Calm in the Chaos: Finding peace this Advent

Oh, Advent. That glorious, quiet time where we have all the good intentions in the world of unplugging from the world, waking up two hours early to squeeze in some extra prayer, where the children are calm the gingerbread houses are perfectly decorated, daily Advent reflections are shared around the dinner table as the Advent candles gently burn, watchful for the birth of our Savior.

(Aaaaand dreaming has ended. Please take a moment to return back to the present moment. I’ll wait.)

Here we are. Advent 2016. Which effectively means we are in the middle of Advent following a tumultuous, painful election season on all sides, with social media begging for our attention, five-million-and-one things to do before five o’clock tonight, our buzzing phones beckoning us closer like the sirens in the Odyssey, and the Christmas shopping to be done. Where is the refuge? Where is this quiet, reflective, peaceful Advent we so longed for?

There is good news: it is not too late to transform our Advent season. We can make that happen. We can make these next few weeks beautiful, and inspiring, and hopeful, and watchful. And maybe even quiet. Most of all, we can prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ, to celebrate the day of His birth. Yes, even in the busyness, in between the batches of cookies and elementary school Holiday concerts and finals for those of us school folk.

I sit here typing this during my finals week as an exhausted second-year PA student in medical school that just a few hours ago had fallen asleep on my living room floor while studying. Despite the busyness, I feel, well, full. Full of love, of joy, and hope. (Also, caffeine. Very full of caffeine, which is accounting for what my hypochondriac self assumes to be heart palpitations and perhaps a heart attack. Stand by.)

Advent was a beautiful time in my missionary days with the Fellowship of Catholic University Student a few years ago. An hour each morning in prayer and adoration, frequenting mass throughout the week, a daily rosary, scripture reading with students, leading bible studies and prayer groups and mentoring sessions… What a gift it was to have the time to pray! And pray frequently! And daily! And unhurriedly!

During my second and last year as a missionary, I frequently wondered about what life would look like on “the other side.” When prayer was not a mandated part of my day from my boss, when spiritual reading was not part of professional development, when a church was not just down the block and always open for prayer.

I would sit, basking in the glow of Jesus and a newly-build chapel, thoroughly confused that Jesus would call me away from this beautiful job with built-in mass attendance time. Granted, it was a two-person decision to leave staff with FOCUS. I had had the desire to go to PA school long before I became a missionary, and I was thrilled to had been accepted to my top-choice school. It was Jesus who confirmed and encouraged my dream.

He and I proceeded on a new journey as a PA student, where the semester credit-count climbs to twenty-plus, my stress level is teetering around somewhere around “I think I need a horse tranquilizer,” and free time has dwindled to moments of enjoying a coffee after mass with my boyfriend or reading (around two pages) before falling asleep. (And skiing. Because Colorado.)

I’ve encountered that it’s not about the amount of time spent in prayer and silence. It’s about the creation of time for prayer; about the intention to step back from the world. Realistically, I could not drive the twenty minutes to the nearest adoration chapel and spend an hour in prayer each day and still expect to pass my classes. This is a new season of life, and I need to embrace the change.

If you’re like me, the guilt of not having hours and hours to give in prayer each day can sometimes chew at you. But the thing is, I should not be living like a cloistered nun- not talking with anyone and praying intensely nearly all hours of the day- because I am not a cloistered nun. Thinking I needed to do that would be like me thinking I needed to be working at my local auto mechanic shop every day because I see that some individuals spend their days as mechanics. Trust me, you do not want me as your mechanic, and also, God has very clearly called me elsewhere.

Instead, I’ve looked at daily prayer as a priority, but not an all-day-event. (For the record, I’m talking about intentional, quiet time in prayer and reading scripture.) It’s looking at my schedule for the next day and saying, “When am I going to pray?”, not “Hmm, I wonder if I can fit it in.” Prayer, in busy lives, doesn’t just happen. I’m going to guess you don’t have large swaths of time in your day where you twiddle your thumbs wondering what.to.do. with all your free time. It must be intentional, and that means knowing when I’m going to pray the next day, because otherwise, let’s be honest, I won’t do it. I’ll find a thousand excuses to do other things; things that are good, but not as great, as uninterrupted prayer.

This prayer time doesn’t need to be an hour long. It doesn’t need to be in a chapel following daily mass and feeling the presence of all the angels of heaven around you. I do make sure to get to adoration once a week. However, most of the time, it’s begrudgingly waking up to an unrelenting alarm and squinting at the blue-light glow of the daily scripture readings on my iPhone in a darkened room. I take ten minutes (on my good days), to start my day with scripture and prayer. That’s it. It’s not my perfect, beautiful holy hour with an hour to pray and journal and reflect on the meaning of life that I once had. I lay in bed, I read, I chat with Jesus, I listen to what He says, I invite Him to join me on my day, and away we go.

He has called me to be a student right now. He has called you to be where you are right now. In our occupations, we continue to serve God and love Him in our work. This could be the subject of an entirely new post. For now, I’ll give the cliff notes version: Work = A form of Prayer.

In my attempts to find quiet this Advent, I’ve focused on what I’m feeding my soul. If I ate chocolate cake all day long, I would end up with the most monstrous sugar crash this side of the Rocky Mountains. Similarly, I’ve made a little ‘Advent diet’ for myself. Netflix- gone during the week. Social media time- markedly down. Reading articles that only make me angry- done. Swapping out music for Father Mike Schmitz podcasts during my workouts on the elliptical- … sometimes (I like to jam). Car radio- on much less frequently. Spiritual reading at breakfast time, and Advent reflection book time replacing my standard bedtime internet scrolling.

It’s all so doable. Not easy, and not always comfortable, but I love the outcome. I’ve noticed deeper relationships, especially with God. He speaks in the silence. I want to be able to hear Him, and not drown him out with all the things I think are just soooo much more important and immediate. I want to nourish my soul with healthy things. I am doing my daily job (studying away as a student), but keeping Jesus at the center. I invite you to join me on these last two weeks of Advent, making small steps for big conversion.

