Our Lenten Prayer

Caryll Houselander, author, poet, and spiritual writer

By your heaviness and fear
in Gethsemane,
comfort the oppressed
and those who are afraid
By your loneliness,
facing the Passion
while the Apostles slept,
comfort those who face evil alone
while the world sleeps.
By your persistent prayer,
in anguish of anticipation,
strengthen those
who shrink from the unknown.
By your humility,
taking the comfort of angels,
give us grace to help
and to be helped by one another,
and in one another
to comfort you, Jesus Christ.
– Caryll Houselander

For our Lenten series, we wanted to find a prayer which expressed the intimacy we’re all called to have with our Savior, while at the same time speaking to the truth that Lent is both an individual and a communal journey (exemplified in our theme for this Lent, “love your neighbor as yourself.” )

When I found this prayer attributed to Caryll Houselander, I was immediately drawn to it. (It helps, too, that we used one of Caryll’s prayers for Advent as well). 

Many of you have asked for a copy of the prayer, so here it is 🙂 we want to offer it with one disclaimer, however: while many online, reputable resources attribute this prayer to Caryll (and while we are confident that it is hers based on these resources and the language is very much in line with the rest of her writing), we were unable to find the EXACT source of the prayer.

Caryll was known not simply for her published works, but also for her private writings and correspondence. This poem could have been found in one of those, we’re just not sure. 

SO, listener sleuths, if anyone knows the exact writing/work this appeared in, we would love to add that to our social media and website. Please reach out and let us know 🙂 .

Thank you listeners. We hope you like the prayer as much as we do. 
Blessings, Jules

Theresa Zoe Williams

My husband slipped a t-shirt on over his head as I also changed into clothes for the day. This particular t-shirt of his, though, he’s had since high school, almost two decades, and it still fits him just fine. I looked at my own clothes and thought of the difference–– mine were new since giving birth a month or so prior. It struck me how different the male and female bodies are or, at least in my case, how differently they change.

I have absolutely no clothes from when I was a teenager and only two or three pieces of clothes I had in college. In fact, since getting married eight plus years ago, my wardrobe has changed several times as my body has changed several times. My body was one way when I got married, which was slightly bigger than when I left college which was softer and bigger than when I graduated high schooI. And then I became pregnant with our first child; of course my body changed then! I gave birth to our daughter and could wear pre-pregnancy clothes again, although those clothes fit me differently than they had before that transformation and I still needed to invest in new ones. Then I became pregnant with our  second child and my body changed again and more rapidly. 

After the birth of our son, my body didn’t even shed all of the pregnancy weight like it had the first time around. There was some stubborn weight that decided it wanted to cling tightly to me no matter what I tried, so I let it. I was healthy otherwise, so a few extra pounds didn’t bother me. I could run and play with my kids and go up and down the stairs a million times a day without getting winded. My body was doing what it was designed to do and I was at peace with it.

After being in that “plateau” for five years, becoming pregnant again was almost a treat. It was fun to watch how my body changed as it accommodated the new life within me. I relished each moment, knowing that, more likely than not, this would be my last time to experience these changes. My pregnant body lent me more confidence than usual as the realization that my body was undertaking an amazing work allowed me to see past the swelling belly and pants that no longer fit and ankles that are there…somewhere. I loved my pregnant body, even if it did come with its own set of challenges.

And then it was over.

I gave birth to my baby a week early and my body was no longer doing that incredible work. Then I lost all of the pregnancy weight within two weeks (helped in large part to hemorrhaging after giving birth). All my pre-pregnancy clothes, this time, fit just as they had before. And I mourned this loss. My body would never do that again.

