanting nothing more than to sleep for a week, I thought of what a horrible existence it would be to spend 8 hours at a job I hate, spend the rest of the day tired and dreaming of sleep, only to wake up and do it all over again.  Not for nine months but for the entire year.  Where is life in that?  Where is the time to actually live and be with people?

I do not hate my job.  On some days, I love it.  On days like today, I go to the chapel, beg the Lord for help, and return to the street/battlefield/classroom.  And this idea begins to grow in the back of my mind–what if the Lord desires something else from me?  Maybe He doesn’t want me to teach next year but rather to……  And I draw a blank because there isn’t exactly an application for “wife and mother”.  [And I would cringe at the thought of answering that kind of help wanted ad. “Help wanted: woman to marry and rear children.  Will be paid in a decent house, being woken up in the middle of the night to feed/change/rock child(ren), and beautiful drooling smiles.  Mail application and sample of chocolate chip cookies to…..”]

Lord, I pray, I’m lonely.  I want a “kindred spirit” or a “bosom friend” with whom I may pass through this world.  What a feeling it is to be surrounded by people all day long and yet desire to be alone, but not truly alone, just away from the maddening crowd.  Sometimes I blame God because I feel that He should have made me more adaptable to this world.  My heart shouldn’t get hurt so easily by a few rude looks or a handful of subtle attacks.  I shouldn’t long for solitude so much if I was to have a profession that deals with so many people.  I know God didn’t make me for this world but it seems I could have been made with slightly more skills suited to life on Earth.

Convents sound like beautiful places at this point.  Not because I believe they are easy but because in many ways my heart feels very much aligned with it.  I like to be quiet and by myself.  I enjoy work and prayer.  I would love a community of sisters.  My two older sisters in religious life have made me quite aware that there is more to monastic life than that.  Nevertheless, I desire it.  Yet not the vocation itself.  I desire marriage.  I am a contemplative thrown into the world who seems to not find time to pray.  I am a fish thrown out of the water and I refuse to admit that the water is my source of life.

I’m unsure if any of this makes sense.  All I know is that today I nearly cried during a class and I’ve thought several times over the past couple days, “What if I didn’t come back next year?”  My spiritual director has been helping me find areas of hurt and bring healing to them.  We are trying to make my heart whole again.  Today I began to believe that teaching was simply destroying the whole process.

Maybe I love far too many ideals and not enough realities.  I love my students–as they should be.  Yet when faced with a teenage girl who is subtly mocking me in front of the class, I have to keep myself from crying tears of rage.  I love teaching–on the days when things goes perfectly and my students radiate with kindness and sincerity.

Heaven help me.  So if you are reading this, stop right now and say a prayer for me and my students.  We can definitely use it.  For all of those out there facing far more difficult battles in the streets, know that my little sufferings and prayers are with you.  And let’s all get to Heaven so this can all just look like one inconvenient night in a hotel (thanks St. Teresa of Avila).

Gratitude for Being Unfulfilled

I realized that I should be grateful for my frustrations and unfulfilled desires.  When I present my experiences teaching to some of my friends, I feel as though it is an endless litany of dislikes, discouragement, and downfalls.  I don’t mean for it to be that way but I am unable to paint a purely rosy picture of a profession that I find difficult and stretching.  Yet I realized that in some ways it is very good that I am not content with it all.  I desire to do better, to improve my teaching, to reach out to my students.  And while this means that I am not a perfect teacher it also means that I desire to do better than I am doing.  Of course there is the necessary reminder that one shouldn’t always be frustrated and unfulfilled.  But I desire such great things for my students and their souls that I am far too weak to deliver on my own.  Thus, the tension.  I long for greatness but fall into petty worries.  I search for fulfillment but am left unsatisfied.  I will never be completely fulfilled on earth.  Only in Heaven will I find fulfillment for all of my good desires.  Nevertheless, I yearn for this fulfillment, for this unobtainable perfection.  We are trying to get back to something we once had, to something for which we were created.

“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.”  –C.S. Lewis Till We Have Faces

Such beauty!  Anyway, the point of all of this is that it is alright to not feel fulfilled and satisfied.  We live in an imperfect world within an imperfect society.  There is much to see in the world that needs change and transformation.  My students will be imperfect because they are human and I will be imperfect because I, too, am a human.  We are deeply flawed.  Ah, but not beyond redemption!  I shouldn’t glory in my misery or disappointments.  Nevertheless, I don’t need to attempt to make myself believe that I should be 100% fulfilled and satisfied.  There is conversion that needs to take place in my heart, I am a pilgrim traveling down the path of life, and I have not yet reached my eternal home.

The task of evangelizing the modern world is not easy.  It isn’t easy because we are asking them to accept truth that is difficult to accept.  Because we are telling people that perhaps the best thing for them is a life that includes suffering and painful growth and sacrifice.  Yet I am thankful that the Lord has called me into this mission field and desires me try to reach His flock.  It isn’t because I’m perfect–because He knows better than any my imperfections–but perhaps simply because I have this desire for His will to be done on earth, a longing for Heaven, and a knowledge that without Him, I am nothing. 

 

Grace-filled Moments

 I stepped out of the humble house and into the early morning air.  Although I didn’t know what time it was, I knew that is was early despite the warm sun that was steadily filling the village with light.  Embracing the time of solitude, I walked to a hammock and prayed morning prayer, with pauses to watch the water crash on the rocky coastline.

Perfection. 

No, perfection was when I finished prayer and spotted a little boy who was creeping around, casting side-long glances at me.  After going inside to get my camera, I had a mini photo shoot with him and his friends.  They were adorable.  One moment they were posing for pictures and the next they were crowded around my camera, only to double over with delight as they saw themselves on the little screen. 

