The Hierarchy of Suffering

This meme has been going around like wildfire lately. It expresses the common idea that the way not to judge others for their struggles is to think that maybe they are not as strong as you are. On the surface, the intention is great. The idea is to encourage people not to judge others’ suffering. Every time I see it though, or hear someone express the idea it visualizes, I get so frustrated about the more subtle issue with this idea.

In the picture, one dog is smaller than the other dog. There’s nothing wrong with that, he’s a Jack Russell terrier, they are meant to be smaller than a Golden Retriever. Of course, the mud comes up much farther on the Jack Russell Terrier than it does on the Golden Retriever because the Golden is taller. In the same way, many people comfort others who compare their struggles to others saying, “Maybe God gave you this cross because you are strong enough to carry it,” “Maybe she just couldn’t handle what you are going through,” and other variants of you-must-be-stronger-than-them-because-their-struggle-is-smaller-than-yours. That’s where I struggle.

There is this idea that there is a hierarchy of suffering. My dislocated elbow is not as intense as my friends breast cancer, my post-partum depression is worse than someone else’s anxiety, etc etc and so on. It leads to a kind of competition about suffering. There are real life consequences to this competition-who gets taken care of in a hospital, who is allowed to talk about their struggles, who doesn’t get judged for being tired, who gets help from friends or the Church. To be fair, we live in a world of limited resources, so to a certain extent this can be avoided, and to a certain extent there is a hierarchy of suffering, no one would argue that a paper cut or a dislocated elbow is as bad as cancer.

However, I do think that the hierarchy of suffering is much more complicated than we might think. There are so many unknown factors that go into suffering that sometimes a seemingly small thing can be monumental and something really big can be nothing. When I had a placental abruption and ended up in the hospital terrified that my baby and I were going to die and then went through a terrifying labor, it was honestly far less terrifying than the experience I had with my dislocated elbow, as ironic as that is. Recovering from the elbow has been actually much more difficult than recovering from what should have been a much more difficult trauma.

The reason for this is that there are countless factors that contribute to how intense pain and suffering feels. Researchers are finding more and more just how many things affect how the brain perceives pain. There are whole industries and books based on all the different ways we can affect the pain in our bodies.

As far as my example above about birth vs. my elbow, there are some big obvious differences. I got a baby out of the equation, not so with my elbow. I did fear for my life in a way I didn’t need to with my elbow. However, I DID fear for my life with my elbow, because I have already been struggling with Post Partum Anxiety that has been debilitating, and I wasn’t struggling with that as intensely during labor. This was not helped by the fact that when I fell I was actively praying, and it seemed like an answer to a prayer, which felt like God was a God of wrath who hated me, sending me into a terrified circle of spiritual crisis that haunted me the whole night, while the doctors and nurses encouraged me with prayer during labor.

Another huge difference is the care I got. When I went to the hospital for my placental abruption, I had been reading Hypnobabies which works really hard on preparing women to communicate with their doctors. Because of that I was able to communicate my anxiety and physical worries in a rational way, and did not feel guilty for forcing doctors and nurses to stop and listen to me if I felt like they were rushing. On top of that though, immediately when I got to the hospital, the nurses attending heard my requests and needs and did their best to meet them, even when they were silly. When I dislocated my elbow, the nurse immediately denied every request I had, rolled her eyes at me, and communicated her annoyance to a doctor who came to help. No other nurses came in contact with me until much later.

I believe the care I got for my elbow is a consequence of exactly what I am discussing in this post. A dislocated or broken elbow is nothing in the grand scheme of things. I am aware of that. I am aware that much much worse things happen to people every day. But the care I got reminded me of that every second of my struggle. Every second I felt reminded me, “you don’t matter because it’s not your femur, it’s not cancer, it’s not blood.”

I was also dehydrated, hungry and away from my baby while breastfeeding. All things I didn’t realize until much later, but that are probably the explanation for the random cold sweats and hormonal shifts that turned into panic attacks that plagued me all night on top of everything else, and probably made the care I got worse because the nurses couldn’t see what was happening so it just looked like anxiety to them.

When I dislocated my elbow, I had a veritable cocktail of things that are known to make pain worse, while during labor I had many that are known to make it better. On the surface and on paper the elbow should be nothing. Anyone comparing the two would have said that labor was worse, but after the traumatic labor I was joyful and relieved and felt invincible; after my elbow I felt that there was no hope in life, angry, and worthless.

My point is that what someone’s suffering looks like on the outside may be nothing compared to what it looks like on the inside. The assumption that someone’s pain is not as intense as yours, or you are just stronger than they are dismisses the fact that you have no idea what is going on in their story. You have no idea what is making their pain worse or better or different than yours. I think it’s comforting to us to feel like our pain is better than someone else’s because then our needs deserve to get validated, but that’s just part of the competition. We need to feel like our pain is enough to be worth taking care of, so we have to put down other peoples because it highlights how bad our own pain is. The problem is that that affects how we take care of the other person, and how we view them, as well as how we describe their problem to others and help them to get help. Their suffering grows and our need to justify our own gets more intense too.

