Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Our Story

Warning: This is really long, but I have always wanted to write this story. Today seems an appropriate day, and my children are being unexpectedly cooperative. So, here goes...

I was a senior in college when I went on what was called a Busy Students Retreat. St. Mary's Catholic Center brings in spiritual directors every year to host this retreat, which involves personal prayer, evening reflections, and several meetings with a spiritual director. And, yes, I was the epitome of the busy student.

My spiritual director was a religious sister. I cannot recall her name, nor which order she belongs, but I remember vividly the meditations she asked me to do and the day she asked if I had considered discerning entering religious life. I answered no, but I was certainly open to it.

Thus, my journey began. There is this postcard you can fill out to get on the list of religious orders, and that spring I filled a box with brochures from around the country, just as I did when seeking a college five years previously. I swore off men, seemingly always attracted to the more challenging ones anyway, and found freedom in offering God my entire life if He wanted it.

My family was skeptical. They had paid for my entire college education to become a teacher, even though there were times we both admitted I could certainly excel in a more academic field. As I discerned, I felt led to some of the teaching orders, like the Dominicans, and reasoned that I would indeed be using my college education. To appease my father, I agreed to a summer internship at his corporation in the training department, where I would earn more money than being a school teacher but still use my degree.

Before the internship started, I was asked to speak at a summer retreat back at St. Mary's, and a few weeks before the retreat, all the speakers for the retreat gathered for a speaker retreat to share our outlines and pray together for one another. The retreat began with Mass and afterwards, a few of us were standing on the steps outside. I mentioned to another speaker that I really needed to hear his talk; his topic was Discernment. We chatted for a while and then the one speaker I did not know personally pulled me aside.

He asked why I needed to hear that particular topic, and I shared that I was actively discerning a call to religious life. It just so happened that he was volunteering his time to help one of our campus ministers plan a Nun Run trip to visit various convents at the end of the summer. Was I interested? Oh yes! He told me all about the plans, and I resolved to consult Mom and Dad about this unique opportunity.

As the speaker retreat progressed, I got to know the young man a little more. He was a cowboy, or at least he dressed like one and seemed to fit the label "Catechism-thumping convert," so excited about his new-found faith and so convinced in its absolute Truth that he had to tell everyone how great Catholicism is. He was a smooth-talker and a deep thinker with a winning smile but otherwise seemingly shallow. At the same time, he had labeled me a kind of cute "stuck-up, anal, bossy engineering type" but was intrigued by my simple faith.

Skip ahead a few weeks to the actual retreat weekend, and I found myself chatting with him about the Nun Run. My parents had agreed it was a good idea that I should go and see for myself what religious life is like. He, too, was discerning religious life, feeling called to be a monk, having spent some time in prayer at Subiaco  Abbey with the Benedictines in Arkansas. I found myself enjoying conversing with him; his sense of humor was adorable. We were fast becoming friends, promising to pray for one another's discernment.

Saturday night, the retreaters put on entertaining skits and staff members spread out blankets to sit and watch. While his partner fetched a blanket, he spread himself out spread-eagle on the floor to save a spot for his "family." When I asked what he was doing, he said he was a blanket. Couldn't I see? So, I sat on him. I knew it was crossing the line from friend to flirting, but I didn't really care. He responded through choked breaths, "Ugh! What is this feather that has alighted upon me?"

Later that night, I was pretty delirious from lack of sleep. Part of this was the retreat, but I had been suffering from mild insomnia for weeks as a result of my intense prayers and cluelessness as to God's will. I was finishing my preparations for the last day of the retreat and laughing at pretty much everything everybody said to me. Instead of interrupting my revelry to say good night, he wrote me a note and left it with my things. I found it while putting everything away and saved it to read until after I had prepared for bed. I completely forget what it said, but I remember clearly, sitting under the Texas stars on that warm summer night, that God told me this man was going to be important in my discernment. I thanked the Lord for a companion on this journey and promised to maintain the friendship.

Remember how God doesn't give us the whole story to get us to agree? We only see a part of the picture.

About a week after the retreat, I had a startling moment in prayer where I felt God was insisting that I stay friends with this man. So, I wrote him a letter, telling him God says we have to be friends. Then, we began emailing. I hated my internship, stuck in a cubicle all day, and we would email back and forth all day long, nothing serious or deep, just entertaining discussions.

When I arrived back in College Station to move into my apartment before leaving for the Nun Run, he met me there. One funny memory was when I gave him directions and could not remember what to call a traffic circle. "You go kind of right, then kind of left, then kind of right but really straight" is what I said. LOL! Before unloading my station wagon (nicknamed the stag wag since high school, since I often attended events stag), we went to Mass. He helped me unload and promised to cook me dinner on Tuesday before the Nun Run left early Wednesday morning. He claimed he was a great cook. By now, he was wooing me. I was still clueless.

