Amazing Grace: A Weekend in Prison

Amazing Grace: A Weekend in Prison

Humans are surprising creatures.

They have the unique capacity for acts of tremendous, selfless good. Yet they also carry within themselves the capacity for unspeakable acts of horror. Perhaps even more significant, though, is the capacity humans have for change and transformation.

I spent this past weekend helping with a retreat at a men’s prison.

Several times, I was asked by the inmates and the volunteers if it was what I expected. The truth was I didn’t quite know what to expect from the weekend. I was a bit nervous to enter in. Not nervous for the gate to slam behind me or to be locked into the prison. Not nervous that a riot would start. Not nervous that I would be injured or harmed. Rather, I was uneasy about how I would be received. What would we talk about? What would the men be like? Would they make me uncomfortable or would they be kind?

In the reality, humanity inside the prison is very much like humanity outside the prison. Some of the men were very kind and genuine. Others seemed to want an unhealthy amount of attention. Some wanted to share their hearts. Others wanted to stay only on the surface. Some admitted they made mistakes. Others insisted everything was fine or that they weren’t treated fairly. Some respected authority. Others used each opportunity they had to poke at the officers responsible for them. They reminded me an awful lot of my students and the world around me. Which isn’t all that surprising, but it was different to experience it instead of just think about it.

There was a unique point in the retreat when the group reflected on how God uses all for His good. In our small group, my sister mentioned that God uses everything and that even though they were in prison for something wrong they had done, they were still encountering Him on a retreat. Maybe this time in prison was a good, because God can use all for good. And it was beautiful to see at least some of them agree. They talked about how it was likely that they could have been dead if they weren’t in prison. If they continued on their previous course, it was easy for them to see how it would have led to their demise.

Continue reading “Amazing Grace: A Weekend in Prison”

My Ars

My Ars

St. John Vianney tried to leave Ars. Not just one time, either, but multiple times. He wanted to leave Ars for the peace and solitude of a monastic life. And while I lack the great holiness and fervor found in the Cure d’Ars, I definitely identify with his desires to leave the world behind and live quietly removed from the chaos.

My spiritual director reminded me that St. John Vianney tried to leave Ars as we meandered down the sidewalk.

“So this high school is my Ars, huh?”

“Yes,” he replied, “there are a few similarities there it seems.”

“He died there, didn’t he?” I said, in an attempt at wry melodrama.

He paused for a moment as my imagination latched onto the idea of decades spent at this one high school, right up until the moment of my death. (I’m a melancholic–we consider death often.)

“You might not physically die at school, but, yes, I think you will die there.”

Continue reading “My Ars”

Fifteen Years of Learning to Let Go

Fifteen Years of Learning to Let Go

Last week, fifteen years ago, my sister entered a Carmelite cloister.

At the beginning of the school day, I sat for a couple minutes, looking at my calendar announcing March 19th and remembering what had transpired other years on the Solemnity of St. Joseph. Fifteen years ago, we embraced, believing it might be the final time here on earth. Five years ago, we embraced as she moved north to establish a new monastery. And every year in between, I have recalled with tenderly fond pain the life we have been called to enter into as the family of religious.

I spoke about my sister’s vocation with my sophomores at great length this year. While I didn’t intend to spend so much time on it, they asked question after question and I found myself desiring to share this story with them. They were particularly struck by the great physical sacrifice that is found in the life of a cloistered nun. While I have been able to embrace my sister since her entrance, each time is a gift and never expected or something I can claim as my due. I explained that it is because my sister loves us that it is a sacrifice for her to not embrace us or be present for some of the big moments of life.

“But you didn’t choose that life. Why do you have to make that sacrifice when God didn’t call you to be a cloistered sister?”

Perhaps without knowing it, they stumbled upon the question that must be answered for each family member of a religious brother or sister. Why must I make this sacrifice when I’m not the one with the call?

Continue reading “Fifteen Years of Learning to Let Go”

Roots and Wings

Roots and Wings

In the movie Sweet Home Alabama, there is one line that has always stood out to me.  The main characters Jake and Melanie are talking about their past and present, the ways life has changed from when they were high school sweethearts to their current situation of estranged spouses.  Melanie expresses her confusion about loving her life in New York and yet returning home to find that her hometown fits, too.  Jake then says, “You can have roots and wings, Mel.”

So often my own heart is caught in that same clashing of different longings.  I want to fly away and yet I want to be home, grounded and steady.  One moment I’m desiring to be a missionary in a far-away land and the next I want to stay in my cozy bedroom, reading and considering life.  One day, I’m wanting to buy a home and make it my own oasis.  The next day, I am wanting to be detached of all earthly possessions, living simply and being prepared to fly off to wherever whenever.

Roots and wings–the desire to be secure and the desire to be free–mark the desires of the human heart.  We want to be home, but not confined.  We want to be free to wander and yet not be lost.  All of it, flying or remaining, hinges on the longing we have for happiness and contentment.

Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content.  I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want.

