I promise, I promise that I will not forever be talking about prison on here. At some point, the students will make an appearance again. It simply seems that the most striking things are happening in prison.
The other night, we were following a winding conversation that started from Sunday’s Gospel. We discussed being the one sheep that wanders away and how the generous love of the Father always seeks us out. One of the inmates reflected on how God’s love sometimes doesn’t seem gentle, as He protects us from worse things. He compared it to an experience he had as a father where he had to stop his child from running into traffic but that action made the child cry. Yet it was necessary in order to save the child from greater danger or even death. It was likened to prison, a place I’ve frequently heard them refer to as a place that saved them while also grumbling against it.
Another inmate listened to this and then quoted from memory, “The Father disciplines the one He loves.”
And that other inmate just nodded his head and said, “Thank God.”
I was recently introduced to the Polish poet Anna Kamienska. As I walked the streets of Rome, post-crepe from a nearby shop, I read a poem she wrote about St. Edith Stein. It was providential because I have rather recently become quite intrigued with the life of Edith Stein. By all accounts, we have little in common and yet I can identify with her unasked for period of waiting for her desires to be fulfilled. I can only ask that I endure all future waiting with the hope and attentiveness to the present moment that she did.
So I read the words about Edith Stein, someone whose life overlapped Anna Kamienska’s, and wondered about this poet. I like poetry that uses surprising yet fitting word choice, poetry that paints rich pictures, poetry that points to a deeper truth in a perhaps unconventional way. I don’t like poetry that confuses me or seems to not make sense or offers no beauty. Reading through Anna Kamienska’s selected works in Astonishments, I have found several poems that I believe I will ponder, appreciate, and re-read during the upcoming days and weeks.
The one I’d like to direct your attention to is called “Gratitude”–something I am certain I will need to return to once the fall semester starts all-too-soon.
While personal difficulties can be genuine, regardless of their large-scale importance, sometimes it is helpful to put them in perspective. The Lord cares about what I care about and so I try to be careful to not dismiss hurt feelings, stress, or joy simply because it isn’t life altering. Yet when I do feel overwhelmed or a bit shaken, it can help to focus on the aspects for which I can be grateful.
There are two recent examples that come to mind. The first is my living situation. Currently, I am in the process of moving into a new house, but I am not quite moved in yet. Over the past couple weeks, I have stayed mostly at my parents’ house in the country and sometimes with friends who live in town. It isn’t that difficult of a life, but the slight upheaval of transitional homes adds a bit of extra stress to the day-to-day life.
Yet when I was sharing this stress with a few different people over the last couple of days, I was struck by the fact that I am not homeless. In fact, it is the opposite. I have an abundance of homes–there is the home I am working to move into, my parents’ home where I have my own bedroom when I stay there, and friends who generously offer a room to me when needed. The added stress I feel is real, but the things I can be grateful for far surpass the inconvenience.
Three things I’m thankful for today:
-The song “Kings and Queens” by Mat Kearney–especially the line “Richer than Solomon with you by my side” as he expertly blends Scripture into his songs
-Weekend food leftovers to power me through the start of another week
-Books: owning them, reading them, and anticipating their arrival
There is something about gratitude that shifts the perspective. A few years ago, I was in the practice of writing down things for which I was thankful. They were often small, inconsequential things. Yet, even now, when I look back at those pages in my notebook, I smile at the glimpse into my heart and life during that time.
A random sampling from my gratitude journal: 3. Principal observation on a movie day
5. Peace after expressing frustration
29. Gusts of wind that make crunchy leaves trip down the road
37. The post-run feeling of health (following the post-run feeling of death)
59. Stretching out in bed at night
69. Eyes crinkled in laughter
80. Heavy hearts sharing the burden through conversation
133. Answered novenas in unhoped for ways
172. Solo supper with Grandma
176. My students telling me which gifts of the Holy Spirit they think I live out
241. Laughter with students instead of going insane
Some of the events I remember. For others, I’m not quite certain to what I was referring, but there is a beauty in seeing what moved my heart to express gratitude. Thankfulness is one of those things that doesn’t quite make sense if there is no God. Who else can I thank for the peace I feel after settling an argument? Or for the wind that causes leaves to swirl around on the ground? These would be mere observations or fleeting thoughts unless they could be expressed to someone responsible for them.Continue reading “Gratitude on a January Day”→
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”→
Tastes and preferences change over time, for which I am grateful. When I was younger, I didn’t like spicy food like hot sauce or horseradish sauce. Over the past couple years, I’ve started to enjoy sprinkling (sparingly) some fiery sauce over my eggs or potatoes or whatever might seem good. The surprising craving for horseradish came as a result of an encounter with a Blue Apron recipe I tried. After roasting broccoli and potatoes, the recipe called for a creamy horseradish sauce to coat the vegetables. Since then, I’ve been randomly working the interesting flavor into different meals.
