cafe in Oakland named Bittersweet that sells peanut butter hot chocolate that is to die for but then I digress.
Goodbyes are coming closer and my heart grows heavier. Occasionally I feel the pangs of separation when I think of the future so I try not to think too much about it.
I have already said goodbye to California and my dear friends there but now comes one of the most difficult goodbyes I will ever have to say, the goodbye to my family.
I know, I know - I will be 6 hours away and will be able to see them every year but something is happening in this goodbye that is hard to express. It is a more permanent movement away from my family and towards God. A sister I spoke to recently put it this way, "Your departure is an action that is directly from the Gospel. Like the apostles left and followed Jesus when he said, 'Come Follow Me' so you too must leave behind your strongest attachments to follow Jesus."
One of my strongest attachments is my family.
This is not a bad thing. When most people see my family together they are moved by the love between us. Each sibling would easily die for one another and for either of our parents if it was required. We are very close and people envy the closeness we have compared with many other families torn apart by bitterness, anger and grudges.
In our modern society, the most common problem found in the family life is that the bond between family members is not strong enough. The traditional family structure is not seen as a necessary part of God's plan. Divorce is common. Separation and fights between blood relatives is an ordinary occurrence.
The family is powerful, it can lead us to good and it can lead us away from good. But if we are afraid to follow God because our family members will be upset or will reject us, this is when the family bond can be too strong.
There is a reason that Jesus tells his apostles:
"Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me." - Matthew 10:38
We can put anything in those blanks and it retains the meaning that Jesus is going for here - Money, Security, Admiration of Others, Success, etc, etc. But it is surprising to see Jesus talk about familial love, something that usually has the best connotations in a negative way.
To understand what Jesus is saying here, we need to understand the purpose of family. These days it looks like many people believe that the purpose of family is to satisfy their own desires - Parents live their youth another time through their children, women force their bodies to bear children at whatever cost; there are many examples in modern society of how we try to control what "family" means. We have lost the notion that we do not begin families, God does. And we do not define family, God does.
"The family is the first appropriate environment for sowing the seed of the Gospel and the one in which parents and children, like living cells, go on assimilating the Christian ideal of serving God and the brethren." - Pope John Paul II
God created the family to teach us about Him. This does not happen perfectly in most cases and sadly hurt, division and abuse in the family often cause some of the deepest wounds in each of us. This causes some of us, in our hurt, to reject the divine meaning of family and to insist that it is not important. It is understandable but when we stop trying to meet the ideal that God has given us to reach for, we are selling ourselves, our children and our society short.
Fortunately for me, although there are the same hurts and wounds in my family life, overall we are very happy and love each other very much. My parents taught us about God and the importance of living life for God and that is one of the main reasons I am able to enter religious life. The seed was planted in me very young.
But now is the time for me to test to make sure these roots do not go down too far. I can cling to my family insofar as it brings me closer to God, as that is the purpose of family but there comes a time when I have to let go so that I can follow God and inspire others to do the same. This does not mean that my family does not remain in my heart. They will always be in my heart and I will always remain close to them. Right now, I cannot imagine loving anyone more than I love my family.
But I know God is calling me to live in service to Him and to widen my definition of family. And this points to the ultimate purpose of family; the family is the incubator of the human being. Ideally it creates a place of security and love for a person so that when God calls us to follow Him in many different ways of life, that person has the confidence and trust in God that enables them to do so.
So thank you Lord for my family, thank you God for the beauty of family life. Please support and continue to help families to grow in holiness.
And finally, please help me and my family to accept my departure with grace and to give thanks to you, our Loving Father for the grace you have given us to follow your call to holiness.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Monday, August 9, 2010
Our family trip began as a plan to make it to the Marian apparition site of Guadalupe. I wanted our family to make some sort of pilgrimage in honor of Mary and that seemed to be the most practical place.
As news in Mexico got gradually worse, our plans to drive to Guadalupe soon faded. I knew Mary had put this desire for a pilgrimage on my heart so something inside of me told me to have hope. Soon after our plans for Guadalupe fell apart, it occurred to us that our cousin Mike was getting married in Croatia, fairly close to Medugorje, a city where Mary is allegedly appearing and has been for 29 years, something unprecedented in Marian apparitions. At first most of us thought this idea was out of the realm of possibility but I knew that if it was in God's plans, it would happen. As things began to fall into place, including provisions for the huge financial cost, I began to realize that this trip was meant to be.
Our trip began with my cousin Mike's wedding in Rijeka. Mike's story of conversion, a walking away from a life separated from God and addiction was one that was always close to our family's heart. He is now a strong Catholic and is working on his PhD in Theology. His story is an inspiration to us all and his marriage to a beautiful Croatian woman who experienced a conversion as well and also has a PhD and studies theology is a fairytale beginning to what I am sure will be a truly blessed life.
The wedding was in a beautiful church where the house of Mary is said to have appeared at one time for a week. The site of the apparition was a strong place of peace and there were hundreds of candles all over, the wax dripping in a huge mound of accumulating prayers.
