Snow Day

It’s Saturday, and even though it’s April there’s snow coming down and piling up. I’m pretty sick of winter, as is everyone else who lives on the East Coast, and I wish that I could just curl up on the couch under my duvet today, a book in hand or a documentary on the telly and copious amounts of hot coco on the coffee table. Add the cat on my feet or my stomach and you’ve got what’s pretty much my ideal snow day.

Alas, the cat had to go to the vet today for a dental procedure that’s going to fix an abscess in one of his back teeth, and I had to get up at 6:00 this morning to get him to the vet in time for his 7:30 appointment. Back home and fully awake now, I have until 11:00 to do what I want before heading off to my retail job. And right after that I’ll be heading to the Basilica to celebrate the Easter Vigil.

From my couch in the living room, through the big windows I can see the snow falling down. Only three days ago on my walk to and from work, I was able to see tentative green things – the crocuses and snowdrops that mark the end of winter – coming up in the postage-stamp gardens all along my street. Now they’re all buried under a cold blanket of snow again, and they’ll have to wait another week before they can continue growing.

I feel like those crocuses and snowdrops at the moment. I feel like I am constantly being reburied under snow as I struggle to grow, and I long to feel life inside me every day when I wake up. Most days that feeling takes a while to kick in, but I remember how it felt to wake up with it already there, its grip on me firm and strong the moment my eyes opened.

Healing is a tricky business. I do have my faith and I do trust and hope in God, but as the saying goes, “God helps those who help themselves.” And as much as I keep stumbling on the hard path set before me, I know I have to keep pushing through every day.

I’m looking for things to look forward to. My upcoming move into a new apartment helps keep me busy when I’m at home for long stretches of time, and I know that when I really get deep into the whole business of it all I’ll have the opportunity to make as fresh a start as possible. I signed up for a pottery class that starts in May, and there’s always work and the cat to get me out of bed in the morning.

It’s hard, though. It’s hard waking up and facing a day without somebody you love. It’s hard to look outside the window and see the snow, and feel like change really is in the air or around the corner.

But life exists, even under the snow: deep in the ground, it waits for the opportune moment. I know that deep in my heart, there’s a little bundle of life waiting to grow…I just have to hold on through every sudden snowstorm until it’s sunny again.

You are the potter, and we are the clay

Kintsugi or kintsukuroi is a sub-form of Japanese ceramic art in which broken vessels are repaired using precious metals.  Translated, respectively the words mean “golden joinery” or “golden repair.”

Imagine how it looks:  you can see the past brokenness of the vessel, because it is highlighted by the use of gold or some other precious metal.   Yet, because it is repaired in such an obvious way, it takes on a whole new kind of beauty and a new uniqueness.  The imperfections of the broken shards are emphasized, but the metal that does so makes the piece whole again.  The brokenness becomes a part of its history and a part of its beauty.  Its worth is restored, or even raised, despite the damage being so obvious and plain.

For me, this year’s Holy Week was a rough conclusion to a long and difficult Lenten season.  For the last forty days, and particularly for the last month, I have been trying to fix all kinds of brokenness inside me.  At times, especially in the last half of Lent as I have struggled to mend in the wake of breaking up, it seemed that every time I came close to have a big enough part of myself repaired to truly start moving on, a hammer blow swung down out of nowhere.  Triggered by some memory or keepsake, each swing broke me down all over again and left me discouraged, enraged, and sorrowful.

Looking into myself and seeing all the pieces is difficult.  It’s difficult because I do want to be perfect, even though I know I am only human and therefore intrinsically flawed.  It’s difficult because I often can’t see beyond the shards:  I can’t see how they fit back together and I can’t see that each piece is still there…so it’s hard to believe that I really and truly am whole, even if I am in pieces.

Sitting in Saint Patrick’s Basilica this Good Friday afternoon, during my prayers I was struck by the realization that no human action broke me.

It is true that I made a choice not too long ago that hurt both myself and one I love dearly, and I’m trying now to accept the fact that despite the love that remains I might never have the chance to love him again.  Human error and human action on either part aside, though, I did ask God to show me how to follow Him.  And for me to truly do that, my heart had to be broken.