I want to live in a world where we recognize that everyone’s suffering matters. In the Gospel, when Jesus was carrying His cross, about to be murdered in arguably the most monstrous way possible, He stopped to talk to weeping women. He told them not to weep for Him, but for their children. I have heard some say that He is telling them to weep for sins, but the way He says it tells me that isn’t the case. I believe He was genuinely expressing compassion for the suffering that women experience, while He was on the road that we would say is the worst suffering imaginable. I would like a world where everyone does that, where everyone accepts that we are all on an unimaginably and sometimes unbearable journey, where we accept our own suffering and that of others as worthy of healing, no matter what it is, where we acknowledge that our struggles do not make us better or worse than anyone else, just different. Then, we would have a spirit of sorrow for everyone’s tears even if we didn’t understand why it was so hard. We could show the same amount of compassion for someone who had to wait at the DMV as someone who got crushed in a car accident. We could heal all the big hurts and all the little ones too.

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I’m not LGBTQ, but I don’t Belong Either

https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/voices/2019/08/18/churches-need-less-tradition-more-flexibility-welcome-teens-column/2011731001/

This article and others like it have been posted and talked about on my online and in person Catholic groups over and over again. There’s always a couple of people kindly talking about it and then the avalanche of more traditional Catholics who start mocking the author and saying, “Oh they just want the Church to be open to whatever, be ok with doing anything, anything goes, they just don’t like rules.” It’s so frustrating to me because they get so caught up on deciding that this girl is a sinner and therefore shouldn’t get to belong in the Church, in their eyes, that they forget that this girl is a PERSON, and God loves people.

Catholicism is not an exclusive club for the perfect people, though it is often treated that way. I think a lot of people like the idea that they are the people who are “right” they are “God’s people” and everyone else is wrong. There is something liberating to that, I get it, that makes you one of the ones making it through the narrow gate, as it says in Scripture, and “they” are the evil ones.

Let me just come forward now and say, I always felt like I didn’t belong. I wasn’t doing something wrong. I wasn’t a bad kid. I was a praying the rosary daily, offering it up, making sacrifices, going to Mass, and being kind kid, teenager, adult. I was M-I-S-E-R-A-B-L-E. I was terrified of doing something wrong and God would hate me, I was shunned in multiple Christian groups, once for a rumor because I quoted a sex joke on MySpace-so that all made all rumors about me true, once because I danced at Homecoming(no I didn’t grind but that’s what everyone thought), once because they thought I was on birth control, when I had really had miscarriages. I was HATED by the Church no matter how hard I tried to do things right.

I cannot tell you how many times I have raged about what a horrible place the Catholic Church is, and I am not one of the people who are just made because they don’t want to follow the rules. Stop blaming it on some public sin, or then not being good enough. The Church, as it stands right now, is not a welcoming place. There are Churches that are welcoming, there are a few groups that are welcoming, but they are few and far between and the hurt we are causing is monstrous.

The Church has a huge power, and that is to connect people with God, or to disconnect them from Him. My friends are falling away because they do not feel welcome or loved. I have wanted to fall away because I often do not feel welcome or loved. At my amazing Alma Mater, Ave Maria University, I met people who taught me that God is love, and He wants us unconditionally, and any rules He makes for us are to help us to live better lives. That God is a God who finds ways to heal people whether it is in Mass or not, He finds ways to help people, even if it’s a walk in nature. That is the God St. Paul talked about in Scripture when he talked about “easing burdens” for the people.

If it were not for that experience, and some that I am happy to be having right now, I would not be Catholic anymore. I would have run as far away from the Church as I can. Instead, I cling to what I can find of the God I recognize as a God of love, and I try to bring Him to others. I do not shame the people I know who have left because I have felt their pain, and I have seen how they have been hurt. And, for better or worse, I point out what the Church is doing wrong, because I pray and hope that one day Gods mercy and love will be what people think of when they think of the Church, and not anger and hate.

Mother Teresa, who ministered to all faiths, and saw the pain humanity is in, pray for us.

Depression and The Boundaries Book

I started to read a book called “Boundaries” a couple of months ago. I had bought it a long time before that, but I hadn’t read it. I was nervous because I have talked to several people who were very callous and used this book as their excuse, but I have also talked to others who say it changed their life. Now that I’m actively reading it, although slowly, I have to say I understand why.

“Boundaries” is simultaneously comforting and terrifying for me. Te first time I read it, I had a legit panic attack that I am such a worthless human being who does nothing but take from others and I have nothing to give and I don’t deserve to live. That’s dramatic, but honestly, it was kind of dramatic. I got so lost in the way they break down how much help to take and not take, and grew terrified that I take too much, or not enough, and I talk about my problems too much but not in the right way, etc, etc, etc.

