The Waiting is the Cross (Edel Gathering 2017)
This past weekend, I had the privilege of speaking to 300 women at the Edel Gathering, which (to put it mildly) is not your average Catholic women's conference. Thanks so much to Jen Fulwiler and Hallie Lord for asking me to speak and giving me the opportunity to share the miracles the Lord has done in my life. Below is the text version of the talk I gave on Saturday, which is slightly different from the actual talk I gave (because, #HolySpirit), but I wanted to make it available on the blog for anyone who wasn't able to come, or who wanted to have easy access to the Pope Benedict quotes I used. :) The audio should be available soon, and when it is, I will be sure to share it. In the meantime, thank you, thank you, thank you to all of the beautiful women of Edel: you were such a gracious audience, and I so enjoyed our conversations after the talk!
A couple of years ago, I read Colleen Carroll Campbell's spiritual memoir My Sisters, the Saints (which I now recommend to pretty much every woman I meet), and I was struck by a conversation between Colleen and her mother, recounted towards the end of the book. Colleen and her husband struggled with the cross of infertility for several years after they married, and the waiting weighed heavily on them:
"I can accept the cross of never having children," I told my mother once. "It's the waiting, the not knowing, that's driving me crazy."
"The waiting is the cross," she answered.
I remember practically bursting into tears when I read that, because it resonated so powerfully with me at a time in my life (I was 31 and still very single) where I wondered if I would ever get married. And I think her mother's insight is a powerful one: the waiting is the cross. The not-knowing is the cross.
Today, I want to share with you how I learned to carry the cross of waiting with joyful hope. It took many years, and I made lots of mistakes along the way, but it did happen--and it can happen for you too, regardless of what it is you're waiting for.
I want to avoid trite phrases and platitudes as much as I can in this talk, which is a difficult thing to do when you’re talking about waiting on God, patience, vocation, prayer, etc. When I was single for the entirety of my twenties, my longest period of painful waiting to date, SO many well-meaning friends and family told me that “God’s timing is perfect” or “You just need to stop looking, and you’ll find him” or “God is teaching you patience.”
Let me tell you: that wasn’t helpful.
I didn’t need to be reminded that God has different timing from mine. I had daily proof of that, and not just in my romantic life (or lack thereof). I don’t want to go out on a limb and say that I’m THE most impatient woman you’ll ever meet, but I honestly don’t think I’d be exaggerating if I did.
When I was a little girl, I couldn’t WAIT to be older. When I was in junior high, I couldn’t WAIT to go to high school. When I was in high school, I couldn’t WAIT to go to college. And in some ways, that waiting was easy, because there was a definite time frame for it. I knew that after four years of high school, I would go to college. And I did. But the difficult waiting comes when we don’t know the time frame--and can’t possibly know it.
When it came to my vocation, I had no idea how long I would have to wait. When I was in high school, I pictured myself getting married at 22, and having kids shortly thereafter (deep down, I was terrified of marriage and children for all kinds of reasons, but I still desired it). So, when I got to college graduation with not even an ex-boyfriend to show for all of my hoping and praying to meet my future husband at Notre Dame, I freaked out. Clearly, this meant that there was something deeply wrong with me. So many of my other friends were getting married, or were seriously dating someone. Why wasn’t I?
And of course, I could think of dozens of things that were wrong with me. I wasn’t thin enough. My acne still hadn’t cleared up. I was “too much” for the average man to handle. My standards were too high. I wasn’t lovable. I wasn’t desirable. I wasn’t enough.
It was at this point, as I transitioned from college into grad school, that I began to make an idol out of the vocation to marriage. In my mind, marriage meant validation that I was enough, that I was worthy of love, and beautiful, and worth pursuing, etc. Of course, I still paid lip service to the idea that I could only be truly fulfilled in Christ, but I didn’t really believe it.
We all have these kinds of idols, I think. Now that I’m married and pregnant with our first child, it’s so tempting to make an idol out of his health, his happiness, my “perfection” as a mother. I’m tempted to make an idol of our family, of my husband, of my ability to be a good wife. You name it, I’ve probably made an idol of it. But, like Adam and Eve in the garden, grasping at godliness, what these idols point to is a fear that God doesn’t really love me and want what’s best for me.
This is the fear that has plagued me for most of my life, and acting out of that fear has led to some poor decision making (to put it mildly).
If I had really believed and trusted in God’s love for me--in his plan for me--in his perfect timing, I would not have been scared out of my mind of the possibility that Jesus might force me to become a nun if I got too close to him.
