When a dear friend asked me to write this months ago (back in 2020 months ago), I thought, "sure, life will calm down by then, and I'll find time for that." At this point, we were about eight months into a pandemic, and I didn't know it was possible to have so much going on while spending so much time alone. At the time, I was living in Cleveland, OH, and I now live in St. Louis, MO. Yes. You could say things did not calm down.
My relocating could be described as overwhelming. I say this as someone who hadn't lived very far outside of Terre Haute city lines for the first 22 years of her life. The furthest I made it out of Terre Haute was only as far as Le Fer Hall at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC), about 10 minutes on the other side of the river. Living in Cleveland felt pretty far for me. 6 hours away from everyone that I knew and who knew me. Far from anyone who knew the victories I had made and the crosses I carried along the way.
I moved to Cleveland the summer after I graduated from undergrad at SMWC. This move was the first time I felt I was outside of a faith community's relative comfort and safety. Having grown up attending a Catholic elementary school, then a Catholic school again in college, I seemed to have an abundance of faith formation groups, weekend retreats, and friends ready to talk and pray at my disposal. In college primarily, my faith identity was founded so much in the community of SMWC. Additionally, often that was through also my involvement in the St. Joseph's University Ministry.
It was a bit of a shock to my system to find myself in a new state and city and not always have people go to mass with or even just a friend to go to a Theology on Tap / Uncorked event. I found myself sampling churches, events, and young adult groups searching for the community I had always had before. I met great people, joined a wonderful church, and went to some fantastic events, but in the end, it seemed to me that part of the plan in Cleveland was to be alone.
Now, not that I was ever really alone, but I learned so much in this time about it what it meant to be on my own and especially what it meant to be on my own with God. Instead of sitting in a roomful of college students praying in Adoration or on retreat, I found myself sitting, kneeling in a small Adoration chapel I found in a church near my house. Instead of singing praise and worship music with friends, I found myself singing on my own in the car. I found myself praying near a creek in a park on my drive to church and finding a million small ways to be with God on my own. I found a new part of myself and my relationship with God.
It was not always easy; I spent a lot of time wishing for my faith community back. It usually took a lot of courage each time I showed up to an event on my own. But each time I did, even though I was joining and sharing in faith with other people, I learned a little bit more about how to be on my own. In Christ, alone.
I know full well that it is possible to be in a room full of people you love and to feel alone. I also know that you can be in an empty space and feel completely loved. In Christ, alone.
Through knowing Christ, we never truly are alone. For me, it took some time on my own to know that. We must come to learn that being alone isn't always a bad thing and to see that we are with Christ, even when we are alone.
We always will need and rely on our faith communities. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Philippians 4:14, which follows a very well-known verse: Philippians 4:13. It says, "I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me." Right after it, though, Philippians 4:14 says, "Still, it was kind of you to share in my distress." (NRSVCE)
I have always loved the sentiment that we need our friends, family, and peers in hardship. I have often leaned on my faith community in my distress and will many times in the future. Still, it is in Christ alone we find the strength we need.
I leave you with a favorite hymn of mine of the same title as this reflection. Just a tiny change, and suddenly "In Christ, Alone" means something very different and something very beautiful.
"In Christ alone my hope is found;
As Catholics, we are called to be saintly, and we should model our lives on that of Jesus Christ. As stated in Matthew 5:48, "be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect" (NRSVCE). As we strive to be holy, we have others who have lived a holy life like the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, and the disciples, amongst others, and can help us in our path to holiness. As I look at the saints, their lives, and their path to holiness, one that has always drawn my attention has been St. Oscar Romero.
Oscar Romero was born in Cuidad Barrios, El Salvador on 15th of August 1917. As a Salvadoran myself, I always grew up knowing about him even before he was canonized. His influence on El Salvador's nation started when he became archbishop of San Salvador and continues as he prays for each of us today. When Romero became archbishop of San Salvador, it was in the midst of the civil war in El Salvador. During times of war, he preached love and forgiveness.
"Let us not tire of preaching love; it is the force that will overcome the world."