Philippians 4:11-12

I am not quite like St. Paul yet, able to find contentment in whatever situation I find myself in.  Perhaps my students would even be surprised with the restlessness that is within my heart.  I am slow to act, yes, making changes at a glacial speed.  And yet…change is what I often long for and deeply desire.  What is the solution? Continue reading “Roots and Wings”

There is a Strength in Faithfulness

There is a Strength in Faithfulness

Only once have I really punched someone in anger.

It was a childish expression of frustration and the reprisal was one that kept that outburst of violence to a one-time event.  In general, I am a fairly patient person, I believe, and while I might get annoyed or angry, I am often slow to act on those emotions.

Yet I’ve always wanted to be viewed as strong.  I’m not tall and I probably don’t look very intimidating.  Despite that, it is a desire of mine to be seen as fiery.  The punch I threw in my youth didn’t end well, but I sought to prove my strength in other areas.  In an elementary school gym class, we were challenged to do as many push-ups as possible.  Due to my slight frame and sheer grit, I completed push-up after push-up until my arms quaked each time I neared the floor.  When I finally stopped, only one other person was still going.

As kids, my dad would challenge us to completely unfair wrestling matches.  Being six or seven and taking on a fully grown man did not present balanced odds.  However, I clearly remember wrestling matches where my dad only needed to use one arm or a leg to pin me down as I relentlessly squirmed to get away.  Finally, I would concede defeat, but only with flushed face and worn out limbs.

This desire to be strong was evident from my youth and yet it found expression in various ways as I got older.  Physical prowess was never going to be my gift and so I exercised strength in witty replies and intellectual knowledge.  But I still wanted to be viewed as strong and I had this indomitable longing to be a soldier.  I have a fight in me that needs to be revealed in some way.  It means that while I “hit like a girl,” I still punch my dad in the shoulder every time I see him.  And while I’m not a fan of conflict, I enjoy a good argument or discussion when I’m in the mood.

At my nephews’ wrestling tournament the other day, I saw a woman in army fatigues.  The strength that her outfit symbolized was something I desired for myself.  Which, naturally, means I went home that night and casually perused the Army National Guard website.  I imagined what it would be like to join the military and how that could impact my life.  I don’t really want to fight someone, but I want to fight for something. Continue reading “There is a Strength in Faithfulness”

To Make People Fall in Love with Jesus

To Make People Fall in Love with Jesus

“If I could do the last thirty years over again, I would do it differently.  I would try to make people fall in love with Jesus.”

A story was being told about a conversation with an elderly priest nearing death, but it pierced my heart and filled me with a great desire to do the same thing.  In teaching Theology, I feel these seemingly conflicting pulls on my heart.  I desire to teach them concrete information yet I want to show them how to fall in love with the Lord.  These two desires aren’t mutually exclusive, but the balance is a difficult thing to ascertain.

While I wish we could have daily conversations about the matters closest to their hearts or the questions they really want answered, I also have a curriculum to follow.  We need to take quizzes and tests.  I am required to give them assignments and to grade their work.  Yet, somehow, in the midst of the formal education, I am also supposed to provide an education of the heart.

How?  I’m uncertain.  I know it sometimes happens when their sincere questions spring from the topics at hand.  Or during unplanned times of heart sharing and depth.  The Holy Spirit will surprisingly show up and elevate my lesson to something far beyond what I could do on my own.

I want to answer all of their questions about the Catholic Church and Jesus Christ.  Sometimes they don’t know how to phrase the questions or are uninterested in engaging in a conversation that may challenge their status quo.  Despite my desires to help them encounter the Lord, I cannot manufacture an encounter in a 50-minute class period.  I attempt to provide opportunities and share experiences I have had, yet with 25-30 students in a class, I am unable to personally reach each person as they need to be reached. Continue reading “To Make People Fall in Love with Jesus”

To Write

To Write

I’ve wanted to write a book for years.  When I was in first grade, I wrote a short story for a contest and I won.  Several years ago, I went back and read the story, expecting it to be mildly phenomenal.  Instead, I was surprised that it wasn’t that good at all.  I basically wrote a story about a typical day in my life, some of it was true and some of it was embellished.  In eighth grade, my English teacher really complimented my writing and encouraged me to start submitting articles for the town paper.  Apparently, there was space to fill, since the next couple editors of the paper allowed me to submit articles periodically for the next few years.

Over the years, I have wondered what the Lord desired to do with this desire of mine to write.  This blog started mostly as a way for me to process the new world of teaching high school students.  Now it is a place where I reflect and share on a number of different thoughts and feelings that come up.  Yet, still, I find a longing to write a book.

When I was younger, I assumed it would be a fictional novel.  Since I lived on a steady diet of novels, I figured my love for them would bring about writing one of them.  As time has passed, I’ve found myself wanting to write something nonfiction, but unable to quite put my finger on what it is I want to write.

This indecision is something that is familiar in my life.  I need only glance around my room to see partially finished books, half-made plans, and a to-do list that goes back months.  My desire to leap forward is tempered by a desire to not fail, to do the right thing at the right moment always.  Yet I read the books or blogs that other people have written and while I enjoy them, I cannot help but think, I could write something like that. Continue reading “To Write”

Avenues to My Heart

Avenues to My Heart

When I started college, I wanted to be a high school English teacher.  I have loved reading since elementary school and I wanted to encourage others to love reading, too.  Along with reading, I also enjoyed writing.  With these two loves, I assumed teaching English would be a fitting career.

