Beth Williby

My husband never liked meatloaf.  Well, that’s what he always said, anyway.

After my husband Greg finished up grad school at the University of Arizona, we moved across the country to Florida. And within a matter of months, we had a new home, a new parish, new jobs (Greg as an engineer and me as a stay-at-home mom), and baby # 2 on the way.  That sounds exciting, right?

Sure.
And completely terrifying.

There I was, 26 years old.  In a new city where I knew no one.  Spending all my time hanging out with a toddler when I was used to teaching an entire class of 4th graders.  I was lonely.

One Sunday after Mass, I was looking through the bulletin of our new parish and I saw an announcement about an upcoming St. Anne’s Circle meeting.  “Are you a mom of kids age 5 and under?” the announcement asked. “Come and join us at our next meeting! Food and fellowship with other moms available!  And don’t forget to sign up with our Moms’ Meals coordinator if you are expecting!”

That was it!  That’s what I was looking for!  I was a mom with about a kid and a half under age 5!  And food? Yep. I liked that. Fellowship? Yep. Definitely needed some of that.  So the following Tuesday night at 7:00 sharp, I put on my extrovert pants and walked in to a meeting with a group of women that would change my life.

At that first meeting, I was invited to join a playgroup (nominally for my 2 year-old son, of course, but we all know playgroups are as much for the moms as they are for the kids!).  And, since I was expecting, I was put on the list to receive Moms’ Meals.

This group knew the meaning of the term “works of mercy.”  Whenever one of the members of the Circle had a baby (which, let’s be honest, happened all the time) or surgery, or really, any difficult circumstances at all, she and her family were provided with meals.  Three dinners a week for three weeks would show up at your door, made by other young moms who were just as busy and just as strapped for cash as you were.

Nine times out of ten, though, it wasn’t just dinner that we newborn mamas would receive.

When my second son was born, I experienced with postpartum depression for the first time.  These women, many of whom had become my dear friends and lifelines in the months leading up to my son’s birth, brought dinners, yes.  But they also helped bring me back to myself. Many times, they brought breakfast items for the next day, too. Or, they’d stay and help fold laundry if they had the time, or do the dishes they saw piled up in the sink.  Quite often, they’d just sit and talk with me as their little one played with my older son down the hall.

With nothing but a thank you for their efforts, time and time again, the women of St. Anne’s Circle stepped up for each other.  In part, because it was the right thing to do, of course. But also, let’s be honest, because we all knew that when it was our turn to have the next baby, our friends would be there for us, too.

Time passed and I cooked my share of meals.  Meals for a mom in my playgroup who had her 4th child in 5 years.  Dinner for a family of 10 when Mom had to go back to the hospital with postpartum hypertension after the birth of baby number 8.  Meals for a family when Mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer in her mid-30s. Dinners when new babies made it safely into the world and dinners when families were left grieving children they’d never meet this side of Heaven.

And soon enough, it was my turn to sign up to receive meals again!  This time, our daughter was on her way.

When that little blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty joined our family, I was so very grateful not to live under the fog of PPD again.  I did, however, have two very rambunctious little boys who kept me hopping.

I remember one delivery of Moms’ Meals in particular.  My friend Diana, herself a mother of 6, came bearing a dinner of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, green beans, and eclair cake.  She took one look at me after she had placed all of the food in the fridge, grabbed my fussy baby out of my arms, and said, “Go.  I’ve got her. I’ve got the boys. You go take a shower and relax. Take your time, mama. We’ll be just fine.”

And so I did!

And while I was in the shower, blessedly alone for the first time in what truly seemed like forever, I cried out my thanks to God.  Thanks for hot water and soap and good-smelling shampoo. Thanks for friends that could see past my “I’m fine!”s and my “Oh, no, I don’t need anything”s.  And thanks for a dinner that I didn’t have to cook (even if it was meatloaf and, oh boy, would Greg even eat it?).

Later that evening as we ate Diana’s meatloaf – which Greg loved, by the way, and is the recipe I still make to this day! – I shared my thanks with my husband and our sons.  I told them how lucky I felt to have joined such a wonderful group of ladies who truly lived out their faith. Sure, we had fun when we all got together. But we never lost sight of the fact that our purpose was to follow Jesus through doing works of mercy.  Feeding the hungry, visiting the lonely, tending the sick…it was all just part of what we did!

And late that same night, as I stood in the glow of the open refrigerator light eating leftover eclair cake after a middle of the night nursing session, I thanked God all over again for Diana, for all my wonderful and caring friends, and for the fact that I could, for the first time in our 12 year long marriage, make meatloaf.  Because, as it turned out, Greg did like it after all.

Beth Williby is a wife of 20 years to her college sweetheart and the mom of 4 kids, ages 8 to 18. She is a singer and writer for her own blog, A Welcome Grace, and is a regular contributor to the Blessed is She blog. Having grown up in the Midwest, Beth now calls Northeast Florida home. You can also find her on Instagram at @bethwilliby.

Paige Rien

“So would you be willing to tell your conversion story to the ladies in the parish?” I could hear my friend and our bible study coordinator, asking over the phone. Uggggghhhhh. Here it is, I thought. I had imagined this moment in my mind – I sort of knew it was coming. I knew that I had to say yes. This was a request from God. I had recently come into the Catholic church at the tender age 43, and many of my friends knew that I had been in recovery, and had some issues but that was about it. Nobody in our relatively affluent, slightly Truman-show-like community knew the whole deal. Connecting the dots on my 20 year-long conversion journey wouldn’t be easy or tidy or flattering. But God knew that my story could be used for good – He knew, as I did, that stories can turn the lights on for someone else who is lost in their darkness. And even if I wanted to say no,I learned in my first church, the church basements where I went to my first 12 step meetings, that being of service is healing and you don’t say know when asked to be of service. being“Ok, I’ll do it,” I told my friend.

In the weeks before “OK I’ll do it” and the talk itself, I was lost – lost in my own story, parts of which are painful to revisit, lost in fear of revealing myself, lost in anxiety that I didn’t know what God wanted me to share in the talk. My story is long and I had a lot to say but what was going to be the light? Could I do it without revealing too much about myself? Could I do it and still look people in my tight-knit community in the eye afterwards?

“You know, Paige, you don’t really have to tell all the gory details,” a well-meaning friend suggested. But the gory details are my story. I wish I could tell people that I met Mother Teresa in fourth grade and she touched my hand, or that I had turned to God of my own free will, in my troubles, but those are not my stories. My story is that I ran away from God. I didn’t believe in God. I hated God. Was I even a Christian? Who knew and who cared? I would only accept the help from a completely anonymous, amorphous, churchless, story-less God of my own design. That is the person God came to heal nonetheless. And He has given me more and more courage to tell the truth but this would be a very revealing talk. I would have to talk about ravaging my body with self-destructive eating, starving, drinking, prescription-drug-taking, self-harm, abusive relationships. I had to paint the picture of what it looked like when I depended on myself, when I tried to answer my longings and my profound hunger for God with everything but God Himself. I had to talk about what it was like when I did everything I could to fill a God-sized hole.

I imagined what the room would be that night: rows and rows of perfect women. Perfectly small, perfectly put together, perfectly Catholic. They would come and cross their legs and raise their eyebrows and think, “wow.” They would be embarrassed for me. I would ugly cry through my story of surviving an eating disorder and almost drinking myself to death and it would be like a bad Lifetime movie.  In preparing for this talk, I saw this scene over and over again. I also became convinced I was a fraud, that my suffering wasn’t real suffering, even that I hadn’t really been healed, that my story was bullshit, that I had no place in the church, that no one cared or would listen. God, why have you asked me to do this?