God bless!

Catie

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The Voice (Not the TV Show)

Lent is a time of renewing our minds, bodies, and spirits to be more fully united with our Lord. If my Lenten season could be visualized, it would be me sitting in a room, free from distractions, with Jesus as my quiet companion. Few words are spoken, because the conversations from heart to heart are much more powerful. You know that ‘look’ that couples that are so in love give to each other? The one where you know there are millions of thoughts and infinite amount of love being exchanged, yet nothing is said. I think of lent like that. That stillness, where finally, there is nothing left between Christ and me. Where our hearts can finally just be present, poured out to one another, whispering “I love you” without uttering a word.

Back in June, I started to make a conscious effort to free myself from distractions. Limiting my time on Facebook, Netflix, and my phone topped the list. Spending more time in solitude, with just my prayers and Jesus, came next. By the time I left for my mission trip in Puerto Rico in December, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of how media and its distractions can so easily seep into every vein of my day if I don’t carefully guard my mind and actions. I knew this was a problem for the world, but it wasn’t until returning to America that I saw this in a greater light.

I’ve actually been formulating this post in my mind ever since I returned from my mission trip a month ago. The culture shock those I was traveling with and myself experienced upon arriving home was intense. Before going back to our hometowns, our group went to the last few days of a fantastic conference called SEEK held at a luxury hotel in Nashville. We went from slits in open windows as our ‘air conditioning’ in the 85-degree heat to a resort complete with indoor waterfalls and boat tours through the complex. When I arrived, I was thrilled just to find out we had soap at the sink.

Simplicity in my desires; this is something I learned on mission. When material things are taken and all that remains is the relationships you have, it’s amazing how quickly the desire for the things of this world fade away. Questions start forming in your mind: Why did I even want this in the first place? Where is this happiness coming from, even though I have few material goods with me?

Roaming the halls at SEEK, I was dizzy with distraction overload, and it wasn’t just because there were 10,000 people at the conference. It was because everywhere I turned, there was an advertisement, or someone looking on their phone, or a television, or a speaker blaring music. These things aren’t bad in and of themselves- in fact, they can be used to accomplish a lot of good. However, coming from a very simple life to this, it was obvious to me just how hypnotized Americans are by anything that can distract us from the present moment.

With how much negativity is spinning in the world right now, it’s no wonder we would want to find a coping mechanism. I’m just afraid that as a culture we’re attempting to block out our hurt rather than acknowledge it. We know we deserve better because there is this voice in our minds constantly inviting us to live joy. Even those who desire misery desire it because in some twisted sense it pleases them. Instead of searching for the truth, we search for a fix.

The quick fixes drown out that voice that says, “You are made for more. You are made for love.” Instead, the fix leads us to hear, “You need more. You are not enough.” Slowly, we begin to dig a hole, diving darker and further away from the light that calls us to life. We toss meaningless things on top, things that block out the rays that call us to live joyfully, because it is comfortable down here. It is dependable. Alcohol, parties, sex, new computers, bigger houses, solitaire on our iPhone 6… It piles up, while we keep digging down. Trying to ignore the emptiness, we continue to dig, finding comfort that that little voice telling us to aspire to greater things is farther away and harder to hear.

Eventually, whether it be in six months or sixty years, we realize we’ve just dug our own graves and buried ourselves in things that will be tomorrow’s garbage.

As a nation, we are killing ourselves, condemning ourselves to hell, by distraction and comfort. I realize this is a bold claim, but I’m willing to stand behind it. If everyone is six feet under, how are we to properly share the love we were created for? How are we to experience the community and grace God destined us for? These cheap imitations of authentic love will snap just as quickly as a knockoff purse strap. It may look like the real deal at first, but it won’t be able to hold up under pressure. The devil isn’t pulling us to Gehenna blatantly. He’s bringing us all there by the hours we spend watching funny cat videos on YouTube instead of cleaning the dishes while our spouse picks up the kids, or ignoring our roommate who just needs a hug after they’ve had a rough day. Slowly, we lose sight of charity. We lose sight of truth. We start making claims like, “There is no truth, it is all relative to what you want to believe,” because it’s near impossible to see God’s work after years of shutting him out.

At some point, underneath all that gunk, it becomes silent. All the things we tried to fill ourselves with have drowned out the voice that reminded us of the love we deserved. We feel lonely, left in a dark world, so separated from the light that we’ve forgotten what authentic joy looks like. Instead of feeling filled like we thought we would, we feel smothered, trapped. Something isn’t right, but we can’t remember why.

But then, in that quiet, that voice we had long forgotten trickles down. It winds its way around the things we were suffocating ourselves with. It swirls around past the five seasons of Grey’s Anatomy we watched in one weekend, past the parties we spent guzzling alcohol until the room spun, past every single time we pulled out our phone to mindlessly scroll through Buzzfeed in the Target checkout line instead of greeting the cashier, past the guy we’ve been sleeping with to try to alleviate some sort of emptiness. It is there in our loneliness and asphyxiation we hear a faint whisper, calling us, telling us it is time to climb out, reminding us of the love we deserve, the love so many Americans feel alienated from.

Yes, it is scarier above ground. Disasters can strike, and we feel vulnerable and exposed. Yet, there’s a strange draw to life above the dirt. The light from the sun permeates our every move. There is true beauty. Despite the suffering, there is joy. Even though the threat of being hurt is enormous, the opportunity of love is greater.

This lent, do something braver than just giving up chocolate. Give up distractions, dig yourself out from the things that are truly separating you from Christ. Be courageous to face the light, without your comfortable gadgets by your side. Don’t protect yourself when there isn’t anything to be protected from- Jesus is only love.

I’ll leave with a beautiful quote from C.S. Lewis. I encourage you to meditate on it tonight:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.

In His love,

Catie

Mission: Puerto Rico

A few weeks ago, I returned from co-leading a mission trip to Puerto Rico. Alongside me were two other missionaries, a former missionary, twelve college students, and two religious brothers of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. I wish I could share every moment and memory with you all, scene by scene, word for word. The best I can offer is a glimpse into what was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.

