Today my heart is overflowing with gratitude to Our Lord for the way He tenderly lifts me every now and then from my complacency by giving me a glimpse of how much I have yet to learn, especially how very much He can teach me through others–and of how beautiful what He wants to teach me is.
I’m certainly not as avid and faithful of a reader in general as I should be, but when one of my dearest girl friends, during an absolutely delightful visit last weekend, handed me a lovely little book, Woman in Love by Katie Hartfiel, I knew I would read it. I didn’t know that I would have already devoured half of it by now; and I certainly wasn’t expecting for it to speak to me as deeply as it has.
More than a year ago, our Lady took my heart, young, passionate, flawed, impatient, but open to His Will, and turned it onto the road of discerning the sacrament of marriage. Ever since I was about six years old I had been dreaming of being a nun; I knew I wanted to be a saint, and I was convinced that the consecrated life was what my future held (maybe after a few years of professional barrel racing, though). Surely this desire was imperfect, hampered and used by my scrupulosity, tainted by vanity, and in need of spiritual direction and a dose of self-knowledge; simply speaking, I was young and needed to learn how to be content to grow and ripen under God’s loving gaze for however long He saw fit to send me somewhere else. I didn’t really want that.
This nebulous idea that one day I would most likely be in a convent somewhere grew with me, hopefully growing a little purer with time, and by the time I was sixteen (which seems like a lot longer than two years ago, by the way) I was ready to know.
In my road of vocational discernment thus far, I still count that day as one of the most significant. It was one of those moments of grace when you realize a very simple but peace-giving truth; a moment of encountering God’s gentle paternal grace in my impatient soul. I came to see that God would actually, actively lead me to the place (which, at the time, I was pretty darn sure would be a convent) He wanted me to be. All I had to do was follow.
This may seem overly simple, and there were certainly facets of discernment that I hadn’t discovered yet (and am still beginning to discover!), but it was a moment of surrender, of letting go, and trusting that God had the reins. Now, being apt to forget those sorts of really important things which you should not forget, I’ve had to be given reminders many a time since, particularly when tempted to be certain in myself of what I thought must be God’s will, because I was just tired of waiting. A lot of the time those reminders came in the form of my mom’s gentle, patient, and oft-repeated wisdom, “Just pray, ‘Jesus, I trust in You.'” I must admit I didn’t always want to hear that. But it was always good advice.
In fact, it did so happen that I began vocational discernment in earnest in the summer of my sixteenth year–or at least what I thought was earnest discernment. I was beginning to see signs of the Lord at work. I was already familiar with little reminders of His presence that were just too candid and perfect to be coincidence, which He treated me with to strengthen my weak faith. But during that summer there was an implosion of little signs everywhere that He was trying to get my attention, far too many to ignore. Excited, eager, and probably less than patient, I pursued them, eventually ending up visiting the nearest Residence run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. That weekend was the nearest thing I’ve ever had to a retreat; it was a beautiful chance to encounter Christ in the poor, in His lovely consecrated brides, in wholehearted, selfless service. In fact, the level of selflessness I beheld and began trying to picture myself into deeply disturbed my complacency (here we go again!), and that night we spend at the Residence I got a good look at the feebleness of my love and my willingness to sacrifice. Coupled with physical exhaustion and the pain of thinking about such a separation from my family (who were all also exhausted and thinking about me leaving them), it was a difficult night. I had come seeking (and expecting) an abundance of peace, joy, and perhaps even some incredible spiritual enlightenment that would terminate the period of waiting that I was suspended in. And I was confused, tired, aching, and weak. It became a real battle, as it sometimes does, to simply say the words, “Your Will be done.”
In the morning things did look brighter–they normally do–and I was greeted by even more little signs of God’s deep presence in the whole affair; although what I took them to mean then and what I see in them now are two very different things. I went home believing that the beautiful life I had seen, coupled with the signs I knew I had received from God, must amount to a vocation. What I didn’t realize then was that, rather than being a divine call, this was a conclusion born of my own desires and lack of patience. I wanted to do God’s will; but I wanted it now.
As the months went on and I turned from a darling-sixteen-waiting-on-seventeen into a seventeen-year-old, I waited for something else to happen. I didn’t really know what I was going to do next; I was doing school, enjoying family life, writing fiction. Every now and again, even before this time, when asked what I was going to do after graduation, I would become frightened. What was I going to do, exactly? Why didn’t I know yet? To which Mom would gently answer,
“You’re not supposed to know yet. Jesus, I trust in You. . . .” Which, again, didn’t satisfy me for long. In my naïve, youthful mind, I thought I was discerning, when really I was like a premature piece of fruit; in need of softening by the sun and rain, of growth, of ripening; essentially, of time and of having peace in the time it would take. My Gardener wasn’t in a hurry.
