GK Chesterton wrote Manalive, a novel that revealed his desire to gaze at the world through a life-giving haze of wonder and awe. I was reminded of this recently at a talk and it made me reflect on the stories that he speaks of taking place in the fictional life of Innocent Smith.
(If you haven’t read the book and want to, you should probably stop here because I need to ruin a few points in order to reveal what is so attractive about his life. This is your warning. Stop here! Proceed no further. Or, if you don’t care, carry on.)
School was called off for today before I even went to bed last night. It meant that my sister and I leisurely watched a movie and then talked for a while before curling up to fall asleep. This morning, the snow hadn’t started yet so I went out of the house for a couple of hours, returning as the snow began to lie thick on the roads. Ideally, though, I would have been still tucked away in my bed or perhaps snuggled on the couch with a cup of coffee as I turned through my latest book.
In high school, I was surprised when I heard that on snow days kids went to go hang out at the mall. For me, it was an unthinkable action. Why would I go out into the blustery weather when that was the exact reason I wasn’t at school? I also was gifted with a father who would have unquestionably smacked me with a hearty dose of common sense if I would have even asked to drive to town despite the weather. Being at home was actually what I wanted to do anyway. While I liked school, I didn’t mind a day of sleeping in and being home. The same still holds true as an adult.
I grew up slow.
By that, I mean, as I grew up, we moved slowly.
I look at the schedules my students have or the schedules of kids and it looks so different from my youth. In elementary school, I usually rode the bus home and I was there until the next day when I left for school. My mom made supper and we all ate together. Sometimes the older siblings were running off to practice or games, but we almost always ate supper around our dining room table.
My summers were quiet, too. Sometimes we explored the farm or watched too much TV or read book after book. But it was slow, with plenty of time and space for us to play in the hay loft or read through book lists with forty to fifty titles. It wasn’t perfection, although my memory tends to cast an overly rosy hue on the days of my childhood. However, it had the great beauty of not being rushed.
“Do you mind if we stop at the church for a couple of minutes?” I asked my nephew. “Why?” “To say hi to Jesus.” He said nothing. “Do you?” I said as I turned on my blinker. I asked again as I pulled into the parking lot. He remained silent.
We walked into the sanctuary, the heavy fragrance of incense making me close my eyes and breath deeply. For a few minutes, we knelt and then sat back in the pew. It was completely quiet and empty. The stillness in striking contrast with the usual full bustle of a Sunday morning Mass.
I turned to say something to my nephew and saw that he sat there with eyes closed and hands folded. And so I waited in the weight of silence until he suddenly turned to me and asked if we could go.
We spoke for a little bit about the silence, spent some time reading about St. John the Beloved on his feast day, and then I asked if we could pray for a friend of mine who was suffering from an illness that was lasting years. It was her birthday and she was on my heart and mind throughout the day. So I offered a brief intention for her and my sister before asking if he had anything to add.
When we started singing Amazing Grace, I recalled that this was very moving for me during my first prison retreat. It didn’t seem like it would be the case this time as those gathered sang semi-enthusiastically.
Then we approached the final verse and I was overwhelmed with a fierce love for these men and a great desire to spend eternity with them. I gazed around the room and saw the guy who reminded me of some of my students and heard the obnoxious men behind me who were chatting or making noises during parts of the Mass. I thought about the men who struck me as a little creepy in how attentive they were to all the young female volunteers. And I thought of one of my favorite prisoners standing beside me who has grown deeper and more devout since I met him four months ago. Thinking about all of the men–the ones I like and the ones I am uncertain about—I felt a great desire to praise God with them for all of eternity.
My heart had a burning desire to turn to my prison friend next to me and say, “_____________, I want to spend eternity with you!” But it seemed like I’d be coming on a little strong. And although it would maybe weird him out, he would probably just laugh and say, “Okay. Calm down, Trish. But, yeah, I know what you mean.” I didn’t tell him that, but everything in me wanted to do so. Instead, I just looked at these men and imagined all of us in Heaven.
Lord, I want to spend eternity with these prisoners.
I imagined us praising God forever and chatting about past memories. “Remember when you came into the prison and met us for the first time, Trish?” And I would tell them I did. We would laugh—that we met in prison of all places but that God used each of us to help draw the other toward Heaven. “Remember the terrible prison food?” And we would all rejoice that we would never, ever again eat that food.
“Why do you come in here to be with us and teach us about Jesus when you could do that outside?” one prisoner asked during a meal on the prison retreat.
“I do teach about Jesus to people out there.”
“Why do you come in here?”
A few months ago, I would have said it was because my sister started getting involved in prison ministry. Or that I became interested when a priest I had known for a long time became the prison chaplain. Yet neither of those things really answers the question of why I keep coming back.
“Because I find God in here,” I said. “I guess it is actually a selfish reason.”
He looked at me, a bit taken aback. “You find God in prison?”
It was a late meal and before too long, my niece was soon battling sleep. Eventually, it overtook her and she laid with her head on the restaurant table while everyone else chatted and finished their meal. Then, my brother picked her up and carried her to the vehicle to go home. I don’t know if she slept through the entire trip home or if she simply acted like it, exhaustion keeping her calm and still.
