When She Shows You Her Son: A Life with Mary

About three weeks ago, my fiance and I were privileged to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of the Island in Manorville, New York. This was my very first visit to a Marian shrine, and as a recent convert to the Catholic faith, I found a particular warmth to the shrine property (I’ll talk about my visit in another post). As we walked among the trees and rain, I was so happy to have a space to reflect upon Mary’s role in my Christian journey.

Prior to my conversion, I possessed a deep admiration for Mary. “How special, I thought, for her to be chosen as Jesus’ mother! She just simply cannot be an ordinary person; There’s much more to her than we could imagine,” I often pondered. Yet, my faith community viewed Mary as someone who was just “nice.” We would dress up as her for the Christmas play and someone would sing “Mary Did You Know?” On December 26th, Mary would go back into the Nativity scene box, never to be spoke of or seen again until after Thanksgiving.

Unfortunately, many Protestants see Catholic devotion to Mary as unnecessary, or even worse, idolatrous.

A friend once mentioned, “I just don’t like the Catholic emphasis on Mary. It takes away from Jesus.” To this, I responded by saying that Mary doesn’t distract us from Jesus. Instead, she shows us the way to her Son.

For example, in John 2, we see the wedding feast at Cana. The wedding has run out of wine, and Mary tells Jesus this news. He replies with “Woman, what does this have to do with me?” Mary then responds to the servants, telling them, “Do whatever He tells you.” As the story concludes, Jesus performs His first miracle at Cana, turning water into the finest wine.

This is a powerful testament to Mary’s example for Christians. It seems, rather than fume that Jesus won’t comply with her immediately, she is patient, turning to the servants, saying “Do whatever He tells you.” In one simple statement, Mary spoke the essence of Christian life: to follow Jesus and submit our will to His. In today’s world, following Jesus unconditionally is difficult. We have so many distractions: cell phones, social media, our work, plans, worries, and anxieties. It’s hard to follow Jesus when we are preoccupied in our minds with everyday monotony.

As a personal example, I struggle with anxiety. Daily, I find myself worried over things both big and small. Little, nagging worries occupy my mind. Obviously, Holy Scriptures tell us not to worry. We are told not to fear (365 times, actually!). At yet, at this, I fail. In spite of my failures, each day, I like to remember the words of the Blessed Mother, just as she told the servants at Cana: Do whatever He tells you. These words encourage me to not worry and to put my trust in Christ. Mary always points you and I towards her Son, towards obedience towards Him, and to the knowledge of Him. I’m not a professional Catholic apologist or theologian, and there are so many more writings about Mary you could read that surpass my skill. However, for my Catholic and Protestant friends alike, remember that a Biblical Mary will always point you to Jesus, never to herself.

As I stood in front of the shrine in New York, I was amazed at the detail. As Mary stood tall, she carried the infant Jesus in her arms. Rather than hold Jesus to the side, Mary held Him in front of her, the center of our visual focus. As I looked up, I said a prayer that day, thanking Our Lord His mother’s life and for her fiat. May you and I both, as the faithful on earth, always do as He tells us with joyful, hopeful hearts.

 

Sunday Thoughts: Transfiguration

Today, the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the Transfiguration of Our Lord. The Transfiguration is an odd story, and it’s always been one that has caused confusion for me. I never fully understood what the Gospel writers meant when they told the story of the event or even what the Transfiguration meant for me in my Christian walk. I foolishly viewed it another wondrous account of the life of Christ on Earth. From there, I would often scurry along.

In today’s Gospel Reading from Matthew (17:1-9), Jesus takes Peter, James, and His brother John on a “high mountain.” There, the men witness Jesus’ face shining like the sun, and the appearance of Moses and Elijah. Surely, this would frighten any one: On one hand, you have the Son of God, whose face is radiant, and then long-deceased Moses and Elijah show up. On top of all of this, the voice of God descends from the heavens, saying: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.” The men fall to the ground, but Jesus assures them, saying “Rise and do not be afraid.”

Until today, I rarely thought about the message God delivered to the three men: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Yes, of course I believe(d) that Jesus is God’s Son. But, after spending time today thinking and reading other devotions on the topic, I thought: “What would God say about me?” When I reach the end of my Earthly journey, will Jesus say that He is well-pleased with me? Did I allow him to change, or transfigure, me from the inside-out?

This is a difficult thought because change is hard. It’s hard when you want to go to Adoration for an hour after work, and then you think of the extra 30-minute drive (one way!) it would add to your day. It’s hard when you want to follow the daily Mass readings, but then it would require you to wake up 15 minutes earlier. It’s hard when you feel the Lord urging you to put a little bit more in the offering basket, but you want to keep that $5.

Selfishness often gets in our way (Note: If you couldn’t tell, all of those struggles listed before? They’re mine). We want holiness and good fruit in our lives, but often, we’re overcome by what’s safe and comfortable to us. It’s comfortable for me to stay home from Adoration and kick back after a long school day. It’s safe for me to hold tightly to my money. If I want Jesus to truly change me, I have to let go and “do not be afraid” of what I imagine I’m missing.

