On Eponine and Advent

“To love another person is to see the face of God.”

It’s perhaps the most famous line from the musical, Les Miserables, a production which is not only my favorite Broadway musical, but the last thing that I would see performed in a theater before the world shut down. What a gift it was to have the words, “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise,” sung to my already weary heart as my parting gift from live theater.

As we continue our journey to Bethlehem this Advent, I want to take a closer look at the line, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” In my opinion, it’s not the most profound phrase to ever be written. We know that whatever we do to the least of the brethren, we do to Jesus. We know that God is love. We know that it’s good and lovely and appropriately sappy for Broadway to speak about falling in love with other people.

But what strikes me about the line is WHO sings it. That final phrase is shared by three characters: Jean Valjean, Fantine, and Eponine. Valjean is the protagonist of the story. He owes his entire life to the love given by a priest and he spends the rest of the musical laying down his life for others. Fantine loves her daughter even unto her own shame and death. But Eponine? Why does the character with perhaps the most miserable story in Les Miserables have the privilege of singing this line? Eponine is a girl born to abusive parents and is little better than a street urchin. She’s in love with a longtime friend who falls head over heels for a girl he sees walking down the street once. This guy can’t even recognize the affection Eponine has for him until she sacrifices her life to protect him in a revolt and dies in his arms.

I look at Eponine and when I get past her beautiful, fun songs that I belt with the help of our dining room’s acoustics, my eyes can’t help but widen as I say, “What a waste.” What a sad, disappointing life and character.

And yet, out of all the numerous characters in the musical, Eponine is chosen to sing, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” It is Eponine’s love that is revered and memorialized in song. Hers is an unrequited, rejected love that yearns for what can never be fulfilled. Her love ends in abject failure as she takes her dying breath in the arms of a man who does not have a way to satisfy her. But in this failed, foolish love, we are told that Eponine, whether or not she knew it, saw the face of God. Love is the willing of the good of another. It finds its perfection in the laying down of one’s life, something which Eponine did in her daily life and in her final act at the barricade. Even though it was not reciprocated, even though it ended in disaster and tragedy, her love was real. Although that love was not the cozy Hallmark love we all prefer, it was that true love that conformed her to the image of her Creator. Sometimes, to love well is to fail.

Here we are in Advent, which already feels like a season of failure without the added stress of a pandemic. It’s such a gift to have so many resources at our fingertips to observe Advent well. But it can be so easy to see the beautiful devotional journals, Jesse trees, and novenas and believe the lie of the Enemy that you aren’t doing Advent right. Surely there’s something more or different you could be doing, surely your family should be happier, surely there should be more peace in your heart at this sacred time. Every Advent, my rosy, Instagram-inspired dreams for this liturgical season are forced to confront the bag-eyed, disheveled coffee troll who struggles to make it out of the door on time, let alone with time for peaceful contemplation of the babe in the manger. Just yesterday, my prayer was, “Jesus, I feel like a failure.”

Maybe you are failing. Maybe it’s not just Advent either. Maybe you think you’ve failed in discernment. Maybe you think you’ve failed in a relationship. Maybe it’s not just a “Maybe,” but a “definitely” as you see your grades for finals. But failure requires a finite end that is left unaccomplished. For God’s infinite mind and mercy, nothing, not even death on a cross, is an ultimate failure. Edith Stein writes, “We should also be convinced that, in the divine economy of salvation, no sincere effort remains fruitless even when human eyes can see nothing but failures.”2

You see failure in the Jesse tree left unassembled. You see failure in your prayer that was scattered and anxious, no matter how hard you tried to still your heart. You see failure in being single for yet another Christmas or in the wake of a slammed door. But the Lord sees the love which you pour out to your kids who you were running across the city, thus leaving you without time for Pinterest-perfect devotionals. He sees the love in your earnest striving to know Him intimately in prayer, even though mental illness leaves you terrified of silence. He sees the love that overflowed in your heart for the one who never loved you in the same way. He sees your love for Himself that led you to be open to His Will, even if His Will turned out to be quite different from your own expectations.

Edith Stein also writes, “All that we do is a means to an end, but love is an end in itself, because God is love.” Rest assured that no matter how great or humiliating your failure, if you have loved another person, you have seen the face of God. If you press on this Advent with the same zeal to love, no matter how messy that love is, you will arrive at the manger in a few weeks, able to honestly exclaim the other words of Eponine, “You’re here – that’s all I need to know.” Even though Eponine’s love was not reciprocated, Christ is the lover who reciprocates beyond our wildest imagining. He will keep you safe, He will keep you close. His scarred hand makes the flowers grow.

1 “Spirituality of the Christian Woman”

The Legend of Simeon and the Longing of 2020

Long ago, several centuries before the “Gloria” of the angels pierced the Bethlehem sky, 72 scholars were asked to translate the books that would later be known as the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek. After years of scrupulous independent translation, the scholars gathered to share the fruit of their labors. It was here, according to legend, that a linguistic miracle was witnessed: All 72 scholars had translated the books of the Old Testament identically, something which is a near impossibility. But the Holy Spirit had moved in such a way that the words of Scripture were translated identically, word-for-word. That is, except for one.

In the book of Isaiah, there was a line which spoke of the birth of a child, which would be a sign granted by God to an unfaithful people and a doubtful king. All of the translators wrote, “The virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” But there was one scholar who did not write, “Virgin,” choosing instead the phrase, “Young woman.” It is impossible and illogical that a virgin give birth, and God does not speak of impossible and illogical things. Despite the disagreement and opposition from all of the other scholars, this man held firm to his conviction until an angel of the Lord appeared to him. “You shall not die,” the angel declared, “until your very eyes see God’s word fulfilled. For nothing shall be impossible for God.”