The basic thesis of the book is that it is ok to set boundaries, and say “No” to someone who violates them. It gives Biblical support for that which is incredibly necessary for Christians especially who are taught to “Give until it hurts.” It was comforting in some ways to hear that I don’t have to just always give in, and it’s ok to take care of my needs too. I needed that. However, it is a hard time for me to be reading the book, because I hate needing help, and I am in a season on life where it seems like no matter how hard I try not to, I need more and more of it.

My senior year in college, I went through what I now know must have been an incredibly severe period of depression. I had nightmares, a weird kind of sleep paralysis, anxiety, thoughts of worthlessness, and at the same time, I lost many of my friends to a crazy whirlwind of drama. Meanwhile, I was writing my thesis about Hell, so that was great. Every time I tried to talk to anyone about what was going on, it seemed like they would stop talking to me. I had very few friends left by the end, and I still treasure every single one of them for sticking with me.

One Sunday, at a household meeting(for those who don’t know, households are a religious version of a sorority, basically) I broke down. I started sobbing in the middle of the meeting(and I was leading it so that was bad.) I ran out of the meeting and collapsed in tears on the floor. No, I don’t know why I broke down on the floor instead of the perfectly good bed next to me. Maybe the cold felt good on my body, sad people do weird things. Minutes later, a couple of my sisters came in and they listened to my story. Really listened. They heard out what was happening throughout my year. I will never forget what one of them said.

“Why didn’t you tell us?”

I will never forget that, because I DID. I told them, over and over and over again. I tried my hardest, but I couldn’t get across what was happening. I couldn’t express the magnitude of what was going on in a five minute conversation, and I was paralyzed by the feeling that they were done with me because I was talking about my hard time.

This book has brought that feeling back to me over and over again in the last few months. I will read one page and feel like a monster for talking about my feelings, while the next page, I feel like maybe I need to be better about sharing them. I just keep thinking about that moment, I felt so alone, and even though I had tried to tell them, no one knew.

I think this is a problem for mental health issues. People get annoyed if others “complain too much,” or are “Debbie-downers” or “sad all the time,” and I get it! It is so hard to be happy when you are around others who are not. There is even self-help advice to stay away from these people, and murky psychological articles accusing them of being narcissists, or energy vampires. Of course, I am not saying these people do not exist, but I do think that people who are genuinely struggling may sometimes look the same as a narcissist or energy vampire or just a downer. What happens though, when someone is just genuinely having a hard time for a long period of time? What if someone is just grieving and they aren’t feeling better yet?

The point of the book isn’t just about talking about feelings, but it is an example of the things that has been hardest for me. The author uses two images to demonstrate when to ask for help and when not to. It’s ok to ask for help when you are carrying a large boulder, but when it is just a backpack, you can carry that yourself-the backpack symbolizes daily struggles. What happens though, when the daily struggles feel like a boulder, like they do with depression/anxiety/grief/whatever?

How do we decide when someone is upset “too often” or “too long” or “too much” or “too upset?” How does someone struggling with this know when they are upset too long/too much/too often/too upset? I had a huge wake up call to this a couple weeks ago when I took a hormone balancing medicine and all of a sudden the whole world was a different place. I spoke with hope, I believed in things again, I was able to focus on other people. Unfortunately, the medicine had tons of side effects, so my search for something better continues, but it was literally a night and day difference. I felt like someone had taken a blindfold off of me. How does someone in that kind of fog for any reason figure out how much upset-ness is too much for everyone around them, and yet still express how bad what is going on is?

So, I struggle with this book. I really do. I know, and appreciate, what it’s trying to do, but I also know what it feels like to be told everything is ok and you need to handle it yourself when you are screaming out and begging for help. I also know what it feels like to swallow pain so hard you think you will die from it, and that is a dangerous mess I refuse to start up again.

I guess what I’m saying is, if you struggle with depression/anxiety/grief/sadness, please don’t hold it in because you are afraid no one wants to hear it. Even if some people don’t, some do, and you may not know who they are, so keep going until you find them. If you know someone who is struggling, please be patient with them. You may not know how bad what they are going through really is, and you may not know how badly they want to fix it.

Jaded

Ever since I grew to adulthood,

I hear the echoes

of everyone who told me,

“That’s not real.

That’s a fantasy.”

Most of the time, I silence them

With a wave of the hand,

And maybe a deep breath,

But then,

Sometimes, a wave of grief comes,

My heart begins to ask,

“Were they right?

Does God give us dreams to take them away?

Does He dangle hopes of a beautiful future,

Just to laugh when you are in pain?

There are times in my life when I believe them,

When the hope that God is listening grows as faint as a fading heartbeat,

The ache swells until my chest begins to cave into itself.

I cease to breathe in in terror of reality,

I force myself to breathe and anger overtakes me that God has turned His back.