Monday, I was volunteering up at church, and he brought me lunch. That night a group of about half a dozen friends went miniature golfing; he came along. Then, we all stopped for ice cream. As everyone was leaving, he asked where I was headed. I acknowledged that I was heading home but had to stay up late to wait for a friend who was getting into town that night who agreed to watch my guinea pig while I was away; she wouldn't be around the following day to drop him off. He asked if I wanted to go to a coffee shop; I agreed.

After chatting for about an hour, a group of about a dozen women, including our campus minister leading the Nun Run, came into the same coffee shop. We waived them over. "Come sit with us!" "Are you sure? We don't want to intrude." We enjoyed their company for a few hours, having great spiritual discussions. When they left, we stayed longer. I'm sure it was after 12P. When the place closed, we ended up on their porch. Neither of us wanted the conversation to end. We knew we wouldn't see one another for over a week after dinner that night. Neither of us wanted to check our watches; we were giddy.

Eventually, we parted ways. I think it was four or five in the morning. I didn't see him all the next day, and he called to cancel that dinner. He forgot he had a mandatory meeting at work. I focused on preparing for the Nun Run. I was so excited to see the convents and meet the sisters and decide, hopefully, if this life was for me.

Early Wednesday morning, I unloaded my bags from the "stag wag" and started towards one of the white vans in the church parking lot. At least a dozen of the girls came jogging towards me, giggling. "Here's a note for you! He wrote you a note! It was left on the van with the paper link rosary." So, I think this sweet guy who has helped plan our trip for months took the time to write each girl a short note to encourage her and promise prayers for us. It wasn't until after I read the note and got in the van that I realized he had written one note to all of us and one note to me. Hm.

I get carsick, so I was a designated driver or navigator, having to sit in the front seat at all times. I was navigator the first shift and as the rest of the girls fell asleep, the driver and I began to chat. After a while, she says, "Can I ask you something?" "Sure." "Are you and he dating?" "No! What? Of course not!" I replied with gusto, completely denying anything other than a platonic relationship. Her next words haunted me the entire week of the trip. We visited nine convents in seven days, and all I could hear in my head was her potent question: "Are you open to that?"

Golly, God! Am I open to that? Well, gee! I am totally open to being a religious sister. Isn't that enough? This trip is about nuns not boys. But, in my head, I finally admit what my heart has known for days, maybe weeks, "Yes, I guess so."

A few days later, I was listening to a vocations talk in Illinois by a wise Franciscan sister. She was not the liveliest of her congregation, but she spoke of holiness and how everyone, regardless of our vocation is called to holiness. I had heard that before, but something hit me like a rock, and I started scribbling furiously in my journal. The girls around me started to stare and wonder what could possibly have possessed me to write down every dry word this sweet sister was saying so frantically.

That wasn't it at all. I wish I had saved that journal, and maybe I did somewhere, but basically, it said something like...

"Holiness. In. Every. Vocation. Really? But, isn't being a sister holier than being a wife? No? It's not? You can be a holy wife? That's possible? Really? In fact, it might be a better path to holiness for some women? Even though religious life seems like the more challenging path, marriage might be more challenging? The opportunities to grow in holiness for me might be greater in marriage than in religious life? No wonder I have felt so distant on this trip, like I don't belong, like these women are all full of some spirit I do not have! Perhaps I am called to be a wife. A holy wife. The holiest wife ever. Okay, maybe not, but at least holy enough to get to Heaven. And a husband will help me get to Heaven? Really? Help me? I can't get there by myself? What are you saying, God!!???"

The rest of the trip was full of confirmations from God that marriage could indeed glorify Him and could be a greater path to holiness for me. Religious life was seeming like the "easy choice," believe it or not, and, being highly competitive, I knew I wanted to challenge myself with the hard choice. The Nun Run opened my eyes to the beauty of religious life and the reality of its challenges, but it also reminded me that the only way to be holier is to fulfill God's will, not mine.

So, I finally became truly open to both religious life and marriage and saw that I was probably called to marriage, but I really did not like the whole dating scene! No worries! God had an answer for that. We were told in Nashville the day before the show that we had been invited to appear on Life on the Rock with Jeff Cavins on EWTN. They didn't want to tell us in advance, so the anticipation would not take away from our prayerful journey. In fact, they had not even told the young man who planned our trip about it, so the campus minister quickly sent me and another girl to one of the vans to use the car phone (this was before common cell phones) to call him and let him know. I was sent, because I knew his number by heart.

As we climbed in the van, we discussed our trip and discernment. This girl shared her feelings and asked mine. I revealed how I was beginning to think God was calling me to marriage. She reminded me of something I had said almost a year previously. I was organizing a retreat, and she complimented me for my orderliness and organizational skills. At the time, being frustrated with men, I told her, "I know. It's awful! My poor husband is going to have to appreciate organization as much as me, or he'll be miserable!" As she said this, she handed me the binder that my future husband had compiled with our itinerary, complete with maps, contact information, and schedule with restroom breaks built in and mapped accordingly. Hahahahaha, God!