Centuries passed. Nations crumbled. The iron rod of Rome only grew stronger. This man watched his world pass away, witnessed the death of his wife, his siblings, his children, and even his grandchildren as he was left waiting and hungering for the fulfillment of a prophecy he did not understand. As Israel was desecrated and spat upon, he pressed into the Lord, placing his trust in the words that his own fingers had written into Greek, the words, “No longer shall you be called ‘Forsaken’, nor your land called ‘Desolate’.” Children starved, men grew sick, women were assaulted, and this man waited for those words of comfort to be actualized.

I wonder if his heart grew bitter in the waiting, seeking to become impenetrable to the cold by closing the shutters of his soul. I’m sure there were seasons over that long life when the Lord had to pry open those windows, when the man could no longer hear God’s soft knocking in the wind, so a bludgeon became God’s only option. I don’t know the details of this man’s interior life. But I know that God won. Because one day, this righteous and devout man overshadowed by the Holy Spirit entered the temple in Jerusalem. As he was in prayer he heard the cry of a newborn infant and his eyes opened to a young woman walking in. “Not a young woman,” he corrected himself, “a virgin.”

We all know the consolation of holding a baby or of looking into the eyes of a mother. But it is hard to fathom the consolation that Simeon encountered as he took the child Jesus into his arms and blessed God, the faithful Father who remembers His promise to us even when we forget or doubt His power. The only greater joy Simeon knew came that night as his ancient soul departed this earth in peace. 33 years later he would gaze into the eyes of Jesus once again, no longer the eyes of an infant, but the eyes of a conqueror and Savior come to walk him from the netherworld to the gates of paradise.

As we enter Advent 2020, I invite you to join me in asking the Lord if you know what it is to long for the coming of the Christ child as Simeon knows what it is to long for Him. This year, I think you do. Although it was not centuries of strife, you know what it is to be cut off from family and friends, to witness intense societal and governmental turmoil. You know what it is to stand outside your church, sitting in your car for hours as you gaze upon the tabernacle and wait for the fulfillment of God’s word that He makes all things new and that you are called to His supper.

You know what it is to finally enter the temple and to take God into your arms once more. You know what it is to hear the “Alleluia” ring from your tongue alongside your Catholic brothers and sisters. Perhaps you know the tears of joy or the gift of laughter that the Lord sometimes gives as you received the Eucharist after months of exile and yearning.

And perhaps you, like me, know what it is to have forgotten already. You have joined the centuries of God’s people who are rescued from Egypt only to create idols and grow bitter against the Lord. Maybe you’ve been able to go to Mass every Sunday since your church reopened in June, but your heart is still in Holy Saturday, shuttered away from the light, distant from God.

This Advent, He is calling you back. He is calling you to hunger for His heart and to remember the love you once had, a love that has perhaps grown cold in the iciness of this past year. But the Lord knows that this year has made you tired and weary and that His call might seem paralyzing. So He’s not asking you to move anywhere. He’s coming to you. He’s coming escorted by the whisper of a girl’s “Fiat” that still resonates on the waves of the air today. He’s coming in poverty, embracing a manger so that he can be one with you in your physical struggle from this economically trying year. He’s coming rejected, born alone so that you are not alone in this upcoming Christmas that will be marked by isolation for many. He’s coming surrounded by animals and dung so that he can embrace you even in your sin and brokenness that has become so manifest this year. He’s coming to die for you because regardless of your struggles in 2020, your life is of infinite value to His infant eyes.

This is Advent: Sitting in deep pain and darkness and rather than reaching or running, allowing Him to turn on the light. It is waiting in the temple or in parking lot Adoration with tears streaming down your face as you say over and over, “I don’t understand you, but I trust you.” It is waiting for the consolation of Israel or the coming of the Kingdom even as buildings burn and children die.

For our entire lifetimes, we have sung, “Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel,” fully taking for granted that in less than an hour, He will come and we will receive Him. After this year, we know that we can never take His presence for granted again. Let us enter this new liturgical year thirstier than ever before for the dew that rains down the just one. Let us be unafraid of our poverty in 2020, trusting rather, in our Bridegroom who comes down to be poor with us. Then our empty hands will be ready to hold him and our parched tongue prepared to sing,

Now, Master, you may let your servant go
in peace, according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you prepared in sight of all the peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel.

Dies Pulchrae

“My Master,” he says, “has forewarned me. Daily He announces more distinctly, – ‘Surely I come quickly!’ and hourly I more eagerly respond, – ‘Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!'”

Thus concludes Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and it’s one of those endings to a novel that makes me fall in love with reading all over again. The Lord continues to woo me through that spark of His perfect mind that resides in the written word. In Jane Eyre, it’s the realization that beauty is made from literal ashes, that the human person can go through countless struggles and finally encounter happiness. Through that book, I am also reminded that our ultimate happiness lies in the next world and it is a happiness which we need to courageously prepare for while we labor through this vale of tears.

Tomorrow marks the final page of the novel that is the liturgical year, the Solemnity of Christ the King. For the last several weeks, the Church has been preparing us for Christ’s Second Coming through Scripture that speaks of the end times and our need to be prepared for those days. This is the real reason why I’m not ready to pull out the Christmas decorations quite yet. There’s something about this season that has captivated my heart for the last several years and provided me with deep peace even in turmoil. And I owe that to Jane Eyre.

But it’s not just Jane Eyre. It’s every experience that I’ve had with beauty. I should be afraid of the Last Judgment. And I’m fully aware of the gravity of that moment. I’ve had the gift of chanting the Dies Irae, or Day of Wrath with my home parish’s sacred choir. It’s a sequence from the old Requiem Mass:

That day of wrath, that dreadful day,
shall heaven and earth in ashes lay,
as David and the Sybil say.
What horror must invade the mind
when the approaching Judge shall find
and sift the deeds of all mankind!