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In mid-December, I arrived back to my parent’s house, still trying to processes a dizzingly chaotic, fantastic, phenomenal semester in Mankato in mid-December. I had a seemingly gigantic amount of time on my hands with no students (a whole week!), in which I planned on catching up on all things administration I hadn’t had the opportunity to back on campus. Beyond that, I had this itch to serve. It was Christmas season, I had a pocket of free time, and I wanted to give.

I kept looking for opportunities, searching for soup kitchen flyers asking for help, thinking of how quickly I could crochet blankets for a homeless shelter… I mean, I was motivated. Constantly, I asked God to present me with an opportunity to serve His people, to be able to give of myself. I practically was dreaming of food shelves. I was in this mad rush, forgetting the very reason why I felt rushed- I was preparing to leave on a mission trip.

One of my faults is that I have a tendency to place God in this nice and neat box. I like to hang out in that box a lot. After all, I know how everything is laid out. I know what service looks like in that box (giving food to the hungry, clothes to the cold). So in my quest for service opportunities, I continued to pray, trying to make reality mimic this comfortable box. It did not.

It wouldn’t be until a few days into the mission trip that God’s goodness overtook my little cube and crushed the walls of my pride.

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I started my journey to Puerto Rico by first leaving Minnesota in a blizzard. Praise Jesus that my parents offered to drive me to the airport the Saturday after Christmas because I would have probably crashed, several times, just trying to get onto the highway. After a rather harried, white-knuckle ride to Humphrey terminal, I was reunited with four lovely and sleep-deprived student-athlete ladies from Mankato: Tabitha, Lexi, Jordan, and Mandi. We had been working together for the past few months, fundraising, praying, and other miscellaneous preparations, for this mission trip. Now it was finally here.

Before leaving for Puerto Rico, our entire mission crew met in Nashville. Within a few minutes of meeting each other, we knew we had a good group. From a football player from Florida to volleyball players from Nebraska to all of us Minnesotans, to the religious brothers from New York, we could already tell it was going to be a great trip. That evening, we went over a few safety precautions and gave some talks to prepare the student’s hearts for mission. We began by thinking over what fears and worries we had of the trip. I was afraid of two things, which really shows how simple my mind is: being tired, and being hungry- two things that unfortunately most of the world suffers through daily. When it came time to think of what we would like to learn or receive from this trip, I wanted to have the strength to serve and be a tool of God’s love even when I was uncomfortable.

We stayed the night in Nashville, and when I say night, I mean we went to bed around ten and woke up at 2:30am ready to catch our flight. Obviously, God was giving me my opportunity to be charitable-while-tired very early into this trip. I was too excited to be tired, anyways!

After a long day of travel, including a two-hour delay, hilarious conversations spurred on by the extreme lack of sleep, and flying through the middle of a storm seriously thinking I was about to experience another plane crash, we made it to Puerto Rico in the late afternoon. If you have never had the joy of walking out into a sunny, warm, humid place after living the past month in a snowy tundra, let me just say it is pure bliss.

The first sign that our time in Puerto Rico would be a whole new level of vibrant was the transportation that came to pick us up: a hot pink school bus. We loaded up our bags and prepared for the three-hour trip to Mayaguez, where we would be serving for the week. With open windows and open hearts, we journeyed across Puerto Rico.

Everything in the cities was colorful and crumbling- a symbol of joy in the midst of poverty. Each turn was more beautiful than the last. A deep blue river wound through what looked like giant cattails at least ten feet tall. My heart was moved in awe of God as I looked out upon the palm trees and seemingly endless fertile hills

We suddenly were stopped in traffic. As we slowly inched forward, we saw the cause of the commotion: Jeeps decked out in flashing lights, noise makers, colorful fabrics, and people dressed in matching outfits were pushing their way through the streets. Our bus driver told us it was a parade for the Christmas season. Puerto Ricans celebrate, and I mean CELEBRATE, all through the Epiphany.

It was a Sunday night, and yet the Puerto Ricans seemed to pay no heed to the coming workday. Waving our arms out the windows, we cheered on the paraders and occasionally gasped at the families that would walk literally in the middle of the busy streets. It was an effortlessly free culture.

Around eight at night we arrived at our destination. A large white building welcomed us as we settled in. We would be staying in a retreat center for the week. I loved its simplicity, so vastly different than some of the other ornate retreat centers I have stayed in previously. Two twin beds were in each room, with a shower, toilet, and sink. In the basement was a large room, which had been transformed into a chapel, and on the main floor, was a gathering space where we would eat our meals (which were traditional Puerto Rican fare including rice and beans, pork, flan, plantains- delicious!).

We hadn’t gone to mass yet that day, so thankfully Padre Orlando presided at mass for us. The mass was an interesting mix of Spanish and English (and Spanish chants that we would sing randomly for the duration of the trip). It was Padre Orlando’s parish, St. Therese of the Little Flower, which we would be serving. He was jolly, excitable, and loved to cause trouble- something I could appreciate. After mass we went to bed, exhausted but ready to rise before 7am.

Each morning began with a holy hour. Spending time in prayer has been crucial to living as a missionary, and I was so thankful we had the opportunity to pray before starting the day. The brothers provided a reflection on that day’s gospel, which was such a gift and very thought-provoking.

After holy hour, we split up- the boys to the baseball field, and the girls to the gym. Near the fields and gym were rows and rows of low-income apartments with bright shirts hanging on the clotheslines outside. We later learned that about 50% of the city of Mayaguez lives in government housing, and 20 to 30 percent of that population lives below the poverty line. Horses roamed the grounds, munching on the grass of the outfield. The sun was blazing hot, which I tried to soak in as much as possible.

We had girls ranging from grade school to high school, all joining in on the fun. Some preferred to sit back and watch, while most joined in on the drills and games. The lack of air conditioning in the gym coupled with the temps soaring near ninety made for a sticky day, but no one seemed to mind.

