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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Old Words, New Meaning

Old Words, New Meaning

Have you ever heard a passage in Scripture and been convinced that it was crafted specifically for you in that moment?

Or have you heard a story or verse again but you are really hearing it for the first time with new ears?

Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord?
Who shall stand in his holy place?

Psalm 24

After a college semester in Austria, I spent a week in Ireland with my aunt. One day, I climbed Croagh Patrick, the mountain said to be the place where St. Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland. I’m a plains girl, through and through, but I was excited to have a mini-retreat as I ascended the mountain on my own.

For several months after, I was reminded of this small pilgrimage when I would read Scripture passages that spoke of climbing mountains. Transported, the verses were enriched with the memory of my own mountain climbing experience. The view I had from the rocky summit was striking, reminding me why mountain-top experiences are so formative.

The Lord is king, let the earth rejoice,
Let all the coastlands be glad.

Psalm 97

In college, I went on a mission trip that brought the sacraments to people living along the Honduran coast. We hiked to towns that had no roads and met with people who had almost nothing. My Spanish was limited, but my heart overflowed when I encountered their simplicity and their joy. Returning to campus, I longed to be in Honduras, a place abundant in beauty and where I encountered the tangible presence of the Lord.

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Basic, but Beautiful

Basic, but Beautiful

I have a feeling that for the rest of my life when I return from a retreat, I will only be able to speak of graces and revelations that are profound in their magnitude but elementary in their complexity. This doesn’t bother me, but it was a bit surprising when I came to this conclusion a few years ago. While I’m not saying the Lord can’t reveal anything new to me, I think the revelations will primarily be a deepened understanding and solidifying of truths I already know, albeit superficially.

This understanding came about when I returned from a beautiful retreat. It was enlightening and life giving. Yet the main take-away was nothing new: God loves me. In fact, it seemed laughably basic. Didn’t I already know God loved me? Yes, of course. But after that retreat, I knew it in a deeper, more significant way. I experienced the love of God and it left behind a smattering of old truths seen with new eyes.

Sometimes, the students insist we all keep teaching them the same things. Sometimes, it is true that unnecessary repetition happens. But, it is also true that learning something as a child is quite different than learning about it as a high schooler or an adult. They believe that since they have heard the words before, they know it. Knowledge, however, is something that can be known with the head yet not known with the heart. It is often important to repeat well-known truths because they haven’t journeyed yet from words the mind understands to a reality the heart lives from.

High school students are far from the only ones to do this. The familiar sometimes seems uninteresting when actually we just haven’t plumbed the depths of it yet.

Jesus loves me.
God became man.
The Lord is faithful.
Trust in the Lord.
Jesus rose from the dead.

All of these truths have been heard by Christians innumerable times. Yet how many of these truths have fully penetrated our hearts? How deep of an understanding of the Lord’s love do we actually have? Do we really know and experience the faithfulness of the Lord or do we simply parrot the words? We can stay on the surface with these realities or we can bore down deep and imprint these words on our hearts. Like the circles within a tree, each experience with a particular truth can be packed in deeper and deeper, each additional layer increasing the beauty and profundity of the simple reality.

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Rome’s Concreteness

Rome’s Concreteness

The following night the Lord stood by him and said, ‘Take courage. For just as you have borne witness to my cause in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness in Rome.’

Acts 23: 11

The readings for our pilgrimage to Rome were rather perfect. For a few days, they focused on Paul’s arrest and subsequent journey to Rome to stand trial. As we visited the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls and walked old cobblestone roads, the Scripture readings came alive. Here was the place Paul had come in chains, insisted on preaching the Gospel, spoke to the Christian community, and later died for Christ. It felt more real, more alive when in the place where so many important things happened.

When he entered Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him.

Three days later he called together the leaders of the Jews. When they had gathered he said to them, ‘My brothers, although I had done nothing against our people or our ancestral customs, I was handed over to the Romans as a prisoner from Jerusalem. After trying my case the Romans wanted to release me, because they found nothing against me deserving the death penalty. But when the Jews objected, I was obliged to appeal to Caesar, even though I had no accusation to make against my own nation. This is the reason, then, I have requested to see you and to speak with you, for it is on account of the hope of Israel that I wear these chains.’ 

He remained for two full years in his lodgings. He received all who came to him, and with complete assurance and without hindrance he proclaimed the Kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.

Acts 28:16-20, 30-31

In excavated catacombs, in the ruins of the Roman Forum, and in the expanse of the Colosseum, the reality of what had transpired in this ancient city rang clear. We prayed before Paul’s chains, momentarily visited the area where he was believed to have been beheaded, and stood near where Peter was crucified. Traversing beneath the current basilica, we stood before the bones of St. Peter, our first pope, and experienced the feast of Pentecost in the square just above. Everywhere we turned we were encountering concrete reminders that the apostles had visited this place.