But while those words are indeed horror-provoking, here’s the thing: I’ve also heard the music that accompanies those words. From the austere yet indulgent lean and pull of the chant, to the overpowering grandeur and triumph of Mozart’s rendition, this very song has been a conduit of beauty into my soul.

When I fell in love with Jesus in a new and overwhelming way just before my freshman year of high school, it was in a large part due to my family’s vacation out west. I remember gazing into the Milky Way that was visible over Yellowstone National Park. As I stared into the swirl of light overshadowing the night-blackened trees, the Holy Spirit revealed to me that if this was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, the One who placed those stars in the sky had to be far more beautiful.

When I look back on dancing the Grand Pas de Deux from Nutcracker, it was the beauty of dance, storytelling, and music all converging into one that made that such a vital experience. Ballet has been a vessel of the Lord’s love poured out to me as I am invited to not only watch, but co-create beauty.

Why am I not afraid of the end of the world? Because of the sunset that I witness every night. Because of those deep pinks and reds that form a palisade of streaks around the golden clouds. Because of the promise that when night falls, beauty rises. One day, there will be a final sunset and from those clouds will descend the Source of all Beauty. It is Beauty who will judge mankind.

And I should tremble at that prospect. But I’ve seen the Source of all Beauty before. I see Him every Sunday when He descends from heaven and is lifted up from the earth in the hands of a priest. I see Him still and silent in the golden monstrance that is exposed in the chapel day and night. By all means we must fight sin and be alert and ready for that moment when we meet our Maker upon death. But I also believe that the Eucharist exists so that we can meet our Maker now, so that we come close to Him in His littleness and vulnerability and so that He can show us our own littleness and vulnerability. In the Eucharist, we are invited to Eden where we are spiritually naked and yet unashamed. We are invited to drink deeply of Beauty Himself, to allow Beauty to flow through our veins and be breathed out to the whole world.

The Saints repeatedly exhort us to to remember that the only thing to fear in life and death is sin. As you reflect on Christ’s Second Coming this weekend and throughout Advent, examine your conscience. Find a time to go to Confession. But as you examine yourself and see your abject failure, rejoice in the One whose perfect love casts out fear. Allow yourself to be overpowered by the reality that the day of wrath will also be the day of beauty, or in Latin, dies pulchrae.

That balletic line, that imagery in Rosetti’s poetry, that ritardando in E’en So Lord Jesus, Quickly Come (my favorite piece I ever sang in choir), is merely a foretaste of the wonder that awaits us. The One who has created that beauty is coming soon. May His imminent embrace inspire hope in these dark days.

Poetry: “A’slumber in the Smoke”

Well, even by 2020 standards, it’s been an anxiety-provoking week. Regardless of your stance on politics, the tension surrounding the presidential election has been felt everywhere you go and as if that wasn’t stressful enough, COVID-19 cases only continue to rise.

I certainly have thoughts and opinions about all of the above, but does the world really need my two cents about these topics? Personally, I’ve deleted all of my social media from my phone for the purpose of not having to hear so many opinions, hot takes, and arguments, so I have no desire to throw my hat in the ring.

But on this crazy evening, I can offer what gave me so much comfort throughout high school: poetry. Every week, my Great Books class would open with the reading of a poem. We didn’t hotly debate the poem like we did so many other topics. We weren’t even encouraged to have the most intellectual commentary about the poem. We would merely read it and find something about the work that drew our attention. No matter how ill-prepared I was for the rest of our class, no matter how distracted I was by exterior fears, for those twenty to thirty minutes of poetry conversation, I could rest in my fascination with language and its ability to create landscapes in the mind.

So tonight, instead of a regular post, I want to share a poem that I wrote back in September. It’s nothing compared to the masterpieces I read in Great Books, but as it’s written about resting in the midst of uncertainty, I thought it would be appropriate to share. Maybe when you’re done reading, look up some poetry on your bookshelf or on your PC. If you need some recommendations, Christina Rosetti and John Donne are two of my favorite poets, but of course you can never go wrong with masters like Shakespeare and Dickinson. Grab a cup of tea and candle if you want the aesthetic, but for however long you read, allow yourself to rest in the words you encounter. Are there any lines that stand out? Any images that inspire you? Emotions that align with yours? You deserve rest, friend. Don’t be afraid to seek it out through the goodness, truth, and beauty displayed by the English language.

And now, onto tonight’s poem, titled, March Twenty-Seventh, Two Thousand and Twenty, after the date of Pope Francis’ Urbi et Orbi address.

Oh Master down within
The cellar of this boat
How soundly you remain 
A'slumber in the smoke

You do not seem to mind
How far we are from shore
For nothing stirs your head
Not screams, nor torrent roar

I cannot stay above
Much longer in this storm
The waves are crashing o'er
The deck's begun to burn

So I will run within
The cellar of this boat
Where still is heard the wind
And felt the sting of smoke

But here I see your eyes
E'en though they're tightly closed
I'll lean upon your breast
And trust you don't oppose

Oh Master of the depths
You hear me when I cry
But since you choose to sleep
In peace near you I'll lie

Why College Board Should Pay Attention to National Vocation Awareness Week

Ah, the first week of November. Buckets of Halloween candy are still overflowing. Every four years, an election is taking place. Christmas commercials have begun to sneak onto TVs and YouTube ads while families begin to earnestly discuss Thanksgiving plans. And for every youth group goer, the familiar strain of Chris Tomlin’s, “I Will Follow” resounds alongside videos of priests skateboarding and nuns sledding, all accompanied by whispered threats to start a drinking game if Father says “Be not afraid” in his homily one more time.1

Starting tomorrow, National Vocation Awareness Week is upon us.

