I love songs the way I love books. Stories, themes and symbolism can all be as powerfully communicated through 3 minutes of music as they can in a full-length novel. Lyrics do the telling, which is why the words are just as important to me as the sound of a song. While re-listening to some of my favorites from this year, I tried encapsulating what each one was about in a single word, and found that 3 ideas kept appearing. The first: epiphany. 


Epiphany is a sudden widening of your world. "Ghost of a King" by The Gray Havens widens into a new world altogether. It's a meeting that whirls into a supernatural journey and ends in a healing shock of water. The man in the song knows he's broken, but learns that the broken part of him belongs to the supernatural world he never knew existed. He discovers in immediate succession the impossible hopelessness of his state...

          you are a lonely soul 

          with a heart of stone that rakes against your thirsty bones

...and the impossible hope of newness.

          Where no chariot can take you,
          where the river meets the sand,
          there is water there that can quench your thirsty bones
          and make you well.


I recognize all the moments I've felt most alive in Beta Radio's "All at Once I Saw It All." It begins with homesickness for the unknown - a grasping at infinity. You reach and reach until the moment you glance back at time-bound reality. Then in the light of forever, life strikes you in an epiphany. 

          How rare and beautiful
          that we were ever even born.

It's as if the whole of life can briefly be seen "to scale," but of course that also includes a fearful awareness of its end. 

          The ghost parade a shroud,
          my body rearranged.

And you're left reaching for eternity only fiercer than before. 


I think Taylor Leonhardt expresses the bewilderment and joy of epiphany in her song "Everything" (and "Surprising Me" from the same album). I love the discovery of something so significant that it touches every part of living. You get to run from one thing to the next, watching it change in front of you, soaking in the novelty of re-orientation. 

          You flipped the whole thing around
          dropped the sky to the ground
          you are here with us now.

The end of this song brings me to the second overarching idea in my favorite songs this year: surety. To be continued in Part 2...

If my 5th-grade self could have peeked into a crystal ball, she would probably have viewed my math education career as unforgivably traitorous. The battle lines between Sylvia (age 10) and Dad (her math teacher) were firmly established. War was declared, battles fiercely fought, and the eventual peace treaties which were necessary for us to put in writing still exist in a storage box. I was firmly convinced I was "not a math person." Dad's natural abilities in math, plus the fact that he was my parent AND math teacher, put us at what seemed like hopeless enmity. I was outraged that he wouldn't just "tell me how to do it," but that he rather attempted to explain abstract mathematical concepts (which involved "extra" thinking and work) before slowly circling around the shortcut or algorithm (which was all I cared about). I resisted learning the concepts because they were difficult, resulting in misuse of the easy algorithms because I didn't understand what they meant or how to apply them sensibly. 

On the other hand, I knew I was good at reading. It came so much more easily and was actually enjoyable. Entire chapter book series were eaten up in a week or two, and I remember the day the children's librarian couldn't find a single book on World War II from the juvenile section that I hadn't read. My piano teacher was indignant when this 10-year-old brought Jane Eyre to read while sitting on the couch through my sister's lesson. She refused to believe I was actually comprehending it, and she was partly right. I read books that were too difficult for me, picking out chunks of understanding, but knowing a lot was going over my head. Those books went in the library bag anyway because I had the confidence that if I kept reading them, I would eventually get it. 

It took until junior year of high school for the realization to break that practicing math eventually led to mastery too!

In college, I concentrated in language arts and math education with a mission to prove that "not a math person" and "not a reading person" are myths. Just like piano skills are first learned by practice and then enjoyed, so math and reading skills are practiced, mastered and then enjoyed. Sometimes natural skills enable enjoyment in the beginning, and that often motivates further practice. But so many people operate under the groundless assumption that just because they don't naturally enjoy something, that means they never can. 

That might sound painfully obvious, but it goes against a deeply established narrative in our culture. I encounter it constantly in my line of work and sometimes with my students. That's right, the kids I teach on a day-to-day basis are not the ones primarily posing this. Their parents, in email correspondence, conferences, phone calls and even friendly chatter, echo each other with remarkably similar comments: "I can't help them with their math homework," "I was never good at math," "I have to send them to ______ for those questions," "I'm not a math person." 