I went to a local moms group I’m part of at one month postpartum. It was so good to be around women I love and who love me and whose bodies have all gone through these miraculous and mundane changes, just like me. One woman commented on how great I looked and that she couldn’t believe that I was in skinny jeans already! She meant well and I took it as she intended, but inside I was crying. You don’t know how important my pregnant body was to me! I wanted to shout. Or I’m sad that I’ll never experience this again. How do you adequately tell someone that you love the body you have while also mourning the one you’ll never have again, even if that’s against societal norms? I should be glad I lost the weight so quickly! I should be ecstatic that my body is back to “normal”! I know so many others who really struggle with these things and I try not to take advantage of what I’ve been given. But saying goodbye to part of my body and part of my life is difficult. I try to be gentle with myself, allow myself to grieve without guilt for this part of me that’s gone. I’m gentle with others when they’re clearly trying to be uplifting while also being vulnerable with them. That’s the great thing about bodies, they allow us to encounter each other and connect with each other in a multitude of ways. Bodies are simply miraculous!

And that’s what healed my heart and my vision. My body is miraculous no matter how it looks. With my body, I encounter other bodies, other people. With my body I caress my infant and embrace my children and husband. With my body, I walk and breathe and eat and clean and work and rest. With my body, I feel emotions, think of stories and articles, make mundane shopping lists. Yes, I still deal with a body that fails. Between chronic back pain and chronic illness, I simply can’t do all that I used to do. But through each season of my life, my body has adapted and I’ve adapted, to do the most miraculous thing of all: live.

I will never again fit into my high school soccer uniform. I’ll never fit into the gray corduroy pants I bought in college again. The plaid maternity tunic I bought for family pictures this fall is folded in a corner awaiting a buyer in a local buy/sell group. Each of these versions of my body were wonderful and good and brought me through the times I needed them to bring me through. My body has always been and will always be good and I will love it no matter what. Peace. I love every body I come in contact with because each body is doing the remarkable work of keeping that person alive, and that’s a miracle.

Bodies are good because God made them and He gave us bodies as part of making us in His Image and Likeness. I love my body even more because of this truth and I love God even more for the gift that is my body. It is okay for us to mourn the body we used to have or to strive for the body we want and to live in pursuit of that. The body is a good thing! And we should feel more than good about the ones we’ve been given. But that body is carrying you around this world, no matter its faults or flaws, and that makes it incredible. Loving your neighbor as yourself starts with loving yourself. So be gentle with you and rejoice in you and then rejoice in the bodies and persons of those around you because you are incredible, too.

Theresa Zoe Williams is a freelance writer with bylines at EpicPew, FemCatholic, and CatholicSingles, among others. She has contributed to the books The Catholic Hipster Handbook: The Next Leveland Epic Saints: Wild, Wonderful, and Weird Stories of God’s Heroes. She blogs at Patheos at Contemplatio Culture and her personal blog Principessa Meets World and can be found mostly on Twitter @TheresaZoe.

Cameron Bellm

When I was in college, I was part of a small but devoted Christian fellowship. We met on Friday nights, since every other night was already filled with a capella rehearsals, rugby practices, or good old-fashioned cramming for exams. I never missed a Friday. I loved God and my friends, and I looked forward to it every week. But, even though I never would have admitted it at the time, I think I also enjoyed a secret smug feeling that while my classmates were out partying, I was busy worshipping God. I was doing things right. 

During my first year I became aware that a fellow student had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. I didn’t know him personally, but I recognized his name. Another group of students immediately organized a benefit dinner for him on campus. I’m sure our meager college student offerings didn’t put a dent in his medical expenses, but it was an offering of support, of embrace, of love. It was on a Friday night. I did not go. I was busy worshipping God. I was doing things right. 

I had another friend who occasionally came to those Friday night meetings, and her faith had more doubts and doors open than I would ever have permitted myself. We were spiritedly debating some issue or other (by which I mean that I was telling her that I had all the answers and was definitely right), and, in exasperation, she finally asked me, “Why didn’t you come to the benefit dinner?” 

Why didn’t I go, indeed? I’m sure I sputtered some answer or other about the primacy of worship and prayer, but I knew that she was right. Why didn’t we cancel the worship service and attend that benefit dinner en masse? Why didn’t we see that showing up in love and support…would have been an act of worship, true worship of our God of compassion and tenderness and mercy? I had missed my opportunity to love. 