One day, I saw a quote by St. Augustine as I scrolled through Instagram. 

“Lord, in my deepest wound I saw your glory, and it dazzled me.” 

Those words changed me. My deepest wound, the wound of addiction, compulsion, self-destruction, rendered me unable to go on without God’s help. A surrender to Him and a path forward, with Him, was my only way out. It has not been easy, and for decades it was a secret way, but I was now asked to share it. Maybe it could help make a way for someone else. 

Finally, the night of the talk arrived. My friend Julie, who had asked me to do the talk, sent me to the Adoration Chapel as soon as I got there. She either saw the look of terror on my face or could hear my heart beating inside my chest. “Please Lord, speak through me. Please calm my heart.” I thought of my favorite church hymn, “Here I am Lord.” I will go Lord, if you lead me….

A lot of beautiful and very perfect women did come that night. Friends and strangers, neighbors, my sister in law, my kids’ teachers.  I can remember the room filling up and women gathering more chairs from another room, women coming in late and women waiting patiently for me to speak. More and more women.I kept speaking to the Lord, asking him to carry me and speak through me.  I started out by telling everyone that I would rather be at the gynecologist or stick my hand in the garbage disposal than do what I was about to do – which was true, and I thought about running out of the room, hurtling myself over some of those beautiful women, and i told them that too, but soon the words flowed and I found myself unbound to the podium and quite free in telling my story. I was able to experience the extraordinary grace in telling a story about a dark time that is well behind me. In many ways I delighted in my own story, as I had rediscovered it. I did tell some ugly details of my very humbling lows like what happens when you’re balancing the demands of bulimia and binge drinking – that I’ve been a million sizes, that my body was both confused and injured and would sometimes vomit without my consent, even mid-sentence, that I still suffer from the same brokeness, I just have better tools and a relationship with God to walk through it without hurting myself.

But then I got to talk about how God led me to healing in the only way I would have said yes to Him – in a very slow, very anonymous and gentle way. Then how He revealed His Son to me in the most uncanny and patient ways, over the following two decades. God had written my story so well – I really appreciated that as I told it, and I experienced waves of gratitude for God’s healing – of course it cannot be a secret. How I came into the church is equally entertaining and a true testament to the fact that God is pursuing us all the time. 

About a year into recovery, God sent me a lapsed catholic boyfriend, Francis, who happened to be from a devout family, who I later married. I spent years thinking Francis’ family was very weird.  Now, I consider my in-laws to be some of my greatest teachers. My husband & I share a love of adventuring, and we found ourselves, randomly, in Medjugorje. On an adventure to Croatia, we stumbled upon one of the most famous Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world. Yeah, what a random circumstance. 

I would then, by chance, find Father Robert Barron–before he became a bishop– and his earth shattering Catholicism series, in the middle of the night on PBS, no less, while breastfeeding my babies. Bishop Barron was the first person to actually educate me about the person of Jesus, and my mind was blown. Then just a few years later, I heard Sister Miriam James Heidland tell her story of 12-step recovery and healing the feminine genius at my own parish and I ugly cried the whole time. I soon knew that my conversion was a living breathing thing and I could no longer ignore it. 

As I worked through preparation for my talk, I found myself quite moved in another truth that came to the surface. That God was in fact asking me to do this very tough thing, because he wanted me to be of service, yes. That I could bring the light to others, yes. But there was something else. He knew where I was spiritually, at the time of asking. He knew that in telling my story, I would put my eyes back on where I had been, on my brokeness which still plagued me, and I would realize the work I still have to do. He knew I had to go back to 12 step meetings, somehow, which I had left in the business of raising my four children, thinking, “I don’t need those any more.” Yes, you do, hon, He said. As only the most loving Father could know, He knew I needed the tools He created for me as much today as I did twenty-plus years ago. He also wanted me to trust the path I was on, by looking closely at my journey with Him.


My talk cemented for me that I have a rightful place in the pew not because I try not to miss mass, or because I completed the year-long RCIA program or because I send my kids to Catholic school. I’m Catholic because I need God desperately, in the most deep and profound way – and I can never turn my back on that need again. That is the lesson of my brokenness, and the life source of my faith – a clear understanding of my weakness, which is reiterated and relearned for me in every mass and every 12 step meeting. Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed. I wait for the Centurion’s words at every mass. They are my words, and I feel myself laying down my weakness and absorbing some of God’s goodness precisely when those words are said. Nothing is impossible for God, the gospel says, but also, nothing I have now would have been possible, without God, and a complete dependence on Him. That is why I am catholic. That’s why I did the talk and I will continue to say yes if asked again to share my story. “God with skin on” is a term we use in 12-step meetings often to describe people who lead and guide because of their openness about their faith and their own journeys. God is now asking me to do this for others. I heard you Lord, OK, I’ll do it and I know you’ll guide me.

Paige Rien is a designer, former HGTV-host, author, speaker, mother to four, and convert to the Catholic faith, not necessarily in that order. She is chiefly interested in the intersection of the home and our personal path to holiness. Her first book, Love the House You’re In, (Roost Books, March 2016) encouraged readers to treat their homes as sacred spaces to express who they really are and nourish their families. She lives in Maryland with her husband, Francis, and their children. She can be found on Instagram @paigerien and on Facebook.com/lovethehouseyourein.

Nell O’Leary

I held out the folder of photos to the guy behind the photo-copy shop counter. He shrugged and gestured over to the color printers. 

“Yeah, you can just copy them over there, I guess,” he uttered before turning back to his pile of orders to ship. 

On my tiptoes I could spy my dad’s car through the windows just beyond the bank of printers. His glasses perched on top of his balding head, his face buried in the newspaper. I hesitated and then moved further down to the color-copy printers. 

I was eleven years old. 

Clutching the pictures I had taken from my mom’s leather-bound 1992 album, I carefully copied them one at a time. Shooting out onto the tray one up on the other, my smiling face showed up as did my best friend’s. I stacked them, paid, and shuffled back out the car over the snowbanks. “All done,” I chirped as I clicked my seatbelt, pushing extra hard as the metal never caught the first time. 

That afternoon as I poured over craft paper, the newly printed pictures, my markers, and a glue stick, my mom popped her head in my room. “Sure you don’t want help with that?” she asked and paused to smile before continuing, “I think she’s lucky to have a friend like you.” 

+++ 

The week prior on the carpool ride to gymnastics, my bestie shook her head. No, she didn’t want to hear my rendition of that song from KDWB, and no, she hadn’t seen me in the hallway at school when I had nearly passed out from waving to her, and no, she was sure we wouldn’t be on the same soccer team this summer. “Twelve year olds are with the older kids, not the younger ones, duh,” she snapped her gum and turned toward the window. 

+++ 

For as long as I had memories, she had been my best friend. A year older, a year smarter, and year prettier, a year more independent. Was I her best friend? Probably not, but I’d settle for friend, even. And as my own older sisters saw it unfold: the cycle of when she found me interesting, when her interest waned, and when I scrambled to regain her interest, they tried taking turns talking me out of it. My little stubborn heart rose and fell with her attention barometer, not theirs. 

This photo book I pieced together of our first decade of life as friends, this proud physical affirmation of my worth in her life, it would make the perfect Christmas present. And as I walked it up to her front door, my oldest sister waiting patiently in our station wagon on the narrow street, double parked with her hazards blinking, I knew, just knew, that she would love me and care about us again. Just as soon as she opened it. That would make all the difference. 