Within minutes, though, we noticed the language barrier. The girls spoke very little English, and while most of us had taken several years of Spanish, the Puerto Rican accent was thick and difficult to understand. They cut off many of the ends of words, so ‘tres’ becomes ‘tre,’ and when it’s a string of words like that, it definitely presents a challenge. Our language difficulties were first evidenced in trying to understand what their names were. Names, that once we saw spelled out were clear, but the Puerto Rican accent was too thick to decipher. For example, the name ‘Genesis’ was pronounced ‘Hen-e-see.’ Slowly but surely, we mastered their names. (Or so we thought. There were identical twins, which went by the nicknames Gordy and Chiquita, who had a habit of pretending to be the other. By the end of the week, though, we had it straightened out!). I’m still convinced that God gave us the grace of language though, because I definitely was able to remember far more Spanish than I would have though possible. Of course, we all had our mistakes. Instead of telling a girl I liked her headband, I said “I want your headband.” She looked at me with this confused expression and walked away, and by the time I realized why it was too late.

Nevertheless, we all loved getting to know each other. During drills, we’d joke around and cheer each other on. A beautiful aspect of the Puerto Rican culture we observed was the way they were all so supportive of one another. The kids we were serving lived in broken homes with little money, and yet they possessed infinite joy and love. The old always were willing to lend a hand to the young. They are very warm. One of our missionaries wanted to give them a high five (‘cinco’ in Spanish), and the recipient responded with, “We don’t high five. We hug.”

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As the days went on, however, our own Spanish skills got better, and our relationships with the girls grew stronger. We ran different drills with the girls, incorporating faith into the skills. One day we talked about the virtue of humility, the importance of giving God all our glory, trusting that God, like our coaches, knows better and desires the best for us. Through our broken Spanish, and an occasional translator, we were able to get the message across to the girls. We prayed in Spanish and English, we shared our testimonies and the ways God had worked in our lives, we shared the Gospel message with them. The girls looked up to us so much, it was the perfect environment to share love of Christ.

So, back to where I started this post. On the last day of 2014, Br. Mark Mary challenged us to realize that the first duty of missionaries is to provoke questions, not give answers. Why is this person joyful? Why do they smile when they see me? Who is God, and what does that make me? I reflected upon another conversation I had had with Br. Mark Mark, where he told me about a girl in New York City who worked alongside them in prison ministry. She taught Zumba to the prisoners, using her unique talents to serve.

Now, I’m a Varsity Catholic missionary. It is literally MY JOB to evangelize through sports, and help student athletes to see the authentic connection between their sport and a relationship with Christ. But let me tell you, I realized up until that moment I only thought I understood what it meant to blend sport and faith.

I had begged God for an opportunity to serve the poor. There are many ways we can do that, whether it’s providing money, food, housing, clothing… It is our duty to provide to the poor using the resources we have. Before I left for this trip, I was looking for opportunities to provide these necessities. But no matter how essential these things are to life, they are nothing compared to the bread of life that is Christ Jesus. That morning, the full reality that it is the way I share my resources that truly matters. I’ve always known, as James states in the bible, that faith without works is dead (James 2:26). It is lovingly demanded of me to serve my brothers and sisters in Christ. But on that day, I deeply understood the importance of faith that St. Paul repeatedly emphasizes in Romans. I do works because of my faith, and the faith, if I truly possess it, will call me to serve. “And since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them (Romans 12:6).” These are all things I knew, but now I saw how they truly interplayed.

My gift so freely given was my athleticism and time as a collegiate athlete. To use this, properly ordered, means that in every place and in every time, this gift points to, and glorifies, God. I also must lead others to him through this gift, because it is by His grace that I have received it.

Food, clothing, and sports are just things of the world, even though one is obviously more important than the other (so if I have the resources to provide food to the homeless, I must). But what I had, right there in Puerto Rico, were the resources and gift of sport. It wasn’t about the sport, it wasn’t about the game, it wasn’t about the drills. Volleyball served to unite us. This was really about the attitude and love we brought. As an athlete, it’s easy to get my mind fixed on a goal, like, “I will help these girls to be better players.” While this is certainly an admirable goal, I saw my larger goal- to live as a witness of Jesus Christ and His love. I had a mental shift, from focusing my attention on cultivating their volleyball skills to inviting them in a deeper relationship with Jesus.

From that point onward, it wasn’t about the perfect hit. It was about growing in perfect charity. My heart oozed out with love for these girls. I wanted each and every one of them to know they were infinitely loved. I gave hugs, and often. I talked with them about their lives, their families, their crushes. We bonded over a shared love of Taylor Swift, belting out ‘Blank Space’ at the top of our lungs as we shuffled along the nets for blocking drills. We had a question and answer session with them where they asked us about our faith, our ‘novios,’ and the sports we played, and we asked questions right back. They invited us into the heart of their community.

When I think of Puerto Rico, the word that comes to mind for most of us who went on the trip is family. Every day was like getting one giant hug from every single Puerto Rican on the island. During our lunch break, community members would jump right in for pick-up games of baseball, for guitar sing-alongs, and card games. We went to a Christmas concert put on by members of the Puerto Rican community in the Cathedral. New Year’s Eve was spent at one of Padre Orlando’s parishoner’s home, counting down to midnight with a bunch of Puerto Rican’s our age (They taught us a salsa, we taught them to line dance). Our trip to the ocean was extra fun as some of our friends that we met on New Year’s Eve joined in. We attended another Christmas-season celebration at the church on our last night, spending hours with our boisterous Puerto Rican family singing, dancing, beating drums, eating until we thought our stomachs would explode, and laughing with men and women of all ages.