Or perhaps perfection was the feeling of being loved and acceptable absolutely as we entered a village unannounced and were immediately given food and shelter.  Each meal was the best that they could offer–we even had lobster for breakfast one time.  It was being invited to a captain’s house and hearing him explain that he would have been at Mass the night before but that he had been out in the water and didn’t know about it. 

Or perhaps it was the ride in the rickety old boat that seemed ill-suited for six people and backpacks.  It was a simple boat with a motor strapped on the back that cruised over impressive swells.  The water sprayed my face, the sun kissed my fair skin, and my excitement was mixed with silent prayers that we wouldn’t sink.  But then someone spotted a dolphin and soon after I viewed a wild dolphin racing in the water.

Or perhaps perfection was the joy of hiking through the coastal landscape–crawling over rocks, racing up steep inclines, stopping to enjoy the glories of coconut water while sweat ran down my face and back in rivulets.  The moments of pausing to dip our bottles into the cool springs so that we could filter the water to be suitable for our weak stomachs.  Walking to villages to which no cars can arrive simply to bring the best one could offer–Christ present in the Eucharist.  Watching the people unlock their churches with a sense of pride that is difficult to find in the “developed” world and then hearing them spread the word throughout the village that a priest was in their midst.   

Perhaps, in my mind, Honduras is perfection in every aspect.  I understand that the country is going through difficult times, that the homicide rate is one of the highest in the world, and that poverty is abundant.  But I experienced so much grace and perfection in Honduras.  The Lord blessed me with being able to go to Honduras twice for spring break mission trips in college.  As I saw the poverty of the people, I saw a simplicity that made my heart ache.  It made me want to return home and give all of my extra possessions away.  It made me want to become a missionary after college.  And right now it fills me with a desire to return to Honduras someday. 

Honduras has been on my mind lately because in just a few days another mission trip will be launched to that beautiful country and my heart aches to be with them.  Yet I can go back and embrace the memories and for a moment, I am in that grace-filled place again, walking through the coastal land, eating fresh seafood, celebrating Mass with people who manage to praise God in the midst of adversity. 

Heaven is indescribable.  I like to think that Heaven will be like all of the beautiful, grace-filled moments of my life linked together…and then more.  It will be the sum of beautiful adoration hours, hikes in foreign countries, the smell of incense, the feeling of a bed after a long day, the delirious joy of the Holy Spirit, the thankfulness of a student, the embrace of a cloistered sister, the glory of a sun-bathed afternoon, every delightful food, and the reunion of each beautiful friend…and more. 

In the midst of times that seem less grace-filled, it is nice to be able to go back and re-live some moments where I knew the Lord was working and present.  Yet not to get lost in them.  Simply to experience the joy and then return to the present with a renewed vigor to pray for God’s kingdom to come now…in me and in this world. 

Thy Will Be Done

Perhaps I am not alone in feeling this way, but I desire a great mission for my life.  I want to do big things and transform society.  When I look at the different passions in my life, I wonder how I will ever be able to use them all, how will God be the fulfillment of all of my desires.  Taking a look at where I am at the present moment can cause me to feel impatient and claustrophobic.  I want to travel, to live life, to have adventures, to be incandescently happy.  There are moments, like on Thursday, when I look at my life as a teacher and I wonder what in the world I am doing.  Some people are able to say that every day they go to work they are filled with a desire to go to work and that because of that, they never feel like it is work.  Unfortunately, I cannot say that the same is always true with me.  There have been several times over the past few months that I didn’t want to go to work, that the thing I wanted most was to extend the weekend.  My heart desires something grand and beautiful.  Yet when I look at where I am in my life, I begin to wonder if it is ever possible to attain that.  Am I simply missing God’s will in my life?  Will I be my own worst enemy?  Everyone desires a great love and a great adventure and too quickly I begin to wonder where mine is.  I’ve spent half of the past semester longing to live life fully and the other half praying to enter into eternal life.  At times I am filled with a passion for teaching and with gratitude that I am able to do what I wanted to do right out of college.  Nevertheless, I wonder what else there is for me and how the plan will unfold. 

Maybe much of this is natural–the transition years after college, the quest to find stable footing, the desire to be a saint, the longings to be fulfilled.  Yet some of this is perhaps the temptation of the evil one.  If he can make God’s will for me now seem to be unimportant or too little, then he is winning in a sense.  God could have a grand mission for me next year but His will for me is to be a teacher now.  If I focus on the future grandeur and fail to do my duty in the present moment, then I am effectively not doing God’s will out of a misappropriated desire to do His will in the future.  I need to learn patience without succumbing to passivity.  How will I know if God is asking me to step out in faith or if it is my own desire for the grand that will cause me to run contrary to the will of God.  I have this desire to be a saint and although I know there are many saints of the ordinary, I don’t want to be ordinary.  While I don’t want to stand out especially, I long for a great mission, something where all of my desires are fulfilled.  Maybe this is just my melancholic nature coming out and longing for the ideals that can only truly be found in Heaven.  All I know is that I long for a beautiful adventure that will be personally transforming and will transform others.  A little daisy wants to be a bouquet of roses.

What a different view of me my students would have if they read this blog.  I know they don’t think I’m perfect but I like to think I look generally put together and collected.  At times I wish I could tell them how ridiculous and confused I truly am.  The facade would be destroyed.  What does God want me to do now?  He has placed me here for a reason.  I forget that reason, though, in moments of frantic worry and a desire for my will to be done.  So, Lord, if Your desire is for me to be here now, please teach me how to do Your will in the present moment–and to love doing it.