All of the wedding guests were pinned with sprigs of rosemary and the wedding couple walked up the aisle together. The ceremony was a mix of Croatian and English, Mike saying his vows in English and Ksenija in Croatian.
I have not been to a lot of weddings but I always feel blessed when I am at a wedding where both couples know and understand that their union is also a union with God and through their marriage they will bring each other closer to God. This was such a wedding and I think everyone could sense the presence of God as the most important witness of the promise between this couple.
After the wedding, we all went to the reception. My sister Sarah sat down at the end of the night and said, "This night has truly been one of the most fun nights I have ever had" and I have to agree that it really was one of the best parties I have ever attended.
We spent the night laughing and crying with family and friends. I sat next to a Christian Metal band called Effatha that Ksenija, the bride, is friends with. One of the band members encouraged her in her conversion to Christianity. These guys were really awesome. Totally in love with Jesus, really down to earth and hilarious.
Mike's side of the family represented on the dance floor. Bill, my siblings, Fred, Karina, Kara Lee, everyone was having a fun time. All of the Shea side really boogied down. It was a blast. And the food just kept streaming. Shots of mistletoe liquor when we entered (or so that is what we thought they said), platters of bread, fish, pasta (squid ink pasta Marilene!) and delicious trays of smalls cakes and cookies. It was a feast to top all other feasts.
At the end, all the single women were called up to catch the bouquet. I went up and stayed near the back figuring if it comes right to me I would catch it but otherwise I would let the other girls have fun. The bouquet practically fell in my hands. As I went back to my seat, tears came to my eyes as I thought Jesus must have known that weddings can pull at my heart. It is a difficult thing to give up, but Jesus was reminding me that I am getting married as well, just in a slightly different way and that He is going to be my spouse. What an honor it is and I am thankful for this sweet reminder from my Beloved.
The night ended with laughter and sighs of relief from the older members of the family as we headed back to the hotel at 3AM. The next day we left for the next part of our trip. I spent the ride to Zagreb, another large Croatian city talking to Kelly, my cousin who is closest in age to me and was heading home to Dallas that night. I always tell people that I can never predict who will understand my vocation to religious life. Some Catholics understand it very little but some people, including some of my cousins who are not Catholic, have been very open and accepting and have a deep understanding of what it means to give up your life to follow Christ. This connection means a lot to me and I am thankful to have such wonderful family all around me.
Medugorje is not a Marian apparition site approved by the Catholic Church yet. The reason for this is that the Church usually waits until the apparitions are over before investigating and putting their official seal of approval on an apparition stating that they believe Mary actually appeared somewhere. The apparitions have not ended in Medugorje yet so there is controversy among Catholics as to whether or not Mary is really appearing in Medugorje.
I went to Medugorje with an open heart but not completely sure of the apparitions. As the trip began I looked around with a discerning heart asking God for guidance and I believe He came through. By the end of the trip I was convinced that Mary is indeed appearing in Medugorje.
I will not spend time explaining the history of Medugorje, this page from EWTN is a great place to start if you are interested in learning more. I will simply convey my experience in this little town of Bosnia and Herzegovina and hope that it is useful to you in some way.
When we arrived most of my family was stunned by the literally thousands of pilgrims in the small town for the Youth Conference. There were over 50,000 people there for the week long festival. And it was difficult to weave between so many people to make it from one place to another. But underneath the chaos, I felt a peace in the town that was stronger than the temporary havoc. At one moment of struggle with the crowds, my heart cried out to Mary for help and I felt her say, "Jesus is in your heart, He always is. Find Him." I immediately felt a sort of vibrating core inside of me and I placed my mind and my heart there. I will never forget that moment of peace and the subsequent experience that was so much more peaceful than it would have been because I was holding on to the King of Peace inside of me.
The first afternoon we listened to several testimonies from priests and religious and I was particularly moved by the talk by Sister Elvira Petrozzi, the founder of the Community of the Cenacle in Medjugorje, an oasis for addicts and all those who have sought meaning in the illusory things of this world and lost their happiness and sense of identity in the process. Her spirit was full of joy, she jumped around the stage calling out to everyone telling them that the most important thing is to always smile. Her joy was contagious and pretty soon the whole crowd was singing and dancing along with this 80 something year old woman.
Later that afternoon we went to hear two of the visionaries talk to everyone, Ivan and Marija. I was especially moved by Ivan's talk. He began by urging all of us to pray for the visionaries. "We are ordinary people," he said "trying our best to be holy. But just as it is hard for you, it is hard for us as well." With that introduction, he spent the rest of the talk focusing on the message of Mary, particularly that of peace. As I listened to him, I could feel an actual peace that came from his voice, it was as if by seeing the Queen of Peace, he was better able to communicate peace to us, even in the manner in which he spoke to the crowd. As I left the park, I considered what the visionaries would act like if the apparitions were a farce. Would they be peaceful? Would they be prayerful people? Humble? No. I could sense their genuineness and I was impressed by the focus of everything they said, it was all about Mary and Jesus. Nothing was about them or their personal opinion.