I think C. S. Lewis explains it best in A Grief Observed when he says,

“God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.”

I know where I went wrong and I know where I could have done better.  I know when and where I was in the right to demand more, and when I was being selfish in doing so.  I know who I trusted more and who I should have trusted most.  But in the end, it all boils down to how this experience of heartbreak and pain has brought me one step closer to Home.

If God broke me with one hand, it was so that He could mend me with the other.  All I have to do is pick up the fragments and place them in His hands, for He has the gold to put them back together.  And when I am ready, I will have been made new again and whole again.  Highlighted by the way He will repair me, my former brokenness will be proof of His love — the same love that led to the Cross, at whose foot I stand today while I await the Risen Lord.

Have a blessed Easter, and may peace and happiness enfold you.

 

I have heard You calling in the night

Last Sunday’s readings at Mass included the one about Samuel waking up in the middle of the night because he heard somebody calling out his name. It took a while before Eli figured out it was God’s voice in the night and once he explained this, Samuel knew how to answer The Lord. The readings last week also included the passage from the Gospel of John where John not only recognises that Christ is passing by, but proclaims it with such certainty that disciples immediately follow in His wake.

This past week has been a time of deep introspection for me — a week of constant soul-searching, praying, and demanding to know what exactly is expected of me. I’ve come to realise a great many things about myself and my life so far, and have come to better understand the role of certain events in the grander scheme of things.

I am not like John and the disciples who immediately recognised Christ as he passed by on the road. I am more like Samuel who woke up in darkness and was unable to recognise the voice of God without help. It is true that I have found God in my darkest moments, but it was only through retrospect and guidance that I was able to see that it was Him calling through those long shadows.

Once I realised this and truly began to listen — this Friday at my desk job, of all places — some answers came to me in swift and resonating succession, not unlike the hammer blows a blacksmith rains down upon an anvil when forging a new tool.

A hammer has the dual ability to destroy and to create, depending on the conditions in which it is wielded. When I was not listening to The Lord, His words broke me open and His call was hollow in my ears. When I listen to Him now, those words — the very same words, for His message has not changed — took all those pieces and started banging them back together.

I am not entirely mended, and I will always be a little broken. But I trust in God’s wisdom and grace enough to trust that the chinks and dents will be straightened, the tears will be mended, and the holes will be patched over. In darkness and in light, The Lord is working on me so that I will be ready to be a part of something greater than my own self. Because, as somebody so very dear to me once wrote to me in a time of darkness,

“In one way or another we are all tools of God. Our talents determine how He comes through us into the world — the musician becomes His instrument; the artist becomes His paintbrush; the writer becomes His pen. But sometimes we are called to spread His Gospel and sanctify daily life in ways that require us to be like swords in His hands. And because we are swords that He draws at a moment’s notice, He hammers and bends and tempers us in His divine forge; makes sure we are always sharpened; and always keeps His hand upon us.”

An Epiphany of My Own?

If I had a dollar for every time somebody exclaimed, “Wait — you’re Catholic?” I would probably have a tidy nest egg by now. When I, in turn, ask why it’s a surprise, I usually get a response along one (or any combination) of the following lines:

  • “Well, I guess because it’s weird? I don’t know anyone who still believes in God.”
  • “Because religion is ridiculous.”
  • “Oh…well, then, that actually explains a lot.”
  • “You don’t really seem very Catholic..”

While I could write a post for each one of those (and probably will one day), in light of the Feast of the Epiphany today I’ll just address the last one.

What is it to “act Catholic,” exactly? The modern secular world seems to have an archaic view of Catholicism that resembles a mish-mash of all of the human Church’s less-than-spectacular moments in history and the way popular media has misrepresented Catholics over the years. But even though we real-world Catholics are aware of how we are misrepresented — even though we know the truth of how our faith works in the real modern world — why is it that so many of us are afraid to show what we truly are and profess what we truly believe?