For those who aren’t familiar with the week, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops defines the first week of November as, “an annual week-long celebration of the Catholic Church in the United States dedicated to promote vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and consecrated life through prayer and education, and to renew our prayers and support for those who are considering one of these particular vocations.” And while I write about it with a light-hearted snark, in reality, I am so grateful for this beautiful gift and effort on the part of our bishops. We are all ready to do anything to alter the vocation crisis in the Church, and hopefully our experience of the acrid separation from the Sacraments over the Spring has only fueled this desire in our souls. While seminary numbers remain deeply concerning, Vocation Ministry reports that in 2018, “the United States gained more religious sisters than it lost.” So although effective means of vocation outreach must be discussed and discerned, clearly we’re doing something right.

But what impact does National Vocation Awareness Week have on society at large, if any? The concept of priestly and religious vocations remains an enigma to the secular world, which only has The Exorcist, The Sound of Music, or Lifetime’s The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns2 as context for these ways of life. This week, young people fully immersed in secular culture have the opportunity to tangibly encounter the idea of Vocation, to be presented with the possibility of a radical call to poverty, chastity, and obedience. But at the heart of National Vocation Awareness Week is a call perhaps more radical in the 21st century than any of the above listed evangelical counsels: The call to slow down.

Starting as early as middle school, youth are asked to begin seriously considering their futures. High school freshmen still struggling to find any sense of identity take academic classes with test scores in mind and fifteen-year-old sophomores taking the PSAT for their first time are asked to bubble in a chosen potential major. At an increasingly younger age, students are required to think significantly forward into a hypothetical future, asked to consider not only occupation and academic prestige of college, but desired location to live, possibility for grad school, and plan for paying off inevitable student loan debt. Although gap years have become more frequent, young people choosing this route still face significant judgment and questioning.

Society forces itself further and further into a future that it tries to predict, but is really only known by God. There’s certainly nothing wrong with planning for the future and using one’s present gifts to prepare for the next steps in life, but this becomes problematic when students are led to believe that the next steps are the only thing of value. We’re told that middle school is a preparation for high school, high school for college, college for a job and hopefully MRS degree, post-college for family and job advancement, job advancement for retirement. As society continues to more rampantly advertise “next steps,” young people are led, either explicitly or subconsciously, to equate their value with accomplishments that will aid them in those fleeting and increasingly unsatisfying next steps.

But this is not the case in vocational discernment. The goal of vocation ministry, whether through this upcoming week, a conference-style retreat, or simple conversation with a student, is not to see a drastic uptick in habits, collars, or wedding rings the following week. Although there are certainly exceptions, most vocations aren’t fully revealed until after college. Middle school and high school youth ministers are most certainly aware of that fact. Yet middle school and high school students are invited to openness to marriage, the priesthood, or the consecrated life as a method of planting seeds. Vocation ministry initially sets out to bring a young person in contact with the God of the present moment, and in touch with themselves, not as a future priest in the diocese of Scranton, but as a high schooler who has just heard Christ’s words about “Fishers of men” in a way he never has before.

As I researched for this article, I visited the vocations webpage for the Sisters of Life. The first sentence on that page is not about retreat information or a contact form. It is the simple and profound declaration that, “The God who created the universe and called everything into existence, loved you into being.” A Vocation is a call that emanates love. It is an invitation to lived intimacy and it is something that no grade, test score, or other achievement can affect. It is also something that takes time to discover. This is difficult to impress on us Gen-Zers who have been told to start formulating a life plan since eighth grade. And yet why have teenagers whose brains have not even fully developed been expected to have a career and home life planned before they enter adulthood?

What a gift it would be if the general public took note of National Vocation Awareness Week and its emphasis before anything else on prayer and self-growth. If it saw the Church’s understanding of the inherent dignity of the human person and a soul’s capacity to reflect goodness, truth, and beauty into this dark world regardless of grades or plans for the future. At the end of the day, we are human souls, incarnate thirsts yearning for the Fountain of eternal life3, not numbers assigned by the College board, or transcripts reviewed by a college. How drastic it would be for the education of children to return to the end of cultivation of virtue and love of wisdom rather than the end of a diploma.

One of my favorite quotes about discernment is, “Our God is a God of journeys, not of destination.” A seminarian once explained that it’s celebrated when a young man leaves the seminary, because that means he’s closer to finding God’s will for him. In a world so focused on end goals, let’s spend this week learning from the Church of the easy yoke of our Master who makes our crooked lines and failings straight. Let’s entrust ourselves more fully to the present moment. You don’t know if you’ll get into your dream school. You don’t know if you’ll meet your spouse this year. You don’t know if tomorrow is promised to you. But you do know that regardless of your state in life, today, your Vocation is to love. Let us love as fools in the world’s eyes.

Oh, and while you’re at it, pray for an increase in vocations to the priesthood, religious life, matrimony, permanent diaconate, and consecrated single life. Consider donating to your diocese’s seminarian fund or to the Laboure Society, which fundraises to pay off student loan debt for those entering religious life. And if you’re feeling the nudge, reach out to your diocese’s vocation office or a religious community this week. It’s just an email.

1 – Or maybe that was just me

2 – It’s actually better than you would think

3 – Allusion to Thomas Dubay

October 29th, 2016

The church was almost pitch black with the exception of the flickering lighter. As sobs shook my entire chest, I remember being so grateful for the privacy of the darkness. Slowly however, the lights began to turn on and my friend Izzy was understandably concerned by my state. “Are you ok?” she asked.

“Oh yeah,” I replied with a snotty smile. “These are good tears.”

Those were the tears of a girl who had been healed.

When I was five or six, my parents excitedly told us that they were expecting baby number four. It’s hard to put into words the joy that little girls experience hearing about a new baby. There were the hours of excited parades around the house, the requests to read books about unborn children, the many questions about the size of the baby.

I still remember that Hannah was the size of a peanut when she was miscarried. A couple years later, the same thing happened to Angel.