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And then, at 1:30 am on our last night, we heard banging drums, a voice singing into a megaphone, and many others joining in. A whole crowd of the girls and boys who attended the camps, their parents, and other community members showed up at our retreat home. Apparently, this was a Puerto Rican tradition to wake friends in the middle of the night, especially the night friends are departing. Most of us were fast asleep, and I’m sure you can imagine the confusing and hilarious events that shortly followed (including one of our ladies thinking we were leaving for the bus and she was late, another wandering the halls yelling ‘They’re here!’ deliriously, and Mandi shaking me awake yelling, “If you don’t get up they’re going to come to you!”) It was as if we were being attacked, but attacked with love. We wandered outside onto the patio, where our new friends were gathered. Tearful goodbyes followed, more gifts were exchanged, and hundreds of hugs were given.

The next day, our group boarded our flight back to America, terribly sad to be leaving a land and people we quickly fell in love with, but happy to have something so beautiful to miss.

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God poured out his graces on that trip. My spiritual director told me, “God gives us the energy to do the things He calls us to, but not for the things he isn’t calling us to.” As I mentioned earlier, I was afraid to be uncomfortable. Turns out, I was uncomfortable most of the trip. I was tired, hot, sore, and I sprained my thumb the first day. None of that mattered. My King gave me all the energy I needed and more. It was pure dependence upon Him who gives me strength.

This post highlights only a drop in the bucket of the experiences I desire to share. Maybe, someday, I will be able to write more on this fantastic journey God blessed me with. What I really wanted to pass on, though, was the importance of using the gifts God has given us to serve others, even if they seem silly or insignificant. Can you make hilarious balloon animals? Volunteer at a Children’s Hospital. Do you love riding horses? Teach free lessons to kids with disabilities. Is your tater tot hot dish just the best? Make meals for those who are going through tough times. The point is, we all have gifts. It’s time to use them to serve God.

How humbling it was to be placed in an environment where I had no control to learn the deepest lessons, especially things I thought I already knew. God gives gifts. The ball is in my court. How will I use them? In what ways can I serve him, ‘out of the box’?

PS: It was incredibly touching to witness the spiritual growth in the student athletes who came with us, as well. Between holy hours and daily mass, we were surrounded with Christ’s love. It’s pretty hard to not fall in love with Him when you’re so close to Him and His people! I was especially moved witnessing the joy of the four ladies from Mankato I was serving alongside. Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who supported and prayed for this mission trip. I know I can speak for all of us when I say we are eternally grateful.

“Show me your hands. Do they have scars from giving? Show me your feet. Are they wounded in service? Show me your heart. Have you left a place for divine love?”

Archbishop Fulton Sheen

In His Love,

Catie

It’s Good to be Back: Round 2!

I am officially back on campus at Minnesota State University-Mankato for another year as a missionary with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students! It is a blessing to begin a second year of a job I am passionate about. ,God has been gracious enough to give me this beautiful opportunity to continue serving him as a full-time missionary. This isn’t to say I’m living a stress-free life, where everything goes exactly as planned, I enjoy every second, and I face no rejection. Quite the opposite. Missionary life is chaotic, busy, crazy, painful, and FULL of rejection.

However… It happens to also be the most fantastic, wonderful, extraordinary life.

Any new parent will say life gets significantly more challenging after the birth of a child. New parents are called to die to selves in ways they never thought possible. Unexpected things happen, usually at the worst moment. And yet, ask these same parents what brings them the most joy and fulfillment, and they will say without hesitation, their new child. Yes, this being which has caused them anguish, sleepless nights, tears, and everything in between, is also the source of life and beauty.

Missionary life is a little like that. While it’s true that for now my free time is, in a sense, ‘my own,’ and I don’t have a little person dependent upon me for food, shelter, and love, I can relate. I asked a new mom one time what it felt like to be mother. She told me she never thought she could love so intensely. My heart and ability to love has grown immensely over the past year. I would take a bullet for any random student here on campus, because I love them. I love their loud parties in the apartment above me. I love the ‘colorful’ language I hear walking through the halls. I love whoever it was that tore down our campus ministry posters last week. Why? Because they deserve my love. Because they are part of the Body of Christ, and Jesus himself commanded me to love them as He has loved me (I’m still working on that- that’s a whole new level of love I can only aspire to reach).

When I began this journey on campus a year ago, I had an idea of what things would look like. I had a PLAN, and I was determined to make every one of my goals follow through. It only took a few weeks on campus, weird looks from students, and enough awkward moments to last me a lifetime to show me that things would perhaps be a bit different than I expected. What would follow would be a year full of peaks and valleys, struggles, joys, illness, peace, and new friendships. It would include crying in a coach’s office, trying to lead a busload of college students to Texas while healing from a concussion, and having one of my mentees bring me to urgent care while I battled vertigo (a giant dose of humility). It would also include sharing Jesus’ love with many.

As I serve alongside my teammates, two of whom are new first year missionaries, I am reminded of the differences between this year and last. In the chaos of a year of mission life, God proved to be my rock and stronghold. He showed me I could trust in Him. I grew in my faith immensely, and am even more convicted in the truth of the Church, allowing me to confidently meet students and introduce them to the person of Jesus Christ. The relationships I built last year in Mankato are fantastic, and I couldn’t wait to be back to meet these students who started as strangers but quickly became close friends. God used me to reach out to so many students, and more and more women joined bible studies and attended church. Fundraising was an absolute blast with having a wealth of experiences to share from (If you are supporting my mission financially or prayerfully, another big THANK YOU!). Oh, and the little thing called the dating fast finished, for me at least, in May. I say this in all seriousness, and maybe I will write more on it later: the dating fast was one of the biggest blessings. Not to say it wasn’t a struggle, but that it was worth the struggle. Staying true to the fast bore so much fruit. Christ is first in my life, and the fast set this truth as a seal on my heart. This past year was such a gift, and I am excited to see what the future holds.

I look forward to sharing more from the mission this year. After a three-month-long hiatus from blogging, it’s great to be back.