But many years later, God gave me another chance. My faith had been on a wild roller coaster ride since those days in college. I had slowly become disillusioned with the limiting, black-and-white faith of my youth and come home to the Catholic faith in which I was raised. I reveled, for the first time in my adult life, in the celebration of majesty and mystery. 

As a Russian literature grad student at Berkeley, I occasionally took freelance interpreting jobs, and an exciting one came up in my fifth year (grad school is long!). A local museum was showcasing the work of my favorite painter, Marc Chagall, and several employees of the Russian State Archives were coming over with the paintings to make sure that the art was properly handled and installed. The museum needed an interpreter between their staff and the Russian staff, and that’s where I came in, two hefty bilingual dictionaries crammed into my purse, just in case. 

The installation was in the spring, during Holy Week, but my hours were only 10-4, leaving lots of time for me to make it to my favorite liturgies of the year. The last day of the job was Good Friday. As the Russian staff and I waited for the doors to be unlocked in the morning, I noticed that one of them was sporting a very swollen wrist. “So,” she said to me, in a remarkably even tone, “We have a problem. Last night we were out walking, and I fell.” She rolled up her jacket sleeve, and I audibly gasped at the sight of her arm. 

She told me that she wasn’t in any pain and didn’t think it was broken, but that perhaps she should see a doctor. All day, in between opening crates and cataloguing paintings, we gathered in the conference room to make calls to her Russian insurance company and try to make heads or tails of her policy, which clearly wasn’t set up for an international emergency room visit. 

As the day wore on, no one conveyed a solid plan to me. But I knew that I would not be going to my beloved Good Friday liturgy. I longed to be in my hushed and darkened parish in Berkeley venerating the cross, but I did not give it another thought. As surely as Jesus was there in the Blessed Sacrament, so, too, He would want this young woman in a loud and foreign downtown emergency room to be comforted and cared for in her native language. I took the train back to my apartment that night around 10pm. I had missed the liturgy. But I had been busy worshipping God. Finally, but finally, I had done something right. I am not saying that we should be looking for reasons to miss liturgies. I am just saying that sometimes we need to carry those liturgies outside the four walls of the church. 

It’s been so long since that night in college when I missed my chance to be present for someone who was suffering. As I was writing this story, I nervously looked up the name of the student who had received the diagnosis. I held my breath, having no idea if he had survived. Tears filled my eyes as I learned that he was alive and well, a licensed counselor working with a children’s aid society and assisting with prisoner reentry and substance abuse counseling. As I looked at a picture of his smiling face, I realized that, as smug as I’d been about my faith, he’d been the one out there giving glory to God, through his kindness, his generosity, his compassion. 

Do you remember those trendy and cliched bracelets of the 90s, the neon ones emblazoned with the letters WWJD, asking us to consider the question “What would Jesus do?” Well, at some point in the time between college and this Good Friday in the emergency room, God challenged me to ask myself a slightly different question: “Does Jesus care about this?” 

Asking this question shifted my perspective in a profound way. I have always had a very deep sense of God’s love for me, but while I had considered myself as right and holy and special for so long…I’m embarrassed to admit… that it never occurred to me that God loved every single other human being just the exact same way, without exception. Justice had always been an abstract concept to me–I knew it was one of God’s top priorities, but…what did it have to do with me? 

When I took my eyes off myself long enough to actually look at the world around me, to see the belovedness of every person I crossed paths with, it was as if a self-imposed blindfold had been removed from my face. And that question: “Does Jesus care about this?” became my constant companion. Does Jesus care about the person taking forever in front of me at the post office? Yes! She is beloved! The bus driver? Yes! Beloved! The cashier checking me out at the grocery store? Yes! Beloved!

Little by little, justice became less of an abstract concept and more of a deep and beautiful expression of the belovedness of every human being, each one made in the image and likeness of God. Although I still love every mass and liturgy, my understanding of God’s embrace has grown ever larger and larger, reaching far beyond the walls of the church, never relenting until not one single person is left outside it. 

And the question kept taking me further–Does Jesus care about conditions of the people who are making my clothes in overseas sweatshops?  Does Jesus care about the people picking my food, in terrible conditions, for insulting pay? Does Jesus care about the men, women, and, most terribly, children, treated atrociously for no reason other than the color of their skin? The answer has never been “no.”