That evening my whole family went to mass and I was struck by a thought that kept coming back to me throughout the trip - the biggest miracle I will ever see on this Earth is the miracle of the Eucharist. It exceeds even the Virgin Mary appearing to me in person, not that it has happened! Mikki, our guide told us that all miracles are intended to bring us closer to Jesus through the Eucharist and this became so true for me during this trip. Even Mary makes this clear in her apparitions. She frequently gives a Motherly Blessings to those she appears to but she makes it clear that her blessing is not the same as getting the blessing of Jesus through any priest. She also at one point told all of the visionaries that if they had a choice between coming to see her and going to mass, they should choose the mass.
It was also the focus of the messages that convinced me of their veracity. Mary gives very simple messages. Just as David slew Goliath with five small stones, she encourages us to use five weapons against evil: Pray, Fast, Go to Confession, Read the Bible, Go to Mass to receive the Eucharist.
One of the last days we were in Medugorje we all met with the visionary Mirjana. Immediately I could sense a kind of holiness that I really admire, a holiness that is similar to one of my favorite saints Padre Pio. She was very intuitive and I could tell she could immediately sense what was in my heart. She was kind but I knew she would not hesitate to tell me by her eyes or her words the truth, even if it hurt my ego. This is a charity that we often do not appreciate because it can cause us to feel bad about our faults. But it is one that does not judge but rather urges us closer to Jesus.
She answered many questions but the thing that stuck most in my mind was her urging to love and to love always. She kept saying, "Do not judge, this is how we can love. Do not judge." And this message is one that I think really hits at the core of what love is. Love is not kindness at all times. But even if our love requires us to say or do something that might hurt another, it is always done in charity and without judgment; this is very difficult to do.
I was also impressed by her answer to my question about how she deals with high expectations that result from being a visionary. She immediately said, "I feel sorry for anyone who focuses on me and I pray for them. I am not what should be focused on, but rather the message of our Lady is what is most important. I am not important."
She responded to all of our questions with an almost unnerving directness and humility that really left me with a sense of peace. After leaving my conversation with her, I told my sister Elizabeth, "I was not sure about this when I came but I am sure now. I believe in Medugorje."
I did not need the final experience that I am going to share to be convinced of the apparitions but I will be eternally grateful to God for the blessing of the final night we spent in Medugorje. My family climbed Apparition Hill, where Mary first appeared to the visionaries for an apparition that was going to happen to the visionary Ivan. I did not expect to be present for an actual apparition and I was at one moment excited but also nervous. I was afraid that if I did not feel anything I may walk away doubting again but I am glad that God did not test my faith. Instead He allowed me to feel the presence of His mother in a very strong way.
As we waited for 10PM, the hour she was going to appear, several things happened to cause unrest among the crowd. First a woman came up the hill guided by two other people screaming at the top of her lungs. Her scream did not sound human. It was haunting and gave me chills. My friend Erin explained to me that this might happen, that people who are unwell spiritually or mentally are often brought to Medugorje for healing. But even though I knew what was happening it gave me a very sick feeling inside. After her screams died down a group of pilgrims came pushing through the crowd and inserted themselves directly in front of us, blocking our view of Ivan and the statue of Mary. My family immediately protested but the people in front of us remained in their hardened wall, completely surrounding us. I knew that the hour was approaching so I closed my eyes and begged God to take these negative feelings away so that I could peacefully experience whatever it was that He wanted me to experience.
A few moments later I experienced the presence of Mary. The feeling I felt did not creep up on me or gradually enter my heart, it came upon my like a tidal wave of peace and love. I could feel my veins vibrating with the intensity of peace that I was feeling. If anyone had spoken to me at that moment, I would not have heard them. I knew immediately that the presence I was feeling was Mary. There was something in her spirit that connected with mine, a kind of femininity that I never had sensed before in the spirit of God. I immediately gave her all of my concerns and the deepest longings of my heart.
She could hear that my deepest love was for my family and she said to me, "Hope. Hope. Always have hope." I then saw Mary in my mind with her mantle around my family guiding them from their earliest years. I felt that she was saying to me that she has always been protecting my family as a mother and always will. I felt her say to me that I feel love for my family but my human love will never compare with the love that our Heavenly Mother feels for them. I then received for the first time a very tangible feeling of what her motherly love is like. It was deep and intense and like nothing I had ever felt before. It was a perfect love. A love that is like the best aspects of a human mother's love but much deeper and more powerful. When the intensity of the experience faded I was left with a joy and strength that I had never felt before.
I cannot explain how I am different now after my trip to Medugorje, I think I will never really know until I get to Heaven what happened in my soul over those four short days. But I am thankful to my Heavenly Mother for her love and for allowing me to experience what happened in my heart during that time. As I prepare to enter as a postulant, I pray that she will continue to guide me in order to follow Christ with my entire heart and to "do whatever He tells me."
A song to leave you with: