Wednesday, December 4: Claire Swinarski

The story I am about to tell is not glamorous. 

Let’s just clear that up right now. If you’re looking for a  story that involves a Pinterest-perfect kitchen, or a ball gown, or piles of riches—find a different show to listen to today. I’m about to talk about barf. 

In 2015, I had just gotten married and was overjoyed to be pregnant with my first child. Benjamin would come barreling into our lives in April of 2016. But the autumn before—the one where I was deep in my first trimester—was perhaps the hardest period of my entire life. 

I get self-conscious talking about sickness while being pregnant. For starters, I have friends in real life who struggle with infertility, and it’s such a heavy cross. At the end of the day, we both know that were we offered the chance to switch crosses, they would, and I would not. So that’s something I feel needs to be said. Secondly, I’m often given a lot of advice from well-meaning people, but it’s advice that isn’t always helpful. Because when you’re suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum like I was, you’re far beyond the helpful tips of “try eating a few small meals a day” and “Have you tried ginger?” 

Hyperemesis is an unexplained extreme nausea during pregnancy. It’s not the typical morning sickness, where women feel queasy for a few weeks and throw up a handful of times. When I was pregnant with both of my kids, I was throwing up almost every single day for nine months. I had to be hospitalized multiple times, I was living off Pedialyte and Ensure, and I was on multiple pharmaceuticals that seemed to be doing a fat load of nothing. What can I say—Kate Middleton and I have a lot of things in common. 

So, the moment of longing that I have felt the most intensely was not longing for a knight in shining armor, or longing for a huge advance in my career, or longing for spiritual sainthood. No, when I think longing, I honestly think of my bathroom floor. 

Because that’s where I spent so many nights of that pregnancy. Just throwing up, throwing up, throwing up. My husband is world’s heaviest sleeper—we often joke that if someone were to break in, we’re all getting murdered because there’s no way he’s even going to stir. So I was spending a lot of nights completely alone, in our tiny apartment bathroom. Head in the toilet. 

I was longing for our child to be born so that I could get my life back. I was longing for anything—anythingto sound good to my stomach again. I was longing for a margarita. And most of all, I was just longing for it to end. It’s hard to explain what 24 hours, 7 days a week of nausea feels like, and honestly, you can’t understand it if you’re not there. Just know that I had a natural childbirth, and I would honestly do that once a month during pregnancy if it meant making the hyperemesis stop.  

And so as I sat there, on the floor of that bathroom, wearing my husband’s t-shirt, my face streaked with tears and sweat, I just thought—I cant do this. I can not make it another hour. 

But there was one specific night where I felt God so clearly. You have to go through it. 

One of my son’s favorite books is Were Going on a Bear Hunt. In the story, this family goes to try and find a bear. They encounter all of these obstacles—the snow, some mud, a river—and they repeat over and over again, We cant go over it. We cant go under it. We have to go through it

I felt God saying to me—you can’t go over this. You can’t go under it. You have to go through it. 

I had to charge through those nights—nine long, agonizing, Zofran-filled months of those nights—because there was no other option. Even though I couldn’t, God could. I was as weak as I’d ever been, but admitting that to myself, truly seeing my own powerlessness, meant laying down in the palm of God’s hand. Because I did have to go through it. But God would carry me. 

In the Gospel of Luke, 9:10-17,  Jesus is telling his disciples, we have enough food. We have enough food for these thousands of people. And they’re just like…huh? We so obviously don’t. But God told them to take the fish and take the bread and share it among the people. So they did. Because what was the alternative? What else was there to do but walk along God’s path? 

They just had to do what God was asking of them. It felt ridiculous, it felt impossible, it felt like a waste of time. But they couldn’t go over it. They couldn’t go under it. They had to go through it. 

No matter what you’re longing for in this season, know that this season is not wasted. This season can be where you show God that you, too, can lay in His palm, and that you know he will carry you through all of those hard, holy things.

Claire Swinarski is the author of multiple books, including Girl, Arise: A Catholic Feminist’s Invitation to Live Boldly, Love Your Faith, and Change the World and the forthcoming children’s novel What Happens Next. She’s also the creator of the The Catholic Feminist Podcast, a top-ranked spirituality podcast with over one million downloads. Claire spends most of her time handing her two kids fruit snacks, strolling the aisles of Target, and making her poor husband watch The Great British Baking Show. 

Tuesday, December 3: JoAnna Wahlund

Joy Comes in the Morning

No mother ever forgets the day she loses a child.

I’ve lost four children to miscarriage, and the memory of each loss has been burned indelibly in my brain. I have stared at more than one ultrasound screen in disbelief and horror, knowing instantly that there was something wrong, knowing the image of the child on the screen was far too still, and knowing the worst had happened even before hearing my care provider murmur, “I’m so sorry, I can’t find a heartbeat.” 

My last two losses in 2015 were especially difficult. They were consecutive, only five months apart, and both occurred only weeks after an initial ultrasound at eight weeks showed a growing baby with a steady heartbeat. After that point, my obstetrician told me, my chances of miscarriage were only one point six percent. It seemed unbelievable that I would be a part of that tiny percentage twice in the span of five months, but I was. 

My most recent loss occurred less than a week before my 35th birthday and roughly a month before the beginning of Advent. It sent me into a deep spiral of grief, sadness, anger, and despair. That year, Advent was a time of mourning, and it was very difficult to participate in the joy of Christmas. I went through the motions for the sake of my living children, but all the while my heart was crying for the babies I had lost. 

I couldn’t stop worrying that there was something wrong with me, or that I’d somehow caused my losses. Did I have low progesterone, or a blood clotting disorder, or was it due to advanced maternal age and declining egg quality?

I was also terrified of getting pregnant again. Miscarriage robs you of your pregnancy innocence, but multiple consecutive miscarriages, especially after what seems like positive signs, completely robs you of your joy. A positive pregnancy test seems like a harbinger of doom instead of a gift of new life.

Through it all, I struggled to remember that God had given, and God had taken away. My babies were with God, and they would never know pain, would never know sin, would never know heartbreak or loss. They were perhaps the most fortunate of all my children in that regard. But it hurt that I will not know them this side of heaven. 

In my darker moments, I also wondered if God thought I was such a terrible mother that I didn’t deserve to be blessed with another living child. 

This terrifying thought sent me on a journey of exploration. Ever since my conversion to Catholicism, after discovering the great communion of saints, I tended to turn to the saints whenever I was struggling. It helped me to know about the other holy men and women who shared my struggles, and yet persevered in holiness. 

I found that there were many saints who shared this particular struggle with me. My personal patroness, St. Gianna Beretta Molla, suffered two miscarriages between her third and fourth full-term pregnancies. St. Zelie Martin never suffered miscarriage that we know of, but she did lose three children in their infancy and another child at age five. 

St. Zelie wrote a letter to her sister-in-law, who had recently suffered a miscarriage, and talked about how while life was short and filled with crosses, the suffering we endure as mothers of deceased children is something we can offer up to God as a sacrifice, which in turn give us extraordinary grace. 

Reading about the experiences of these saints provided immense comfort to me. Surely God hadn’t taken away the children of St. Gianna and St. Zelie because He thought they were terrible mothers. Slowly, over the next several months, my despair abated, but the thought of another pregnancy, another child, was still terrifying to contemplate.

Ironically, it was during this time that my family planning method went haywire. We were using the Marquette Method to avoid pregnancy, and suddenly my trusty, reliable fertility monitor wasn’t reading my fertility signs correctly. It missed detecting ovulation once, then twice. 

My husband and I were both puzzled and frustrated. It was the first time in several years of use that the monitor had failed us. I had several discussions with my instructor as we headed into another cycle, but I was starting to wonder if this was a sign from God telling us that it was time to let Him decide the timing of our next pregnancy. 

It didn’t help that a good friend of mine had recently had a baby, and, when I brought over a meal for the family, I was able to hold that sweet baby for nearly an hour. That intoxicating newborn smell and small snuggly body further weakened my resistance to trying again. A few days later, faced with another seemingly never-ending cycle and more prolonged abstinence, my husband and I put the decision into God’s hands. 

Two weeks later, I faced a positive pregnancy test with abject terror. I didn’t allow myself to hope, not yet. I called my doctor’s office to get in for blood tests and posted in many secret groups on Facebook, begging for prayers. I had weekly ultrasounds during the first trimester, and figuratively held my breath until we passed the previously ill-fated twelve week mark — but this time, at my twelve-week appointment, instead of a still, silent image, I saw a wriggling, thriving baby. At my twenty-week appointment, the baby was still healthy, still wiggling, and still thriving. 

My Advent that year, in contrast to the one the year before, was full of joyful anticipation as the child within my womb continued to grow. Our happiness culminated with the birth of our double rainbow baby, Laura Rose, in January 2017. She is truly a testament to the verse from Psalms: “Weeping may last for the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning.”

JoAnna Wahlund was baptized, raised, and married in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In May 2003, two weeks after graduating from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities with a degree in English, she converted to Catholicism. She has six terrific kids here on earth, four saints in heaven praying for her, and a wonderful husband of eighteen years who supports her in all things. Her website is

Monday, December 2: Andrea Thomas

I’m consistently amazed when we find ourselves wrapped up in something so much bigger than we initially realized or thought was possible.

My very best effort could have never have brought to pass the events that had to happen for me to meet up with and eventually collaborate with the artists that have now become The Vigil Project. When you’re pursuing something good, true, or beautiful and your best effort couldn’t produce the fruit that you’re seeing, sometimes it’s a really strong indicator that it’s not you that’s doing it! There’s a little phrase I’ve borrowed called “The God-margin”…and not to say that we haven’t worked hard because we absolutely have (and do!) but calling a spade a spade: the God-margin has been all over The Vigil Project. 

After our first album released into 2016 for Lent and Easter, our group, which barely had a name at this point and was best described as “ignorance on fire” at this stage in our journey, started receiving messages from all over the world with two major requests: the first was people asking if we would be willing to bring the songs that we had just released for Lent and Easter to their communities. That was the start of our first music tour (and it’s amazing to think that this Advent 2019 marks our 8th music tour…see what I mean…God margin!). And the second request we started to receive was people asking for us to do a similar project for the upcoming seasons of Advent and Christmas. I remember us as a group looking around at each other asking…”Are these things that we feel called to do?: Without hesitation, we all were all in on both fronts!

As we prepared for our second series for Advent and Christmas, we really started to pray around the themes that we were going to write the songs about. And the theme we continued to come back to you was the theme of “family”. Our desire was to create and write new music for the liturgical seasons of Advent and Christmas, so we absolutely wanted it to remain very true to our Catholic identity, and also encompass this theme of family that kept coming to us in prayer. As I sat with that theme, and also with my own journey as an individual…what continued to come to me was a theme of “the ache”. I kept thinking about how the chosen people waited and yearned and longed for and ACHED for the long foretold Savior. They didn’t know when he would come; they didn’t know what it would look like exactly… And actually it ended up looking very different than they thought it would… A theme that God has taught me a whole lot about in my own life! And from reflecting on that yearning and longing and anticipation and ache… again, something I’m very familiar with my own life… Came this song called “In Need of a Savior”. 

I think sometimes as Catholics, we’re really good at sort of staying in the mindset of offering-it-up and reminding ourselves of the value and necessity of suffering. And that can be so beautiful and certainly has its place, but we’re also called to wait in joyful hope. So, this song begins by reflecting on what it must’ve been like to wait on the Lord, not knowing when the Savior would come, and to continue to choose hope even though you couldn’t necessarily sense or even know if that Savior would come in your lifetime. Can you imagine that?! To trust that all will be well and perfect with God at the helm, even if YOU didn’t get to see it happen. How often do I sit and wait on things in my own life that I have no control over, that I just have to trust in God’s timing? The first verse of this song says, “We stand in darkness, we wait on this holy night. Broken and helpless decendeth upon your light. Centuries waiting, we are at your mercy, Lord. Turn your gaze to your people in need of a Savior.” These lyrics speak of the ache of the people waiting on the hand of God. And the ache in my own heart, too.

It doesn’t stay there, though. The second verse moves into what I would call joyful anticipation… Almost sensing with the rhythm of the drums that come in on the second verse that our hearts beat with the hope that God does not leave us orphaned. That he does indeed make good on his promises to us. There is an adventure to abandonment to him. Even in the darkness when it’s hard…it’s such a beautiful thing. And that unknown can actually be exciting: “Our spirits rejoice as we wait, as we wait for you. God you are mighty, we beg that you make us anew. Centuries waiting, we ask that you now restore, and turn to your gaze to your people in need of a Savior.”

I was at my piano writing these lyrics, based on these reflections of the Israelites and my own heart…and then it was this beautiful realization of how this actually fit beautifully into the theme of the album, which surrounded the family. As a group we started talking about how (as much as it’s not an easy thing to talk about all the time) every single family has its own set of difficulties and dare I say dysfunction… Even though all of our families of course are beautiful and we’re grateful for them ( I literally feel like I have the best family in the entire world), and even *we* have plenty of moments of difficulty and dysfunction. And a lot of this dysfunction tends to come out during the holidays and during this season when everything is supposed to be super fun and festive. Oddly enough, it also tends to be when a lot of these things surface, as well. And sometimes there’s some anxiety and stress that comes with this season, as well, and ultimately with all of these themes kind of tying in from the chosen people all the way to 2019, the reality is that we can’t see what God sees. He is God, and we are not. We have to surrender to the will of God and trust that he is Sovereign and desires our good and works even in the hard stuff. If fact He CHOSE to come to earth in the messiest of circumstances. He could have come in ANY way he wanted to…and He decided to come in the filth and the difficulty and awkwardness of a cold and damp cave. Hardly the dwelling place for a King! 

But, that’s exactly what He did. And I think that speaks to the greater reality that He doesn’t come in spite of the mess. He comes because of the mess. Right smack dab in the middle of it. And he wants to do the same for the tough things in our lives too. And so from that second verse it brings us to the bridge of the song which is simply “Come Oh come Emanuel. Come O Lord in our hearts to dwell.” Jesus coming to us and God being with us is the ultimate remedy. It’s the ultimate mercy. It’s the ultimate love.

Beyond our understanding, God can bring so much beauty and so much goodness from even the most difficult situations… And that really permeates throughout the centuries. Just like the chosen people, we are all in need of a Savior. That’s at the heart of this song.

“In Need of a Savior”

We stand in darkness we wait on this holy night
Broken and helpless descendeth upon us Your light
Centuries waiting, we are at Your mercy, Lord
Turn Your gaze to Your people, in need of a Savior

Our Spirits rejoice as we wait, as we wait for You
God, You are mighty, we beg that You make us anew
Centuries waiting, we ask that You now restore
And turn Your gaze to Your people in need of a Savior

Come O Come, Emmanuel
Come O Lord in our hearts to dwell

We stand in darkness we wait on this holy night
Broken and helpless descendeth upon us Your light
Centuries waiting, we are at Your mercy, Lord
Turn Your gaze to Your people, in need of a Savior

Andrea Thomas is founding member, musician, and Co-Director of The Vigil Project, a collaboration of artists and nonprofit organization that makes music for the Catholic journey. You can find more information about Andrea’s music with the Vigil Project through their website,

For access to the song, “In Need of a Savior,” please visit the song’s video.

Sunday, December 1: Jules Miles

They never seem to mention the lack of sleep.

I’m sure someone does, of course. But in the world of mental illness, in my early days of diagnosis, at least, I don’t really remember talk of sleep. I remember phrases like exposure therapy, brain mis-firings, and Zoloft. I remember the panic attacks, the fears of being in public, and the tears shed (by myself and my family). I remember so many small, embarrassing moments where my OCD seemed to completely take over, making me almost unrecognizable from my former self.

I remember all of these things in those early days of a heartbroken, 16-year old girl so devastated about the condition of her mind. But what I remember the most was the lack of sleep.

I remember the complete terror as the clocked ticked away each day, knowing in a few hours, a few minutes, I would be left alone with my mind, unable to stop the endless cycle of intrusive thoughts and obsessions. A few weeks after my diagnosis, it became clear to me and my family that we needed to do something. 

So we tried the traditional paths one might take. I took medicine. I prayed the rosary. My parents put a TV in my room to distract me. I listened to classical music. I read and read as many novels that I could get my hands on. But nothing seemed to work. Nothing seemed to calm the chaos of my mind to fulfill the deepest longing I had at the time, a longing I think many of us take for granted: the longing for simple REST. 

That is, until, this one day. You see, early that day I was reading an article in a Catholic periodical about a woman who was diagnosed with a terminal illness, given only six months to live. And she had found peace with her death in those months. She celebrated her life with family and friends, deepened her faith, said her goodbyes. But with each passing month, her death never came. Months turned into years, and her once incurable cancer inexplicitly was cured. She was a healthy woman.

And that’s when the cycle of depression began. She cried herself to sleep at night. Her relationships suffered. She began to lose faith.

And I think we all know why this is, of course. Because life is so very hard. Death seemed easy to her, especially a death filled with goodbyes. But life? 

As a 16 year old girl, this made more sense to me than I think it has in my entire life. Death was not to be feared, but life was filled with sorry, confusion, and pain. I, like the woman in this article, simply longed for peace and rest. We both wanted the same thing. 

So that night, in the darkness of my room, as my thoughts raced and tortured my wounded heart, I started to make up my own story in my mind. A fictional story about a young woman who faced the same devastating reality of life and illness. And within minutes of slowly putting together the pieces of my story, I fell asleep. The best sleep I had had in MONTHS.

So the next night, as the thoughts raced and my heart pounded, I returned to my story. I added small details. I created new characters. I envisioned every piece of furniture, every word of dialogue. And I fell asleep.

And night after night, even years after going through a remarkable period of healing from my mental illness, I still return to my sleep story. The story which saved my life. It has changed, as have I, over the years. I’ve added new characters, I’ve changed the timeline a bit. My central character has aged as I have. But in the years since that first night, that first creation, I have often reflected on the HOW. 

How God used a simple story to completely change this small yet mighty aspect of my life: my longing for basic sleep. And it was the first seed, I believe, in a long history of God showing me the power of stories to HEAL. 

We know, of course, that stories can entertain, that’s really the main purpose of stories. But stories can also educate, stories can unite, and stories can help bring healing. 

Central to our mission with Ruah storytellers was this basic premise: we believe that if each of us, just once a day, encountered a story of fellow pilgrim on this journey, our lives would be enriched, our minds could be opened to new perspectives and experiences, and our hearts could begin the process of healing.  This advent, we are hoping to accompany you in the journey of this season through the power of story. 

We share stories for one simple reason: It’s what Jesus does. In the Gospels, when Jesus wants to teach people about his love, about his mercy, about the plans he has for humanity, he does so in the realm of story. We want to use that model to journey with you this Advent, to encounter the humility of God in the baby Jesus, and to learn from the experiences of our fellow sisters who are on this journey with you. 

We have gathered together 24 incredible women from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and faith journeys. And each day, one of these women of faith will journey with you to the manger through the power of story. Each story will dive further into the great mystery of God’s love for you this season, and the remarkable gift we have in the waiting.  We are so humbled and honored that you have chosen to be on this journey with us. Thank you listeners, and welcome to Ruah Storytellers

Jules Miles is a wife, mother, creator, and joyful, lifelong Catholic. Jules is the host of the Catholic storytelling podcast Mystery Through Manners, and along with Amanda Martinez-Beck, the co-founder of this new adventure, Ruah Storytellers.

The Power of Stories: A Reflection

A few weeks ago, my oldest son had his first basketball game. He started playing for the first time for his school and with all of his friends. He’s only eight, but he is deeply passionate about all things sports, and can regularly be seen reading the latest stats of his favorite players, studying the most creative football plays and passes, and even replaying his favorite games (all by himself) in our back yard. 

We knew his first game would be difficult, with all of the boys learning how to play together for the first time. What we didn’t expect, however, was how much of his passion seemed to be lost in that first game. He looked confused, even scared. At times when the ball would land right at his feet, he would simply stare at it, worried that he would get “too aggressive” in reaching for it.

It was fascinating to watch, if I’m being honest. All of the kids of his team played this way. We smiled in the stands as we murmured to each other “They’re too nice. They need to get in there!” 

On the way home from this first loss, I asked Leo if he was nervous while he played. I asked why he seemed to play more shy than he normally does at home. 

“I didn’t want to get a foul, mom,” Leo said sadly, knowing as we all did that his nerves got the best of him.

I love the game of basketball. It’s been a part of my life since as long as I can remember. We used to quote stats and talk strategies around our dinner table growing up. In that moment driving home (and later around our dinner table), I thought of all the tips I could give him. I thought about the strategies around fouling, how some fouls are good fouls, and the rules of the game I could teach him. 

But instead, I took a deep breath, smiled at my boy, and I told him a story. 

I was in the ninth grade. I was playing for my high school team, and we were about the play our rivals, (a team we lost to on a last second buzzer beater earlier in the season). Tensions were high. None of the players were being kind. Awful words were being thrown by both sides.

So I decided to take the high road. I decided I wouldn’t play the game unless I was kind. If a girl from the other team fell, I would help them up. If they made a good shot, I would compliment them. At the end of the game, after our own last minute win, girls and parents from the other team came up to me to thank me for how nice I was.

“And,” I said to Leo as he finished his late dinner, “I also fouled out of that game.” 

Leo looked up from his pizza, eyes wide and confused.

“It is possible, buddy, to be both. To be both kind and play aggressive. My dad was so proud of me for fouling out. It meant I gave my all. It meant if the ball was anywhere on the court, I was going after it.”

In Leo’s next game, he played with the passion and love of the game we knew he had in him. It only got better with his third game. Wherever the ball was on the court, there was Leo. He also committed fouls (twice I think), and he smiled when he did. 

Now imagine I had chosen to go a different way. Imagine I hadn’t told him a story, and instead lectured him on the dynamics of the game and the importance of strategic fouling. Would Leo have still played with the same passion and determination in the next game? Maybe not. Actually, probably not. My story (and another story my husband told from his childhood) helped him to come alive. It showed him there was a different way to be, and it taught him an important lesson which he has carried with him since.  

This is the power of stories. Stories, perhaps more than other forms of communication, can help us to see the answer of the questions we are asking. They help us to understand our fellow human beings in more compassionate and empathetic ways. They help us to have safe places to interpret our emotions. They embody how to live a life well, or they show us the mistakes of another in the hopes that we would learn from them. 

And perhaps most important, stories teach us about ourselves, and help us to see who we are called to be by our Loving Creator. This is at the heart of why we believe stories should accompany us on our spiritual journeys, and why we at Ruah Storytellers would like to use stories to help you dive deeper into the hope of the Advent Season. 

May God bless you as we begin our journey this Sunday. We pray our stories will accompany you to go further up and further into the depths of God’s love this Advent.

Coming Advent 2019!

Ruah Advent logo

Welcome to Ruah Storytellers, a daily podcast to accompany you on your journey this Advent Season.

We have gathered together 24 incredible Catholic women, to come together to share stories of faith. By engaging with stories, we hope our listeners will discover different perspectives, be formed by different experiences, and grow in faith and empathy.

Our trailer for Ruah Storytellers is LIVE. Please download and subscribe to Ruah Storytellers on apple podcasts, Spotify, Radio Public, or wherever you listen.

Our first official episode launches the first Sunday of Advent, Sunday, December, 1, 2019. We’d love if you could help us share the word about our new ministry by following us on Instagram, joining our private Facebook Group, and of course, subscribing and downloading the podcast.

For more information about our vision for this podcast, please visit our pages about our mission and the story behind the name, Ruah Storytellers.

If you’re interested in becoming a storyteller for a future series, please visit our “Be a Storyteller” page for information on how to submit and inquire about stories.

Thank you for being with us on this journey. We can’t wait to share our stories with you!