If I had really believed and trusted in God’s love for me, I wouldn’t have chased after a guy who didn’t actually love me and stayed emotionally attached to him for almost nine years (even while I was dating other guys).
If I had really believed and trusted in God’s love for me, I wouldn’t have stayed in an abusive relationship for three months when I was 25--simply because I was afraid that if we broke up, it meant that I’d never find anyone else.
If I had really believed and trusted in God’s love for me, I wouldn’t have let a guy who was still unsure of his vocation string me along until he decided I was worth pursuing.
If I had really believed and trusted in God’s love for me, I wouldn’t have dated and broken up with a man--TWICE--who I knew (both times) deep down wasn’t the man for me.
During those years, basically from 21 to 31, I wasn’t actually waiting. I was grasping and clawing and trying desperately to make things happen for myself. I was trying to turn stones into bread. I was trying to be my own god.
I remember at one point in my 20s reading this from Benedict XVI (one of my favorite human beings in the history of the world):
“Love is the soul’s true nourishment, yet this food which of all substances we most need is not something we can produce for ourselves. One must wait for it. The only way to make absolutely certain that one will not receive it is to insist on procuring it by oneself. And once again, this essential dependence can generate anger. Conversely, we can accept this situation of dependence, and keep ourselves trustingly open to the future, in the confidence that the Power which has so determined us will not deceive us.” (Source)
I remember thinking that it was so true, but that I didn’t know how to wait and accept “this situation of dependence” on God. It seemed impossible. Why?
My immediate thought was that I was a horrible Christian who was simply too sinful to trust in God. And while it is true that I'm a sinner and a bad Christian (a lot of the time--thank God for Confession), the real reasons why trusting God even a little bit seemed so impossible to me had its origins in my psychological and emotional issues:
I had a clinical anxiety disorder, coupled with bouts of depression--and I didn't get on the medication that I needed until I was 31. Not exactly a recipe for clear thinking, discernment, or a healthy prayer life.
I had unresolved trauma from my childhood that made it very difficult for me to believe that I was good, lovable, worthy of pursuing, etc, and made me much more vulnerable to entering into unhealthy relationships. Yes, I was in therapy and spiritual direction off and on during that decade. And I do think that was good, even though I definitely didn’t make the most out of it. I was keeping so much of my pain and my fear hidden because I was afraid of admitting it--even to my therapist or spiritual director.
How could I, a high school theology teacher, a daily communicant, admit that I didn’t trust God with my life? How could I admit that I thought I could plan my life better than my heavenly Father? How could I express my fear that 1) I would never get married (because no one would want to marry me) and 2) if I did meet someone someday, I wouldn’t be able to be vulnerable to him.
Simply put: I didn’t and wasn’t able to admit any of these things to myself, to my therapist/spiritual director, or to the Lord until the age of 31. The demon of perfectionism had too strong a hold on me.
So, what did I do instead? I avoided the truth about myself like the plague. And I got really creative with how I did this.
*Note: At no point did I consciously think to myself: I’m going to avoid my interior pain and fear and anxiety by doing these things. The things I did are common avoidant strategies and I didn’t realize how dependent I’d become on them until a few years ago when I went back to therapy.
I moved from Austin to DC, convinced that in such a mecca for young Catholic adults, I would find my future husband. When that didn’t work after three years, I moved to Phoenix, in part to escape the depression and anxiety that I blamed on living in DC. And while the Lord used both of my moves to bless me abundantly with new friendships and experiences, I quickly found out that wherever you go, there you are. I couldn’t escape myself.
I blamed my anxiety and depression on everything I could think of: the fact that I was single and all of my friends (and siblings) were getting married before me. The fact that I had to fight to be authentically Catholic in the Catholic high schools where I taught. The fact that the average Catholic man in his 20s-30s was a man-child who didn’t know what he wanted. (Thankfully, I finally realized that my anxiety wasn’t situational and got on meds at the age of 31, which helped a ton but didn’t magically make my problems go away.)
I avoided silence, because in silence I would hear things that scared me or made me uncomfortable. I went to daily Mass and spent lots of time in prayer in quiet chapels and churches, but I always had a book or an endless string of petitions to keep true silence at bay.
When I was home by myself, I filled the silence with music and Netflix and reading. I talked to my girlfriends about some of my struggles, but kept so much buried deep, deep down in the dark places of my heart.