Cameron Bellm is a Seattle mom of two young boys. After finishing her PhD in Russian literature, she traded the academic life for the contemplative life (well, as contemplative as chasing two small kids can be!). She is a great lover of Ignatian spirituality, Catholic social teaching, and strong black coffee. You can find her on Instagram at @krugthethinker.

Julia Hogan

I looked at my planner and felt that familiar feeling of dread building up in my body as I looked at what I had planned for the day. It was going to be another day that was completely booked from morning until late night. At the time, I was a junior year in college and I was beyond stressed that year. My days seemed like an endless blur of waking up before dawn to run on the treadmill at my university’s small gym before heading off to a full day of classes and then sometimes working two jobs in the same day. And both of those jobs required long commutes filled with heavy Dallas rush hour traffic which, let me tell you, is pretty awful. It was a schedule I had chosen optimistically at the beginning of the year without fully realizing the reality of the commitment I was taking on.

I had taken on such a busy schedule because they were all things I wanted to do and things that I thought I “should” do. But instead of filling me with purpose like I thought they would, these things were draining me of life and energy. I felt like I was running on fumes and never had an opportunity to recharge. The reality is that I had taken on more than I could handle. It felt like everything was careening out of control and I was hanging on for dear life.

I don’t have many memories of those months because of the constant stress I was under. When doctors tell you that stress affects your ability to concentrate and your ability to consolidate memories, I can tell you that that is absolutely true. Most of that time is a blur of stress and panic for me where I felt like I was perpetually on the verge of burnout. Without my planner, I couldn’t have kept track of everything going on because I simply couldn’t remember it. But there are two memories from that time that are stuck in my mind. 

The first memory is of stopping back at my apartment after my part time job in the evening with only ten minutes to spare before I needed to head out to a mentorship meeting as part of my internship program. I quickly dropped off my work bag, poured myself a bowl of cereal which I promptly inhaled as my “dinner”, gave a quick “hello” and “goodbye” in a strained voice to my roommates, and dashed out the door again. In my mind, I felt like I was turning into an exhausted hamster stuck running on a hamster wheel that was spinning out of control. And I had no idea how to get off. 

The second memory from this time is sitting in my apartment on a Friday night and feeling completely depleted mentally and physically. My friends talked about going to First Friday Mass at the Cistercian Abbey and then going to a popular bar afterwards to socialize. But as much as I wanted to be part of their plans, I just couldn’t do it. I stayed behind even though I so badly wanted to spend time with them and then I just crashed. It was probably the most sleep I’d gotten in months and I slept so soundly that it felt like no time had passed between when my head hit the pillow and I woke up to the sunshine the next morning. No pun intended but it was a wake-up call for me. I didn’t necessarily have the answer to my problem but I knew that I couldn’t keep doing things the way I currently was. I had officially reached burnout.

I wish I could say that I hopped off that hamster wheel from that moment on but, in reality, I spent the rest of the school year struggling through in a daze and trying to push through. I quit my part time job which helped a little but it wasn’t the full answer. When I returned home for the summer, I was perpetually exhausted no matter how much sleep I got. Every day, I would nod off in the early afternoon as my body struggled to recover from all of the stress I put myself through. I spent the summer resting, trying to recover, and reflecting on what had led me to reach this point of complete emotional and physical exhaustion.

While I was home, I realized that I was relentlessly and needlessly pushing myself to “do it all” at the expense of my wellbeing. In the worst way possible, I learned that I wasn’t taking care of myself. Instead of choosing a balance between rest and work, I just chose work. It was a hard lesson to learn: that I need to have compassion towards myself and to recognize my limits. It was tempting to beat myself up over this choice and the effects it had on me. But I also learned that berating myself for this would only perpetuate the feelings burnout that I was trying to leave behind me. While I would never tell a friend that she was foolish for trying to “do it all”, I was saying those things to myself without a second thought. I was setting up a double standard where I gave others permission to be balanced and to be forgiven, but I wasn’t allowing myself the same. Being compassionate and merciful towards myself was not only a gentler approach but also one that helped me feel whole and fulfilled rather than perpetually tired and drained. 