 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His [a]only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:16

Fecit mihi magna

(He has done great things for me)

God bless,

Catie

An Instruction Manual for Life

I’m toasting a bagel one morning, and my toaster stops working. Starving but hungry only for a delicious toasted bagel, I run to my nearest Target and rush in to buy a brand spanking new toaster. By the time I arrive back home, I’m starving. I still need to shower before work, though. My Target run deeply cut my time to get ready, and I like my bagels really well toasted, like, practically charcoal, so it takes a while. Not willing to sacrifice either, I come up with a brilliant plan: I can toast and eat my bagel in the shower. As I take my toaster out of the box, the instruction pamphlet falls out. I pick up the pamphlet, and notice a warning telling me not to use this toaster near water. Disregarding the warning (after all, I came up with my brilliant time-saving shower bagel idea, what do the creators of the toaster know), I plug in my toaster and set it in the shower. I turn on the water, stick my hand under the stream to test the temperature, and zzzztttttt. I get shocked, land on the floor, need to be taken to the emergency room, get treated for electrocution, and miss a week of work. The worst part? I never got my bagel.

Okay, so maybe none of that was true (Except for the broken toaster part. I have had a toaster erupt in flames on me, but that was not because I put it in water). But it does show how us fickle humans think we know better than those we should actually trust. Even deeper than that, it shows how little regard we have for rules, rendering them useless, and in many cases, ‘bossy.’

In this simplistic analogy, God is the ‘toaster creator.’ Only his instruction manual is a lot longer than the toaster’s, and has been around since the beginning of time. It also provides the path to joy and eternal salvation, which I have yet to find come with a toaster.

To many, Christianity seems less like a loving relationship with God, and more like following a list of ‘do nots.’ After all, one of the pillars of the faith is the Ten Commandants, which literally is a list of ‘do nots.’ Some of them seem like a walk in the park. I’m assuming most of us don’t plan on killing anyone soon (although if you do, please don’t). But there are some tricky ones in there.

Our culture doesn’t exactly latch too tightly to many of the commandments. Waking up for church on Sunday is hard after a late Saturday. And making God the center of one’s life is impossible, right? Doesn’t He realize how much devotion is needed to rise to the top at work?

When we break it down to the basics, it really doesn’t make sense that we don’t listen to God’s laws. He is The Creator. Why don’t we trust the One who not only made us, but knows everything about us? He knows our heart’s desires, our weaknesses, and our strengths. God wrote an entire book (the Bible), sent down His only Son to guide us and die for our salvation, gave us the Church, and then inspired holy people on earth, to give us our life instruction manual.

When we read to not put a toaster in water, we’re like, “Yes, that makes sense. I will not do that.” However, when it comes to God’s instructions, we’re like, “Well… That seems pretty hard, and I desire instant gratification. God wants me to be happy, so there’s no way He would ask ‘x’ of me.”

Before I go further, YES, God desires us to be happy. More than that, though, He knows exactly what will make us the happiest, and what will get us to heaven. Ultimately, the goal is heaven, which is pure love. God created us with a specific end, and thank goodness He provided an instruction manual on how to get there.

I’ll be the first to admit I am a sinner, and turn away from the instruction manual often. I may find pleasure, or momentary gain, but ultimately I am still left empty. I can honestly say that I am the most joy-filled when I am following God’s instructions.

It’s time we stop looking at God as a distant, bossy authority figure waving his finger ‘No,’ at us. He loves us. He wants to see us in eternity. But He won’t force Himself on us. He wants to give us the option to choose Him. So, He gave us a clear-cut path strait to Him. If we diverge, that’s okay. His mercy and grace is sufficient.

 

“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.”

2 Cor 12:9

 

God bless,

Catie

Mission: Atlantic City

Last Saturday evening, I returned from a leading six students on a weeklong mission trip in Atlantic City. I have so much I want to share, but this post would be a novel if I wrote everything! It’s a great problem to have.

We were blessed with the opportunity to serve our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ by rebuilding homes destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. Even though it is over a year after the devastating storm, there are still hundreds of families either displaced or forced to live in moldy, unsanitary conditions.

Many volunteers rushed to serve initially after the hurricane. Wonderful organizations like the Red Cross delivered supplies and provided hotel rooms to families. These were necessary materials for the time, but only the immediate needs were met.

In the months following, individuals and families were waiting on the slow, trickling government aid. The bulk of this aid went to the homes directly along the coast. Who lives on the coast? Those who can afford the five million dollar homes that lie along the Atlantic do. Now, the poorer families living inland are forced to wait, hoping some day grant money will finally reach their home, knowing full well they sit on a long list of others waiting for the exact same thing.

This is where groups like Atlantic City Long Term Recovery Group come in. They hire construction workers and managers to serve with them, and send them out in pairs to houses. Volunteer groups, like ours, join these workers to speed along the process, speeding the process along, to ensure more and more residents of Atlantic City can live in a safe home.

Before the trip, I was nervous. I was worried the car would break down, I was worried the group wouldn’t get along, I was worried we wouldn’t have a place to stay, I was worried someone would get hurt, I was worried there wouldn’t be food, I was worried I wouldn’t know how to do anything and wouldn’t be able to help… The list went on and on. I can’t even recall how many times in the weeks leading up to the trip that my prayer was simply, “God, I just ask that you get us all back to Mankato alive.” Clearly I’m a very chill and relaxed barrel of fun.

I went in to the mission trip with no expectations (see above paragraph, where success was defined solely by living). I’m going to ruin the suspense that I’m sure you’re feeling right now and say that yes, we did get back all alive (Sorry, you were probably hoping for a climatic ending). God knew what he was doing though, as always. By going in to this trip with no expectations, I was able to fully embrace every moment. Like, for instance, the way the first night, Saturday, played out.

We were planning at staying overnight at St. Peter’s Catholic church in Steubenville, Ohio. I dialed the number of the church during the day to let them know we would be coming in late (11pm), only to find that the parish office was closed. I left a message on the secretary’s line, wondering if anyone would even notice before Monday.

Fortunately, that evening the priest called me. After speaking him, it sounded like we were the first group to ever spend the night at the church. He also told us the best place would be for us to sleep in the church. I had been under the assumption we’d sleep in a classroom or hall. In addition, the rest of the church would be locked, so we would need to find the stairway leading to the adoration chapel, in the dark, in a strange city. Last fun fact, we would have to be ready by 6:15 am, as that was when the priest opened the church for Sunday mass (after losing two hours of sleep from the time change and daylight savings). Needless to say, I was concerned at how this would all work out.