The second semester of my freshman year of college found me taking a Theology class.  Since I had exclusively attended public school growing up, this was my first formal Theology class.  Other students who had attended Catholic schools didn’t seem as impressed as I was with the class.  Simply praying before a math class at college was an exciting concept for me.  Reading encyclicals and Church documents?  That was a complete thrill and I remember marveling at how accessible I found them.

After this introductory class, I was hooked.

I kept slipping extra Theology classes into my schedule.  Until, finally, my adviser asked what I was doing.  My heart wanted a Theology degree simply because it meant I could study more about what the Church thought and did.  So I dropped my Education major and paired my English major with Theology.  While I still loved reading and writing, I knew that I could never be quite as passionate about English as I could be about Theology.

Even with a Theology degree and a day full of teaching Theology classes, it still satisfies a desire of my heart when I can sit down and read good theological works.  Whether they are more dogmatic or more spiritual, I find the truths they speak to be balm for my soul.  I read Bishop Conley’s address to a group of Catholic school educators and administrators and I found myself underlining several points.  Bishop Conley said, “If you want authentically Catholic culture, you need authentically Catholic schools.”  This makes me applaud and then question, “How?”  Hearing about the faith is enlightening and joyous for me.  Learning about my role as a Catholic educator is inspiring.  It fills me with truths I know to be solid.

Despite the length of time I have spent on Theology (the beauty and the teaching of it), the inspiration for this post is not Theology.  Rather, it was in conversation with a co-worker that I realized that while theological reading is beautiful and soul-lifting, so is literature. Continue reading “Avenues to My Heart”

The Deepest Longing of Our Hearts

The Deepest Longing of Our Hearts

“I guess I don’t like the argument from desire because I’ve never felt a desire for something that can’t be satisfied on earth.”

As a melancholic who has nearly always longed for something beyond this world, I was a bit surprised by this admission.  My class was reviewing arguments for God’s existence and as we went over each one, I would ask a few students to share if they liked or disliked the argument.  Then they needed to voice why, perhaps the most difficult part of it all for them.

I wanted them to reflect on the arguments and see which ones they found personally compelling.  Each person is different and so I wasn’t too concerned if they liked all of the arguments or not.  Yet it is always interesting to me which ones they dislike and why.  Some other students voiced a dislike for the desire argument, but the declaration that they had never desired something beyond this world seemed foreign to me.

Melancholic that I am, I have always longed for perfection.  Ever since high school and college, that has translated into a longing for Heaven.  So as my students were voicing that they have never experienced this unfulfilled desire for something beyond this world, I was left wondering why they don’t have a longing that I never remember being without.

In my first year of teaching, I prayed frequently for death.  Not in a morbid way, but in a longing-for-home-and-yet-knowing-everything-around-me-is-temporary way.  The more I battled with my students over Church teaching, the more I wanted to be in a place of eternal Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.  Yet that was far from the first time that I had felt an unfulfilled desire.  Why are my students not experiencing this also? Continue reading “The Deepest Longing of Our Hearts”

A Laity of Saints: How God Uses the Little for Greatness

A Laity of Saints: How God Uses the Little for Greatness

When I mention that my two older sisters are religious sisters, people often wonder what my parents did to make that happen.  In a way, I understand, because it is mildly unusual in today’s world to hear about young women making vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  Yet I also want to fight against this mentality that holiness is primarily for priests, religious, and consecrated persons.  Sanctity is for everyone and we need to continue to proclaim this good news.  

If you are what you should be, you will set your whole world on fire.

~St. Catherine of Siena

Venerable Jan Tyranowski recently came into my life and he inspires me in the quest for a saintly laity.  He was born at the turn of the twentieth century in Poland.  For over three decades, he led a rather unremarkable life.  But at Mass one day, he heard the priest say that it isn’t difficult to be a saint.  From that day forward, he pursued virtue and holiness with an incredible ardor.

When Nazis invaded Poland, they deported several of the priests in parish, leaving behind only a couple elderly priests.  Knowing of his deep faithfulness, the priests ask Jan to minister to the young of the parish.  Despite his introverted nature and little formal education, Jan began this ministry even though he considered himself incapable.  He formed prayer groups comprised of fifteen young men each.  Each man was responsible for daily praying a decade of the rosary and striving to live out particular virtues.  The groups were called “Living Rosaries” and Jan chose a leader for each group, investing time to spiritually form each leader.

Venerable Jan Tyranowski never married and never became a priest, yet his life of holiness impacts us today.  The Second Vatican Council called for the laity to live more fully the mission of the Church.  This call was anticipated in the life of Jan and he did this in the midst of a Nazi occupation.  One of the young men who was in his prayer group and was spiritually formed by this simple tailor was Karol Wojtyla, better known as Pope St. John Paul II. Continue reading “A Laity of Saints: How God Uses the Little for Greatness”