Since then, it hasn’t been a smooth journey towards being merciful towards myself. Though it wasn’t as severe, I overscheduled myself my last year of grad school. But I have gotten better since then. I try to embrace small, daily acts of compassion towards myself and towards others. I recognize that it isn’t about “doing it all” but rather about being fully present in each moment and embracing balance in the best way I can, without expecting perfection. I learned that I can’t love others well until I love and am merciful towards myself. This Lent, I encourage you to embrace loving yourself just as much as you love those around you. How can you love your neighbor as yourself if you aren’t loving yourself?  How can you choose self-compassion and your physical and emotional wellbeing over the pressure to “do more” and the lie that doing more means you are important?

Julia Marie Hogan is a counselor in Chicago who, in addition to owning her own private practice, leads workshops and writes on topics related to self-care, relationships and mental health. Her book, It’s Ok to Start with You is all about the power of embracing your authentic self through self-care. She is passionate about empowering individuals to be their most authentic selves. 

Website: juliamariehogan.com

Instagram: @juliahoganlcpc

Lauren Montgomery

Sometimes, God works in big ways. Other times, He’s much more subtle. 

Take, for instance, the time He asked me to go to bed earlier.  

Sounds strange that God could transform someone’s life through a bedtime, right? Yet, this small request He asked me of me one lent, changed my life for the better.   

About six months after our second child was born, our family was beginning to find a sense of normalcy again. There are always challenges that arise when you have a newborn, but our daughter was extremely colicky. We spent those newborn months on edge, rarely leaving the house. It was exhausting and trying, (to say the least), and we were ready for change.  

As she got better, life became less chaotic and stressful, and though we started settling into a good routine, a heaviness was weighing on my heart.  

The littlest things would frequently upset me: If I couldn’t keep our home in order, I felt like a failure; if my kids didn’t get “proper” attention from me, I felt like a bad mom; if someone slighted me in any way, I questioned my worth. I felt guilty taking time for myself, and constantly felt like I was coming up short.   

Though I tried to ignore the restlessness inside me, it all came pouring out after one dirty martini on what was supposed to be a romantic date night with my husband.  

I started randomly crying at the dinner table, muttering on and on—something about how I felt like I could never get the toilets clean enough. My husband—though surprised—tried consoling me by offering me practical advice. Though he listened lovingly, I had a hard time expressing myself, and I left our date feeling defeated and ashamed of my inability to “keep it together.”

Still, that night turned out to be an important step for me. Confiding in my husband and admitting my inner struggles out loud was the first step towards change. Saying it aloud gave me permission to fall on my knees in prayer, because—it turns out—you can’t surrender to the Lord when you’re trying to have control over everything. 

This happened right before lent, so I decided to use this as an opportunity to invite spiritual change into my life. I began brainstorming the most sacrificial things I could think of, in hopes of cultivating the peace my heart desired. I was seeking dramatic transformation and, well…I was damn near ready to wear a hair shirt every day for forty days if it made things better!

As I planned, however, I felt God whispering in my heart to stop trying to earn His love and force the process. 

He didn’t want my plans—all He wanted was for me to rest. 

Instead of sacrifices, I felt the strong nudge from God to simply go to bed earlier for lent. No hair shirt. No fasting from my favorite treats. Just rest. 

It felt strange submitting to this, and silly telling others. Yet, I knew my act of obedience was all God was asking of me. The least I could do was say yes. 

I set a bedtime of 9:45pm—two hours earlier than I was accustomed to going to bed. I’d always considered myself a “night owl,” and while the idea of going to bed earlier was nice in theory, it was much more difficult for me to initially put into practice. I had to work hard against my will to be roaming around a quiet house while everyone else was asleep. Those late night hours became a way for me to “shut everything off”; a respite from my daily duties. The time was quiet and my own…and I liked it that way. 

However, when I actually started to physically rest, I soon learned that it was exactly what my weary soul needed. 