Just as our Lord and Catholic social teaching tell us, Romero was an advocate for the poor. He would regift presents to those who needed them. His brother tells a story of Romero receiving some shoes, but instead of switching them out and using the new shoes, he decides to give the new shoes away to the gardener as he had noticed their shoes were very worn out. Romero was a humble servant of God and loved what Jesus preached about helping the poor.
During the civil war in El Salvador, Romero was very outspoken against violence. He would preach, saying that brothers and sisters in Christ should not harm each other. Even more brazenly, they do not have to follow their superiors' orders if those orders conflict with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Thou shalt not kill. He would preach from the pulpit. His words were so radical that there were death threats. On March 24, 1980, Romero was assassinated as he was celebrating a late evening Mass. While he raised the Eucharist in the air, immediately after the consecration, a bullet was fired from outside the small chapel as Romero was in the middle of the altar. He was struck in the heart. Hundreds of thousands mourned his death; however, millions still hear his words.
On May 23, 2015, Romero was beatified in San Salvador and became recognized as a martyr for the Faith. On October 14, 2018, in St Peter's Square, Pope Francis proclaimed Oscar Arnulfo Romero a saint. For the occasion, the Pope chose to wear the same blood-stained belt that Romero was wearing at the altar when he died.
As I examine Romero's life, I find it incredible how not afraid he was. He knew that if he kept telling the truth, those opposed would be unhappy with him, and yet he spoke the word of God. He knew God had a plan for him, and he would be on Earth just as long God wanted no longer, no less. Each of us must have faith in our God, who has a plan for each of us. We do not know what it might be, but we should open our hearts and listen. We should daily give thanks to God that we get to spend time with our friends and family and our church community.
As you continue on your week, remember that on March 24, we celebrate the life of a saint that died preaching what he loved, the words of Christ Jesus. Oscar Romero was not afraid of being outspoken even in the darkest of times.
As we remember Romero's life and Catholic teachings on his feast day, let us ponder on some of his words, "Aspire not to have more, but to be more." – Saint Oscar Arnulfo Romero.
May God bless you!
PS. If you are interested in learning more about Romero, there is a movie titled Romero.
Fun fact: Romero is also one of the ten 20th-century martyrs depicted in statues above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey in London.
We know God’s will for all of us:
“It pleased God, in his goodness and wisdom, to reveal himself and to make known the mystery of his will. His will was that men should have access to the Father, through Christ, the Word made flesh, in the Holy Spirit, and thus become sharers in the divine nature.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 51).
But what about God’s will for each of us? Few have received God’s call as clearly as Mary or Joseph; for most of us, God reveals himself in glimpses and seeds planted throughout our lifetime. Be wary, however! Glimpses may happen when we least expect it, and those seeds may appear in places we least suspect. For me, these things came about in the most unlikely of things: a tea leaf.
In the Summer of 2017, after I was called into the Catholic Church before I began RCIA, I entered into a deliberate self-reflection period, reevaluating my life. I began sifting through my past, hunting for those seeds, searching for those glimpses. When I recalled my days in Scotland half a lifetime ago, a great longing for tea came over me. It was something at that time that had been such an essential part of my daily life, and I wanted to put my mind back in that time of happiness. I could not have anticipated what that longing would reveal to me, but that’s usually how things go: if you are open to God’s calling, he may reveal himself in the smallest of things. Tea was something I simply enjoyed, I didn’t know it would come to occupy a significant portion of my life.
I decided to start selling tea myself, and it completely consumed me. The more I studied it, the more I loved it. Its history and culture; in the West wars have been fought over it, intellectual revolutions in the East have been triggered. The people in the industry were just as multifaceted as any other, with the soulless corporations on one end and on the other people fighting to protect small farmers from them. Nevertheless, when I began studying the tea leaf itself, how it is processed, how it is prepared, and how it is savored, a change took place in me.
What surprised me the most: all tea comes from the same leaf. It’s how the leaf is processed that determines what type it will become. One tea, in particular, captivated me. It is a type of tea that, after it’s harvested, it is then sorted, shaken, tumbled, bruised, cooked, rolled, dried, then rolled again and again until it reaches its final form, a tightly rolled ball; and after that, they still weren’t done with it, they roasted it as well. I remembered preparing this tea for the first time and being mesmerized at how this tiny little ball unfurled back to its original size. As it unraveled, the leaf began to reveal itself, with all its wrinkles, bruises, cuts, and tears. I remember cradling one of these leaves in my palm, looking at it with great compassion, thinking, “you poor thing, look what you had to go through.”