I went to young adult event after young adult event. Party after party. I signed up for online dating, and then would panic and cancel my account after a few bad dates. I begged God in tears many, many times for a husband. I prayed more St. Anne and St. Raphael novenas than I can count. And none of these things are bad in themselves--it was the fact that my motivation to do all of them was fear and control that made them so toxic.
Finally, in the summer of 2015, I reached a breaking point. Long story short: I was living in Steubenville for the summer, in an attempt to make a relationship work. The man I was dating was, in many ways, the best man I had ever dated. And this was the second time around for us. Part of me wanted it to work out so badly because I was tired of waiting and terrified of breaking his heart again. And part of me--the stronger part, it turns out--knew that it would never work because he simply wasn’t the right man for me. I broke up with him a month after my temporary move to Steubenville, and began the long drive back to Phoenix by myself.
During that drive, I had a lot of time to think, and I had been so humbled by the breakup that the Holy Spirit was able to speak to me in a new way. At first, I wondered if I was capable of a healthy relationship with anyone. Wouldn’t it just be better if I stayed single for the rest of my life? At least then, I wouldn’t hurt good men anymore.
It suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks that *I* was the common denominator in all of my failed relationships. Not to say that the guys I dated didn’t have their own issues (they did), but what did it say about me that I kept choosing men who couldn’t commit, or were abusive, or were emotionally 12 years old, or who just weren’t right for me?
En route back to Phoenix, I called my therapist in Austin. She suggested that I read the book Attachments: Why You Love, Feel, and Act the Way You Do by Dr. Tim Clinton and Gary Sibcy. She also suggested that I find a therapist in Phoenix who specialized in Attachment issues and childhood trauma. She knew that there was a LOT that I had never told her in our sessions and that I was finally ready to get real and get healed.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that this book changed my life. Through it, I realized that so much of my difficulty with waiting on the Lord, so many of my struggles in relationships with men, had to do with my attachment issues--particularly my attachment to my parents and to my Heavenly Father. I didn’t see God as a safe haven. I didn’t really trust him. And I needed to admit that if I was ever going to heal.
Over the next six months, I went to therapy weekly. I went to spiritual direction with an amazing priest who didn’t let me get away with vague platitudes about trusting in God or waiting on his timing. I started to get real with both my therapist and the Lord. I started to spend time in ACTUAL silence with the Lord at a monastery outside of Phoenix. It was insanely difficult at first, because I realized that the thing I was most avoiding in the silence was my fear of death. I had to face that if I was ever going to be able to let go of my fear of not getting married. And I did. And the Lord spoke to my heart in the desert, and created a new intimacy between us that was so healing.
My spiritual director, Fr. Keith, taught me how to "Pray Like a Pirate." I don't remember where he said he learned this technique, but I can tell you that it has revolutionized my prayer life. The pirate reference is apropos because the acronym for this style of prayer is ARRR:
Acknowledge your feelings.
Relate them to the Lord.
Receive what he desires to give you.
Respond to him in gratitude and love.
In therapy, I learned to recognize and name my emotions for what seemed like the first time in my life, and in my prayer time, I actually shared my feelings with the Lord, the good and the bad. Sometimes I would journal as soon as I woke up, in the middle of the day in the school chapel, and then before I went to bed at night. Many times, I’d be in tears. I told the Lord that I was angry with him; that I was disappointed that I wasn't married yet; that I didn't understand why he was making me wait; that it was so hard to believe he loved me. This was a HUGE departure from the "perfect Catholic girl" prayers I was used to praying. It was a painful journey, but such an important one. I felt like, after almost three decades of daily prayer, I was finally learning how to talk to the Lord like he was a friend. (I still pray like this, just not three times a day...usually).
I learned to identify my avoidant behaviors: the things I did when I didn’t want to face an uncomfortable feeling. I stopped watching so many Gilmore Girls reruns. I stopped buying so many clothes I didn’t need. I started spending more intentional time with my girlfriends whose company and conversation was life giving. Thanks to the healing I'd experienced from my anxiety, I had more emotional energy to invest in the people that I loved, so I started writing letters and cards to friends and family, just for fun. I read a lot of good books--not to escape, but to challenge myself and enrich my life. And it was during this time that I realized that I’m more of an introvert than an extrovert: it turns out what I always thought of as my “extreme extroversion” was in part a way of avoiding silence and being alone.