I grew up in a small town in the Fraser Valley that had no shortage of Christian followers: between the Roman Catholic parish to which my family belonged and the nomadic evangelicals who moved from family to family in my best friend’s congregation, there was a slew of trinitarian Baptists, Latter-Day Saints, Episcopalians, Anglicans, and numerous Protestant denominations. I certainly wasn’t the only practising Christian or even the only practising Catholic in my high school when I started out, and though there were fewer of us when I graduated I certainly did not stand alone on the religious front at the end.

But adolescence is rife with insecurities, and if left unattended those insecurities cross the threshold with us into adult life. As practising Catholic teenagers, my brothers and those few Mass-attending classmates were different from the other Christians because church on Sundays was never optional, and if we knew ahead of time that we couldn’t make it on Sunday we had to go on Saturday. We were different because our faith included rites and rituals and sacraments that were foreign to other versions of Christianity. We were different because practicing our faith outside of church didn’t involve youth mission trips to third-world countries over the summer, but rather spending time outside of Mass in prayer, reflection, and contemplation.

We knew what to do and what to say at Christmas and Easter Mass. We didn’t know lines of scripture by heart but could talk your ear off about catechism. Our summer camps were gender-specific, and involved daily Mass, faith formation, and prayer time. We wore Saint medals and scapulars; didn’t eat meat on certain days of the year; and said grace in the cafeteria.

After any amount of time of having these differences pointed out to us, in our own ways we stopped being so visibly Catholic among our peers. We found ways to keep our Catholic lives separate from our school and social ones, and gradually some us even abandoned it altogether. Some of us abandoned the Cross for some time before returning to stand at its foot.

Having experienced all of that, including a crisis of faith and a reaffirmation of my beliefs, I should be able to stand in front of you and be unmistakably, unsurprisingly Catholic. I am a daughter of God and have embraced that, so it should come out in how I express myself and conduct myself even when I’m not talking about beliefs.  It shouldn’t come out in a pushy or overbearing way — I don’t believe in throwing certain things in people’s faces — but it should still be evident that I profess faith and practice it, too.

Alas, it is not the case, and that needs to change.

The Feast of Epiphany recalls the journey of the Three Magi from the Far East to Bethlehem in the wake of the Star, and celebrates what they found there: the new-born Christ in his lowly manger bed. It is used in the New Testament and in the Liturgy of the Word as a precursor to the spreading of Christianity throughout the world, for the Wise Men did indeed travel from countries far from Israel to celebrate the birth of the Holy Child and pay homage.

Our parish’s head pastor, a wise and down-to-earth Irish-Canadian Monsignor, told his congregation today that the Three Magi had great faith indeed, for only great faith in prophecy and scripture could account for how closely they watched the night sky and then followed the Star from so far away. They had no idea where exactly they would find the infant Messiah and they had no idea how long it would take — they did not even know when the signs of His birth would appear. But they kept faith that they would not only see the signs, but also that they would eventually lay their eyes on the Holy Child.

A little over two thousand years later, there is no need for Catholics to wait for signs and to wonder if Our Lord will come — for we know that He already has, and that He has already died for us. There is even no need for followers of Jesus Christ to follow Him in secret. We acknowledge His birth, we greet him at the manger, and we trust in His second coming. We are secure in this, so does it not also stand that we should be secure in living our lives in ways — at all times — that bear witness to this?

It is easier said than done, and it is a lifetime struggle at that, to live in the real world in ways that makes us unmistakably children of God and followers of His Word. But that is where the strength of one’s faith is truly tested: in the real world, in the mundane and repetitious tasks of every day life. I spend most of my human life outside of the comfort of my own home, but my entire life and all aspects of it should be spent in the presence of God. And if I truly am secure in my faith, I should not let the adolescent fear of being different keep me from being unsurprisingly Catholic.

Living my religion

Being a young adult of ardent faith comes with its own set of challenges, especially in today’s society.  It’s no understatement to say that being a young adult practicing any religion is counter-cultural simply because it’s true:  the majority of my peer group does not have a well-developed spiritual formation, if any at all.