Her brother opened the door and called her down for me. I tucked my chin into my scarf and kicked the snow from one boot against the heel of the other. I exhaled and looked up. She stood at the door, laughing and calling out to what sounded like a party of girls in the kitchen, “I’ll be really quick! I’ll be right back. Hi! What is this?” 

“It’s for you from me,” I stammered. “An early Christmas present. I was hoping you could open it right now.” 

She set it on the ground behind her, next to her mom’s coat rack and her brother’s ice skates, and said she had to go, her friends were waiting, thanks, and bye bye. 

+++ 

If I had known how to love myself, maybe loving my neighbor with better proportionality would have been easier. 

“Love your neighbor as yourself….” Whenever I read this Scripture from Matthew 22:39, I nod thoughtfully and solemnly. Yes, love your neighbor so much. I nod along as if that’s the ticket, that’s the key to charity, caritas, love. To love my neighbor to the nth degree, to do that task well, to be good at loving others. 

Now these twenty-five years later since that little girl turned on the porch of that stucco house, turned and ran with tears blurring her vision, ran back to the station wagon and slid in the back seat to muffled sobs, now I know there’s a predicate to loving my neighbor. 

I must love myself. 

And not love myself in a self-absorbed way, or a self-obsessed way, or even a self-satisfying way. Love myself and honor my personhood because of who I am: God’s daughter made in His image and likeness. Love myself like He loves me, treasure and value the gifts He’s given me, respect myself and ensure others do, too. 

This little girl, this former best friend, wasn’t a mean girl. She wasn’t even an unkind little girl. But the power I had given over to her over my own self-esteem was out of balance. It was disproportionate to the nature of our friendship. 

And later, years later, when I talked through the whys and hows of the demise of the friendship with one of my sisters, she casually mentioned, “You don’t have to still try at the friendship. Some people just aren’t naturally going to be friends.” 

The magnitude of her comment hit me because I had always thought being friends was part of Jesus’ commandment in Scripture. I had conflated friendship with love. And as adults, we all have come to know that we can love someone fiercely and not like them. It’s called family, right? We can hold these two things in tension: love and healthy boundaries. It is a critical thing to do as an adult, actually. 

So for all the friends who have come and gone in our lives, for all the relationships we have chased, for all the times we’ve gone above and beyond and over the lines by handing over our self-worth to be determined by someone else, here’s our reminder. 

God gives us our self-worth. We can try to derive it from our work, our furnishings, our fitness level, our relationship status, our vacation destination. But it’s inherent and fixed in our identity that comes only from God alone. Let us let Him love us and teach us to love ourselves, and then we can go on to love our neighbors (even the ones we don’t like), dipping into that same fountain of love: the source of all love, God Himself.

Nell O’Leary is the Managing Editor for Blessed is She, wife, mother of four, attorney-turned-editor, speaker and writer. She loves her chocolate in hot milk, her grilled cheese partially charred, and her laundry folded (preferably by someone else). She and her family live in Saint Paul, Minnesota and you can find more about her on wholeparentingfamily.com

Kara Dixon

It was just another dreary morning when the alarm on my iPhone started to blare. I rolled over, hit stop,and groggily tried to remember what day it was.

Sunday, I thought to myself.

Sundays were sometimes full. I was an extraordinary Eucharistic minister and I helped teach religious education, which started at 10:45. It was currently 10:15 so I had to book it. 

I contemplated skipping but knew I made a commitment to the kids and to God I got out of bed, showered and dressed to head over to my church, which was less than 10 minutes away. 

10:35 I saw on my car clock when I got in it.-I should be there on time.

Down and down I went through my apartment’s garage before emerging onto the street not really paying too much attention since I was late. I’d driven this way a million times before. Why would today be any different?

My car came to a stop at a red light. It was the last one I would have to go through before arriving at the church.

I could see it in the distance. It’s beautiful old white steeple poking out through a canopy of trees. It was a  beacon of hope in my community for years that served as a place of refuge for African Americans during the segregation and the civil rights movement.

Now, it served as a beacon guiding me to my destination- the rowdy kindergarten and first graders I would see in less than five minutes.

10:43-I saw on my clock as I accelerated through the light that turned green.

Great-two minutes to spare. I would be cutting it close. 

I drove through the first two lanes. The road was still slick from rain.

“I wonder what the kids will say today” they always were telling jokes I was thinking to myself when-

BAM

A car struck the front of mine pushing me back into the intersection. 

I sat there stunned, in shock, as I processed what was happening. 

“Oh my God…what?!” I shouted confused that my car was stopped, the front was a mangled piece of metal, and a land rover sat a few feet away with its air bags deployed. 

Shaking and in tears, I pulled my phone out to call the first person who I knew could help. My friend Emily who was also teaching Sunday school. She told me she was on the way.

Next I called my dad to tell him and then 911 after a bystander, who was French, said he couldn’t do it. 

The driver, a young woman, ran over to ask if I was okay.

I was. 

She told me she hadn’t seen the red light and braked when it was too late.

Fast forward. The police came and collected our information. My car, my trusty car that I had lovingly named LaTonya, was towed away. 

I went to the hospital for neck pain. I didn’t feel well. I was stiff and confused. Dizzy and delirious. Sure signs that I had a concussion. They sent me home with some medicine telling me the days ahead would be worse. I missed work the next day and was glad for it because I was in too much pain to really do anything. 

All my friends and family were concerned so they bombarded me with texts asking if I was okay. I was. But it was the one text, I’ll always remember.

My mentor from the Given Forum, a religious sister based in the Midwest, was asking how I was and asked me to pray for her because she was having surgery.

She didn’t know I had been in an accident.

And when I told her what happened, her reply opened my eyes to the situation. 

She told me to praise the Lord that I was entering into a season of the suffering of the Lord.

All of a sudden, it hit me that in pain we experience here, whether physical or emotional, it doesn’t have to be in vain.

It can be used for good if we offer it up. Not everything in life will be sunshine and roses. We’ll have inconveniences-minor and major-that can disrupt our lives.

But it’s up to us to use whatever God gives us.

As I my pain continued through the next couple of weeks, this text was a reminder to grow closer to God, who is a healer.

I think this can really hit home for some during Lent, where we willing give up something that will cause us to “suffer” in some ways.

But if we remember that there’s a purpose and a plan, it’s worth it.

One of my favorite sayings that helps me get through times of hardship and suffering is what Pope Benedict XVI says about the comforts of the world.

He says,  “The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness. “

My car wreck didn’t make me comfortable. My car was totaled. My neck was in pain. I was dizzy for weeks and not able to work at times.

But it showed me how precious life is and that our pain can be united to the Lord’s.

I hope when you doubt whatever sacrifice you made for Lent or whatever you decided to gain, you remember the words of Pope Benedict and know that the Lord, who knows and understands what it means to suffer, and who is beside you for the journey.

Kara Dixon is a TV reporter based in Hampton Roads, Virginia. Kara’s mission in life is to bring awareness to the beauty and diversity of the world through her stories. When she’s not reporting, stockpiling books for her library, or belting our her favorite Hamilton show tunes at karaoke, you can find Kara at church teaching religious education or feeding the homeless. You can follow her on Instagram @Karadixontv or on @karawavy.