I wish those nights weren’t some of my more vivid memories. But we wish for lots of things in this broken world. I still struggle to understand why the deaths of these babies I didn’t even meet affected me so deeply, although maybe it’s self-evident. But I think that aside from the obvious sorrow over losing family, it was the first time that little Larisa realized that there were problems that adults couldn’t solve. There was grief that affected adults. And because of that, because I knew that the adults in my family were suffering and struggling, I thought that it would be most helpful if I stayed out of the way. The last thing they needed was another kid to worry about.

I should add that all of those thoughts were completely created by my brain and probably by Satan as well. My parents were so loving and gentle with us during those times. But I felt the need to be strong for both my parents and my two younger sisters. And so I tried to hide any emotions I felt about losing Hannah and Angel. I shut so much away.

I struggled from time to time with survivor’s guilt, wondering why I was alive and they weren’t. But life moved forward and with it, beautiful gifts. My rainbow sister, Ieva came flying into the world after four hours of labor and she hasn’t stopped flying around since with her boundless energy and sweet, tender heart. The bond she and I share is one of my dearest joys. Two years after Ieva came Jacinta. Even though I silently suffered from deep anxiety during both of their pregnancies, those two give me strength, happiness, and comfort (along with plenty of sanctification) on my darkest days.

I was able to move forward in life, not thinking too much about the part of me that died when my siblings did. But occasionally that wound would fester. On Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day in my freshman year, I finally came to my parents in tears to explain that I still missed the babies so much. It was October 15th, 2016, and at 14, I was having that conversation for the first time. It was a beautiful conversation and I’m so glad that the Blessed Mother gave me the courage to finally open up. But even after being held so tightly by my Dad, I went up the stairs that night still feeling heavy, still knowing that my heart needed a healing that I didn’t know how to achieve.

Just a matter of weeks later, I found myself on my parish’s high school Antioch Retreat Weekend. Still the Jesus freak that I’ve been since day one, I had been excited for this retreat for months. But I was excited to fill out a check box. I was excited to take a weekend where I could learn more about Jesus and how to love Him better. It frankly never occurred to me that Jesus would want to use that weekend to serve me and not the other way around.

If I’m being honest, it was a mostly rough weekend. My mental health wasn’t great, I had never before encountered such vulnerability among people my age, and things were going so much differently than I had envisioned. Eighth grade had been an incredibly difficult year and I entered that weekend still crippled by a pain that left me hungering for control.

But on Saturday night, the words of our youth minister Bob became an instrument of the Holy Spirit to open my eyes to the merciful gifts that the Lord had in store for me that night. I knelt at the front of the sanctuary against the wood of the first pew and with a grace over my heart1 that could only be from the Holy Spirit, I physically saw Jesus fall beneath His Cross for me.

Around the age when Angel died, my favorite Bible verse was Isaiah 53:5, “By his stripes we are healed.” The vivid imagery of the word, “stripe,” caught my attention as a little girl, as well as a very childlike (and therefore wiser than today) understanding that because God Himself suffered for me, I can be healed. But as another youth minister read Isaiah 53 aloud, the Holy Spirit allowed me to be enveloped by that verse, to know the unfathomable depths of Christ’s mercy in a way that I never had before. That night, Christ showed me so tenderly that He had borne my suffering during His Passion. He revealed to this girl so paralyzed by perfectionism that He was not asking me to perform for Him. Rather, He was asking for me to surrender all my anxiety, fear, and grief to Him and to leave it in His pierced hands forever.

I could spend hours writing about the beauty and freedom that the Lord was breathing into my heart over the course of that penance service, but I’ll spare you the snotty details (y’all, I cried so much that night). I will share that all of us teens had been given a small piece of paper at the beginning of Saturday night. We were invited to write down anything that we wanted to surrender to the Lord, and to put it on a nail on the Cross that had been carried into the sanctuary. Those instructions came somewhat later in the evening though. So before I learned the actual function for the paper, it had been used first as a Kleenex and then as a list of sins to bring to Confession. And what a gift, because I was able to literally see my snot and tears and sin nailed to the Cross, as well as all the burdens I had been carrying for so long. That list of burdens was long, just as it is for every human. But I definitively remember writing, “Hannah and Angel” on that tiny piece of paper. It’s the only thing I journaled about for the entire night.

At the very end of that evening, the already dimmed lights grew darker as a youth minister went over to the Cross that held myriad little papers. He knelt down with a lighter and individually held each paper, which was actually flash paper, to the fire. For a split second, each paper was enveloped in flame. And then it was gone.

Youth retreats are hard to explain, because without the context of the Holy Spirit, they sound weird and kitschy. Ok, youth retreats ARE weird and kitschy without the Holy Spirit. But while the burning of paper has no real power, as I watched that flash paper disappear in thin air, the Father invited me to live in the joy of the Resurrection. He showed that He had the power to take away my grief forever and to transform my life so that my Cross was no longer a mere instrument of torture, but a means to the most profound love story possible. In that moment, all the wounds inflicted by the loss of my siblings were healed. I was free.

Two years later, I would be helping to put on that same retreat. In the talk I gave, I briefly mentioned Hannah and Angel and I remember fighting through tears to reach the end of that sentence. But this time, those tears were not the same tears of grief and confusion that I had known for so many years. They were tears of joy, tears of a hope that knows that at every Mass, I worship with the entire Body of Christ, which includes my miscarried siblings. They were the tears of a soul who knows that the Kingdom of God is at hand and that she is only a matter of pages away from the beginning of that One True Story, of a heaven where we will laugh together yet.2 On this World Ballet Day, I smile because four years ago, Jesus turned my mourning into dancing.

It took a lot of nudging from the Holy Spirit to write this. The impact of miscarriage on siblings doesn’t seem to be talked about much, so it’s hard to know what exactly to say. But I know that while Jesus would have died for me if I was the only one to exist, He also heals for the sake of His entire Body. And so I want to magnify the Lord’s greatness that I experienced four years ago. I want to share with you the truth that healing from loss is possible. I want you to know that if you have been affected by the death of an unborn child, there is nothing wrong with you for the way you have reacted. You are not alone in your big or small emotions. You are not alone in your questions.