And because we practicing young adults are going against popular culture, our own lives can become quite confusing from time to time.  We are still humans living in the day-to-day world.  We are still faced with the same challenges, ordeals, and events that everyone else encounters – but we have faith.  And while faith is on the whole an incredibly reliable compass, when the expectations of faith clash with the expectations of popular culture we do get thrown off-course.  It’s especially hard to live and express faith openly when popular culture perpetuates religion-based stereotypes, particularly the ones wherein anyone who is an ardent believer and faithful follower is portrayed as an uncontrollable, unlikable zealot out to convert the entire world by force.

Uniting uncommon faith with popular society is a tricky business.  It’s hard for those of us who have it to understand it, so believe me when I say that I get that the non-believer has a hard time understanding it too.  I’m a practicing Roman Catholic who had a crisis of faith in late adolescence and young adulthood, so really:  I understand both sides of the story.  And I do need to point out that the world through the eyes of faith is not necessarily black-and-white.  There are many shades of grey on all subjects of morality – and those spaces in between the extremes of what is blatantly wrong and what is infallibly right are where our faith is truly tested.

I’m still figuring out my faith and who I am as a daughter of God.  I’ll probably spend a great deal of the rest of my life trying to figure it out.  But in the twenty-four years that I have lived, loved, lost, and regained my faith, I have come to understand a little better three key aspects of my belief system.

Let me be clear that my intention here is not to preach on these three points, but rather to share how I have come to understand them – and for a few reasons.  First, not every religion names the Bible, either in entirety or in part, as its holy scripture.  Second, there are several versions of the Bible and the way I know the Word of God is not necessarily the way others would know it.  Third, the written word – even as it pertains to faith and religion – is always subject to human interpretation, and therefore can be read in many different ways even among those who know the same version of the Bible.  (See what I meant when I said it’s not all black-and-white?)

But there are common threads among all kinds of faith, and maybe if you’re a young man or young woman of a faith different to mine you’ll see those threads of my spiritual life intertwining with yours.

***

“Love the sinner, hate the sin,” is not carte-blanche for you to do whatever you want and think you’ll get off scott-free.  Catholics have this thing called Confession.  Otherwise known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it’s hinged upon the belief and teaching that no matter how grave the transgression, the sinner is still worthy of love and forgiveness.  (Actually, it’s what the entire religion is hinged upon.  After all, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ as a means of salvation for all of humanity is pretty much how this all started.)  And this is pretty good.  It means we can be human and make mistakes, but we have a chance to start anew and head back into the world with a stronger resolve.

It’s a component of Catholicism that is so integral and intrinsic to the entire belief system that sometimes it becomes a loophole or a crutch.  Personally, I have lost track of the number of times I have said to myself, “I can do whatever I want, because as long as I go to Confession I’ll be alright.  But that’s not entirely true.  “Confession is a covenant, and requires conviction to keep us from condemnation,” as my father once told me (how’s that for a Catholic tongue-twister?), and as such, it can’t be taken as a “get out of jail free” card that we can whip out every time we’re faced with a moral quandary.

But in terms of the world outside the confessional, loving the sinner and hating the sin goes beyond one’s own personal relationship with God.  As I’ve grown in my faith and in my limited understanding thereof, I’ve come to realise that the concept applies to my real-world relationships and that in these circumstances it applies in both directions.  To love the sinner and hate the sin is to “forgive those who trespass against us” and to do it with faith so that we may see the inherent good in others and help them overcome the challenges presented by their own weaknesses and shortcomings.  It is to remind us to forgive without losing accountability – either to ourselves or to others – and to forgive with conviction so as to strengthen ourselves and others.

 “Let those without sin cast the first stone,” is not an invitation towards passivity or inaction.  Spiritual lukewarmness has its own Gospel passage wherein it is struck down and criticized – and rightly so.  Faith requires conviction – not just when it comes to asking for forgiveness and forgiving others, but rather in every single one of its components.