Liv Harrison

2+2=7

South Louisiana is a place saturated with heat, mosquitoes, and sensational food. There is always a reason to celebrate something—whether it is a birthday or a Little League championship. The whole state takes pride in finding joy in every little thing. The days are long and the company is usually family. Growing up with family is not unique, but growing up in a huge family certainly is—even in South Louisiana. 

My mother is the oldest of ten children and their family is anchored in South Louisiana. I spent many summers and countless holidays running around and climbing magnolia trees with my cousins. If I am asked how many cousins I have, I proudly announce, “I am the sixth oldest of fifty-eight grandchildren!”And then I pause and wait.There is always a reaction. Sometimes there is a gasp of disbelief, but often there is repetition: “Fifty-eight grandchildren?!?!” My favorite follow-up question is always, “Do you know all of their names?” My face instantly lights up as I exclaim that I do. I love that I do know all of their names. 

In addition, those fifty-eight grandchildren (only half of whom are married) have already made eighty great-grandchildren! My family has definitely embraced the command from Genesis to “Be fruitful and multiply”. The pride I feel about being from such a massive family is as big as a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. Every time I encounter my cousins it is a celebration of life. There is laughter, dancing, eating, and loads of sarcasm. But it is the love exchanged between each member that is invigorating. 

When I am personally sharing about my huge family I cringe when I am asked, “So how many kids do you have?” Since I was just bragging about my large family, it makes sense to follow up with a question that requires a numerical answer. The curiosity is valid. The truth is, I have not contributed in a great way to the number of children in my extended family’s tree. I definitely feel shame about  that. Nevertheless, by the grace of God, I have been blessed with two children. 

The vision I had for my family was a nice biblical number. Personally, I felt having five kids would be ideal, because then we would be a total of seven. There was something romantic about having the number in our family equal to the definition of a covenant. It was in high school that I learned that a covenant or oath translated “to seven oneself” with the Lord. That image of the power of seven really stayed with me. I hung on to the dream of having such a full house for a long time. 

Finally, at thirty-six years old, I had come to terms that I would not be the mother of five. My dreams had adjusted and my expectations had lessened about the final size of my family. The prayer of acceptance had ultimately pierced my heart. I recognized that we would be a family of five–two parents and three kids. We had two kids; now we just needed to add the third and all would be complete.

Doctor visits and medical procedures are as numerous for me as mosquitoes in Louisiana. I always describe my medical history as long and complex. Therefore, when I found myself at thirty-six in various waiting rooms, I was filled with anticipation. At the time my medical team consisted of eight doctors. Each physician was a specialist that had to give their approval for me to proceed with attempting pregnancy so that we could have a third and final child. This particular time in my life was the strongest my health had ever been. I was 36, and I had nothing but hope that I would be pregnant before I was thirty-seven. It was in my hematologist’s office that my dream of holding another newborn was utterly shattered. I was there for a follow-up about my most recent iron infusion, a routine procedure for me. As my doctor was explaining my dismal test results he paused and asked, “Have you always eaten Altoids?” I was confused. His comment seemed so random and disconnected from the concerning information he was relaying to me. He must have seen the confusion on my face because he repeated his question and pointed at the box of “curiously strong mints” in my hand. My face turned as red as a late-afternoon sun setting behind the trees and the heat I felt was as warm as a Louisiana summer day. I was chomping on four Altoids as I struggled to open my mouth and say, “Only the last eighteen months. I believe it’s a transfer of addiction that I had to food. Now I chew these mints all day instead of eating.” 

The doctor set down the reports he had been meticulously reading aloud to me, pulled up a chair, and said, “Mrs. Harrison, you have pica. You are not retaining the iron we are pumping into your veins. You are so iron-deficient that I don’t even know how you made it all the way here into my office from your car ! You are going to need a hysterectomy to solve the concerning medical issues we have been trying to fix for these last few years. You have the perfect storm of multiple medical anomalies working against you.” 

I felt as if I had been running with my cousins and just fallen on the humid concrete, scraping both my knees. I fought hard not to cry the tears that rushed to my eyes. The sting took my breath away. How in the world does a faithful Catholic woman at thirty-six hear that she is to completely lose her fertility? The sacrifice seemed unbearable. The punishment seemed to me to be a permanent Lent. Having to live every day on a fertility fast seemed cruel. The dream of a family of five dwindled to only four. It was as if I was doomed to walk the streets after a parade, my surroundings littered with debris and broken Mardi Gras beads no one wanted to bring home. 

It never once entered my consciousness that there would be anything resurrected from my perpetual Lent. At thirty-seven, instead of delivering a new life into the world, I gave over the instrument that brought forth new life, my womb. What I didn’t foresee was how God would flourish in the space that once held my womb. He filled my existence with new life in ways I had never considered. 

The love I have been gifted by my enormous family now lives on through my work in ministry as a speaker, conference creator, and women and young adults. The love I had hoped to pour into one soul has been multiplied by thousands, just like in the story of the loaves and fishes. God is never finished with us, even when we fail to see how else we can be useful. Because God realizes that the resurrection comes after the Lenten fast.

Liv is a professional speaker and emcee with a gift for humor, storytelling and wisdom. She works with youth from junior high to young adult, including work in marriage ministry. Liv has been featured on EWTN, Forte Catholic, Sirius XM, and various other podcast programs, and is currently serving the Junior League of The Woodlands as an active leader who often speaks to the 500 members. In May 2019 she successfully wrote and launched the Genius Catholic Women’s Conference (geniuswomensconference.com) outside of Austin, TX, which will happen again this March in Dallas. Finally, she is married to her high school sweetheart and is a devoted mother of two.

Meg Hunter-Kilmer

When I got an email from a stranger asking me if I would mind terribly if they flew me out to Hawaii for a week in January, it didn’t take long for me to discern that God was definitely calling me to sun, sand, and palm trees. I assumed it would be a typical week of talks, trying to shake people from their complacency or maybe hoping the Holy Spirit would do the same for me.

I had no idea what I was in for.

It was my first experience with military spouses, and I learned real quick that these women show up for each other. They walk with each other through deployments and infidelity and terrifying diagnoses, all while they’re thousands of miles from family. They are strong and beautiful and holy and desperate to live in God’s will and over and again that week (and in the years since) I was humbled by their service and their hospitality and their fellowship and honesty and brokenness.

After several days of loving them and being loved by then, I had a roomful of women seated before me hungry for truth. I told them how desperately God loved them, begged them to trust that he was working through their pain, encouraged them to accept that they don’t have to earn his love. 

Then I moved into an Ignatian meditation on the woman caught in adultery, inviting each woman there to imagine herself in the familiar scene where a woman is dragged, weeping and ashamed, before the Lord, flung on the ground by triumphant men eager to use her pain for their gain.

I’ve given this meditation plenty of times. Every time, I get the same reactions. The girls are usually the woman, the boys bystanders. Occasionally I find a Pharisee in there, but it’s pretty clearly a meditation on how God forgives and that’s how people interpret it. We all have a good cry over God’s mercy and then move on.

I knew something unusual was happening when I looked up after the meditation and almost everyone was crying. Then we started talking about our experiences.

“I was so angry at the Pharisees,” one said. “I was so, so mad—I’m still mad. I don’t have any idea what it means, but I’m mad.”

Another shared her experience: “I stood with Jesus and just looked at the woman. I looked at her and I loved her.”

A third said, “At the end, Jesus left, but I didn’t go with him. I knelt down by the woman and just stayed with her.”

Another, “When they brought her in, I went and stood in front of her. I was going to shield her from the stones with my body.”