As taste buds change, so also personal preferences change. What used to be unattractive, has changed over time into something which draws my heart. St. Mary Magdalene is one person who fits into this category. I’ve met several people over the years who have loved her and for many of those years, I was a bit confused. The people seemed to have nothing in common with this well-known sinner-saint, yet they were attracted to her life and witness. I can now number myself among those who love St. Mary Magdalene. While I don’t identify very closely with the particulars of her life, I identify very much with her heart.
She was a woman who was forgiven much and loved much. In an act of total self-surrender, she broke her jar of precious ointment and poured it on the feet of Jesus. Wiping His feet with her hair, she laid her entire life before Our Lord. In exchange, she was one of His closest followers, one who sat at His feet to listen to His stories and who was driven by grief to weep at His tomb after the crucifixion. In her need to be close to Him, she was sent as “the apostle to the Apostles” and was the first to witness the resurrected Christ.
St. Mary Magdalene loved with a love that was all-encompassing. That need, that desire to be a total gift for the Lord is something that resonates within my own heart. Earlier this summer while on retreat, I prayed with that passage of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus. In a way that it hadn’t before, the words of the Gospel moved my heart and invited me to share more deeply in the relationship Mary had with Our Lord. Continue reading “A Heart Like St. Mary Magdalene”→
Do you know what it takes to get a compliment from a senior? You keep them after class under the threat of a detention and listen to them try to get out of it.
Some students are just harder to love than others. It isn’t impossible to love them, but the effort that goes into desiring to love them is significantly more. So when a student that fits in this category pushes matters too far, I have to reflect more about the consequences that behavior should incur. Because part of me wants to go all out and give them a harsh consequence. The cumulation of past difficulties with that student or the tension of the particular day must all be weighed to guarantee that the punishment given fits that individual crime.
Yet I’m certain that just as some students are harder by nature to love, some teachers must fall into the same camp. I can definitely acknowledge that I’m not the most loved teacher and I am pretty convinced that I never will be. That doesn’t generally bother me because I’ve experienced life in a rather similar state. High school and college didn’t find me as the most popular person around; therefore, I didn’t expect something magical to happen when I started teaching.
Despite not being the most loved, I do find comfort in being loved by some. As an introvert, that is all I really need anyway–a few people who see under the often reserved exterior. Those glimpses of love and appreciation from students does far more to boost me than they know. At the end of the school year, a student stopped in with a present for me and she thanked me for my patience over the past year. A few students wrote appreciation letters when given the chance for teacher appreciation week. Another student chose to write his own addition to the journal entries I assigned.
It was cold and we were all bundled up, but I made a concentrated effort to not mention the coldness. I had only been outside for a few moments and this man had no home to seek refuge in against the frigid weather. My perspective of the cold was altered in the presence of a man who stood before me after successive days on the streets.
Tony was tall and kind. In situations where he easily could have been bitter, he chose to not be. I was with a group of pro-life university students and he never once made me feel privileged or self-indulged. One Saturday, a student bought Tony a coffee and I watched him graciously accept it, even as his cold hands shakily caused the coffee to spill on his fingers. My face was etched with the concern and sadness I felt as I watched the scene unfold, but Tony sought to comfort me in this situation. He told me to not be sad because even in his difficult situation he was still happy. That momentary exchange made such a significant impression on me.
In a couple of hours, I would return to my dorm room after a filling breakfast and Tony didn’t attempt to guilt me for the luxuries I had in life. Rather, he came to the cold streets of Pittsburgh to spend time with us. He accepted money or coffees when offered, but he said he didn’t like to look homeless. We wouldn’t see him pushing a cart around or laden down with luggage. Dressed in the warm clothes appropriate for the cold, he didn’t want to accept extra things that he would have to carry with him during the day.