It’s not a coincidence, I think, that this past week I’ve been more intentional with my life and work habits. Personally, I use the Blessed is She liturgical calendar planner. I use the to-do list for each day to write out my daily spiritual goals: read the Mass readings, pray the Divine Mercy chaplet, write Mr./Mrs. XYZ a letter. I can immediately tell so much more peace has entered my life in the past week when I choose to put God first and allow Him to dictate my schedule, not the other way around. This may not work for you, but it helps me grow closer to Our Lord.

On this Feast of the Transfiguration, I pray you have or will encounter Jesus in a way that leaves an impression on your heart and soul. May we all change inside and out for His glory, so that one day, he will look at us say that He is pleased.

 

 

On the Island of Peace: Thoughts

Every July 13th, I remember my Korean host father.

It was the day he died.

When I was a Fulbright teacher, I lived on Jeju Island, dubbed the “Hawaii of Korea” (and the namesake of this blog). One of the highlights of the Fulbright Korea English Teaching Assistantship is that for your first year, you must live with a host family. As I’ve said in past posts of past blogs, I truly hit the host family jackpot. I was seamlessly knitted into the fabric of my family, and I was welcomed into every aspect of Korean family life. Chuseok (think Thanksgiving), New Years’, Christmas, birthdays, I was present. Unlike other teaching assistants, who were sometimes pushed to the side during the year, I was blessed with a warm home.

In August 2014, as I was moving into my new apartment in Western Kentucky, I received a KakaoTalk message from my host sister saying that her father had died. I was stunned, as if a pile of bricks had hit my head. Just some 400 days earlier, my host father (whom I called Bruce), had dropped me off at the Jeju International Airport so that I could meet my connecting flight in Seoul back to the United States. While I won’t linger on the shock and aftermath in this post, you can read more about it if you click here. Today, instead, I’ll ramble for you.

I had lost family members before, sure. It hurts. For example, I still think of my paternal grandparents each and every day. But, when I found out that Bruce was gone, it was unbelievable. Young people die, but not young people that I know. That is far from fair, and not the life I planned. I imagined reunion upon reunion in Korea, and now, that is but a dream.

The family I lived with has shifted dramatically. The house I stayed in for my year is no longer occupied by my family. Last June, I stood outside of the house, wondering who lived inside.

Now, my host brother is now serving his mandatory 2-year military service. My host sister and host mother have moved to a large city, about 50 miles outside of Seoul. As for Bruce, he rests on Jeju Island: where he born, where he lived, and ultimately, where he died.

Sometimes, when I’m using Google Maps or Naver (the Korean equivalent), I’ll use street view outside of the house. I’ll see Bruce’s truck, or my host mother’s car. Often, I’ll just smile when I see the little island on the map. It reminds me of a time of goodness and love, a time that I’ll never get back. In a way, I think that’s a very good thing. I treasure my time on the island, and with my host family, even more. Maps are good for that nostalgia.

Today, life is different. It moves on, rather we want it to or not. Sure, the home stay is empty and my host family is gone. But, in my heart, Jeju is the island of peace. It’s where I formed lifelong friendships and bonds. It’s where Bruce’s life touched mine, if but for a single moment in eternity. And for this, I am perpetually grateful.

 

 

 

 

Church in the Wildwood: A Story

I originally wrote this post on June 4th, 2017 or Pentecost. It took me a very long time to write this, and an even longer time to decide to publish it. When I announced my conversion to Catholicism on social media, the situation became very nasty, very quickly. I know that whatever is put on social media is for the world’s consumption, and I didn’t expect everyone to agree with my choice. I even expected a few objections.

However, I just didn’t expect the enormous social media blow back. Facebook statuses were composed, indirectly directed towards me. Other posts were written, with my name not used. I was unfriended. It was open season. I’m no martyr for the Faith, but those actions and words hurt. I know some of these people may see this post, and that’s fine. I forgive them, not for their theological opinions and beliefs that they are free to have and express, but for their nasty outreach tactics.

For you dear readers, I pray you find your way to Jesus, Our Eternal Hope.

-Sarah, July 10, 2017

An April 2002 quote by the late Richard John Neuhaus, founder and editor of First Things, captures the spirit of my post in complete clarity (changes my own):

I became a Catholic in order to be more fully what I was and who I was [in the Churches of Christ].

If you’ve followed my writing for a while, you probably know I’m a decent writer, but I’m not terribly eloquent or convincing. I’m not a trained Catholic apologist, and I’m not as intelligent as I once thought I was. That’s why it’s taken a while for me to put my mind and thoughts to the page regarding my decision to join the Catholic Church. On Pentecost, today’s feast commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit after Jesus’ resurrection, I want to talk with you about church, changes, and the joy of the Lord.

I was raised in the Churches of Christ. My little church, however, was different that other Churches of Christ. While we didn’t use instruments in corporate worship, we didn’t believe that those who chose to attend other congregations in town (Baptist, Methodist, Christian), were bound for hell because of they are worshiped in  “denominational churches” or had piano accompaniment.