Only God has the power to judge and condemn, but once again this isn’t an excuse to do whatever the heck we want and think we can get away with it.  This is yet another situation wherein accountability to oneself is intertwined with one’s accountability to others.   Refraining from casting the first stone does not mean remaining an uninvolved bystander.  Yes, we should make a conscious effort to avoid passing judgment (especially when we know little or nothing about the situation), but we should not avoid the opportunity presented to us in these circumstances to help another person grow positively.

Whether or not another person in my life shares my faith and even whether or not they believe in anything at all should not dictate how I choose to live my faith within that relationship.  I believe that I am held accountable not only for my actions but for my inaction as well.  It is not enough to merely refrain from casting the first stone:  the hand that drops the stone should be extended to help another back to their feet.

“Love one another as I have loved you” and “do unto others as you would have done unto yourself” – if these truly lie at the heart of my faith, then dropping the stone is to try loving as my Savior loves, and extending my hand in aid is to treat another as I would want them to treat me.  The call I have answered through my faith is not a call to jury duty.  It is a call to the witness stand where I can testify to the good in everyone and everything.  If I drop the stone but remain a bystander, I am not testifying to my faith:  I am failing to live by the standards of humanity in which I believe.

“Turn the other cheek,” is not another way of saying, “take it lying down.”  My mother often says, “Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice.”  That is to say, the general (and ideal) Catholic propensity towards openness, compassion, and forgiveness is often either mistaken as a loophole to bash the religion as a whole for the mistakes and shortcomings of its individuals, or mistaken as passivity, complacency, or obliviousness to reality.

God created man in His image.  Catechism taught me that God is love; therefore, because I am made in His image I too am called to embody love.  And while my spiritual propensity towards love does exist, my human one towards pride causes a great internal conflict.  I have learned, though, that there is a great difference between having pride in myself and being prideful.  The former is to acknowledge and stand up for my worth as a person – as an individual, unique, and irreplaceable creation.  The latter is to believe that my individuality and my uniqueness place me above anyone else.

To me, turning the other cheek is relinquishing one’s pride enough so as to allow room for growth and improvement in both parties involved, but not letting go of it entirely so as to become a willing doormat or scapegoat for one’s opponents.  To take any unwarranted or excessive attack lying down is to be lukewarm or indifferent to one’s faith and to one’s own inherent value.

I know the reality of human nature includes unsavory qualities and harmful tendencies, but I also know that the reality of spiritual nature gives every man, woman, and child a measure of worth.  Every person’s inherent value is worth fighting for, but I firmly believe that we are called to fight for our worth in ways that are not vengeful or harmful towards our aggressors.  Rather, we are called to fight for our worth in ways that would reflect the worth of others.

***

Of course this is all easier said than done, but another integral part of faith is the battle to overcome human weaknesses and failings.  The struggle is real, but my personal failures and shortcomings do not define me.  I am defined by how I abandon myself to my faith and how I live it in my daily life.

Reflecting on my Reflection

I am five-foot-none, with pale skin, big brown eyes, and hair that’s naturally dark brown (but hasn’t been “natural” for a few years now) and has a mind of its own most days.  My feet are small enough to fit in kids’ shoes, and my hands are equally tiny.  I’m a visible ethnic minority but don’t like being labelled as “exotic.”  My measurements are proportionate:  my hips and bust are the same, and my waist is 8 inches smaller than that.  Mathematically, then, I have a full-figured hourglass, and supposedly this is enviable.

Yet, as is the case with many other young women out there, I haven’t had an easy relationship with my body.

In every phase of life that I can actually remember, I’ve had one issue or another with my body.  I’d like to say that all my issues with self-perception and body image began during adolescence, because for most people adolescence lines up with puberty and all of one’s body drama (trauma?) happens at the same time everyone else’s.  For me, however this is not the case.  I was an alarmingly early bloomer:  Mother Nature dropped by for the first time when I was only seven, and by the time I was ten years old I had a cup size that most grown women I know would kill (or, at least, pay out the nose) to have.  Sure, when you’re a twentysomething neck-deep in the dating game, big boobs could be seen as an asset.  However, when you’re a ten-year-old, they’re anything but, and I suffered through puberty without any girl friends with whom I could compare concurrent notes about the whole thing.