I love several particular verses in Romans, but I couldn’t help but be struck anew that this was a letter written to the Roman people. And as a girl from the plains of South Dakota, where anything from the early 1800s feels old, I couldn’t help but be a little jealous that little Roman girls and boys get to grow up reading a letter written to them by St. Paul. How loved that letter must be! How beautiful to read: To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Then to read at the end of Romans as Paul lists numerous people to greet for him, real people who were working in the vineyard of the Lord and who knew Paul.

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Crawling On Our Knees To Heaven

Crawling On Our Knees To Heaven

The Catholic faith, with all of the elaborate liturgies and rich traditions, is a testament to the incarnational reality of Christ. Rather than simply receiving Christ spiritually, we consume what looks like bread and tastes like wine but which we profess is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. Rather than simply believing that we are forgiven, we profess our sins aloud and then hear the words of absolution extended as we are reconciled to God. Though not dogma, we profess to have the crown of thorns, nails from the cross, pieces of the true cross, and even the cloth wrapped around Jesus before He was laid in the tomb. The physical realities of the God-man are brimming in the Catholic churches around the world.

On a recent pilgrimage to Rome with some students, I was able to climb the Scala Santa or Holy Stairs. These twenty-eight steps of marble are believed to be the stairs Christ ascended as the Jewish authorities turned Him over to Pilate. Transported from the Holy Land to Rome at the request of Constantine’s mother, St. Helena, pilgrims have come for centuries to climb these steps on their knees as they recall the Passion of Jesus Christ. The ardent devotion of thousands upon thousands of pilgrims began to wear away at the stones and it was a desire of the Church to preserve them for future Christians. Around three hundred years ago, the steps were covered with wood to prevent their further deterioration.

A restoration process that has unfolded over the past few years led to the uncovering of the steps. As the restoration neared its end, for a few weeks during May and June, the Church allowed pilgrims to ascend the uncovered steps on their knees. The pilgrimage I was on happened to fall during the final week of the steps being uncovered.

Nine years ago, I climbed the steps during my first trip to Rome. Knowing the steps would be uncovered this time, I didn’t really consider how that would alter the experience of climbing them. The deep grooves in the marble, formed by thousands upon thousands of knees before me, made the ascent a bit more complicated than when it was on planks of wood. How many knees had been on these same steps? How many kisses had been placed on these marble slabs that formed the path Jesus took to condemnation? How many saints had made this same pilgrimage?

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Holy Homesickness

Holy Homesickness

`My grandmother,’ I said in a low tone, `would have said that we were all in exile, and that no earthly house could cure the holy home-sickness that forbids us rest.’

Manalive, G.K. Chesterton

Sometimes, life feels a bit like a long exile. No place, regardless of how grand or beautiful, seems to work as a perfect home.

When I graduated from college (or maybe it was even before that point), I remember realizing that never again would all the people I love be in the same place. Friends scattered across the country in post-graduation searches for jobs. My heart had experienced profound beauty in multiple places around the world. It produced the aching reality that many places could be home and yet no one place or group of people were entirely home.

Walking the Camino a few years ago, I lived physically what I seem to live internally. I was a wandering pilgrim, looking for the end of the road and a consistent place to rest. So much of me aches and longs for Heaven because I desire a resting place, the place where there are no tears or separations or unfulfilled desires. A place of contentment, communion, and constancy–a home that can never pass away or be divided.

Holy homesickness.

In Chesterton’s Manalive, he speaks about a man who leaves his family in order to re-discover the joy of loving them again. He leaves home to discover home. It does seem to be the case that too often the familiar becomes overly ordinary or commonplace. When I was in Switzerland, I wondered who wouldn’t gape with awe at the majestic mountains that formed the backdrop to the hostel I stayed in for a couple days. Probably the Swiss.

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The Parking Spot God Gave Me

The Parking Spot God Gave Me

About five years ago, I prayed that the Lord would help me finding a parking spot.  And He did.

It was at a bar for a Theology on Tap event and tired, introverted me was trying to muster up the energy to attend a talk when I really wanted to fall into bed for nine hours of sleep.  As I circled the parking lot, I told the Lord that if He wanted me to go to the event, then I needed to find a parking spot.

Weaving my way through the full lot, I saw a man talking on his phone at the apartment building in front of me.  He waved and pointed to a spot nearby.  I hadn’t parked there because it was for a business, but upon closer inspection, I realized the business was closed and the spot was fair game.  I laughed, pulled into the spot, and got out of my car.  The man waved and smiled at me.  Wondering if he was someone I knew or was perhaps at the same event, I slowly turned and saw that the apartment building was completely separated from the bar I was going to enter.

A random guy pointing out a parking spot at a bar was a concrete example of God’s love for me.  Walking into the bar, I was convinced the Lord loved me and cared for me.  It was humorous, but it was an encounter with God’s providence of something unnecessary yet greatly desired.  The Lord provided for such a small need so promptly.  An occasion that wasn’t really that spectacular–looking for a spot in a crowded parking lot–remains embedded in my memory because of how God moved in my heart.