For the first time in a long time, I began to wake ready for the day. Instead of grouchily greeting my family in the morning (feeling burdened by their immediate needs), I woke up happy and ready to serve. I also realized that my late night habit of endlessly scrolling on my phone or watching trashy tv was having a negative effect on me and depleting my resources. I thought this quiet “me time” after everyone went to bed was essential, but in reality, these things were merely temporary fixes for my inner restlessness. 

Since I couldn’t always fall asleep right away, I started reading more. In bed, I read both “The Temperament God Gave You” by Art and Larraine Bennet and Holly Peirlot’s, “The Mother’s Rule of Life.” These books helped me better understand that you can’t love yourself or others properly when you don’t have a drop in your cup to give. I realized I had to take better care of myself—my priorities were completely misaligned. Through these books, God began teaching me that I was placing my value in my productivity and in what others thought of me. I was also treating my vocation as if it were a job I could clock out of, and this made life exhausting! 

There’s a line in Psalm 127 that helped me understand more clearly why my old habits were so destructive. Psalm 127:1-2  says, 

“Unless the LORD builds the house, they labor in vain who build. Unless the LORD guard the city, in vain does the guard keep watch. It is vain for you to rise early and put off your rest at night, to eat bread earned by hard toil—all this God gives to his beloved in sleep.” 

In staying up late, I was trying to escape the burdens of my day. I was being vain in thinking I could fill my cup with empty things. What I needed to do was learn to rest in Him. Without Him, my inner house was crumbling. The truth I was learning was that there was simply no way I could be the attentive, kind, present and loving wife, mother and friend that I desired to be, without drinking from Christ’s cup–the True Source of life. 

 As I began to prioritize prayer and daily intentional time with God, I started to internalize that my beauty, worth, and strength comes in Christ alone, who loves me and gave His life for me. Daily prayer gave me the spiritual fuel I needed to be a better wife and mother, and to show up in all the ways I’m called to in my vocation. It also gave me confidence in who I am as God created me to be. It wasn’t until I began reorienting myself to Christ that my life began to change.  Though I know that not every problem or sadness we experience can be solved by going to bed earlier, that lent, the Lord taught me to take better care of myself by resting in Him. I learned that when I nurture my relationship with Him, I am better equipped to live out His plan for my life and to dedicate myself to those around me, loving them as I love myself.

Lauren Montgomery is cradle Catholic, wife and mother of three kiddos. She holds a Master of Art in Theology from the University of Dallas, and is an RCIA coordinator and teacher at a parish in Kansas City, KS. She is passionate about her faith, and has contributed to a number of publications, including Catholic Match and Radiant Magazine. She is currently sharing her passion with her new podcast, The Catholic Commons–where she’ll be breaking down the fundamentals of the faith for Catholics seeking to dive deeper in understanding the richness and beauty of Catholicism.  Learn more about the podcast at Thecatholiccommons.com, or find her on Instagram @thecatholiccommons.

Alli Shoemaker

You Were Rome

Preface and Poem by Alli Shoemaker

My only purpose in this world may have been to accompany my 18-year-old  brother as he died, to stroke his hair, whisper “I love you” into his cooling ear, and to help write some of his last earthly thoughts as he lay on a linoleum bathroom floor. 

I murmured memories of our family vacation in Mexico, reminding him of the sea turtle he saw gliding under the gleaming waves, trying to fill his failing, cancer-encrusted lungs with life-giving ocean air. As I held his hand, I churned the protection of St. Michael, praying fervently that he’d guide my brother across this quakey bridge. 

My only identity on this Earth may be “Zach’s older sister,” and that will be enough. 

For a woman who thought she’d be studying in Rome to be a traveling-journalist, who strove for accolades and to be lavished with compliments, to make a name for herself, I thank God often that he gave me the chance to bury the dead humbly and quietly, in the twilight of that Monday morning in late May. 

I witnessed, firsthand, the marriage of beauty and suffering, the poignancy of love in loss, and the truth of God’s existence. If a love like this can so powerfully transcend time, there must be something more. 

