My Year of Faith

Kung hei fat choi!! Happy Chinese New Year!

No, I am not Chinese. But with an ever-growing population of Chinoys (Filipino-Chinese), almost everyone is familiar with the above phrase, and is comfortable using it. So just because I can, I’ll say it again: Kung hei fat choi!!

I was born in the year of the Horse. Upon seeing a commercial on TV announcing the Chinese New Year, my mom remembered this little bit of information. “Hey, this is your year! This should be a lucky year for you!”

A lucky year for me. Huh.

In all my years of existence thus far, 2013 tops the list as my un-luckiest year. One after another, blow by blow, my heart and spirit was, in many ways and at many times, beaten and broken. Dreams were put on hold, a pregnancy was lost, and a rejection left me battling with my worst enemy yet–myself. I’ve spoken of this spiritual darkness that I’ve been struggling with and within. More than once, I had thought I was over it–that, having gritted my teeth for a long enough period, I had earned a sort of spiritual merit badge that I could wave as credit towards my path to sainthood. But I soon found out that grace (and holiness) cannot be forced nor feigned–but can blossom only as a fruit of complete surrender or, to borrow from a book title mentioned by a friend this morning, abandonment to Divine Providence.

What exactly was, is, my darkness? In a word, it is the trap my favorite saint spoke of extensively and warningly: self-love. All my eyes and heart could see was how I was unappreciated and unrecognized, not trusted and not believed in. Amidst the myriad of other emotional stages I went through, a profound sense of uselessness overwhelmed me. I was of no use, and no good–to anyone or anything. I found that I could not, would not, share the nature of this darkness to anyone other than my husband and our spiritual director, fooling myself that I was doing so out of humility, desiring to suffer in secret. But in truth, I failed to bring it to light because I was ashamed. I knew that the root cause of all this turmoil was my inordinate love of self, and it was a love that inevitably stood in the way of my accepting the greater Love.

This humility is no weak or negative thing. It is the most powerful thing in the world, for it is the key which unlocks the soul to grace. By ourselves we can do nothing to increase in us the supernatural love for which we were made, but by grace we help by removing that which is in the way of the divine love, namely, self-love. With every act of humility, every time we accept a humiliation lovingly, more of self is removed, and therefore there is more room for the divine love to dwell in the soul. The depth of the ocean depends upon the depth of the caverns that lie below, and the depth of supernatural love in a soul is exactly in proportion to the caverns that humility has wrought in the secret recesses of that soul. And so the Sacrament of Penance takes its place quite simply in the Little Way as the heavenly Father’s plan for emptying the soul of self-love, enabling the little one to take firm hold of His hand again. The soul that is really humble and empty of self-love, surrendered to the love of God, is the soul of which Jesus can take full possession and carry through difficulties and up to heights which otherwise the soul would find impossible. That is why humility is the most powerful thing in the world. —from The Message of St. Thérèse of Lisieux by Msgr. Vernon Johnson (emphasis mine)

Towards the end of 2013, a friend observed that quite a number from our community seemed to have struggled and suffered much during the Year of Faith. And it wasn’t the type of struggle that lets you come out feeling stronger and wiser, but rather the type that leaves you on your knees, helpless and aware of your own weakness, desperately clinging to the One who lifts up, sustains, redeems. And isn’t this the true test of faith–the destruction of our inflated belief in ourselves, and the magnification of our dependence on God?

If I have learned anything from my Year of Faith, it is that without Him, I can do nothing (John 15:5)–no good, no hope, no love.

So, do I have a “lucky” year ahead of me? Who knows. But what I do know is that I will not triumph by relying on my own strength. I move on from 2013 weaker, smaller and more helpless than before…and I have never been more grateful.

It is, then, about my weaknesses that I am happiest of all to boast, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me; and that is why I am glad of weaknesses, insults, constraints, persecutions and distress for Christ’s sake. For it is when I am weak that I am strong. —2 Corinthians 12:9b-10 

He still brings me flowers, Part 2

(To better understand this part of the story, read Part 1 here.)

Bride Of Christ

Realizing that my relationship with God could be likened to marriage opened so many doors for reflection and exploration. It was a profound eureka moment for me, understanding for the first time how the grace of this Sacrament enables us, as the catechism puts it, to help one another attain holiness in our married life (CCC #1641). I discovered that all this time, I had somehow felt that those who lived consecrated lives (religious, clergy) had an enormous advantage over those who were married when it came to aspiring holiness, an advantage that affords them almost a monopoly on sainthood. (Yes, I am aware that there are saints who were married, but when I tally the ones who were against those who weren’t, the other end of the seesaw easily touches the ground.) But beginning to see how the Sacrament not only works for you to bring your spouse and your children to Christ (which was easier for me to see), but as an actual means to lead you closer to God (I know this, but I think it is only now that I understand it), I felt this leveled the playing field somewhat.