Time went on, and I began to be aware of an emptiness; yes, I was attracted to and desirous of the vocation of a Little Sister; yes, I knew God had given signs; but it was unclear what was next. My heart was being quiet, but I didn’t want it to be. With anxiety I listened for a sound from it. I was really beginning to hang on in trust to those signs, but with entirely the wrong sort of trust; instead of being open in heart and mind to what God might have meant by them, I stubbornly assumed that they meant that I was supposed to be a Little Sister of the Poor. Sooner or later, God would show me what to do next.
“the Lord hath always been compassionate and gentle with me, slow to punish and full of mercy.”
Thanks be to God that He did. Thank God that I thought of Father, that I eventually got tired enough of relying on my shaky self that I began to realize I was in need of spiritual direction. I know that it had something to do with Our Lady (as does everything good in my life, in a profound way). My spiritual director, besides having the patience of an angel with my girlish thoughts, my passionate nature, my ups and downs, has taken me lovingly and uncomplainingly as his spiritual daughter and has consistently been a vessel of grace for me. I can truly say that he was one of the first places I recognized in a powerful way the very Heart of Christ and recognized the joy of its charity; and I see now that it is no coincidence that he was the one who enthroned our home to the Sacred Heart, just over a year ago. Patiently, he has listened, counseled, prayed, and encouraged. God knew I needed him at this time in my life; Our Lady sent him as an anchor for her little vessel tossing about on the waters of growing up.
I only met with Father once before I turned our discussion from religious life to married life. It had happened to me; the crush that happens to most girls. I hadn’t expected it, but it made me think seriously of the vocation of marriage for the first time–“discerning” it, as I thought of discernment at the time. This change in thought occupied most of my mind and heart and our discussions for months. God had sent me just what I needed, but again, I didn’t take it as He intended it, but insisted on interpreting His messages into what I wanted them to mean. Again, I was flooded with signs; again, I allowed myself to go happily down the road of setting my heart on what I thought God wanted, on what I thought I wanted.
Again, thanks be to the Lord who has faithfully been compassionate and gentle with me, especially when I least deserve it and most try His divine patience. In the midst of these months, He spoke directly to my heart one day when I was struggling, mostly because of my impatience, with doubts about my “discernment” and how it was going. While flipping through a Catholic magazine one morning before showering, I stumbled across an article in which bits of marriage advice had been compiled from many couples from various times of life. I began to read, and something inside of me clicked, so powerfully that as I read, and then mulled over what I had read in the shower, I was filled with a joy that took my breath away. For the first time, it felt right, it fit me, everything I knew about me. It was the first time I understood how important self-knowledge is in discernment; that a vocation doesn’t happen arbitrarily to you, but that you are designed for it; and I could see how very much marriage could aid me in my journey to heaven. I need constant mutual assistance in my spiritual life, the companionship of someone much steadier, wiser, and simple than I am; I need the hiddenness, the sacrifice, the humility that being a wife brings. I already could see how the habit would not form in me the humility it is intended for; so very easily it could feed my self-righteousness and vanity, my complacency. I need a loving husband who will continue to unveil to me the Heart of Christ; I need children to teach but more importantly to teach me the patience and wisdom that I am so lacking in. I need the longer, slower, more difficult path of marriage to slowly uncover and grind away the faults most prominent in me, my pride, my selfishness, my laziness.
I was so happy that day, and for days after I was skipping around the house with a grin on my face that literally had my younger siblings asking what was wrong with Lena. But nothing was wrong; I was just hitting upon true discernment for the first time.
Now, of course, I wasn’t ready to learn from my past yet. I was meant to be married, and so obviously I should count on what all the signs that had turned me from thinking about the religious life and led me to this point seemed to be alluding to. And so I did, letting my impatience for the future get me more and more emotionally involved in what truly was my first girlish crush until the day that I found out (again, thanks be to God for those blessings in disguise) that it wasn’t exactly requited as I’d assumed it was. There was no blame or wrongdoing at all in the whole thing, except in the fact that I had seen what I wanted to see and projected my expectations, even when they weren’t really the deepest desires of my heart, onto “God’s will”.