By the time you add in the problems that arise with weight (or excess thereof) and height (or lack thereof), as well as other minor details (I don’t like my nose; I have one crooked tooth; my skin is pale but my limb-fuzz is dark; my bottom, while ample, is not perky; I am pigeon-toed…), it’s no small wonder that I had some pretty big issues with body image as a teenager.  These issues were so pervasive that makeup and clothing became things behind which I could hide.  I was obsessed with how my outward appearance fell considerably short of what I thought it should be.

We’ve all heard before that current standards of beauty are humanly impossible to achieve.  The viral mockvertisement for “Photoshop by Adobe” pokes fun at these standards, while Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign challenges us to look at ourselves honestly and lovingly.   And I am certainly not the first blogger to tell their personal “body story” or address the overall issue of body image.

This countercultural perspective is not new; it has been developing over a few years now and has even gained some footholds in popular or mainstream areas.

But the overwhelming majority of today’s media still tells us that we – as we are in our natural skins – are not enough.  Perhaps miracles will happen and in a generation or two humanity will be able to accept its inherent diversity in shape, size, weight, and colour.  But I am of a generation whose popular opinion of what “beauty” looks like or ought to look like is the direct result of a multimedia blitzkrieg that made us all buy into a world of impossible perfection.  Old-school print and television media have joined forces with the almighty Internet, and through our favourite social media we are kept in place.

Yet – even as the aforementioned countercultural movement fights for ground and even gains some here and there – emotionally, mentally, and physically, we are stuck in a culture wherein we are conditioned and conned into believing in standards of beauty that would give the ancient Greek gods a self-esteem crisis.  I mean, through my childhood and adolescence, I definitely saw myself the way pop culture made me see myself.

“Out of place” comes to mind when I reflect on the way my younger self reacted to her reflection.

So does, “Too different/short/heavy/curvy.”

Or even, “Not good enough.”

And yes, even, “Ugly.”

Then, I joined the Armed Forces.  And while I am no longer a member of the Forces, the brief time I spent as one of its Officer Cadets completely changed the way I saw the world and people around me…and the way I saw myself. Instead of being obsessed with what my body looked like, I found myself amazed at what this body – this so-called “imperfect” and “flawed” body – could actually do and accomplish.

Having this perspective means that I can look in the mirror now and see beyond not only the physical reflection, but also beyond what’s right or wrong with what makes up that reflection.

The cup size that needs its own postal code? Not only does it look pretty good in just about any T-shirt, dress, or sweater I try own, but according to my nephew and my boyfriend’s youngest siblings it also makes me “comfy-cosy” and “huggable.”

The nose that just never looked right on my face? Its shape makes it the perfect target for the cute little kisses my boyfriend likes dropping on me.

Those tiny hands can play guitar, type at 100 WPM, and write in cursive – not to mention cook, bake, and craft personalised greeting cards.  Those freakishly small feet will always be clad in super-cute shoes bought at insanely cheap sale prices.  The legs that give me a 27″ inseam might not have thigh gaps but they do not end in cankles, and in proportion to the rest of my body they are, surprisingly, on the long side.  The lack of height means I can wear impossibly tall heels and still fit into my boyfriend’s hugs.  The unruly hair that graces my head is thick and healthy without needing expensive products.  The crooked tooth goes unnoticed in the bigger picture of my smile.

It is by no means perfect, but this body can get out of bed in the morning.  It can walk, and it can run and bend and stretch and lift its way to a healthier version of itself.  One day, it will walk down a church aisle in a wedding dress.  One day, it will bear children.  One day, it will lie confined in a bed as the lines and wrinkles on my face tell my story.  And one day, it will be laid to rest.

The bottom line is, the body in the mirror might not be seen by society as beautiful in its appearance, but it is beautiful nonetheless in its abilities and potential.

And it is mine.