Faculty lounge lunches carry similar refrains, ranging from "I could never teach math" to "I can't cook" or "I'm not an exercise person." My co-workers were amazed when I told them the story of my dad's long mission to overcome his distaste for tomatoes - now one of his favorite foods. We all know people are born with likes and abilities, but it was absolutely foreign to them that someone could choose additional ones. I remember feeling the same way in college when a professor shared the story of his mom's transformation from a stiff, awkward person to a "great hugger" simply because she decided to practice physical warmth with others. At that point, I had learned my lesson about math, but never transferred the lesson to other parts of my seemingly static personality. 

Over time, I've slowly tried to adjust the wording around my deficits. Instead of "I don't have an artistic bone in my body," it's "I've never spent much time drawing or sketching." Rather than "I kill every plant I've ever owned," it's "I want to learn how to grow things." I was delighted to visit my friend recently and hear the story of her "plant hospital." Even though she never had what she considered a green thumb, she decided to pay closer attention to her succulents each day to find out what made them thrive. After moving the pots around and trying different amounts of watering, the greenery on her windowsill looked lovely and healthy, and she had the wonderful feeling of having learned something new. 

Now I have some projects of improvement in my life. Of course the goal is not to become a master in all the areas of deficit. For some things, changing my attitude and language is enough. I realized for the first time this year that hating winter and complaining about being cold has been a hugely unnecessary energy drain my whole life. Why not train my brain and body to withstand the cold? Why not intentionally look for and appreciate the strikingly beautiful elements of winter? For some deficits, I'm simply working to become more proficient. And a few areas - those that I believe will enrich my life and those around me most - will be long-term efforts to master. But even if I never reach those goals, I know life will be enriched by reaching for them, knowing that they're not "not" possible. 

Skills to improve: 
gardening
shopping 
cooking
decorating
hosting guests
listening
physical affection
rising early
hair care
art
crafting
event planning
house maintenance 
giving gifts
correspondence
musical accompaniment 

There has been a steady stream of sexual molestation accounts in the news reports for as long as I can remember. Commentary of coworkers and acquaintances follows each one - the main theme being "these monsters aren't fit to live." They use language to position the offenders as far away from the human race as possible, often calling for capital punishment. And this is all just.

But for some reason, over the past year the news reports and subsequent responses haven't just passed through my mind as ever-present tragedies. They've stuck and started to aggregate so that each new repercussion strikes a gong with all the horrors of the previous ones echoing together. In January, I watched Rachael Denhollander's victim impact statement which had a lot of circulation on social media. It was her contrasting note of justice joined with mercy that made me realize the weight of horrors is not just made up of the abuses, but of our culture's response. It is a justice completely stripped of mercy.

When I see an abuser, I do see someone who should receive, in Rachael Denhollander's words, "the greatest measure of justice available," but I also see a suffering human being. Only the most crushing emptiness drives a person to seek such violent stimulation. In no way does this excuse his sins or unpayable debts, but it's a reality the culture omits.

Visualize the whole life of the abuser. No one develops the capacity for such evil acts in a sudden moment. It's a process that begins with sins not so far removed from ours. He seeks compulsively to fill his emptiness with entertainment, pornography, masturbation. These gradually sink the poisoned teeth of addiction deeper and deeper. Older forms of escape no longer give satisfaction. New forms are needed to arouse and the addiction is a sickness that demands to be fed. Level by level, he descends by increments of violence too small to deter him. He is disgusted by himself, but addiction desensitizes the disgust enough to keep being fed.

In his descent, I see the pattern of my own sins. He's not some monster of a different class of creature. I was born with the same emptiness, the same compulsion to mask it with anything in my reach. I've fallen level by level into disgusting sins, and am only removed from the abuser by degrees. As Pope Francis says in The Name of God is Mercy, "Their fall could have been mine."