And so I did what girls do; I cried, I ate chocolate, I thought the sun would never come out again. But I prayed and tried to surrender and offer what, although it felt like the end of the world, was really such a small thing. There was a lot of self-caused embarrassment and disappointment I experienced at first, and it took a while before I was able to really be honest enough with myself to take my crush for what it was, and to let go of it.
And so there I was, two years older than when I first began and again waiting for something to happen. My life was overflowing with innumerable blessings, and very, very slowly I had been growing and ripening, although hampered greatly by my own confounded, childish theme of I-want-it-now!; but still I struggled with letting go of the same old impatience as I waited for my vocation to begin. Faithfully, my sister and I prayed (and still do!) night and morning to St. Raphael, the Angel of Happy Meetings, to be led to our future husbands and for them to be led to us. We spent nights talking and dreaming and together refining our dreams of God’s plan for wifehood, motherhood, and life in the little future domestic churches of our own. My sister, ever so much wiser, humbler, and patient than I, was getting it, but I just wasn’t.
Truth be told, only as I’ve written this (incredibly long!) post have I begun to see clearly the things I am writing about, and it is a clarity that both humbles me and fills me with gratitude to the Gardener who has not thrown his hoe to the ground in frustration and left his stubborn piece of fruit to harden, wither, and decay.
“Oh, would that I could proclaim throughout the whole world the mercy Thou hast shown to me! Would that everyone might know that I should be already damned, were it not for Mary! Would that I might offer worthy thanksgiving for so great a blessing!”
-St. Louis de Montfort
So what’s happened to me? To what severe lengths did God and Our Lady have to go to stop me in my impatient tracks and make me see my own blindness for what it is?
They handed me a little book in the hands of my smiling sister in Christ.
Woman in Love, in just what I have read of it so far, is the honest story of a woman so in love with God, so passionate to glorify Him, so grateful for His abundant blessings in her life, that she couldn’t help but reflect His Love like a mirror in what she writes. The way that Katie Hartfiel describes her journey in learning to move beyond her own wounds to both receive and give Christ-like love again, to put it simply, has already changed me. Gradually, reading chapter by chapter, I have begun to realize:
First, that God’s most important instruction often comes to me from places I don’t expect it to. Second, that I have not been praying enough, not really stopping to speak and listen to God and encounter His love, and in particular not praying for the safety and strengthening of my future husband enough. Thirdly, that I have forgotten again, as I so easily do, that the Heart of Christ is love, a passionate, burning, tender, patient love for me that drove Him to the Cross and to the Altar every single day, and which I have not stopped and taken the time to truly contemplate in such a very long time.
And finally, it has made me realize that my dreams of love with my husband all this time were not the Love I thought they were. Even as I understood and believed that being a saint meant dying to yourself; even as I saturated my writing with the idea and talked about it; even as I knew that I truly wanted and needed marriage because of the very sacrificial nature of it that would make me holy, there was a creeping selfishness that kept sneaking into my dreams, and I know now that it was because of my impatience.
To quote Katie:
“You see, the lesson is this: the pursuit of discovering our vocation does not simply rest in finding a man that is best for us. The journey is also about becoming the woman that the Lord longs to give to a son that He loves recklessly. . .
“. . .in the process. . .I was the one who was revealed. I discovered less about the essential qualities I wanted in a spouse and more about the spouse I wanted to become. . .
“We all know that you ‘can’t give what you don’t have’. I know that you want to love your HTB in the best possible way you can. Yes, often times you will fail, just as we are all less than perfect. Yet, there is a way that you can offer him the best love there is to give. This is when you go to the source.”
This is just a little sample of what has spoken to me in this book, and I wish I could find the eloquence to glorify God for what He has shown me. But in simple words, I can tell you that I began to see I hadn’t been dreaming as much of giving my husband-to-be the best possible love I could as much as I had dreamed of less important things.
And now, once more, my unwearied Lord has led me back to encountering His most loving and gentle Heart, overflowing with the joy of loving. He is purifying my dreams, my understanding of discernment and of marriage and of who I am. He is unveiling to me how faithfully He has loved me, nurtured me, led me and waited for me just to be content to wait with Him, resting in His Heart, dreaming together of His plans, slowly ripening in the gentle rays of His light.
So, with tears of love and gratitude, what can I say now but, “Here I am, Lord; I come to do Your will. Jesus, I trust in you!”