Both the sacrament of Matrimony and virginity for the Kingdom of God come from the Lord himself. It is He who gives them meaning and grants them the grace which is indispensable for living them out in conformity with His will. Esteem of virginity for the sake of the kingdom and the Christian understanding of marriage are inseparable, and they reinforce each other…(CCC #1620)

I will surely expound more on this topic of Marriage as a path to holiness on later posts, but for the meantime, let me share with you a not-so-little gift I received last week.

This story is largely a continuation of Our Love Story, (Part 1 and Part 2) that is, mine and God’s. If you’ve read these previous posts, then perhaps you have an idea where I’m going with this. If you haven’t (or don’t have the time yet to read them), allow me to summarize as best I can.

At age 16, I decided to consecrate my youth to the Lord; a decision which, among other things, had me treating God as my significant other (or as any teen would call it, my boyfriend). Add to this my special relationship with St. Thérèse of Lisieux who constantly professed her being the “spouse of Christ,” I wanted nothing else but to follow in her manner of loving the Lord. I loved Jesus passionately, romantically, devotedly. And He made His presence felt in surprisingly miraculous and tangible ways (such as the time I received my Love Note From A Savior).

This is so much prettier than the ring I actually wore as a teen.

Admittedly though, when I got married, I was a bit confused. Was this right? Could I still love Jesus in the same way, now that I have a husband? I remember, during those early months of dating, whenever Peter would sincerely profess that he “loved me so much,” I would reply with a simpler “I love you.” I had been so used to saying “I love you so much” to Jesus, I wasn’t sure if it was right to say it to anyone else. I felt I needed to reserve that for Him.

Eventually though, I discovered new ways of relating to God–as Father, as Healer, as Provider, as Savior. None of them of lesser degree or import, but still worlds different from Lover.

During my months of spiritual darkness, I found myself longing desperately for that passionate, unreserved love from the days of my youth. At a time when I had felt so empty, so incapable of love, I presented this prayer to my dear friend Thérèse at every Tuesday novena at our parish: Bring me back to that Love again. I beg you. Let me love Him the way you loved Him. 

And this is why this revelation, that God calls me to love Him as faithfully as I would my husband, was mind-blowing for me. It was an answer to my prayer! It was God telling me that our love need not have changed. It was Thérèse showing me that it is possible to still be the spouse of Christ even as a married woman (we did start out as boyfriend and girlfriend, after all). It was Jesus bringing the romance back in our relationship.

And now, finally, we come to what happened a week ago.

What's in the box?

What’s in the box?

Last Monday, the 9th of September, I came home to a mystery package that was delivered to our home. I opened the long, white box, and found 3 exquisite, long-stemmed pink roses. Enclosed was a card with the following inscription:

God loves you, Pauline!

“If a little flower could speak, it seems to me that it would tell us quite simply all that God has done for it, without hiding any of its gifts. It would not, under the pretext of humility, say that it was not pretty, or that it had not a sweet scent, that the sun had withered its petals, or the storm bruised its stem, if it knew that such were not the case.” – St. Thérèse de Lisieux

The first thing that entered my mind was: “Who knows where I live?!!” But a moment or so after getting over various security implications, I began to see these flowers as they were.

Flowers from my Spouse in Heaven.

And Thérèse’s trademark for answered prayer.

“After my death, I will let fall a shower of roses. I will spend my heaven doing good upon earth. I will raise up a mighty host of little saints. My mission is to make God loved…” – (from Thérèse’s Story of a Soul)

The roses that were showered upon me.

The roses that were showered upon me.

P.S. I have since learned that the flowers were sent by a friend who also has a special devotion to St. Thérèse. But you will agree that knowing she sent them doesn’t make me marvel less at the value of this gift. The timing of the flowers’ arrival just a few days after experiencing this clear movement in prayer (which of course she had no way of knowing) still shows how our Romantic God had planned the whole thing.

Friends in High Places

One of the things I appreciate about being Catholic is the richness of our history and tradition. We can do most, if not all, of the things our non-Catholic Christian brothers and sisters do: daily prayer, praise and worship, Scripture reading and study, service in community. But our faith possesses a wealth of tools and resources unique to Catholicism: grace from the Sacraments (with the Eucharist topping that list), devotion to Mary, unity in obedience to the teachings of the Church, the wisdom of holy men and women past and present. One tenet I’ve especially come to treasure is that of the Communion of Saints.

Do you have a favorite saint?