Almost every woman there shared that her meditation was focused on loving the sinful woman. I thought it was strange until the last woman shared.

“I was her,” she said, in a broken voice. “I was her and I don’t feel any better.”

And she sobbed. And we sobbed. And I looked around the room and realized that these women had all along been sitting in a circle around their heartbroken sister. During this meditation, they were surrounding her. In their hearts, not knowing what her struggle was, they were fighting her enemies, defending her, loving her, consoling her. For these women, in this moment, fellowship looked a little less like coffee hour and a little more like prayer warriors going into battle for each other. The Lord put these reflections on their hearts so that she could hear that not only had God forgiven her, so had they.

This is what it means to be a Christian. We fight for each other and bleed for each other and weep and live and die for each other. It’s so easy for women’s groups to become middle school girls’ groups, to be filled with drama and judgment and competition. That day, the Lord worked a miracle to show his mercy. “Neither do I condemn you,” he said. “Neither does she condemn you. And she won’t abandon you. And that one’s ready to go nuclear on anyone who does. Because you deserve it.”

This woman was beautiful and funny and loving. She was an incredible mother and had a husband who loved her desperately. She’d been forgiven. But her heart couldn’t hear it. So that night, the Lord raised up a community to speak truth to her heart.

She couldn’t believe that God could delight in her after what she’d done. So her sisters—some of whom had been strangers two hours earlier, told her how heaven had rejoiced when God washed her clean. They told her that God was so consumed by his love of her that who she had been never crossed his mind. “Though your sins be as scarlet, I will wash them whiter than snow,” he said to David. To David. Like, send-others-to-risk-their-lives-for-me, use-my-office-to-make-a-married-woman-sleep-with-me, send-her-husband-to-his-death-to-cover-it-up David. White as snow.

Because “I absolve you of your sins” hadn’t convinced her that she was forgiven and loved, God surrounded her with a tribe of fierce women ready to fight the Pharisees, ready to shield her with their bodies, willing to sacrifice the opportunity to look in the eyes of Jesus so they could speak peace and love to her.

They hadn’t intended to serve her that night. But they’d loved each other so intentionally for so many months that when she heard their love directed at the woman caught in adultery, she knew that it was for her. For months, they’d showed up. They’d loved each other. And that night, scattered around folding tables on a cold linoleum floor, they loved their neighbor, and God’s love broke into her life in a way that changed her—and them—forever.

Meg Hunter-Kilmer is a hobo missionary. After 2 theology degrees from Notre Dame and 5 years as a high school religion teacher, she quit her job in 2012 to live out of her car and preach the Gospel to anyone who would listen. 50 states and 25 countries later, this seems to have been a less ridiculous decision than she initially thought. She blogs at www.piercedhands.com and at www.aleteia.org, though she’s much more prolific on Instagram and Facebook.

Mary Jo Gerd

DECLUTTERING MY HEART

For as long as I can remember, my brother and I have had—to put it mildly—a very contentious relationship. We both came out of the womb swinging. Early on, we jockeyed for position for the coveted spot on mom’s lap. We came to blows over toys, candy, TV shows, and even breathing. I was the bratty little sister who antagonized him until he snapped. Then my overly protective father would punish him for fighting and picking on daddy’s little girl. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I relished those moments. And lest you assume he acted with blameless perfection, my brother was the kind of kid who would violently up-end a chair or side table if he lost at chess. Since both our parents worked we were unsupervised for several hours after school each day. I often found myself in the path of his disproportionate rage tornados. I know that all siblings fight, but our relationship seemed particularly stormy.

I would love to say that all the tension, angst, and violent outbursts disappeared when we crossed the threshold of adulthood… Nope. We merely transitioned our heated arguments to weightier topics, like the weather, and sports. God forbid we landed on a more dodgy subject like politics, religion, or how to best care for our aging father. Shocking expletives have been screamed through gritted teeth, phone calls abruptly cut short, doors slammed, holidays ruined, countless tears shed, and sadly, months have gone by with no communication at all. 

However, despite our tortured relationship, at my core, I have always loved my brother and in the same way, I’ve always known that he loved me—if in our own twisted, damaged way. We are inextricably linked by our shared DNA, family memories, and tragedy. Amid break-ups, broken-down cars, depression, and the devastation of the sudden death of our mom when I was 22-years-old and he was 23-years-old, our bond remained intact. We managed to shake off the sting of nasty fights to celebrate the other’s accomplishments and triumphs. Our brief periods of detente, though welcome, were as effective at healing our broken relationship as a balm on a deadly infection. We always went back to feuding.

In a desperate attempt to take charge of a situation I could not control, I started keeping track of everything. I kept a detailed tally of all of my “selfless” acts of kindness with the accuracy and scrupulosity of a hard-nosed CPA facing an audit. My reluctant gestures of goodwill always came with strings attached. Any time I offered a hand to help him up, which was pretty darn often, I made a mental note. When he needed me, I grudgingly complied. As his sister, I was duty-bound to help, but come hell or high water, he would pay me back. Needless to say, my brother was amassing a deep debt at the bank of Mary Jo that made the federal government’s seem puny. He responded in kind. At one point, I accused him of wielding favors like Don Corleone. Meanwhile, my ledger also showed that our sibling rivalry continued to skyrocket as the reserves of our friendship were beyond depleted. Strangely, the more I did for him, the more strained our relationship became. 

I was desperate for answers. My resurgent Catholic faith didn’t seem to offer any concrete help, or so I thought. I had experienced a grace-filled “reversion” after becoming a mom. Through the gift of my husband and newborn son, my eyes were being opened to the reality of just how much God the Father loved me. The faith of my childhood was beginning to take root. In turn, I was learning how to love God and my neighbor, but this was my hot-headed, unforgiving brother I was dealing with. I prayed for his conversion.

During one of our routine, awkward phone conversations, my brother shared his frustration with all the clutter in his home. He couldn’t seem to get a handle on it. He was feeling overwhelmed and down. I understood the paralysis that can set in with such a daunting task. When confronted with my packed-to-the-gills garage, I longed for a friend who would happily get her hands dirty while keeping me company, urging me on. I completed the task solo. As my brother lamented his situation, I blurted out, “I could help you declutter. I know what it’s like. I can be your accountability partner.” He was a bit suspicious. Rightfully so. I could lord a massive decluttering project over his head for years. Something clicked. “Listen, I’m pretty good at this. I’m willing to help.” He must have been in dire need because—he agreed. 

Driving over to his place that first Saturday, I considered turning around—a few times. Being trapped in tight, dusty spaces with my brother for a long stretch would be brutal. I said a prayer that I might be an instrument of the Holy Spirit and managed to keep driving.

For the next few months, we spent hours scrounging through every drawer, closet, and box in every room of his house, even the garage. I put in countless hours. It was hard work, but my brother was so grateful for my expertise, advice, and company. Something between us softened. It was as if our old story was being rewritten. We still bickered, but there was an ease about our relationship that I had never experienced before. At one point when something fell on his foot, he let out a string of offensive words. Normally my disapproving response may have resulted in an escalating fight. Instead of lashing out, I simply explained that the loud cursing made me uncomfortable. From that point, he went out of his way to refrain from four-letter words, comically caching himself in the act, “mother Hubbard!” Our laughter was heartfelt. I left his house with an aching back, covered in grime, and oddly hopeful. That’s when I decided I would never accept any payback for the decluttering. It was a gift, freely given, something I had not given to my brother since… well, forever.