Oddly enough, it wasn’t until the next day that I found myself pondering that scene. The similarities made me think of how my parents would often carry me from the car into the house after a drive home from somewhere. At times, I was really in a deep sleep and other times I just wanted to act like it. I would be partially awake as I heard the vehicle turn off, but I wanted to be effortlessly transported into the house. Once I reached a certain age, my parents would wake me up and I would need to enter the house on my own two feet.
What was so nice about being carried? Perhaps it was the sense of being cradled tenderly or the chance to be lovingly provided for even as reaching ages of independence. I’m sure sometimes it was just laziness, but it was probably most often the joy of resting in the strength of another. At six or seven, I wouldn’t have phrased it that way, of course. Yet if I look at the desires of the human heart, I am certain that was a central focus.
As an adult, we have to re-learn the art of resting in the strength of another. We often don’t want to be carried, physically or emotionally. The ease that comes with being carried in childhood often vanishes as we become adults. The sense of being carried starts to feel awkward and uncomfortable, like how it would feel if someone picked us up and carried us over their shoulder like happened when we were kids. We need to find anew the gift of resting in the Lord’s strength.
“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.
I found this poem through a podcast that has a “poem of the day” that they read and analyze a bit. While I often forget, reading and learning more poetry follows a desire I have to immerse my life in more beauty.
My younger sister, parents, and I went and watched the movie Unplanned. It is the true story of Abby Johnson, who went from Planned Parenthood clinic director to pro-life advocate shortly after being called in to assist with an ultrasound guided abortion. I had heard many things about the movie, most of them about how sad it was or how it had the ability to change hearts and minds.
I thought it gave an accurate portrayal of the positives and negatives of both the pro-life and the pro-choice side. (Note: I use the terms pro-life and pro-choice because those are generally what each side wants to be called and if I want to engage in a genuine conversation, I don’t start off by alienating them over a title.) Not all pro-lifers are compassionate figures who reach out in love to assist women. Similarly, not all pro-choicers are concerned only about the money behind abortion. The situation is more complex than a simple good people vs. evil people.
During my time outside an abortion clinic in Pittsburgh, I saw some of each type of person depicted in the movie. I saw people who loved the men and women entering the clinic so much they endured hours of standing in the cold and being cruelly mocked by the pro-choice escorts. Yet I also saw pro-life people yelling at abortionists that they are baby killers who are going to burn in Hell or that the women will for having an abortion. While there, I encountered people who genuinely thought abortion was the best option for some women and thus volunteered their Saturday mornings to assist these women. I also met pro-choicers who were extremely hardened, who intentionally pushed into me when I tried to talk to the women, who stood in circles as they joked about physically harming those of us who were praying.
It is because of my time spent at the abortion clinic in Pittsburgh that I watched Unplanned and didn’t think it was as difficult to take in as some people had said it would be. No, I didn’t enjoy watching it, but I had already watched countless women, escorted by best friends, boyfriends, husbands, and parents, walk passed me and into an abortion clinic. I saw women slowly walk out of the clinic after they had their abortions. The reality is far harder to take in than watching a movie about it, as powerful as the movie may be.
Ben Rector came out with a song called “Old Friends” and it became a brief topic of conversation with a friend this summer. The song is catchy and provokes an immediate nostalgia within me. However, as I spoke with this friend, we talked about how we don’t have “old friends” and, as Ben Rector spends over four minutes articulating, you can’t make them now.
Granted, I have friends that I went to elementary, middle, and high school with, spending about twelve years in the same classrooms in my small rural public school in South Dakota. A few of them I even catch up with on occasion, but none of them know me through and through. I grew up out of town and my parents were careful not to play the chauffeur for my siblings and me. So I would see them at school, after school activities, and church if they were Catholic.
But we weren’t riding our bikes around town together in the summer or spending every waking minute swimming at the pool. For me, summers were spent at my parents’ farm, isolated from the rest of the town about five miles away. After school, I rode the bus home, preventing me from meeting someone up town at the popular hangout that served fried appetizers. Even when I did drive, I had a younger sister to provide transportation for and it was also generally assumed that I would head directly home after my extracurricular events concluded.
These aren’t bad things, per se, I just offer them to point to the fact that much of what Ben Rector sings about felt impossible for me to have experienced based on my situation. Most of my youthful memories are filled with my siblings. The past couple weeks were filled with pretty intense and intentional family togetherness time and when it ended, it caused me to feel that wave of nostalgia that reminded me of “Old Friends.”
My two older sisters are in religious life and the older one has an annual home visit for two weeks. As far as religious communities go, that is a generous amount of time yet it also constitutes the bulk of what our relationship looks like for the year. Short occasional phone calls and letters (which were non-existent on my part this year) aren’t the best ways to sustain a vibrant relationship. My other sister is a cloistered nun, meaning that she has answered God’s call to live as a hermit within community, essentially. My family visits her annually on a weekend when my other sister returns from the convent. While it varies year-to-year, this year I was able to have two hours alone with her to visit. As with the other sister, the bulk of my relationship is found in those brief moments.
After we had left the cloistered monastery and my other sister was dropped off at the airport, I felt a nostalgia for the past closeness of my youth. Naturally, as time passes, the family changes through new additions, losses, moves, and the like. When my brother married, his wife became an integral part of the family and my nephews and niece also changed the family dynamic. The vocation my older sisters have to religious life likewise shifts the family dynamic. While I am thankful for their vocations and the joy accompanying them, I still miss what could have been. Continue reading “Nostalgia”→