And you are certainly not alone in carrying that Cross. There is another who walks beside you even now, whose arm is entwined with yours as you stumble to Calvary. He is the One who has borne your pain and endured your sufferings. He is the One who holds your sister or brother in the palm of His hand. As you grieve, as you search in the tomb, know that He holds that same hand out to you. Why do you seek the dead among the living?

Sweet friend, don’t be afraid to step into the Resurrection.

But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.Isaiah 53:5

1 – It was a skit that I started watching by thinking, “This is cheesy, do they really expect us to get something from this?” Four years later, here we are.

2 – Adapted from C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien

Your Neighbor was on TV on Thursday

When I was checking out our Gospel for this Sunday, I’ll be honest that I completely skimmed it. It’s on par with the Parable of the Sower, one you’ve heard so often that you can practically predict the priest’s homily verbatim. This Sunday’s Gospel is Matthew 22:34-40, when the scholar asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment, and Jesus responds,

“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

We’ve been hearing this passage since we were preschoolers drooling in front of another episode of Veggie Tales. But here we are, just over a week away from a presidential election in 2020. And I think everyone, including myself, needs to bear in mind that second commandment as we talk about our presidential candidates.

You don’t have to like President Trump. You don’t have to agree with all of his policies or decisions over the last four years. Since emotions aren’t objectively good or bad, you can feel whatever emotions you feel towards him. But he is your neighbor.

You don’t have to like former Vice President Joe Biden. You don’t have to agree with all of his policies or decisions over the last several decades. Since emotions aren’t objectively good or bad, you can feel whatever emotions you feel towards him. But he is your neighbor.

Before they are politicians, public figures, or images used for memes, they are men loved into existence by the God of the universe. When the Second Person of the Trinity became a zygote in the womb of the Virgin, he became a zygote for Biden. He fled to Egypt for Trump. He preached for these men. He suffered for these sons. In every moment of Christ’s agony, He saw and loved and offered Himself for Biden. As He took His final ragged breath, it was taken for Trump. Christ was born for all. Christ lived for all. Christ died for all. And “all” includes the politicians whose humanity we so readily forget.

It makes sense why it’s easy to dehumanize politicians. It’s not like I’ve ever sat down with the President for coffee and had a nice heart-to-heart with him. Our votes this election aren’t for which candidate we’re better friends with. Our votes are for policies and for the creation of a government in which all have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And as we hope and fear for our own rights and the rights of others, it’s natural to become so focused on policy that we forget that those who govern our nation are, for better or for worse, not robots. They are not cartoon figures that we are allowed to mock and belittle. They are our neighbors. They are neighbors who may or may not love the Lord, their God, but who are most certainly loved by Him to the point of death.

If Jesus died for our presidential candidates just as He died for us, He rose for our presidential candidates just as He rose for us. This means that it should be our hope and prayer to one day meet Donald Trump and Joe Biden at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. “Are they worthy of that feast?” you (and I) ask. That’s not the question at hand. The question is, “Are you worthy?” Have you conducted yourself in such a way that when you enter into the Communion of Saints and therefore into a profound union with the souls of these fellow neighbors, you will be able to do so shamelessly? Will you be able to worship Christ alongside them without the guilt of a cruel comment, rude statement, judgmental sigh, or vindictive Instagram story share?

As for me, I praise God for the Confessional. But I want to do more than simply sigh and add another snide remark to the list. I want to do more than congratulate myself for not being like THOSE pharisees who are making death threats on Twitter. I want to love heroically. I want to be passionate about my desires for the country without losing my passion for the souls of every human, for the souls of Biden and Trump. Because if the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves, how sorry would it be for me to vote in the name of love but refuse to love the neighbor presented so vulnerably on television with faults for all to see?

As we near the end of 2020, I’m tired, and aren’t we all. But the dehumanization of men created in God’s image and likeness merely exacerbates our weariness. Today is St. Anthony Mary Claret’s Feast Day, and he writes, “Because he is concerned also for his neighbor, the man of zeal works to fulfill his desire that all men be content on this earth and happy and blessed in their heavenly homeland, that all may be saved, and that no one may perish for ever, or offend God, or remain even for a moment in sin.” We must continue to canvass, protest injustice, and advocate for the future of our nation. But as Christians, we are called to be that sign of contradiction so little understood by the secular world. We are called to be Christ who prays and mortifies and offers Himself for both His friends and His enemies. I have a challenge for you this weekend. As you go to Mass, offer it for whichever candidate you find more difficult to love or see as human.

One of my favorite quotes was spoken to me and 400 of my closest friends at Destination Jesus 2019 by a Sister of Life: “God doesn’t just love you. He likes you.” When you reach the end of your life and see the Father for the first time, He will love you. He will like you. But in that moment your infinitely good Judge will present you with every human being you have known, either personally or through the media. Praise God, He won’t ask you, “Did you like him?” But He will ask, “Did you love him?” May our timelines, feeds, and tongues bow in docility to Christ’s command to love our neighbor.

Called to Conversion: What I mean when I say, “This Changed My Life.”

“This changed my life.”

It’s a sentence that I find coming from my lips more and more frequently. For a long time, I feared the phrase, “life changing,” because I didn’t want to hyperbolize. As someone who has become overwhelmed by the goodness of pumpkin pie pop tarts, I sometimes need to keep my passionate reactions in check.