I know my weakness is such that I could become an abuser. Only because people around me have allowed the grace of God to work through them have I been protected and restrained. My emptiness was softened by the love I received, not by me. My conscience was well-formed, not by me. My circumstances were wisely hedged, not by me. Even with all these gifts and more, I fall repeatedly. It does no good to stand on this higher ground and claim superiority. The ground of grace is what holds me higher, not myself.

So with Rachael Denhollander, I look on these miserable, utterly evil child molesters with pity, not as "other," but as I might be. And I'm not afraid to proclaim that God's mercy reaches even so low.

A year ago, I thought 2017 would see additions to the "Lessons from the Convent" blog posts. Now I come to the end of December with difficulty grasping any clear lessons at all. I have glimmers and hints of possible ones, but certainly not enough to write a well-formed post about them. Six months ago, it was all I could do to say the prayer, "I believe you have a lesson for me in this." I suppose a new series of posts called "Vague Hints at Lessons from My Roommate's Couch" would be the best I could muster.

Yes, the devil took some swings at me this year. But this is the counterattack:

Thank you, God, for the time I spent in the convent. Thank you for the superior you allowed to be over me. Thank you for the treasured soul of each teacher I didn't understand. Thank you for the work are doing in me that I can't see. Thank you for the work you have given me to do in the moment. Thank you for my boss and colleagues. Thank you for the awesome design with which you created each student and their parents. Thank you for the singleness wherein I can glorify you. Thank you for the body you gave me to experience the beauty of your natural creation. Thank you that every temporal thing I truly need is provided in my scattered possessions. Thank you for the work you are preparing for me.

Thank you for redeeming every sin and sorrow, no matter how deep. 
O come, let us sing to the Lord;
    let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;

    let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the Lord is a great God,

    and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;

    the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,

    and the dry land, which his hands have formed.
O come, let us worship and bow down,
    let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
For he is our God,

    and we are the people of his pasture,
    and the sheep of his hand.


 

"If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you." - John 15:19
   As a new Salesian aspirant, I'm experiencing the "not of the world" which consecrated religious express overtly. With vows of poverty, chastity & obedience, distinctive clothing, daily work & life in community - "set-apartness" is externally very visible. The reason I'm drawn to wear a religious habit is to make Christ's love plain. However, although this is one practically with a habit, it's one in practice by every Christian who lives differently.

   The poverty and detachment of consecrated religious may seem like pious add-ons to Chritianity, but in reality they manifest clearly what all Christians are called to live daily. Colossians 3:2 says, "Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth." Religious brothers and sisters, by legally owning nothing of their own, are expressing the Christian attitude toward all temporal wealth. Even Christians who are wealthy by the world's standards shouldn't consider money as their own treasure or security. Detachment should be practiced even with the items in one's own possession. Vowed religious and laity both have open palms, not clenching to anything worldly. But by the open, empty palms of the religious we see more clearly the shape of the open palms of Christians holding their possessions loosely.

   The vow of chastity is lived out by a few in celibacy, but the practice of the virtue of chastity is the vocation of every Christian. The Catechism defines it as "the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being" (#2337). How can celibates have integrated sexuality? There are some thoughts on this already in Lesson on Marriage from the Convent, but in sum, the purpose of our sexuality is to physically symbolize the mutual self-giving love of the Trinity. We have Trinitarian love stamped on our bodies to foreshadow the perfect union of Heaven. Celibates witness that the shadow doesn't fulfill, but that only the real, original divine love fulfills. This reminds us that a Christian husband and wife don't ultimately seek fulfillment in each other. Just like the celibate, they depend completely on God's love together. By the dependence on God by the unmarried chaste, we see more clearly the dependence on God by the married chaste.

   What does the vow of obedience have to show us about Christian laity? In the Salesian order, obedience is lived out by going to serve in whatever ministry position is assigned by the superior. This is radically putting aside personal ambition and having enough trust in God to be content in every circumstance. But again, radical trust isn't only practiced by a few people in some kind of higher echelon of Christianity. Due to the stripped-away nature of religious life, it's more recognizable, but St. Paul is clear that every follower of Christ is called to this. "And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" (Colossians 3:17). 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. I can do all things in him who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:11-13).