Tony was the first human face I saw of homeless in a personal way. I heard him talk about how fearful he had been early one morning when the intense cold made it difficult for him to get out of the chair in an abandoned house that he had accidentally fallen asleep in. The reality of not being able to move for a couple of hours shook him as he faced the reality that he might die alone in the cold someday. Yet he was also very happy and enjoyed being around a bunch of young college students. He wasn’t near us because we always gave him things or because we were popular in the area. Tony enjoyed being with us and some of the students became his friends. Continue reading “What That Homeless Man Needs Is What I Need”→
Like a mother who gushes with affection over a sleeping child, I often feel particularly fond for my students when they are taking tests. They seem so quiet, so studious, and so devoted to the task at hand that I find myself gazing at their little, intent faces and being so thankful to be a teacher.
In all honesty, that isn’t the only moment I am thankful to teach, but it is one continually recurring theme. Moments of quiet, moments of humor, and moments of profound learning make me grateful to teach. The inside jokes we share and the relationships that are built over time make me thankful to interact with so many high school students. When I am able to step back from the late papers, endless questions, and constant repetition of directions, I see young people seeking. Seeking just like I am–for happiness, for joy, for love, for peace, for life. When I see that perspective, I am grateful for the time to be with them, accompanying them for a short while on their journey to eternity.
It makes me wonder if I have any type of impact. This little heart inside of me longs so much for a great mission. And then I remember that I teach. I interact with young people daily and if that isn’t the rich soil for a great mission, I don’t know what is. Grades, dress codes, and attitudes can make me forget the mission that is in front of me every day. Yet every now and then, I will get a glimpse of what God might be doing in souls. I see that perhaps my littleness might be in the midst of something great right now and completely unaware of it all.
Still, the heart longs to know a difference is being made. Thankfully, God gives me reminders in little moments. There is enough to assure me that it isn’t for nothing and yet little enough so that it doesn’t all go to my head. It is found in class camaraderie when one class writes me up for a detention when I return a little late for class. I see it in a small group of women who enter into conversation about pursuing true beauty. It is experienced in random after school conversations and hearing that my class is teaching something. The look on some students faces as we tackle the problem of evil and honestly question how a good God could allow awful things to happen. Brief moments, easy to pass by, but ones that remind me that something is happening here and now.
Yesterday, I stood on a busy street holding a sign.
It was Respect Life Sunday and my town has an annual Life Chain that stretches alongside the busiest road in the state. While I don’t participate absolutely every year, I try to go when I am able. Nothing about the situation was new.
Except my response.
In college, I spent many hours in front of an abortion clinic an hour from my school. The experiences there shaped my heart and the way I approach being pro-life. Some of the most difficult moments, the ones of heart-wrenching, soul-crushing sorrow, were on Highland Avenue. An intersection in town where it always felt a bit chillier than anywhere else. When I think about hardcore pro-life activism, I place myself back on the frontlines, where life and death literally hung in the balance.
On that busy street yesterday, it was not like my experiences in college. The sun came out and warmed my face. As a whole, the reactions from motorists were favorable. Many people waved, honked their horns, gave us a thumbs up, or even yelled a kind greeting to us. Children’s faces were pressed against windows as they watched the long line of people hold signs on the sidewalk. Overall, the experience was pleasant.
Two things stand out in my mind. Interestingly, the emotions are interwoven, although they seem to be contradictory. One is the image of a couple of police cars driving past our lines. An officer in one vehicle waved at us and the other gave us a thumbs up. For some reason, this moved my heart. Men in uniform, charged with protecting citizens and enforcing laws, were giving us a gesture of support. My heart filled with gratitude. In addition to the officers, the predominantly positive response from the passers-by was a cause for rejoicing.
Yet intermingled with this thankfulness was the realization that abortion still happens. Lives are still taken, hearts are still wounded, and skills of healing are still misused for destruction. Surrounded by young and old alike, I was grateful for the pro-life movement. Years ago I would have mourned for the children only. Yesterday, I was mourning for mothers and fathers, friends and family, doctors and nurses, everyone impacted by abortion in any way.
A woman drove by and yelled at us that everyone has the right to choose.