As a child, I remember being fascinated by the stories I’d read from a series of books on the lives of saints. From this early exposure, I remember reading about St. Lawrence who bravely (and wittingly) told those who were burning him to turn him over as he was already “done” on one side, and St. Francis who renounced material possessions and lived with the animals in the forest (understand that as a kid, these were the details that struck me the most). I read of St. Maria Goretti and St. Tarcisius who, though very young, were brave enough to die for the faith. But even if I was told that I had to aspire to be like them, the one-page stories I read could very well have been fairy tales. Their stories were from a different time and place, and I couldn’t imagine anyone doing the great things they did in this day and age.

But their stories aren’t mere fantasies or legends. I only began to understand the beauty of their lives when I fell in love with God myself. Only then did their stories go from fantastical to inspirational–I wanted to love God, to follow and serve God as they did.

If we were to read the stories and writings of the Saints, and strive for holiness as they did, we would already have reaped a tremendous amount of benefit for our faith journey. But the more I got to know about these remarkable people, the more I felt drawn to forge something deeper than an intellectual knowledge of their life and work. I wanted more than just mentors–I wanted friends.

I thought, if I could speak to Jesus, in Heaven, as a friend, as a lover, and these Saints surely were in Heaven with Him, why couldn’t I speak with them as friends in the same manner? Surely I could freely tell them how their lives inspired me, how prayer can be such a struggle at times, and that I’m trying my best to exhibit the same discipline they did in their daily lives? Shouldn’t it be just as easy for me to ask them to pray for my intentions, as I would any other living-breathing Christian friend? The more I knew about them, the more I loved them, and felt their love and concern for me in return. At one point, after having gone on a pilgrimage visiting the homes of some Saints, I felt a blossoming relationship with each one, and believed that they were all in attendance every time I would go to pray. At the end of every prayer time, after my final word to my Savior, I would smile and say goodbye to my Heavenly circle of friends: Father Francis (of Assisi) and Mother Clare, Padre Anthony (of Padua), Mother Teresa (of Avila), Padre Pio, and my closest friend of all (so close that I’ve come to simply call her by her first name): Thérèse.

Thérèse, “The Little Flower”

My friendship with Thérèse (of LIsieux) began when I came across her famous autobiography Story of a Soul while researching for a term paper in High School. I had just offered my youth to the Lord, and was happily discovering true joy in loving God as passionately as my romance-obsessed teenaged heart would allow. Reading about how deeply in love with God Thérèse was, I felt I had found a kindred spirit! With most of my friends from school thinking me strange whenever I would say I was so in love with God, and that I considered Him my boyfriend, I felt I had finally found someone who understood me completely. So convinced was I that our love stories were similar that I believed I would also romantically/tragically die of Tuberculosis at age 24. I shared with her my feelings and struggles, about how I was so in love with Christ, and I imagined her nodding in agreement, always as giddy and swooning as I was.

Thérèse had become such a special friend that when I saw a poster announcing that her relics were touring the world, the Philippines included, I said a quick prayer, telling my friend that I would love to go see her, and if she could please make a way for it to happen.

But because I didn’t care to write down the dates and places listed on the poster, I missed all my chances to visit her relics here.

Oh, how jealous I was when some friends shared that they were able to visit her! And they spared no details in telling me of how big an effort it was (though it was all worth it, I’m sure) with the deluge of pilgrims that flocked to see her: the long queues, the traffic, the difficulty parking. I was jealous, but guilty, too. I felt I had let a friend down by not visiting her while she was in town.

Around 2 months later, I was with my mom on a pilgrimage for the Jubilee year (2000). After visiting the Vatican to attend some festivities, our group went on to see other pilgrimage sites of note in Italy and some neighboring countries. En route to one of these destinations, our itinerary included a quick half-day stopover in Assisi, home of St. Francis and St. Clare.

The breathtaking Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy

The Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi was obviously a must-go. The enormous, clean-looking structure (refreshingly bright compared to most darker-toned churches in Europe) had an inexplicably peaceful atmosphere that kind of felt like an open invitation for visitors to come in and pray (which, considering the number of pilgrims and tourists that bustle through the city any given day, is saying something). The viewing of the crypt where St. Francis’ (and his band of brothers’) remains lay entails going down a basement, following a continuous line once around the room, then going up through an exit that takes you to the other end of the vast basilica.

Solemnly making my way through the crypt, praying silently to Father Francis, I was unprepared for what I was about to find waiting for me as I made my way up and out of the crypt exit. There, visiting for one day only, were the traveling relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. On the exact day my group was to visit Assisi. No queue. No traffic. No difficulty parking.

Amazed and overjoyed, I couldn’t hold back my tears. I slowly walked over to the empty pew right in front of her relics (I wasn’t kidding, no queue at all), knelt down, and just wept for a good few minutes. There were no words–there was no need for them. I knew in my heart that she considered me just as much a friend as I did her. That even if I forgot about my promise to visit her, she never did.

My dearest Thérèse, thank you for remembering. Till we meet again.