Zach was diagnosed with bone cancer two months after I started college. While other students were worried about GPAs, I was asking my Intro to Journalism professor to reschedule my midterm so I could just be next to my brother, to behold his physical presence so it didn’t feel like he was gone already.

The next year, his cancer worsened. It crept from his hip up to his lungs, and he had surgeries to remove pieces of them. All the while he worked on his music. He wrote goodbye songs, and played his guitar, singing despite the new heaviness in his chest and the nausea he felt from chemotherapy. 

I was set to study abroad in Rome, to behold the beauty of God in the cathedral, the monasteries, the art: seeking the truth, looking to discover holiness and my own worth in its many walls.

But as Zach’s bones quivered, and his body diminished and sallowed, I knew I could not leave him– not when we could so clearly see his finite point on the horizon. How could I rush past him?

It’s important that you know that I did not choose to bury my brother, I writhed from it. I swore at God while kneeling in front of the Eucharist, I fought passionately with my mom– displaced anger and blame pouring out of me.  I even left my house to live with a friend for a time toward the end- I didn’t have the strength to move on with my life and watch him die at the same time. 

Soon after, we had a social worker come to my parent’s house to talk to my 14-year-old sister, Grace, about Zach’s soon-to-arrive death. My sister didn’t want to go alone, so I sat in our living room with her, as the social worker whipped out art projects and children’s books. My sister felt a little juvenile, but I was enraptured. The social worker read a book called “Rabbityness” to us. The story is about a rabbit who suddenly disappears, leaving his friends in despair. His friends find that he left his gifts and passions behind: musical instruments, paint, brushes, and more. Though crushed by the loss of their friend, they use the gifts he left to create beauty in the darkness out of his memory. Though I was in my early twenties at the time, the book taught me a life-changing lesson: That we can transform our suffering, our stories of pain, into healing and connection.

Zach and I spoke often about his cancer, and how it affected him, particularly on probably illegal drives together on icy roads at night.  One of my favorite writers, Henri Nouwen, said: “I am deeply convinced that each human being suffers in a way no other human being suffers.” During our conversations, Zach and I held onto this as we grappled with his death. He found comfort in knowing everyone suffers and struggles in different ways, because  it means we can unite with everyone in our suffering, and that we are never alone. Even if our struggles are different, he felt relief in being understood. 

I see now that sometimes the greatest graces and mercies are cloaked in the fear of worldly pain. My mom once said that even if Zach died, she was grateful to God to have known him at all.

Today, I marvel at the chances, at the simple fact that God chose my life to parallel his: To witness the power of my dear brother’s music, his art, his person and essence. This is the inspiration for a poem I wrote recently, called You Were Rome, which I wrote for Zach.

I decided not to go to Rome⁣

because you were dying⁣

But I discovered after all⁣

that the cathedrals lived in you⁣

Between the scar slashes on your back⁣

Your ribs, flying pillars⁣

holding our stony weight⁣

and pointing toward God⁣

Your laughter was the lighted glass⁣

⁣People ask and I always tell them,⁣

“This is weird to say…”⁣

But you made it beautiful⁣

Watching you go⁣

Seeing you now in wind blown postcards ⁣

You were Rome.⁣

And I came back better.

Christina Stafford

A few years ago, I could have shared with you some really beautiful thoughts about loving your neighbor. Seriously, they would have sounded really good and I probably would have made some self-deprecating jokes to make you laugh, then offered some practical solutions for how to love people in your community, your family, your church… 

Don’t get me wrong. I would have been totally sincere. I tried so hard to love others well, to be a good person, to bring God’s love to others. And outwardly, I was, frankly, crushing it. 

Since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted so badly to do things the right way. I did well in school, went to a good, but not too expensive college, married my high school sweetheart, had some really cute kids spaced at reasonable intervals, started homeschooling, volunteered at church, and helped out my friends when they needed it. It was a life that no one could find fault with, really.

I’m not telling you it was all a lie. It wasn’t. But everything wasn’t as it would seem to a casual acquaintance or passerby. That marriage to my high school sweetheart? Constantly broken and tested by addiction. Those beautiful babies that we had every 2.25 years? They were so little, they needed so much, and I was so tired. All those meals I brought to friends when they were sick or had a baby or lost someone? I can see now that behind my kind actions, I was just crying out, “Love me? Think I’m as kind and good as I want to be?”

The worse things got at home, the more good I tried to do for my neighbors in the world. I tried to make sense of life’s disappointments by reminding myself of others’ suffering and doing things to ease it. I prayed so often for God to show me how I could love others better, as if it would make him love me more… and maybe if he loved me a little more, he would heal the brokenness in my family? Maybe he could heal my husband? Maybe he could take away the paralyzing anxiety and doubt I constantly faced? 

I donated to good causes. I signed petitions. I watched friends’ kids while they were at doctor appointments. I volunteered to help with religious education at local parish that wasn’t even mine because it seemed like they needed help. I sent people surprises through the mail so they’d know I was thinking of them. I dropped off diapers at the crisis pregnancy center and dinner at the domestic violence shelter. I made dozens of loaves of bread and deposited them on my neighbor’s doorsteps. And yYou should have seen what I could do with Christmas cookies. 

We all see where this was going, right? The bottom fell out. Turns out you can’t bribe God to heal addiction by doing good deeds. 

Ok, so now this might be the point where you start to judge me a little bit and think… “Umm… duh?” I know. It sounds ridiculous now. I see it. But how many of us, deep down, are tempted to think that if we follow the formula, if we are kind, if we follow the rules, if we love others, that surely God won’t let us hurt in the big ways? Or that we can somehow love others as a replacement for loving ourselves well enough?

When my husband and I separated, to say I was devastated would be an understatement. I was crushed for all the regular reasons that people are when they face a divorce- betrayal, grief, fear for the future. But as the dust settled and I faced reality, I realized the way I had been loving people was unsustainable in my new life, and I didn’t have much of an identity apart from Christina the helper, the good friend, the one who does things for other people. 

Homeschooling, that huge act of love for my children that I took so much pride in? That legally binding parenting agreement said I couldn’t do it anymore. Those charitable donations I loved being able to give freely and sometimes lavishly? My meager income made the idea almost laughable. Those meals I used to love to carefully prepare and bring to people who were going through a tough time? Even if I had enough money in my tiny grocery budget to swing it, having a job to support myself and the kids made it almost impossible to find the time to cook for even my own family. 

But this funny thing happened. People showed up for me. A friend from church brought me a meal and a craft for the kids just because. My parents let the kids and I move into their house until I could find a place and were so gracious as to act like it wasn’t a huge imposition to have us there. A sweet teenage girl at our new church started sliding into our pew sometimes during mass and helping me wrangle the kids. I got a package in the mail full of bath bombs and face masks from a friend just to make me smile. People in my mom’s group invited me to family parties and nights out, and never made me feel awkward about not being part of a couple. Deeply faithful Christian friends that I was afraid might judge me for being divorced simply listened, affirmed, and prayed for me. People helped me, they served me, they loved me well. Even when I couldn’t return the favor. 

Life has settled down for us and I’ve found a new peace that I’ve never experienced before. I can do some of those same old things again to love my neighbor. I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t feel good. But what I feel now is a mutuality in loving people that I didn’t before. It’s not just about serving… it’s about loving and being loved in return. I used to secretly think that serving others, “loving my neighbor” was about showing God how much I love him and showing him how worthy I was of love. But I was so wrong. Loving others and letting them do the same for me is God showing me how much he loves me. It is an end in itself. When I start seeing life this way, loving others isn’t about service anymore. It’s about living life with an open heart and open hands, allowing God to work through me, and letting him work on me through others.

Christina is a mom of three living in the Chicago suburbs who spends her free time reading novels, baking up sourdough bread, and doing insane things with homemade pizza. After going through a divorce, she teamed up with her friend Patty to create a community of divorced or separated women who may be struggling to find their place in the Church, called Still Here. You can find Christina on Instagram at @breadandwonderment or in the Still Here Community group on Facebook.