I’ll never forget the day we finished. To celebrate, I suggested we head to the store to grab some storage containers. As we happily perused the organization aisle, oohing and aahing at all the sleek bins, my brother’s tone suddenly changed. “What you’ve done—is the nicest thing anybody has ever done for me.” He said it with tears in his eyes. That was the beginning of a divine reset for the two of us. Our relationship is not without stops and starts, and we’ve had our share of fights since then—don’t even get me started on the 2016 election, but our friendship has progressed. We are no longer wading through the quicksand of our past. In the process of helping my brother declutter his home, my heart got a make-over too.

I’m not gonna lie, it took everything in me to love my brother in such a practical way without expecting something in return. But I’m beginning to learn that real love requires sacrifice. It is the pouring out of oneself, whether deserved or not. That’s what Christ did on the cross. There was no assessment of cost, only the assurance of immeasurable benefit for the other, for me.

Mary Jo Gerd traded in her media career interviewing celebrity actors and filmmakers for the more rewarding, albeit less glamorous vocation of full-time wife and mother. She hasn’t looked back since. Well, maybe once or twice. She lives in Denver and enjoys blogging about family life and her reversion to the Catholic faith on lateforchurch.blog.

Heather Faase

Spring is showing up in a bold and arrogant way this week, flaunting every inch of her shinny self while she struts across the catwalk right in front of me. Her cloudless skies, skin-burning-sun, singing birds, lovely aroma of blooming flowers, and her warm afternoon wind whispering into my children’s ears to strip off their sweaters and find buckets of water for the sandpit. 

The change of season feels like a sexy new woman walking into my house to steal my husband and my kids from me while I lay in my pajamas for the third day in a row, completely unkept. I hate her and her flirtatious ways that invite us to embrace change and celebrate new life. I don’t want a new life! I want my old life when my baby boy was still here.

At the same time, I need this sultry season just as much as my family members.  I’ve spent all of autumn and winter lying in the dark, cold, lonely cave of grief. This place of solitude has been holy in its own right. It  was a safe space to try and make sense of Basil’s death and tend to my broken heart. It was a sacred space for hot, angry tears to fall while I held tight to my son’s plush lovie, pretending it was him. It was a place that brought me comfort after I would push myself to bring love and joy to my three living daughters. It was the space my husband could enter and show his own heartache. 

I loved my dark cave, but the truth is, the dark place was beginning to consume me and suck all the life out of me despite the fake face I put on when I briefly stepped out of the cave. By spending so much time thinking about death and how much it destroyed my entire world, I began to see myself as destroyed and believed my soul was scorched beyond repair. I was making my entire identity all about my son’s death. 

I stopped participating in life and had zero remorse about it because I thought the death of my son excused me from it all.  I was choosing to focus on death which shut me off from the fountain of love. I refused to accept love and in return I had little love to give, especially to those I didn’t know. 

I intentionally avoided the new families at my kids’ small school because I was too distraught to muster up small talk, assuming there could be no foundation for genuine friendship because these new people in my life didn’t know what I had been through. I was skipping Mass because I became a weeping spectacle by the responsorial and it hurt too much to catch all the curious glances that fell on me. I was becoming a new person and not someone I recognized or liked. 

Shortly after Spring showed up I sat alone in the still of the night and had the clear thought that for the rest of my life, I was excused from participating because of my son’s death. He would be my excuse to keep shutting out the world. But just as fast as this thought entered my brain, the rest of my entire being was consumed by the deepest feeling of disgust. Never in my life had I been comfortable playing the victim and I wasn’t going to accept that role now. 

I thought my cave was sealed tight and impermeable to the light of life but it turns out her brightness was seeping in through the cracks and for the first time I could see my pitiful surroundings. She found me no matter how far I tried to hide. It also turns out, Spring was not a her but Him. The Jesus who walking out of his own tomb, stepped into mine, headed straight toward me, offered me a hand, and helped walk me out of my own tomb and away from the grasps of death. All I had to do was reach for Jesus and rest in God’s embrace. 

I will spend the rest of lent meditating on the image of God holding me like an infant, bringing me comfort and calm while I wail and weep. Already I can see the crusted ash of my scorched soul begin to peel back and love begin to pulse through my veins again. I know there will be times that I have to go back into my cave but right now it’s monumental to be able to flash a genuine smile of happiness toward the strangers I pass on the street, the cashier at the grocery store, and especially the new families at my kids’ school. 

Opening myself back up to love allows me to live and bloom like the flowers and trees I’m surrounded by, even if I’m missing a limb this year. 

Heather is a Colorado girl who is happiest in the mountains.  She fell in love with her Midwest-hunk-of-a-husband during her higher ed study of theology; earning an undergraduate degree in theology from The Collage of St Benedict followed by a Masters degree in Systematic Theology from St John’s University. Heather recently went from a decade long career at one of Forbes’ Top 100 Companies to being a stay-at-home mom in Switzerland. Heather is finding a rhythm of loving and caring for her four children, 3 living daughters and her son in Heaven, while also learning how to pay bills, read road signs, and buy groceries in Swiss German. You can follow her family’s adventures and walk through grief on Instagram with the name @travelsandtutus.

Meg Matenaer

As wives and mothers, we lay down our lives for our family. We love them as we love ourselves—often much more. But how do we balance our duties to our family, friends, and community with our own personal passions? How is God calling us to love both our families and ourselves in our own unique situations? How does He speak to us through the desires of our hearts?

This November, I published a women’s fiction novel entitled, Write in Time. One of the main characters, Marie, is a young mom of a toddler who shares the same struggle I had when I began writing this book two-and-half years ago. Marie wonders how—or even if—she can juggle her deep-seated need to write with her desire to be an attentive at-home mom and wife. 
Meg Matenaer is a writer from Madison, Wisconsin, where she lives with her husband and six children. Her book, Write in Time, is available on Amazon. You can find her at megmatenaer.com

Marie has joined a writers’ workshop on the nearby college campus. Her dream is to finish her children’s chapter book by her workshop professor’s Christmas deadline in order to have a shot at being featured in the city’s literary magazine. But life seems to keep pulling her writing dreams out from under her feet.

In this scene, we see Marie, mom of Timmy, feeling pulled in too many directions, lamenting not doing anything very well, and wondering if her struggles and sacrifices are going unnoticed by the very people she’s serving, especially her husband Dan.  

Thursday, October 12th, 11:31 a.m.

Timmy, Dan, and Marie ate ham sandwiches in silence. Maybe this would be a good time to tell Dan what was on her mind.

Marie watched as Dan scrolled through his phone. She had been counting the minutes until he came home for lunch. He obviously hadn’t been doing the same. She picked spaghetti sauce off the table, not remembering the last time they’d eaten spaghetti. “Thanks for coming home to eat with us. Since your promotion, it seems like we don’t have as much time together,” she said as casually as possible. 

“No problem,” Dan said, not looking up from his phone.

“Daddy play.” Timmy drove his car into Dan’s sandwich.

“No, Timmy!” Dan grabbed Timmy’s hand and pulled the car out from under the bread. He walked to the sink and rinsed the car off. “I have to get back to the office.”

“Right.” Marie frowned. “It was good seeing you, stranger.” So much for their heart-to-heart.

Dan kissed her on the cheek, handed Timmy his car, and headed for the door. “I’ll be back late tonight.”

Marie nodded and closed the door behind him. She felt invisible. Did he appreciate everything she was doing to keep their home functioning? Did he appreciate her?