But He hasn’t turned His back.

He is here when hundreds have told me He doesn’t hear me.

He is waiting for me when I can hear Him through the despair.

He hears me when I cry out in the pain of the skepticism that is our world.

Cast behind you the words of those who condemn you for belief in hope.

Cast behind you the belief that grief will win.

Cast behind you the grief that God doesn’t hear you,

And doesn’t love the real you.

There is a place for you.

Just because you haven’t found it doesn’t mean you won’t.

Use your wounds to heal others until you escape the chains,

And then free the slaves.

Sometimes God answers no, but not when it’s His promises to you.

If you are called to something, He will bring you to it somehow, I believe.

I believe.

I believe.

I believe.

Even here in the darkness.

I believe.

The Paradox of Being Grateful When Things are Hard

I find myself oscillating between two extremes fairly often. One is that I am struggling and I am frustrated that things aren’t getting better. The second is that I feel like maybe my struggle is not actually that bad, so I’m actually just a horribly ungrateful person who doesn’t deserve to live. Okay, that’s extreme, but there are some days it feels pretty intense. I think sometimes it’s easier for me to feel like I am a horrible person who deserves to suffer, than to acknowledge that sometimes bad things happen to good people and there’s no rhyme or reason to it. Sometimes God helps you, sometimes we are responsible for believing He is there in the storm. I’ve tried my whole life to be someone so perfect that God wouldn’t “punish” me, but that’s not how He works, and it’s really just hurts me more than just living would anyway.
The thing I’m struggling the most with is waiting in hope. I am not a patient person even when I know something is coming, but when there is a question about it, my entire emotional system goes into revolt and I turn into a 2 year old who hasn’t eaten in 2 hours. Right now, there are several things that I am waiting for, and they are not coming quickly, they are coming slowly, and they are things that I have been told are impossible over and over and over again, and they are things intrinsically connected to every trauma I have experienced. That being said, I am wanting them, and I am waiting for them, and I am working towards them. That is a miracle in and of itself because I had taught myself not to care anymore, and I had given up. I had convinced myself that those things didn’t matter to me and I would figure out life without them. But I asked God to bring me back to myself, and He did that, with a fire that burns a little out of control sometimes.
I desire with everything in me to serve God with my art, and my desire is not just for teaching, or volunteering, or whatever else though those are positive endeavors too and I don’t mind doing them also, but my desire is to MAKE GREAT ART. I want more than anything in me to spend my days creating films that reach deep into the depths of your soul and rip you apart in sadness or joy or horror or whatever it is your soul needs. I want to create films that wake people up to the other people who are struggling in the world. I want to create films that let the lonely know they are not alone. I want to make movies that sell like crazy not because I want to be famous but because I want to touch people and I want to spend every waking minute in the freedom that comes from being successful at what I love.
Is this a big ask? Yes.
Am I asking this in a world where most people do not get their big asks? Yes.
Does that make me terrified beyond the ability to breathe sometimes that I am asking? Yes.
Can I stop? Not if I want to be the person I was created to be.
God has asked us over and over to ask big things of Him, so no matter how stupid I feel or how hopeless this whole adventure seems to be or how much I want to give up, I am going to keep asking over and over and over again and throwing my pen at his feet and begging that He use it and give it a place to be heard.

A problem, though, with having such big asks, is that sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t ask for such big things. Who am I to ask to make art for my career when so many people would kill for one minute to work on theirs? Who am I to long for the money to have a nice house and maybe even a housekeeper because my artist family hates and sucks at cleaning? Who am I to long for more happiness in this life when I am not a Holocaust victim, I am not dying of cancer, I am not alone in life. I have so many amazing amazing blessings. My double rainbow babies are the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me. I am the luckiest girl in the world to have the husband I do. My parents have gone above and beyond to make sure I get to be with my babies. My in laws saved us over and over again from trials.

The point is, I know I have so much to be grateful for, and sometimes it makes it hard to ask for the big things, like I’m a spoiled child for wanting more. I’m not sure how to handle that. Maybe this is just a side effect of the constant meditations on gratefulness that I am always surrounded by, or the knowledge that sometimes I am not as grateful as I could be( although I’ve recently noticed that I do not handle gratitude very gracefully, so this may just be an attempt to escape the total panic that comes over me when I am deeply grateful for something. ) Or maybe it’s another lesson in balance. I do tend to run across paradoxes frequently and usually the answer is a little bit one and a little bit the other. So maybe the answer is to work on gratitude a little more, but to remember it’s ok to want things. I don’t know. My gift isn’t answers. My gift is really freaking big questions.