In actuality, the Lord was fulfilling my deeper desire for good community by providing a spot that allowed me to go into the bar so I could listen to a talk and meet up with friends and acquaintances.  That evening, I ended up chatting for quite some time with someone who would become one of my dearest friends.  Yet in order for this deeper desire to be fulfilled, the Lord had to satisfy the initial desire of finding a parking spot.  Continue reading “The Parking Spot God Gave Me”

A Law of Freedom, Not Oppression

A Law of Freedom, Not Oppression

The culture seems to indicate that I should feel a bit like an oppressed victim.  Partly because I am a woman and even more so because I am a young, Catholic woman.  The “male-dominated hierarchy” that imposes a radical ban on my sex from becoming a cleric is meant to be railed against.  And yet I do not imagine myself to be oppressed or a victim.  Instead, I feel genuinely free.

Recently, I started reading Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves and I’ve found it to be quite enjoyable.  The stories are from women who embrace the fullness of the teachings the Church has to offer, finding within the precepts a path to freedom and joy.  In the news and social media, many take it on themselves to speak for Catholic women and how we must feel.  Breaking Through makes the bold claim that Catholic women do not need anyone to speak for them; rather, Catholic women have the ability and intellect to speak for themselves.  Instead of writing us off for actually embracing the Church’s teachings, others are encouraged to listen to the personal experiences women have had as they have grappled with and eventually embraced the wisdom of the Church. Continue reading “A Law of Freedom, Not Oppression”

Overjoyed

Overjoyed

It is human nature to have favorites.  As a teacher, the same holds true.  I often tell my students I’m not supposed to have favorite classes or students.  Several classes will guess that they are my favorite, but I can never tell them if they are correct or not.  Usually, there are multiple things I appreciate about each class as well as aspects I wish they would change.  Yet, as a human, I look forward to some classes more than others.  Gone are my first year teacher days of feeling ill at the thought of a particular class.  For a variety of reasons, some classes make me a little less excited to teach them.

A couple of weeks ago, I was facing this feeling of not looking forward to a particular class.  It wasn’t dread, but I was definitely not excited for them to fill my classroom with their boisterous selves.  On Tuesdays, I have “contemplative time” with my classes, ten minutes of silent prayer with a reflection or Scripture passage given as the means to enter into prayer.  I’m a little dense, so it took a while, but after a few classes, I recognized that this meditation was speaking to me about that less-than-ideal class.

My dear friend, I am overjoyed to see you.  I am with you speaking to you and listening to you.  Realize that I am truly present.  I am within your soul.  Close your ears and eyes to all distractions.  Retire within yourself, think my thoughts, and be with me alone.  

My Other Self: Conversations with Christ on Living Your Faith*, Clarence Enzler

The word overjoyed stood out to me after several readings.  Clarence Enzler wrote this book as though it is Jesus speaking directly to us, that we are Christ’s other self.  After considering the beauty of Jesus being overjoyed to see me, I began to desire that this was my response for that particular class.  When I come to the Lord with all my worries and failings, He is always pleased that I have entered into His presence.  I want this to be my attitude toward this class.  Each day, I want to be overjoyed that these particular students are coming into my classroom and sitting in my presence.  Recognizing Christ dwelling within them, I want to respond to them as Christ responds to me, even with my less-than-ideal heart. Continue reading “Overjoyed”

Healing, Truth, and This is Us

Healing, Truth, and This is Us

It is necessary for me to fight the urge to write about each episode of This is Us.  Although God is rarely mentioned, I discover ribbons of truth interwoven into every episode.  The authenticity and genuine growth of the characters is unlike anything I have seen in a TV show before.  I encounter truth in their interactions and truth in their experience of a beautiful, broken family.

One aspect I have particularly appreciated is the way they show that past hurts influence our current perspective of the world.  The viewers see glimpses from different points in the characters lives and we begin to understand why different experiences crush them or fill them with joy or anger them.  Through beautiful storytelling, we see, perhaps clearer than the characters do themselves, why they respond in different ways.  In a brief flash, we are shown a moment of their life from twenty years earlier and then see how they respond to something similar as adults.  They don’t respond entirely as we would expect, yet we are able to see how their choices are colored by past experience.

As the audience, we have questions about what happened in the missing years that we haven’t been shown, but I appreciate that there are few nice, easy answers for the characters.  Situations aren’t simple.  The correct move or response isn’t always obvious.  Life isn’t always clear and we don’t always grasp how the past has a hold on our present.  Yet This is Us attempts to show that facing our past, with all the hurts and wounds, seems necessary if we desire to move forward in wholeness and freedom.

Or perhaps that is what I read into it.  Either way, it seems relevant in my life.  Over the past few years, I have been going to spiritual direction and that poor priest has watched me dissolve into tears innumerable times.  Sometimes it is because of a situation that recently happened, but many times it is due to something I thought I was “over” but was not.

The past is a powerful force.  Our negative experiences are real, valid experiences and yet they should not be given the freedom to wreak havoc in our present life.  Running away from these moments doesn’t transform the past nor does burying them deep within and trying to forget them.  It is only in confronting them, in the light of the Father’s love, that we release ourselves from the chains our wounds can form.
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