She plodded back to the kitchen. Her heart still skipped a beat when he came home at the end of the day, looking smart and successful in his dress clothes. She tugged her stained shirt stretched within an inch of its life over the waistband of her yoga pants that she had been wearing for three straight days. No doubt he did not think the same. It was all so unfair! The baby was a joint decision, but she was bearing the full burden of its care. How would Dan handle being pregnant? 

Her cheeks burned. She cleaned off Timmy’s right hand as he wiped his left on her belly then helped him down. He wandered off, calling out for his blanket that didn’t answer back.

She sat in a huff at the kitchen table, aware that she was winning an argument Dan did not know they were having. Maybe that wasn’t fair, either.

The sun peeked out from behind a cloud and cast a ray onto her neglected laptop. She knew without looking that she was only on page ninety-nine, already far behind on her action steps. Professor’s December twenty-second deadline was looking more out of reach each day.

She lifted the silver top, wondering if she could sneak in a few paragraphs before Timmy noticed. The computer came to life in a comforting glow. A sense of power ran up her hands. Here in front of the screen she was master—mistress!—pushing buttons as she saw fit, sending characters to and fro, making everyone jump at her whim, not Dan’s, not Timmy’s, not the house’s. Here at her keyboard she was in char—

The baby kicked her square in the bladder. She gasped and ran for the bathroom, hoping she would make it time. She was looking forward to not sharing her organs anymore—except her heart. Her family could still have that. Her bladder, though, she needed that back to herself. But she deserved the kick. That was another downside of staying at home. There were so few people to keep her mind on track.  

She flushed the toilet and forced her thoughts back in line with reality. Maybe a quick chat with Dan would be all it would take. He probably didn’t not love her anymore because she was pregnant. That would make him a monster and he was not a monster. He was her best friend. 

She knew it the instant he smiled at her in a sophomore literature discussion group as she gushed over Shakespeare’s “Sonnet Eighteen,” by chance the only literature class Dan ever took. He genuinely loved when she got passionate about something. He even wrote her his own sonnet by the end of the semester. She blushed at the memory. She made a note to go look for it later in the box under her bed.

She took a deep breath. Everything was fine. She would get some pages written this afternoon and would be caught up on her action steps in no time.

As she washed her hands, she noticed that a light was out above the vanity. Was that a smudge on the ceiling? She peered at the popcorn ceiling. A four-foot-wide watermark ring came into focus. Her blood froze. She pulled out Timmy’s step stool and stepped on. She reached her hand up to the ceiling and touched it. The plaster was soft and spongy as if it would fall off any second. She screamed.

“Mama?” Timmy wandered into the bathroom.

Marie whisked him out. Why was the ceiling wet? It wasn’t raining outside. Was a pipe broken? Was something wrong in the bathroom directly above? Would the tub fall through the ceiling?

As she was deciding who to call first—Dan, the plumber again, or nine-one-one—her phone rang. It was Rebecca Clarke, her best friend from childhood. 

“Rebecca!” Marie gaped at the ceiling. “So great to hear from you. How are you?”

They hadn’t talked since July at Rebecca’s father’s funeral. Marie’s stomach twisted from guilt. Why hadn’t she called Rebecca since? The days at home with Timmy were both endless and a blur, a Bermuda Triangle of time.

“Okay,” Rebecca said. Her voice sounded pinched. “I’ve been going through Dad’s things. They’re mostly auctioned off or donated. I just sold his house.”

“That’s great news,” Marie said. Oh no, did she sound too upbeat? She wanted to wrap her arms around her beautiful friend from Appleton, who now had no family at all at twenty-four.

“I’m moving to Madison. There was a nursing position open at the hospital. I was wondering—” Her quiet but strong voice broke. “Could I stay with you for a little while? It’s not about rent—I have money—but I’ve been lonely in the house by myself. I’m not sure I could handle living alone right away in a new city and starting a new job.”

Timmy, Dan, the house, now Rebecca. Someone else to care for that would make it harder to finish her writing—

“Of course!” Marie blurted out. It was Rebecca, of course she would help her, aware that she definitely should have checked with Dan first. She eyed the sagging ceiling of the guest bathroom. “I would love that! It’ll be a super long sleepover, just like in high school, except that we can drink now. Or, well, you can, I’ll just watch. And I have a child—two—but it’ll be like the old days! You can keep me company until your job starts. You’ll be so happy when it does. You won’t believe how boring my existence is.”

“Boring sounds nice.” 

Marie’s heart broke. Why hadn’t she thought to call her?

Rebecca cleared her throat. “I’ll be helpful. I’ll watch Timmy if you and Dan want to go out. I can cook and clean.” Her voice shook. “Thank you, Marie.”

“Absolutely. When do you think you’ll be in town?”

A broad silence followed. “Tonight?” 

Marie swallowed. “Wonderful! I’ll get the guest room made up. See you soon!” 

She hung up. Now she knew she had to call the plumber first to get the bathroom under control before she called Dan with news of their houseguest.

Meg Matenaer is a writer from Madison, Wisconsin, where she lives with her husband and six children. Her book, Write in Time, is available on Amazon. You can find her at megmatenaer.com.

Beth Sri

Some say that we don’t choose saints to love and look up to, rather that they choose us. 

Now, I’m not a natural crier. I actually do all I can to keep my tears reserved  for times of private indulgence. But there’s something about St. John Paul 2nd that not only opens the doors of my life wide to Christ, but also opens those ducts up to a tsunami of big, ugly tears. (They’re already starting, can you tell?)

So listeners, bear with me and my shaky voice, full of sniffles here as I share my own story of JP2, how he found me, loved me & became my spiritual father.

I don’t remember much from my toddler days, but I do remember being fascinated by the evening news on TV.  I understood very little of the goings-on featured in the coverage, but I knew two famous figures well – President Jimmy Carter and Pope John Paul. It was a big deal to me whenever either name was mentioned. It made such an impression on me, in fact, that as a 2 ½ year old, I begged my parents to name my newborn brother Jimmy Carter. Like good parents, they did not name him Jimmy Carter. Instead he was named after my other favorite news figure…and I made sure everyone at the hospital and everywhere else knew it by repeatedly saying, “That’s my brother, Pope John Paul. He’s NOT Jimmy Carter.”

At age 15, my next encounter with the person of John Paul 2 was not merely through a screen but with the man himself…and 75,000 others at World Youth Day in Denver in 1993. Seeing his helicopter above us at Mile High Stadium when he arrived and the palpable energy and grace felt by all those around me. We were simultaneously jumping up and down, screaming, hugging. Others were crying (Crying? What’s that about? So weird,” I remember thinking. But -Ha – jokes on me today!) He said many things at the football stadium and at the state park, many of which were tricky to make out given the massive, echoing sound system and his Polish accent. Yet, my big take-away was this sentence: “This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel. … It is the time to preach it from the rooftops.” He said it with such force, such conviction that my 15-year-old adolescent self couldn’t help but think, “Huh, there must truly be something to all this Catholic stuff I’ve been around my whole life.” His unwavering confidence pointed to that something more, something solid and lasting, something reliable and life-giving. Something I’d been immersed in my whole life, but was just seeing for the first time. As a result, I became more involved in & committed to my faith in high school through youth group and retreats. 

Fast forward six years…a young bride and her new husband, clad in the traditional white and black, ascended the marble steps of the Paul the 6th Hall to meet the supreme pontiff. We were honeymooning in Rome and sought the Blessing of New Spouses. John Paul II was the first pope to begin this tradition of newlyweds receiving an individual blessing at the close of each papal audience.