There are some moments and experiences that have unquestionably changed me. There were painful experiences like moving cross country or losing family members. There were huge decisions like switching ballet studios in eighth grade or accepting this traineeship. There were the books I read like Perelandra, by C.S. Lewis which changed my perception of spiritual warfare and the Christian life, or Captivating, by John and Stasi Eldredge that opened my eyes to previously unchartered facets of my own soul and the Lord’s heart. There were the spiritual encounters like falling in love with the Eucharist in a whole new way while on a vacation out West or attending the Destination Jesus retreat in my junior year.

But then there are the smaller moments. The one sentence whispered by Jesus in a Holy Hour on an ordinary Friday evening. The casual conversation with a friend where the Holy Spirit moved powerfully. There was Brideshead Revisited which taught me how to self-examine and evangelize and become pierced by the transcendent in ways I hadn’t previously encountered. And I’ve come to realize that my list of “life changing moments” grows on a regular basis. I’m not Saul being knocked off his horse every other week. But the One who blinded Saul is the same One I converse with every time I enter prayer. And shouldn’t every encounter with Infinite Goodness be life changing?

St. Therese famously writes, “You cannot be half a Saint; You must be a whole Saint or no Saint at all.” To be a Saint is to run back to the Father and away from our self-centeredness and worldliness daily. It requires constant conversion, constant cooperation with the Holy Spirit to change one’s life a little more every day. Fortunately we have all the grace sufficient for this call to conversion, for this invitation to press even more deeply into the heart of Jesus.

Because every day we have the opportunity for our lives to be changed. We can let ourselves be captivated by the beauty of this autumn weather and hear the personalized homily that Christ preaches through nature. We can be attentive to the words the Holy Spirit whispers at a red light. We can immerse ourselves in media that teaches us to love the Lord in new ways. If it wasn’t for a single Instagram post explaining an aspect of Eucharistic devotion that I read the summer after eighth grade, my life would look very different. And every day, we can reach out like the hemorrhaging woman, coming to the feet of the Master through Scripture and the Sacraments. You might not notice a tangible change. Be grateful that every period of prayer is not like Saturday night adoration at a youth conference, because that would be exhausting. But know that whether or not you feel like prayer is transforming you, the Lord is moving in unspeakably beautiful ways over the waters of your soul every time you approach Him.

So today, I invite you to join me in praying, “Jesus, open my eyes to the way you want to change my life today.” And take some time to consider the things that have changed your life. Don’t be afraid of a long list. That doesn’t mean that you’re inauthentic in your answers or overexaggerating your own conversion. It simply means that you belong to a merciful God who didn’t come to save you one Saturday night in Steubenville. He comes to save you and transform you every day, if you only give Him permission. He has a goodness that cannot be overexaggerated.

Dear Weeping Heart: St. Therese and the Pro-Life Movement

White crosses dot the field in front of the Dominican parish near my house, their small planks crudely nailed together. In a harsh reminder of the cross’s brutish nature, little white sticks sprout from the grass like a spring prairie that was deformed. These are not the beautiful crosses you encounter at Hobby Lobby. These are markers for those who do not have graves. These are reminders of the murdered unborn.

It’s easy to become numb to abortion statistics just like it is to any large casualty rate. We get excited when abortion numbers drop by the thousands, forgetting that the new number still leaves thousands of babies killed by abortion every day. But there are moments when the reality of abortion presses upon you, whether that is when you connect the number 3000 with the words, “babies who die daily,” see an image of an aborted child, or hear the testimony of a post-abortive woman. And that reality can crush you as you realize that despite the adrenaline of the March for Life, the success of Unplanned, or political gain for the pro-life movement, 61 million children are dead and in trash cans.

Despite the excitement seen on social media for every pro-life victory, there can be a lot of hopelessness in the intense uphill battle that we have had to fight since 1973. A couple years ago I was in Adoration after a local January march, and despite the excitement of the crowd and the cheers at the rally as pro-life legislation was explained, all I saw before me in the chapel was my Bible open to Psalm 22. It’s the prayer of an innocent person, the prayer of one considered to not be human, whose heart melts within him, whose bones are disjointed as he is laid aside to die. I grew angry as the psalmist praised God for his coming deliverance, because I knew that as I read that psalm, there was a baby being murdered. And there was no deliverance for him.

As I wrote this post, I sat right here on the page, my cursor blinking in exasperated anticipation. Because what more is there to say? We can press forward in fighting abortion and providing hope and help to the women currently in crisis pregnancies, but how do we account for the tens of millions of children who our society failed?

Love is strong as Death.1 Perhaps the answer to this tragedy lies in St. Therese of Lisieux’s Offering to Merciful Love.

I was never wild about St. Therese2 until I read 33 Days to Merciful Love by Fr. Michael Gaitley. Like Fr. Gaitley’s preparation for Marian Consecration, this personal retreat prepares the reader for the same consecration that St. Therese created, the Offering of Love. Therese writes,

“Oh, my God! …Will it be only Your Justice that will receive souls that offer themselves as sacrificial victims?…Doesn’t Your Merciful Love need them as well?…Everywhere it is misunderstood, rejected. The hearts into which You desire to pour it are turned toward created things…instead of throwing themselves into Your arms…It seems to me that if You found souls that were offering themselves as sacrificial victims to Your Love, You would consume them rapidly… Oh, my Jesus! Let me be that happy victim; consume your sacrifice through the fire of Your Divine Love!”

The Story of a Soul

The covenant of Therese’s offering entails far more than this post could go into,3 but at its heart is this cry to console the heart of Jesus by accepting all of the graces rejected by those who have shut themselves off from the Lord and His tender mercy. The Lord has oceans of grace and mercy reserved for each soul, but so often that torrent cannot be released because of a soul’s unwillingness to accept. So Therese asks that all of Christ’s rejected love and grace be poured into her own soul for the sake of the sinners who have rejected Christ, as well as for Jesus, who so desperately loves but is so little loved in return.