   If I profess the three vows as a consecrated religious someday, I hope my life can remind the baptized that worldly things are temporal and unfulfilling in themselves, calling them back to Christ as everything. To the unbaptized, I hope I can be a bright sign pointing to the radical life of the born-again - these people surrounded by worldly things, but moving among them as free people, not grasping or choked.
"I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away." - 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

There are often moments I feel I've just stepped out of a time machine and can't believe I've arrived here - as if my 12-year-old self is looking at a strange future self. With two weeks before I enter the convent, there have been several of these "how did I get here?" moments. This is my attempt to answer that question for the sake of that 12-year-old and perhaps any friends who are wondering the same thing.

I saw religious sisters for the first time at a youth retreat and remember thinking what a great service they gave with their lives. I had a gravitational attraction to them along with a sinking feeling of inevitability. The thought was pushed out of my mind or at least relegated to a far corner until junior year of high school when I started commuting to classes at the community college. The church was on the way, the side door was always open, and I made a habit of stopping in to visit the Real Presence. Here is where my desire for God grew, imperceptibly, in quiet stillness before the Eucharist. The universe was posed like a mad, giant, swirling question, but that little tabernacle held the answer.

How can I describe time spent with God? Sometimes I'd just float in my amazement, too big to fit in my head, of his plan for creating and saving humanity out of love - marvel at how all the pieces fit together so unexpectedly yet so naturally. Sometimes I'd read the Scripture and laugh at an inside joke between us or realize clearly something I always vaguely knew. I'd bring the smallest irritations to have them blown open as grand opportunities to further the kingdom. And there's nothing like the realizations of deeply rooted personal sinfulness followed by immediate outpourings of mercy. Sometimes I'd sit in boredom, head bowed from fatigue more than reverence. But that time spent with God fixed me on him, placed the primacy of his kingdom on my heart, and made me fall in love with him.

Someone in love doesn't care where they go or what they do so long as their lover is there. They have a boldness to go on adventures they might never attempt otherwise. Those instances where God's love gave me courage to say something controversial, do something difficult or uncomfortable, step out on a limb for his and others' sake have been the most joyful, exhilarating moments of my life. A religious sister finds strength in the chapel every morning to go out on the limb of the mission field, only to return to the sturdy trunk of the Real Presence in the evening. The Eucharist is truly my home and that's why I have such peace going to the convent.

He's Here

I've never had my own baby, but I've had 8 little siblings. Over time, those experiences have interwoven themselves into Christmas meditations. The birth of a new baby is a completely unique occurrence. Everything changes when you see that tiny person. You get the feeling that, even though you've spent months waiting for this baby, in all that time you had no idea what a life-changing event would actually happen. There's an exhilarating sense that a person is now here in the world who wasn't here just a few moments ago.

But the weirdest part is that you know he was here a few moments ago. That small, red, squishy human was present in the room just before birth. He was present all those times we were going about life as usual. And even though we technically knew about his existence, that baby's presence was hidden.

Do you know the feeling when you discover something that makes you rethink everything that happened before? That moment when you realize the mouse had really been Pettigrew the whole time, or that Jared had been living in a colorless world, or that Darth Vader was really Luke's father? That's the feeling I get when a new baby is born. I suddenly see the past 9 months in a different light, because all that time I didn't really know who was with us. And when I think about the next 9 months, I know that the rest of my life will never be anywhere close to the same.

When Christ comes again, I imagine that we'll get that feeling multiplied by ten thousand. Now we know and feel Christ's hidden presence on earth, but what a revelation it will be when we see him face to face! Maybe we'll look back at our earthly lives and wonder how all that time we lived in the presence of such immense love and power and still went on with "life as usual." We'll be overwhelmed by the knowledge that our lives are so changed - that they were changed before, but we never understood how much. 

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