My husband and I knew our time with him would be brief and that strategically, we need to say something to grab his attention, to engage him in a conversation of sorts so we could not be quickly shuffled away. We were told not to kneel, but so we rather adopted an awkward sort of bow to the seated Papa. Ted began: “We bring you prayers from Steubenville!” (Why he said this is a story for another day…) “Steubenville…” he repeated softly & slowly “Students?” I knew I had to jump in here as the monsignor nearby was already tugging on my elbow in an attempt to get us moving on. “Holy Father, we hope to be holy parents of many holy children” I blurted out in, all in one breath. It was my own way of planting the flag, of asking for a blessing of this desire. After that, with Mr. Monsignore still gently & persistently insisting on our departure, I kissed his ring and we stepped away. 

[Walking back to our seats, I was overwhelmed with the meeting, filled with a joy that escaped in not a few tears. I knew I had met a saint that day. What a gift. [I just didn’t know yet that he was my saint.]]

By May of 2003, we’d had our second baby & first-born son. My husband at that point had begun leading pilgrimages, which always included the hard-fought victory of front row seats at the papal audience in St. Peter’s square. During the audience, the pope is driven around the piazza in an open car, affectionately called a ‘Pope Mobile.’ Often when a baby is spotted near the edge of the crowd along the route, the Popemobile stops and the guards lift the child to the pope for a kiss and blessing. 

I desperately wanted this for our 8-month-old son. Yet, there was a potential difficulty: The Holy Father’s health had been deteriorating. We didn’t know if he’d be up for kissing babies that day. I’d asked the people back home to pray that it would happen. I’d prayed inside the basilica for it to happen. We’d asked the sisters who gave us our audience tickets how to increase the chances of it happening. They gave us their best advice. We hoped, God-willing, it would all be enough. 

At the close of the audience, as the Popemobile was heading for the door, my husband with his long arms, held the baby over the barrier for the pope & guards to see. Meanwhile, I’m stood on a chair behind them, waving my arms, yelling at the top of my lungs…”TAKE THE BABY!” and pointing toward him like a crazy lady. It worked. The Popemobile stopped and our son, crying at the commotion, his diaper sagging through his sweet sailor outfit, was scooped up to the lips of Pope John Paul 2. Time seemed to stand still. As our son was being ushered back into our arms, the pope turned his head and looked at me, his eyes piercingly blue. 

It’s been said that John Paul 2 had an amazing memory of his personal encounters with people, even when they themselves did not. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to say “so good to meet you!” and he’d reply “remember, we’ve met before at such and such a place. You were on your way to… or we talked about…” He could even pick back up a simple conversation with someone again years later. Given this, I’d like to think that in that split second, he remembered me, an idealistic young bride gushing her mission statement to him, resisting being pulled away from his side. I’d like to think that he saw me, that he knew me, that he was imparting something of himself to me that day. There’s no way to know this for sure, of course, but there was something almost tangible in his eyes that day…

We last saw him again earth-side on March 17, 2004. (I had learned that morning that Sri Baby #3 was on her way.) Seeing our dear Holy Father slurring, drooling even, showing difficulty in even raising his hand in blessing, doing all he could to communicate with the throngs of pilgrims who had come from near & far to spend time with him. He was so frail that I couldn’t help but think we wouldn’t have him with us much longer. Sure enough, about one year later, at a baby-shower, my god-mother told me the news of his passing. “I know he was special to you,” she said, hugging me as I burst into tears. 

The images of his funeral: the simple coffin, the pages of the book turning in the wind, the hauntingly beautiful Eastern Rite melodies, the throngs of pilgrims overwhelming the city of Rome – these impressions are burned in my memory. It all seemed surreal. 

My spiritual director asked weeks later, “How are you doing with our holy father’s passing?” I couldn’t even respond audibly, I just cried & sniffled & cried. “You’re still grieving, still grieving” she gently replied. 

Later, we learned his feast day would be October 22, commemorating not the day he died, his birthday or even the day he was named pope. It was the day he was installed as pope, and coincidentally – or should I say – providentially, the day I was baptized. Another connection. 

Since his passing, we’ve had many more connections. Naming our next child – #4- after him and watching him as a 6-month-old crawl right up to the temporary marble tomb in the crypt of St. Peter’s, gently hitting it with his sweet chubby hands, in a sort of “high 5” gesture. And more recent occasions of re-connecting with him at his tomb, now in the upper basilica, near the blessed sacrament chapel. And every time I end up there, the tears do too. 

But this last summer was the most unexpected encounter, though I shouldn’t have been so surprised. For a milestone anniversary, my husband and I went to Poland for a week to celebrate. Trying to get to the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy, we had given our Uber driver the wrong address. We ended up at the church next to it, which housed his battered, torn and blood-stained cassock, a relic from his 1981 assassination attempt. Even though the glass case was tucked into a discreet corner of a side chapel with a kneeler in front of it, I wasn’t content to simply say a prayer before it. I took time to soak this in, to study it from all angles, awkwardly maneuvering around it …

Upon further exploration this side of the Sanctuary, we found the JP2 Museum. Here was the jackpot. A treasure-trove of all sorts of HIS own personal stuff, it was like going through your grandpa’s trunks in the attic as a kid. His skis, the Holy Spirit prayer given him by his own father that was near him on his deathbed, his first cardinal cassock, his letters and engraved desk pen set. Throughout the museum, the sound system played the audio of speeches he had given in Polish and even his first address as pope. But what hit home the most were all the photographs…his baby & toddler pictures, his young adult pictures, his baby priest photos, cardinal shots, so many pictures…All with this glint in his eye, this spark of “something,” this inviting tight-lipped smile as if he was keeping a secret or sharing an endearing private joke.

It was so overwhelming, these glimpses of my spiritual father in rapid succession, one after another, tracing his life, his own growth, meeting him again at each of stages, accompanied by his voice and in his hometown of Krakow at that… I had no choice but to bee-line it to the women’s restroom to have myself a good, ugly cry. 

I don’t know what the future will hold for JP2 and me, when he’ll next surface in some way at some point in my life and I don’t know why I have this deep connection to him.

But I do know that something about him has transcended all distance… whether a television screen, a crowd, the Atlantic or even the distance between earth and heaven. In him, I have felt SEEN. He showed up at the crossroads of my life…before my parents’ divorce, as I attempted to more purposefullylive  my faith in my teens, in his own personal blessing at the start of my marriage and in seeing me with my children, building the family I personally told him I’d hoped to have. He saw me with a gaze not unlike the gaze of our heavenly father, penetrating and intense with a deep, unearned love. I don’t understand it. I don’t deserve it. 

And maybe also the tears. No one makes me cry like he does. And as much as I don’t like it, he’s teaching me that tears can actually be good. A friend of mine says tears in the spiritual life are a sign of grace, God’s life within us. Well then, Amen. So be it. Let’s bring it:  John Paul 2, we love you!

Beth Sri is the mother of eight children ages 19 to 3, and is married to Catholic theologian Edward Sri. A graduate of Benedictine College, she was among the first FOCUS missionaries. Beth continues to lead and invest in those around her, encouraging fellow wives and mommas in their call to marriage and motherhood through mentorship, small group gatherings and blogging at her website BornToDoThis.org. Though not Italian, she relishes cooking up “authentico” Italian pastas for her growing family. When she’s not in the kitchen making a quadruple batch of something or chauffeuring children to & fro, she can be found on a long run out in the Colorado sunshine or curled up with an annotated Jane Austen novel.