Turns out, all my anxiety was for nothing (as usual). We arrived to find a priest waiting for us outside of the brightly lit entrance to the chapel. He lead us up to the church, and the minute we stepped through the doors… Wow. The beauty of the old church made me stop in my tracks. At the end of long rows of pews was a mural of Jesus that extended from floor to ceiling. The tabernacle where Jesus was had a light shining on it, glowing in the otherwise-dark room.

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We laid out our sleeping bags, and within minutes, we were all sound asleep. Most of us woke up a few times throughout the night, but in the words of one of the girls on the trip, “Waking up in the middle of the night was the best. I would look up, and there was Jesus.” Spending a night with Jesus in a church will forever be a cherished memory.

The next morning, we went to mass at the very church we slept at (very convenient), and then we were off again! After driving for fifteen hours the day before, we were excited for a nice and ‘short’ seven hour drive to Atlantic City.

Our destination was a town right outside of Atlantic City, Pleasantville, where we would be staying in for the week. We would be at a small Methodist church that frequently housed volunteers. It was here that we met Carol, the sweetest human being I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. She informed us that there were nine students from Auburn that would be staying with us. We saw their cots set up in the fellowship hall, and figured we would be staying up there. The irony was not lost on us when Carol instead lead us up to the stairs and showed us where we would be sleeping: in the church itself.

After unpacking, our first mission was to not smell. The showers were off-site at a local fitness club. Some of our group decided to run the mile to the gym to stretch out our legs, not realizing how quickly it had gotten dark. Despite the darkness, we arrived safely. For the rest of the week, I was always amused at our daily shower trips as a group, as we would all pile in to the minivan covered in paint, sawdust, and glue (and then make the men wait as us ladies took a little longer to get ready).

We hit the ground running on Monday morning. We were working at the same site as the Auburn group, which was a lot of fun. Upon our arrival to the site in Atlantic City, we met Mark, who we would later find out has done practically everything in life: Medic in the military, college professor, environmental engineer, personal trainer, and construction worker. He filled us in on the home we would be refurbishing. The owner lived with her nineteen-year-old grandson. After a year and a half, she finally was able to remodel her home that had flooded in the hurricane. Just imagining having to live in a house that without a doubt was soaked in mold made me disgusted, and I really felt for her.

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Next, we met the construction manager, Windell. He was loud, excited, and ready to work. Within minutes, the majority of us were in the demolishing business.

Throughout the day, I ripped apart a wall and two levels of floor. It was such an amazing feeling to be able to physically help in the way Jesus calls us to serve. He asks us to be his hands and feet. The work we were doing meant that a woman would have her home back. There is just so much gravity in the meaning of that.

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At the day’s end, we cleaned up and returned to the church. A great blessing was having dinner together with the Alabama students. We brought in extra chairs into the small kitchen so that we could all eat together. It was crammed and hectic, but so worth it. There was such great conversation and learning about our new Southern friends.

Once we had sufficiently stuffed our faces with the food that was brought to us, we spent most nights relaxing, praying, playing games, and getting to know each other.

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Each day our group always spent time in prayer together. I would lead a rosary or a meditation for everyone to participate in. My first priority is always Jesus, and I didn’t want us to forget that we were on this mission out of love for Him and his people. That time in reflection rooted me to what was truly important throughout the trip.

A few days in to the trip, the weather turned cold… and so did the church. The furnace stopped working, and we were left with two tiny space heaters. Us Minnesota kids were were adequately prepared with warm jackets (and the harsh memories of a brutal winter). The Alabama kids, however, were absolutely freezing, and could often be found huddling around the space heater. Eventually the furnace was fixed, but it was a good reminder of how ‘good’ we had it compared to the homes we were fixing.

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There were a lot of moments like this- these little reminders of how much I had to be thankful for. Whenever I would miss the comforts of home (for example, not sharing one bathroom with 10 other girls, having a shower that isn’t a mile away from where I sleep, or my own room and bed that is not a cot), I quickly reminded myself that I was fortunate that this was only temporary. The individuals we were helping lacked even the necessities. God provided so much grace to be thankful for the accommodations we had.

I had been feeling sick all week, but I promised myself I’d work hard anyways. After all, I can offer up my sufferings to Christ as a prayer. However, Wednesday morning I woke up so dizzy I couldn’t even sit. I took that as a sign that just maybe I should take some time off. It was a great life lesson, because as much as I desired to be on the work site, I had to take a humility pill and accept that this morning, I was going to have to take it easy. At noon, I woke up and thankfully felt much better.

That afternoon, we all went out to tour Philadelphia! I could write an entire post just on that gorgeous city. There was just so much history in one place. We toured Independence Hall, saw the Liberty Bell, ate Philly Cheese Steaks, and wandered the city on a nighttime Ghost Tour. It was incredibly inspiring to really immerse ourselves into the lives of our nation’s fathers. Just like us, they were fighting for what they knew was right and just. Losing meant death, and yet, they pressed on.

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On Thursday and Friday, we served at two different sites. The first was a church that held a daycare that had been flooded. The daycare, like many in Atlantic City had to close, forcing daycares across the city that were able to stay open to be way over capacity with children. We painted, glued, laid down tile, and saved two pet turtles from a messy aquarium (a highlight).

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We ended the trip on Friday with a wonderful and gracious woman named Cecelia who kept bringing us water bottles and offered food. She was converting her flooded basement to an apartment for her son to live in. We did everything from varnishing to building cupboards to laying and caulking trim. In addition to helping others, this week was a great crash course in home repair!

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Sadly, we had to leave Friday. We said our goodbyes to our Alabama friends and drove off into the sunset (FYI- Philly at night is just gorgeous). The way back was filled with so many laughs and happy memories being shared.