Make Your Choice

About a week ago, I wrote a blog post about man’s ability to choose his God. I have noticed that God will, in many ways, be whoever we ask Him to be. Even immediately after I wrote it, though I felt it was finished and said it was supposed to say, I felt like there was something else I was supposed to write in addition to it. As time has passed since then, I have tried to put into words what exactly I was thinking, but over and over I couldn’t quiet get there. Tonight, with lightning streaking across the sky, and my whole body in a creative blur, I feel ready to at least attempt to describe what I am going to say.
God will, in many ways, be whoever you need Him to be, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a real person that He is. God wants us to love Him, so if we want Him to act a certain way, and we ask certain things from Him, I believe sometimes He will go along with it. Sometimes though, He will eventually take a second to say, “Hey, I’m actually a little different than that. This is how I do things.” When that happens, get ready for a wild ride.
I talked already over and over about my relationship with God the last few weeks in this blog, and I don’t like writing about that. I think religious writing can be way too preachy, and it’s very very personal, so sometimes its nearly impossible for things to get out in the way they are meant to be perceived. Plus, I hate feeling ‘holier than thou’ because I am not. I’m not any better or worse than anyone else because I think about this stuff all of the time, I just like to offer my thoughts on it.
This year, I went to a Bible study that changed my life. I haven’t been really happy with any Catholic community I have been a part of for years, so to suddenly walk into one that I felt at home in was incredible. I believe that God used the study and the women in it to teach me so much about who He is.
My husband asked me once rhetorically, “I mean, how do we even know, which version of God is the real one?”(Not that he was renouncing belief, we just debate theology and philosophy….a lot-and we both play devil’s advocate when necessary) I think the only answer to this, and it will never satisfy anyone fully is-“Who has He told you He is?” The answer doesn’t always work, because some people do not listen, or don’t want to listen, but I do believe that if we ask God to show us who He is-He will.
This year, God told me a lot about who He is. He is Love-in a powerful all-consuming, always present way. We got to a crossroads, where I asked Him how He could say that when He had abandoned me, and I raged at Him about it. A couple of days later, I was reading the book of Job, and there is a chapter where God yells at Job for questioning Him and lists all of the powerful things He does, and basically says, “Job, you don’t know what you are talking about.” I’m not going to lie, there was a little fear and trembling for a second there.
The beautiful thing is though, that it didn’t end there. I have always hated the Book of Job because I felt that God was horrible to Job and that his friends were cruel and he had no vindication, but then, I read a section I had never read before.

God was so angry at Job’s friends for misleading Him, that He straight up asked Job to pray for them, and only forgave them because Job asked.
Basically, God said to Job, “HOLD ME BACK, IM’MA GET AT ‘EM.” And Job of course did pray for them, and God forgave them.
That changed the whole thing for me, because I have had people who have mocked me for my suffering before. I have had people who didn’t understand it, and who told me that God must be displeased with me. I needed so badly to hear that that is not who He is. To feel that God took me aside to say, “No, it’s not that, it’s just that you don’t know the reason for what I am doing.”
Anyway, the point of this is that God is love in a way that we cannot even fully comprehend, and He will show us who He is if we ask Him. Sometimes our own thoughts and impressions are not enough. Sometimes our feelings cloud our judgement and make it difficult for us to see what God is trying to say. That is why what Job’s friends did to him was so incredibly awful. A friend should help you to see God’s love while you are struggling-not condemn you. For me, my husband friends, and the Bible study, reading scripture and taking in art, help me to sort through what my thoughts are about God, and who He really is. I can’t tell you how many times I have been terrified of the wrath of God and despairing of His love, and have been lifted up and help by someone else.
In the end though, we can only know our own experience of God. We can seek Him out and do our best, and we can ask our friends, but there is something in every heart that knows what the truth is, if we can be quiet and hear it amidst all of the noise, and there is a lot of noise. Our knowledge of them is always evolving and growing, and we should never give up on figuring Him out, but He is there to be understood, if we ask, and we make every effort to learn.

How to Church Shop For Catholics

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people say some variation of “The Mass is not for us. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get anything out of it.” Which, for me, basically equates to, “your feelings don’t matter, just do it.”

To a certain extent, this is true. We believe Christ is present in the Eucharist, and that we are celebrating it to remember Him. Therefore, Mass has value no matter where we are as long as it is said correctly.

However, the Church you go to will play a huge role in how you and, if you have one, your family perceive God. It will affect how much you want to go to Mass, how much you want to volunteer, or even can volunteer, how much tenderness you feel for the thought of Church, and how peaceful you feel for the rest of Sunday.

Even more than that, I don’t believe that Jesus wanted us dreading the time we have to be with Him. I don’t believe it was meant to be an awful experience ending in tears every time. If we look at the events of His life, it’s obvious that Jesus valued the feelings of the people around Him. At Cana, He made more wine. When the people were hungry, He made an abundance of fish and loaves. When the people were hurting, He healed them.

That is what His presence among us should do, and that’s what I believe the Church should look like. An encounter with Jesus should leave you, most of the time at least, feeling healed, heard, and loved. I believe that’s what He would want from His Church as well.