The second half of 2015 was a time of pruning and purification for me. It was when I finally learned to wait in joyful hope for whatever the Lord had in store for me. I actually was able to let go of my fear of not getting married--my fear of being forced into the convent--and see those fears for what they were: temptations from the Evil One, who wanted me to doubt God’s love for me.
I got to the point at the end of 2015 where I was open to the possibility that I would be single for the rest of my life--and I trusted the Lord enough to believe that he could satisfy me no matter what my state in life was. Don’t get me wrong: I still deeply desired marriage, but it wasn’t a frantic, idolatrous desire anymore. Waiting still felt like a cross at times, but it wasn’t a self-made cross anymore. It was one that the Lord was carrying with me.
In the day-to-day, this looked like me actually enjoying being single, taking advantage of all of my free time by spending it in prayer, reading, and serving. I felt a new freedom to simply live my life and not worry (too much) about the future. There’s no other word for it but grace.
And then, on January 31, 2016, my mom called me and told me that she’d met “the perfect guy” for me after Mass. I rolled my eyes, because the last time she met “the perfect guy”, he was 16 years older than me and I ended up dating and breaking up with him twice. So, I laughed and thought nothing of it...it’s not like this guy was going to DO anything about it!
But I underestimated my future husband...until he added me as a friend on Facebook that night. And then sent me a message. And then called me the next day. And then suggested we Skype that Wednesday. And then flew out to Phoenix that Saturday to take me on a date. Yes, this all happened in a week.
And the rest, as they say, is history. By May of 2016, I was reasonably certain that Kristian was the man I was called to marry, so I quit my job at the only Catholic high school that I’d ever truly enjoyed working at, and I moved back to Austin. Two months later, we were engaged. Five months later, we were married. Two months after that, we were pregnant. It was like the Lord squeezed an entire decade’s worth of life milestones into one year. And the freedom I’ve found in living my vocation is something I can hardly put into words: friends and family have noticed that I laugh more easily (and loudly), that I seem more comfortable with myself than ever before, that the frantic, controlling perfectionist in me is at peace...most of the time.
Part of me hesitates to end with this account of 2016, aka The Most Epic Year of My Life thus far, because I don’t want it to sound like my waiting is over. OR that if you go to therapy and spiritual direction and pray in a certain way, the Lord will give you whatever it is you’ve been waiting for. Sometimes, the Lord doesn’t give us what we desire--and I can’t explain why he chose to bring Kristian into my life or allow us to conceive so quickly. These are gifts; I don’t deserve them, I didn’t earn them, and I can’t give anyone else a formula for getting them.
Instead, I’m going to close with a reflection on why God makes us wait from none other than Papa Benny, in my favorite encyclical of all time, Spe Salvi.
“Saint Augustine, in a homily on the First Letter of John, describes very beautifully the intimate relationship between prayer and hope. He defines prayer as an exercise of desire. Man was created for greatness—for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched. “By delaying [his gift], God strengthens our desire; through desire he enlarges our soul and by expanding it he increases its capacity [for receiving him]”.
This stretching hurts, especially when we resist it. But it’s so, so important. On my wedding day, an aunt of mine who works at a Catholic church in San Antonio as a DRE/wedding coordinator told me that of all the brides she’s ever seen, I was the happiest. And I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that my happiness was so radiant that day because I had to wait. My heart (and Kristian’s) had been expanded by the Lord in the waiting, and it’s made our first seven months as a married couple a taste of heaven.
My prayer for each of you here is that you will allow God to expand your heart as you wait--no matter what it is you’re waiting for. I pray that you can learn to really, truly trust that He wants to give you everything you need, and that He will. I pray that you can be consoled by the fact that ultimately, we are all waiting for heaven--and that our wait won’t be over until death. And I pray that we can all believe that while it is true that we are always living in a sort of existential Advent, the Lord is first of all waiting for us:
But not only are we restless for God: God’s heart is restless for us. God is waiting for us. He is looking for us. He knows no rest either, until he finds us. God’s heart is restless, and that is why he set out on the path towards us – to Bethlehem, to Calvary, from Jerusalem to Galilee and on to the very ends of the earth. God is restless for us, he looks out for people willing to "catch" his unrest, his passion for us, people who carry within them the searching of their own hearts and at the same time open themselves to be touched by God’s search for us. (Papa Benny, again. Source)
Let the Lord find you, sisters. In the midst of your waiting, in the midst of your pain, in the midst of your fear. Let him find you. It is then that authentic Christian waiting begins.
Wait for the LORD, take courage;
be stouthearted, wait for the LORD! (Psalm 27:14)