Like Neuhaus, who was raised Lutheran, I cherish, and still cherish, my spiritual heritage in the Churches of Christ. The little Church of Christ around the corner is where I was baptized, took communion on a weekly basis, and was instructed the in the tenets of Christian orthodoxy. I truly do not remember a time when I did not know of Jesus Christ and His presence in my life.

Yet, I struggled with a strange emptiness. I am a firm believer that if you have a problem with whatever church you’re attending, the first step is to look in the mirror. Usually 95% of the time, you and I are our own problems in any given situation. Despite my own self-assessments, this emptiness followed me to college where I faithfully church-hopped for four years. I went to churches in traditional buildings with stained glasses and padded pews, I went to churches in store-fronts and refurbished supermarkets with rock bands. (At one church, the minister and his wife took me out for lunch, and I never returned. I still feel guilty about it).

But, the one time in the four years I attended Catholic Mass with my friends, I was at peace. In high school, my Catholic friends would talk about their Lenten fasts, Ash Wednesday, Advent, and liturgy. In my heart, I wanted what I saw as a fullness of the faith. But, I stayed away. In college, I continued to bury my feelings about Catholicism, but voraciously devoured the writings of and by the saints. In the courses for my religion minor, I almost always wrote about topics regarding Catholicism. For my English oral exam my senior year, my exam partner and I talked for the better part of an hour about female martyr saints. I admired and knew so much about the Catholic faith, but I hadn’t taken a step.

Several months after college, while beginning a Fulbright year in Korea, a few other grantees and I were looking for a local church to attend. I watched as two of my fellow teachers boarded a bus to a local Catholic church. I so badly wanted to go with them, but instead I traveled with the majority of Christian teachers to a local Methodist church. I struggled with my faith. Not in a “I don’t know if I believe who Jesus said He is,” but in a “I don’t know where I belong in my faith journey.”

I asked (maybe hinted to) God about my feelings.

For the next ten months, I lived with a host family: Catholic mom, non-religious dad, and two kids. It was some of the best months of my life. In July 2013, I returned back to the States and taught in Western Kentucky for two years. During my second year in Western Kentucky, on Thursday afternoons I tutored English language learners at the local Catholic school for a semester. I yearned to be part of the Catholic Church even more.

At this point, you may wonder: Sarah, why didn’t you just start going to a Catholic parish? The short answer: My faith was inhibited by anxiety. Though firm in faith, the Churches of Christ tend to emphasize dotting every “I” and crossing every “T,” lest one lose his salvation. Growing up, Catholicism was cast in such a negative light (not necessarily by my parents), and I was scared of the thoughts I was having about the Catholic faith. For years, I was between a rock and a hard place.

Fast forward to November 2016, and I found my courage and decided to enroll in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults or RCIA. The first Sunday I was to attend, I chickened out. Seriously. I was that afraid. I curled up in bed when I should have been in my formation class. I was like a dog who had finally caught the car she had been chasing, only to wondering “Wait, what?”

After the next Sunday, the rest was history. I cannot tell you how many times I found myself near tears or in tears during the Mass, or how many “Aha!” moments I’ve experienced before and after my Confirmation this past Easter. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve felt sweet relief from anxiety and pain (imagined and real) after receiving the Eucharist. I cannot tell you how sweet it is to spend an hour with Jesus during Adoration. I cannot tell you how simply wonderful and full my faith is. I believe that God was calling me to the Catholic faith for years, and in His blessed timing, I was able to find my place. I am home, and I am in a state of peace I simply cannot put into words.

To conclude, I’ll leave you with this:

Maybe you don’t know Jesus. Maybe you do, but you’re not sure what to do next. Maybe you’re in a very difficult spot in your life and you’re not sure where God is. You scroll through Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, and see a perfect world that others are living. You feel alone and forgotten and full of fear. But, here’s the catch: everyone is broken.

There is no perfection. Only Jesus.

I encourage you to say, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). I can’t promise you that life will become a bed of roses, in fact, after choosing to follow Jesus, your life may become more difficult. Why? Because our enemy, the devil, hates it when he loses. Don’t be fooled: evil will work overtime when you surrender yourself to the King of the Universe.

Jesus did not promise us a carefree life, but He did promise that He would be there as we go through the difficulties. I encourage you to hand yourself over to Him, and to listen to His call on your life. You are worth so much to Him. You were created in His image.

Finally, to paraphrase quote my friends over at Catholic Bridge,

If you are not a Catholic we suggest that you ask Jesus what he would have you do next. We trust He will guide you. Ask him where he wants you. Ask him to surround you with believers. Ask him to guide you to the church that He would have you attend. We believe the answers will come if you sincerely ask. We encourage you to read the Bible every day and ask Jesus to guide your every step. Jesus led me to the Catholic Church. Perhaps that will be where your road will lead also. If it does, I hope to meet you some day. I put that in God’s hands. May God bless you and keep you until that time.

May God bless you, friends. I pray that my story can help you find the faith you need or encourages you in the faith you already have. Praise be Jesus Christ, now and forever!