What does that look like?

There are a few Churches through which I have had a palpable encounter with Christ, and there is an obvious difference between them and other parishes nearby. One of the most obvious is that usually they are packed, with more Masses than most Churches even have on a Sunday, this isn’t because the biggest Churches are the best, but because in my experience, when a powerful encounter with Christ is happening, people flock from all over. Another is how many ministries they have, most of the really amazing Churches I have seen have countless opportunities for different types of ministry, with plenty of options for what type of person you are. Opportunities for different types of prayer is a huge one for me, the two that are crucial for me to see is access to Praise and Worship music and Eucharistic Adoration, that may look different for you depending on your preferences.

I want to add something for those who are feeling discouraged. After I first went to a Church that really fulfilled me, I had to leave. The next place I lived there was another one. After that, I went several years without being able to find a Church where I could feel God. I had horrible experiences over and over again, so bad sometimes that I would cry myself sick on Sundays. I truly believe God sent us to where we are now because of a beautiful, amazing Church where I feel His presence almost every time I am there(even with two toddlers and that’s a big deal.) This Church has been a huge blessing in our lives already and we have come to call it home.

How do I Find This?

Obviously, I can’t find this for you in every single town, although I do plan on creating some posts about “recommended” Churches. This will just be a few Churches I have been too that changed my life or touched me in some way. I can, however, share what my own criteria is, and you can tweak it towards what works for you.

1) Internet Search

The first thing I do is search for Life Teen Churches around the area. If there are a lot, I narrow it down to Churches with a Life Teen Mass. I know not everyone loves Life Teen, but the vibrance I have seen from communities that have it is something I haven’t seen at other parishes. As a parent of young children, the availability of Catechesis of The Good Shepherd is now a non-negotiable for me as well.

When I look at the website, I also take into account how the website feels. On one hand, a website that is crappy doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a good Church, but a good one tells me that they value the younger generation and they understand how to reach us. A great one can even be life-changing. I cried when I watched a ministry video from our Church’s website when I first visited it, and felt inspired to change how I thought about a certain issue.

I check Mass times and availability. For me, having an evening option is a huge priority, now as a parent it is also becoming important to have childcare available which is rare(our current parish doesn’t have it.) I check confession availability, Eucharistic adoration, and ministries/events, that’s how I found the Women’s Bible Study I now attend.

Once I have a pretty good feeling about a Church, it’s time for the next step.

2) The First Couple of Visits

The first couple of times I go to a Church, I think of it as trying it out. I make no commitments, I try not to think about it as our only option, because that puts a lot of pressure. However, sometimes it is one of your only options, and if that’s the case, sometimes you may need to bring a little extra grace to the experience. I pray hard when that’s the case.

Obviously, the first thing is visuals. Often I will know within a minute or two how I will feel in a Church. The people in the Church create the decorations and art. You feel their presence when you walk inside. If a Church feels dry and stuffy, often the spirit there will feel the same way. If a Church feels super traditional, usually it is(if you like that, that’s a good sign, if not, then probably look for somewhere else.) Our Church has a giant painting representing one of my favorite theological doctrines, all about Love and the second I saw it, I knew I loved this Church. To the side they have a beautiful painting of Jesus with children of every race and nationality, that told me they would welcome everyone, including my children.

Next, the people. How welcoming are they? Do they smile at you when you walk in? Do you feel like an outsider or do people make an effort to include you? I believe that when people are living Christlike lives, it overflows out onto the people around them. It doesn’t need to be everyone 100% of the time, but you will get a general sense of the vibe of a Church pretty quickly.

What kind of room the Church has available for the kids is the next thing for me. If there is no cry room, I am out. I’m sorry, but if the Church has not found a way to support moms and dads who are having a hard enough time getting to Mass by having a place for them to rest with their kids if Mass feels like Hell, this is not going to be a home for me. In the same vein, if the cry room is stuffy and uncomfortable and has no toys, this shows a lack of commitment to families, and we have left immediately before for this.(Again, we have two toddlers; don’t judge me too harshly for this.)

Our Church brought tears to my eyes. They have a “wiggle room” instead of a cry room, and they had a little poster explaining that our kids are welcome in the Church, but they want us to feel at home when they have extra wiggles. Something really beautiful about this room is that the way the chairs are done mimics the chairs in the actual Church, so you could practice being in the pews without having to be quiet.

Now, for the obvious, the Priest and Homily. It is very, very, important to me to expose myself to priests who speak about God’s love more than His justice. I struggle with scrupulosity and anxiety and depression, so lectures about Hell and how evil the world is are NOT going to help me on my spiritual journey. Ideally, although I almost never find this, I would love a priest who breaks down Scripture passages and helps the congregation to understand Jesus more. Most importantly, though, the priest should somehow radiate Christ’s love. Our priest thanked my girls for bringing up their offerings, at another parish the priest talked about reaching out to the poor, lonely, and oppressed. You know it when you hear it, and you also know it when you don’t.

3) Long Term Discernment

I grew up in Churches that were extremely detrimental to my faith and spiritual life. Because of that, I am intensely passionate about guarding my children and what view they will have of God. This doesn’t mean I am looking for a shallow, light view of A God that has No Rules, but that I am looking for a Church that remembers that everything God does comes from Love-Always-No matter what, and lives like it.

As much as I want to stick with any parish forever, I will always be keeping an eye on what it does for my family, and how it affects us. That being said, there are such thing as temporary issues that are worth working out and I will keep an eye on whether issues we have are of that nature, or whether they are non-negotiables.

Most importantly,

The most important thing is to remember that yes, the Mass is in remembrance of Christ, but because He wants to stay in union with us, He cares about our feelings, and what is going on in our lives. He wants Mass to help us grow closer to Him. If it’s a choice between no Mass and a Mass that doesn’t feel like home, the Mass that doesn’t feel like home is better than nothing, but don’t let people tell you that how you feel at Mass doesn’t matter. If you have options, find the right one for you, and don’t feel guilty about it. X

Jesus Did Not Suffer Joyfully

Lately, I have been screaming inside, pretty much all day every day, because I am having a hard time, and I am being honest about it. Over and over again I see the weary faces of everyone around me. I don’t blame them for being sick of hearing it. I’m sick of hearing my own thoughts most days. I feel so guilty for not being happy through my suffering. There are these saints who are so joyful and happy the whole time they are suffering, and it is so hard for me. Their stories make me angry, because I’m tired and overwhelmed, and I don’t have it in me to be the king of comedy some days. Something revolutionary occurred to me today though, Jesus did not suffer joyfully.

When Jesus was being crucified, He was not making jokes. He didn’t smile the whole time. He didn’t beg for more suffering. In fact, He begged God to take it away from Him! Before His crucifixion, He went out to a garden and cried, to the point that He sweated blood because He was so overwhelmed by what He was doing. We know this because He literally begged God to take it away. He did say, “Not My will, but Thine be done,” but FIRST He begged that it be taken away.

So many Catholics talk about looking forward to suffering, and desiring suffering, but even Jesus didn’t WANT to suffer. He accepted it, but He didn’t ask for it like candy. My entire life this has confused me and made me feel so inferior to all of the other Catholics around me. Even Jesus, didn’t ask to suffer.

What about the saints who said things like “for Jesus Christ I would suffer still more?” Again, it’s willingness to suffer for a purpose, not a desire to suffer. We are not meant to want this life to be hard. Just like Jesus, we can beg for it to be taken away, and that doesn’t mean that we don’t accept it if it doesn’t.

Each time He begged for it to be taken away, Jesus went to see His apostles. They were sleeping! He was devastated, and He called them out on it. How many times have you had a friend, husband, boyfriend, whatever, who fell asleep on you when you were having a really hard time? Or even just wasn’t there? Sometimes I wonder, if they had stayed awake and prayed with Him, would He have been spared? Time and again I have been spared suffering because of the prayers of my friends. What if His friends had been there for Him that night? He asked them to watch and pray.

Then, the rest of the story. We all know how the rest goes. No one has ever tried to portray Jesus as laughing or giggling or making jokes while He went through what He went through. It would be insane. It would be insane to laugh and giggle while He suffered the way He did. In fact, in the Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson one of the thieves makes a sarcastic joke about Jesus and laughs, and his eye gets pecked out. That is the only kind of laughter that could be present in that moment.

The Catholics among us will be arguing, but what about the martyrs, we should be laughing and happy when we are suffering. After I gave birth to my first living daughter, I was so happy. I was beaming and thrilled and I had energy, and I was walking around like nothing had happened. It wasn’t that I wasn’t suffering or in pain, I was. I believe it was a mix of two things: 1. My baby was alive, and that was what mattered(which for the saints it would be, they haven’t turned on God, and that’s what really mattered) and 2. I had a multitude of people praying for me. I believe that I had immense amounts of grace to be as joyful and grateful as I was in that situation. I believe that in that situation I was meant to feel that way, but Jesus’ suffering shows us that not all suffering works that way. Not all suffering is the kind where you feel abundant amounts of joy throughout. There are times when a person feels abandoned, hopeless, exhausted, lonely, and we do not have to pretend to be happy at those times in order to be saints.

Jesus wept when Lazarus died, and He knew He could resurrect Him. He comforted the weeping women on His path to death. He drew a line in the sand for the adulterous woman. He cried out from the Cross and asked why God had abandoned Him. Jesus does not ask us to deny our emotions.

If Jesus were here with us today, and suffering in a less obvious way, the reaction to each of these situations would be different. I say this, because they have been in my life. When Emma died, I had Catholics tell me that she was in Heaven as if this was why I could not be sad about it. When other people were suffering, they told me they didn’t have time for me. When people thought I had sinned, even if I hadn’t, they held grudges against me, they sat in judgement against me. When I asked why God had abandoned me, they told me that obviously I wasn’t listening to what He wanted in my life, they told me I must have not said the Rosary that day, they told me all my sins.

This year, I read in the book of Job that God was angry with Job’s friends for doing exactly these things to him. He asked Job for his repentance, but told him he was no worse than the other sinners. He told him that He doesn’t know what God is up to in His suffering, and to release that up to God, but his friends were wrong. He asked Job to pray for them. Job did, and God saved them because of his prayers.

I don’t bring up my own suffering to ingratiate myself, or to make myself seem like I am as good as Jesus. I bring it up, because as much as I may have turned on other people when I should have been there, I have been in Jesus’ shoes too in some ways, and I have had people turn on me. The worst struggle was always feeling like something was wrong with me because I was having a hard time. Jesus had a hard time. Jesus wept.

So, if you are having a hard time, and you are weary, and you are trying to put on a brave face,

Stop.

Stop trying to pretend you are ok.

It is okay to cry. It is okay to be sad.

No, we can’t let it destroy us and take over our lives, but you can let your guard down and let other people see that it’s harder than they know.

What if Jesus hadn’t seemed sad? Would we have cared? Would we have understood what He was going through?

I think no. I think our emotions matter more than we give them credit for, and this culture of denying them, that even a lot of the Church has bought into is so dangerous. It ruins lives, it ruins people, and it creates a deep and complete loneliness that can never be healed because no one can see it.

So heal it in the people next to you, and let them heal yours, only then will we be the kind of people who would rise up against the Crucifixion and save Him.

I have a theory about Post Partum Depression. I haven’t talked about it, because I’m kind of afraid I’m going to get stoned for this, but hear me out, ok? I have a theory that PPD is not really a thing as much as we think it is. I think what everyone thinks is PPD is really just a natural reaction to insane amounts of stress brought on by how completely our society neglects moms, especially at the beginning of motherhood.

Let me start this off by saying, I have said that I have PPD, and my counselor agreed. I am not saying this out of some suffering-free glass box. I am saying this out of the heart of someone who curled up on the floor in complete despair, more than once. I had to ask my husband to tell me that he wanted me alive and wanted me around, over and over again because I was so overwhelmed by it. I have been in the trenches, and they were bad.

As someone who has gone through it, I don’t know if I even believe in it. Not because I don’t believe in the suffering, but because I believe that IT IS NOT IN OUR HEADS! The problem is not women. The problem is that women are being put under insane amounts of pressure at the most vulnerable time of their lives, and then people are asking why they are having a hard time.

After birth, women have a wound NINE INCHES WIDE inside of them, and they have just gone through one of the most physically and emotionally taxing experiences in existence. I was lucky enough to have people to watch out for me for the first week after my first birth and a month after my second, and I still had a hard time. I was not feeling better by the time my family had to go back to work and daily life. They just had to go back to work and daily life.

For months after birth, women are enduring huge hormonal shifts, an adjustment to their new body, their new mind, their new life, their new child, and at the same time, most of them are dealing with working, and the ones who aren’t dealing with that are dealing with staying home with other kids, which comes with built in expectations of keeping the house clean, cooking all the meals, getting the errands done, being the best mom ever, and not worrying about money, which is no cake walk when you are dealing with all of these other things.

So moms are overwhelmed, physically and emotionally and mentally exhausted, their entire lives have changed, and everyone is telling them that everything is fine, and this is how it goes, and life is just hard. Then, we blame it on their minds that they are suffering.

My midwife gave me a list of things that would help with my feelings after birth. For a little while I had time to do them, and when I did, they helped a TON. Who has time to do anything extra with two under two though? And the people around me would ask why I wasn’t doing them, but sometimes you are barely holding your own head up, let alone able to follow all the things you are supposed to be doing.

If you are suffering PPD and you reading this, I am NOT in ANY way saying that you are not suffering, what I am saying it is possible that there is NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU OR YOUR BODY.

Women are being neglected and wronged. We do not have a society that supports women who are just starting out, that is, unless they think about having an abortion, then we will help them, either to not have the baby or to “save” it.

Women need a community to rally around them, not for a week or two, but I would say for a year. While all these hormones and changes are happening, women need extra support. Their struggles and their suffering NEEDS to matter. They need to not be told it’s “just depression,” and “maybe they should go talk to someone.” They need HELP.

I’ll just clarify here, this is a symptom of a bigger problem. I am not saying moms need help and other people don’t. I am saying our entire society is built on rushing to keep up with everything going on in our lives, but people are not helping each other. I believe we have widespread issues we are experiencing because we are not taking care of each other. I believe men need to be supported too, I believe children need to be supported. I believe everyone needs more love.

Be the love that changes the world.

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