I ended up leaving him a message to let him know about Life on the Rock, but I started asking God to help me. I had gone through this incredible transformation in one week's time and was soon heading back to this man, who I was beginning to believe might end up being my husband. Was I supposed to walk up to him and say, "Hi, I think God wants me to marry you"? That would be sure to chase him away!

God, of course, calmed my anxieties. I trusted Him to help me figure it all out one step at a time. There was no plan for how this was going to work. I got home, and he finally cooked me dinner. It was truly gourmet! I shared that I was pretty sure God was calling me to marriage, as my heart did flip flops. His did, too, but he didn't tell me.

We went to a friend's house to watch a football game, and he put his arm around me. He says he only dared to do so, because when I had gone to the restroom, I had fixed my hair. He noticed and thought I was doing it for him. I guess I was. When he dropped me off that night, I think I asked point blank if we were officially dating or not. I reminded him that the St. Mary's gossip chain would have us married by morning for snuggling on the couch, and we agreed to finally admit we were dating exclusively.

A few weeks later we traveled to a wedding in west Texas. It was a long road trip, and it involved some fabulous conversations about our hopes for the future. We were each sharing ideas about what type of wedding each of us imagined when he says, "Wait. We actually are talking about our wedding, right?" "Yes." The rest of the trip we had great conversations about our future together. I cried at the wedding of a couple I barely knew, because I could see clearly my path ahead.

There were times he struggled with the decision, because he had never fully let go of his desire to become a monk. And, at the time, he was a law enforcement officer, so I had to discern being a cop's wife. But, within a month of that night we agreed to date, we were sitting before our pastor, asking him to marry us before we were formally engaged. It had only been three months, since our friendship earnestly began, so he wisely advised us to set a date after we had been together for one full year. He believed we needed to experience one another as the seasons changed, and we agreed that was wise. We were in no rush to be married, just to begin planning our lives together. He was very supportive, though, even given our whirlwind courtship.

And, that is our story. The formal engagement is a story for another time. I have written of our wedding week before. Our fertility journey followed, including our sweet children, who each somehow hold my entire heart even though that heart belongs fully and truly to their daddy. Our marriage has survived multiple cross-country moves, three career changes (for him), illnesses, law school, fears and anxiety, and a couple breakdowns, but through the grace of our sacrament, we have survived.

To my dear husband: I am so grateful that God insisted we be friends and lovers and that we both accepted this vocation of marriage, despite our insecurities. You are a treasure to me. You love me the way I am, but challenge me to greater perfection on a daily basis. I never doubt your love, and I pray you never doubt mine. Happy Valentine's Day, my love!


Monday, February 13, 2012

Mondays Make Saints of Us

I cannot remember the last Monday I enjoyed. Sigh! Wait. No. Yes. It was Monday, January 17th. Otherwise known as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Otherwise known as a day off from work for my husband. Yes, that was a nice Monday, but it was not a "normal" Monday, whatever that is.

When I was a classroom teacher, I do not think the impact was quite as severe as it is as a homeschooling mother. You see, the kids that go to "away school" (that's what we call it to simplify including both public and private schools), have a set of expectations that go along with being in a school building. Even though they were away for two days, within an hour or two, they usually remember those expectations and settle in to their school day.

Fortunately for us, homeschooled kids are home all the time. They have a set of expectations on school days and a set of expectations on non-school days, but they do not have the change of a building to help their transition. Some, like my dear, sweet children, do not even have the benefit of a schoolroom at home and conduct school in the living and dining rooms. I say, "fortunately for us," because every challenge like this is an opportunity for us to grow in virtue.

I am not saying I take advantage of this opportunity regularly, but there it is.

I do have three simple suggestions for coping with Monday transitions as a homeschooling mom. Please know that these are new ideas, and I have not yet implemented them with any success. Nevertheless, I see no reason why they cannot help Mondays become more enjoyable, and the effort put into their implementation surely gains us at least a tiny bit of grace.

1. Be prepared. One thing that helps me, although not with any consistency, is to make breakfast the night before. Just serving cereal on Mondays does not give us all the lift that reheated breakfast tacos seem to give. Of course, I also have to make sure the children's lesson charts are filled in and that I have all the books and materials for our Morning Basket and Subject of the Day. And, oh yes, waking up on time helps, theoretically.

2. Start the day with something fun. Maybe go outside for a short time or put on some silly music to dance. Play an educational game or read something entertaining. Finding one thing that everyone enjoys and can start the week off on the right note, might make the difference between delight and disaster.

3. End the school day with something fun. Perhaps it would work better for your personality to plan an activity like the ones above for once the school work is done. Make it a tradition to have an afternoon tea, such as in Mondays With Mary, or head to a nearby playground or the library every Monday. What will motivate everyone to have a positive day?

When all of this fails, of course, caffeine, chocolate, and Christ are my stand-bys as I endure the storm. Should none of the above happen or help, just remember Mondays can lead us to holiness if we embrace the crosses and offer our struggles to God.

What are your ideas to make Mondays more tolerable or at least to enter them with the best attitude possible?