We drove all through the night, and realized we had made such good time that we were a few hours ahead of schedule. It was breakfast time, and we were near Chicago, so we figured… Why not? Major props to those students who us drove through Chicago (not me, I was voted most accident prone in high school). We had such a wonderful time. I truly felt like it was God’s way of thanking us for serving His people.

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We visited the main tourist attractions: Millennium Park and Navy Pier. Chicago is one of my favorite cities, so I knew the area well. One of the best surprises was that it was the day of the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Chicago- a HUGE event for the city. While we left before the parade, we were able to see the Chicago River dyed green. Such a fun surprise!

After 24 hours of traveling, our van and all its passengers arrived safe and sound in Mankato. Driving back to my apartment was such a sad journey. I wanted to relive that week forever. And yes, even though I had spent a full day crammed into a minivan with six other adults, I missed all of them already.

To say God blessed this trip would be an understatement. On Sunday afternoon, the graces from the trip hit me like a freight train. Now that I finally realized that yes, we were all alive and well, and yes, we had helped so many people, God dumped a fifty-gallon tub of joy all over me. That joy stayed with me for the week following the trip. I couldn’t fall asleep at night, and woke up bright an early in the morning, because I was just reveling in happiness and awe of God.

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The prayer of St. Francis came to mind:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

I can’t completely prevent the damaging effects of severe weather. However, in all situations, my attitude can help to  change someone’s life. My simple ‘yes’ to go and serve was part of a much bigger yes from so many other individuals that banded together to make this mission a reality. Oh Lord, where there is despair, let me sow hope.

God Bless

Catie

He gave, and He took away

Last week was one of those weeks.  Absolutely everything seemed to be spiraling out of control. By late Wednesday night, I was finally lying in bed, pondering the events of the past few days. Boy was I frustrated with God. I spent a good fifteen minutes laying it all out with Him. I even brought up things that happened years ago that still caused me pain. I fell asleep in the middle of this, much like a toddler child crying in her father’s arms until she falls asleep.

The next morning in holy hour, I brought my bad attitude with me. I sat there grumbling with God for giving me these trials. As I was writing in my journal, I realized how, well, stupid I sounded. I’m not saying the things that were on my heart were stupid. Pain, confusion, and fear are very real. What was stupid was how I was responding to these events.

Something I’ve struggled with, especially now that I’m a missionary, is why I still have to deal with trials. After all, I think in my prideful brain, if I desire nothing more to serve God, and I’m doing just that in my work every day, then why would He let me have to struggle?

I felt God calling me to read from scripture, and so I opened my bible the book of Job. He was a man with great wealth, with a large, happy family. Job was also fiercely in love with God. In the book, Satan tells God that of course Job loves Him- after all, God has given Job a prosperous life. The devil is convinced that if God allows him to take away Job’s wealth and family, Job will surely turn away from the Lord. And so, God, in his infinite wisdom that we cannot comprehend, allows Satan to remove those blessings. Job’s sons die, and his wealth is quickly eradicated. Yet, through it all, Job remains steadfast in his faith and trust in God.

In Job chapter one, he states, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord!” These words hit me like a semi truck. All I have is God’s. All. I knew my possessions were all his. After all, I fundraise my whole salary as a missionary, and it’s totally dependent upon Him. As I read these words from Job, I finally realized what the idea of everything belonging to God truly means. It means any blessing is from Him, even my health, friendships, and family. These are all on loan to me. If He wills it, He can allow suffering (not cause suffering, this is a key difference). God has the power to give me as much or as little as he desires, but neither indicates that he loves any me more or any less. Everything the Lord places in my path is an opportunity to grow closer to Him.

Certainly, He can place abundant blessings to help me grow toward Him. It’s beautiful to look back in times when He shielded me from so much pain and anguish because He knew I was not ready for those challenges.

Sometimes, though (well, all the time), I really need to grow in virtue. What’s the best way to grow in virtue? To be challenged.

God loves to speak to me in analogies, and I loved his response to my whining. To grow stronger, an athlete must weight lift. She must go through the pain and uncomfort of hang cleans and squats. Not only that, but to strengthen her muscles, the muscle fibers must actually tear first, before growing stronger. There will be days when she will not even want to step foot in the gym, because she knows a hard day is ahead of her. And yet, there she is, on her third set of dead lifts.

This is a beautiful analogy of virtue. I must allow God the opportunity to place heavy burdens on my back. If there is no opposition to virtue, if there is no weight upon me, how can I expect to grow in it? More than that, I must allow God the opportunity to tear me down and show me my faults.

Let’s be honest- no one wants to see their faults. God is just getting started at showing me how to grow into the saint he is calling me to be. I need the core, my virtue ‘muscles’, to be stripped raw so I can rebuild with an even stronger foundation.

So, back to my original frustration. I was growing closer to God without all of these trials, so why in the world would He continue to test me? Because God isn’t calling me (or anyone) to mediocrity. He’s calling me to be a saint. Truly, I can only come to heaven bearing a heavy cross. Not because God is some cruel jester looking for ways to smite me, but because He loves me. He knows my weaknesses, and He wants to help me to be the person He is calling me to be. Yes, that might be uncomfortable. Yes, I’m going to have to see the parts of my heart that aren’t so perfect. But when I look back, every single time that he’s presented me with a huge challenge, I’ve grown closer to Him.

We can rest assured that any cross is worth it. Our time on earth is short. Eternity with God is worth every struggle we face. Saint Paul tells us that the trials of this life are nothing compared to the joy that is coming (Rom 8:18-19). I’m not saying it’s not painful, and that some people seem to be struck with so much more pain than others. Just know that God can transform any struggle and sorrow.

Abandoning myself completely to God is a challenge I face every day. The second I think, “Look, God, I gave you everything!” He shows me that that isn’t completely true. It’s not always fun to see the areas I lack in faith, but it is always worth it.

Strive to be uncomfortable. Abandon yourself to God. Give Him permission to give and take away.

Luke 22:42

“Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.”

God bless,

Catie