There are unseen depths of love and grace that were reserved for each baby who never got to take a breath. It was not God’s plan for a child to be murdered within her own mother. That baby was created by Love to pursue Love with her whole being over the course of a long life. And that baby, that innocent person crying out in Psalm 22, may not have been pursued by her parents or by a world that so ruthlessly lies about the existence of human life. But even in her final, painful moment she was ardently pursued and passionately loved by her Maker.

I think it would be the greatest honor that we could give to each aborted baby to ask God for the graces that He was prepared to bestow on that soul for what was intended to be a long life. These sweet souls are in the hands of God and no longer in need of strength to finish the race well. But those of us who live in this valley of tears and culture entrenched in the jaws of death? We need all the grace and strength we can receive on this slow, painful, uphill battle against Roe.

I can no longer do anything about the babies who were silently slaughtered today in my city. But I can throw myself before the jealous God whose heart is broken by the weeping of Rachel. I can ask to console His tender, battered heart by asking for the graces no longer needed by the battered bodies in Planned Parenthood. I can allow these forsaken children who never had a chance to change the world to live, in a sense, through me, as I fight for a world in which abortion is unthinkable and denounced for the depravity that it is. The Lord desires that we ask boldly for His grace, His spirit, His love. Today, I invite you to ask boldly through the intercession of the innocent unborn for the unfathomable graces that the Lord never had a chance to give. And as you are overshadowed by His merciful love, ask for the strength and perseverance to do whatever it takes to end abortion.

St. Therese writes, “I know that Jesus…wouldn’t inspire in me the desires that I feel if He didn’t want to fulfill them…” I desire justice for victims of abortion. I desire a culture of life. Come, Holy Spirit.

With Love,

Larisa

1 – Song of Songs 8:6

2 – Gotta find some way to be a rebel in the Catholic home school world

3 – Please, I am begging you, include this book in your next 2020 Amazon impulse spree. The consecration has been one of the deepest gifts that the Lord has ever given me. Also, Fr. Gaitley explains Therese’s theology far better than I ever could. So if this post bothers you or confuses you, read the book. If you love this post, read the book. If you are a human being, read the book.

Let Me Lead

One of my favorite parts of ballet is Pas de Deux, or dancing with a partner. The intricacy of weight transfer and coordination between the two dancers brings joy to my analytic side, the thrill of being thrown in the air or turned seven times is what every little girl dreams of, and the rich artistry and storytelling intrinsic to performed pas are the experiences I come back to every time the road is long and hard. An interesting difference between partnering in classical ballet and other forms of partnered dance, like swing or ballroom, is that the female dancer is the one calling the majority of the shots. The man is responsible for those extra turns or for getting the girl up in the air, but when it comes to timing and execution of steps, the man is mostly at the mercy of the woman – this becomes abundantly clear if you’ve forgotten the combination while doing it. 

It’s a comforting thing to be in control. As long as you have an experienced partner to support you, there’s there’s the knowledge that you’re responsible for what your legs are doing, and therefore the timing and outcome of your arabesque, turn, and even lift, are mostly up to you. Enough drive of the supporting leg will ensure a stable developpe. The amount of pressure in the hand will dictate the success of your pirouette after a promenade. 

But some things aren’t as certain. There was a recurring lift in a recent performance which involved jumping forward and trusting that my partner would be there to lift me onto his shoulder and keep me up there. There was a turn in The Nutcracker which required only slight movement after reaching out as far as possible on pointe.* And in those moments, you can think of all the right things and make sure you’re doing your part. But there’s also that split second when you can’t know the outcome. Whether you’re in the air or doing a chasse penche, there’s the possibility that your next location will be the ground or ice bucket. But you trust your training. You trust your partner. And so you leap, or step out, or flip upside down. And the result? Well, it’s pretty fun.

A few months ago, my heart was aching in Adoration as I wrestled with some of my deepest desires. I began to go down the rabbit hole of playing out all possible scenarios, some positive, some negative, as my mind raced for solutions to my problems and as I tried to see the potential future. Jesus was so patient in the monstrance, watching me try to sort it all out, completely forgetting about His Presence as I tried to take on the role of Divine Author. But finally, He broke in, whispering the simplest words to my weary soul: “Let me lead.”

“Let me lead.”

I would love to know my story like I know my favorite book – the pages well-read, the good parts dog-eared, key phrases highlighted. Or I’d like to know the Lord’s plan like I know my First Arabesque line and supporting leg. But that is not what I am invited to. I am invited to that hovering between the ground and my partner’s shoulder, to that impetus before a grande saut de chat where you’re not allowed to carry yourself forward, no matter how much you love to travel by yourself. I am invited to that tender moment after the pas when you are walked forward to the audience by your partner. I am invited to let Him lead.

Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Matthew, a tax collector and traitor whose life was changed by a single glance and the invitation, “Follow me.” I’m struck by the mere two words that brought Matthew to Christ that day. Jesus did not say, “Follow me to the local Starbucks for a brief Onboarding Apostle orientation. Follow me and I’ll inspire you to write one of the Gospels. Follow me and be one of my first Bishops. Follow me and, yes, things will be hard, but good will come out of your suffering in this exact way.” No, Jesus does not offer explanation. He does not make promises. The only promise He makes is the gift of His friendship, the gift of Himself. And that is enough for Matthew.

Today, the same hand that points to Matthew points to me. The same eyes beckon. The same voice calls, “Follow me.” He does not promise healing in the exact way I desire. He does not guarantee that my yearnings will be satisfied in the way that I long for – He is too good of a Father to give me mudcakes when the sea is at hand.** But He offers Himself, His skilled hand that has danced in rapture over Creation since the beginning of time. He offers to lead. And there can be no better partner.

So today I will leap even when I cannot see. I will follow Jesus to whatever end. I’ll let Him lead.

*- Ok, so ballet is much prettier to watch than it is to read

**- Your C.S. Lewis allusion for the day

This was the song I was praying with this morning on this topic