There is an expression (primarily British) in the tea trade used to describe this unfurling: The Agony of the Leaf. When the tea leaf rehydrates in water, it softens and begins to uncurl; with hot water, the leaf looks like it is convulsing like it is in agony. In this agony, the leaf begins to release its nutrients and lets loose all its flavor, color, and strength. It is a beautiful sight, watching the tea leaf return to life; but it was a new life, one where a lowly leaf reaches its true potential. Through this leaf’s agony, its transformation, where we are rewarded with something that for us is so nutritious, so comforting, so enjoyable.
I was a few months into RCIA when these revelations were happening. At this time in my conversion, I was re-orienting my entire self toward God, and as simple an act as making a cup of tea suddenly has a profoundly deep meaning to it. Not coincidentally, we were then studying the Passion of Christ, which began with the Agony in the Garden. Through the Passion and subsequent Resurrection, we gained access to the Father and became “sharers in the divine nature.” Jesus Christ suffered in a way none of us will ever experience, but it was necessary. Christ was without sin. Both human and divine, thus making his sacrifice Holy and all-encompassing. We have to make a sacrifice as well, but are we prepared for what that involves?
At the time, I could not grasp the agony and suffering of Christ, and I still can’t fully. I know if I do, it would tear me apart, shatter me into a thousand pieces, and I cannot claim that has happened yet. A tea leaf though, helped me reach a better understanding of that sacrifice. When the leaf is harvested, it then goes through a torturous process where it is effectively killed, then it gains a new life with water, fully transformed. We must share in Christ’s suffering: we, too, must be fully transformed. God gave me a glimpse of what that sacrifice entails in a tea leaf, and yet I know it pales in comparison to even what I have to go through to fulfill His will for me. A life chosen in service of God will - to say the least - not be easy.
However, we must choose it and choose sacrifice daily for the sake of our precious Lord. The greatest lesson that the tea leaf has taught me is that there are only two lives to live. Either you fulfill your basic biological function, wither, die, and return to the earth; or, before you return to the earth, you are harvested, suffer, die, transformed, and gain a new life, where your potential is fully realized. I remind myself daily, that I must choose the latter. I pray for the courage to endure the same The Agony of the Leaf, and be continually transformed by Christ.
I was born and raised Catholic. My faith is essential to me and remains a large part of my life. Growing up, I went to church with my family every Sunday. We always helped out the community as often as needed. I went to a youth group in addition to attending a Catholic School. Despite all of this, there was a small piece of me that knew I was missing something. I did not pay much attention to this desire that went unsatisfied. As I grew into adulthood, I realized that I had to listen to that small voice and determine what my faith desperately lacked.
Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another. (Proverbs 27:17, NRSVCE)
Then, in high school, I went on a TEC retreat (Teens Encounter Christ), and I found that missing piece! That missing piece was a place to help my faith grow with people who would help me along my faith journey. After attending the TEC retreat, I met other people who attended TEC retreats and founded a community. This community was going to help my faith grow to its potential. My faith was not something I would be able to grow by myself, and I needed help from others to cultivate what others had already sown into the soil of my soul. This group of people engaged and supported my desire to connect more deeply to Christ and his Church.
This TEC community was centrally located in my hometown region of Indiana. When I went to college, I was no longer close to that community of people. They were vital to me. I did participate in events when I came home from college some weekends. Still, that tiny voice, growing concerns about my relationship with Christ, began to reappear. As I started college, I again noticed this ever-present need at the center of my life. But, what was it? I went to church every Sunday. I had friends who helped me be a better person in faith. Additionally, I participated in campus ministry as a part of the community at SMWC.
While attending SMWC, I started looking more into my faith, but from a different perspective. I wanted to become intimately closer to Christ, but I was not sure how I could do that. It is at this point that I felt called to discern becoming a religious sister. The more I looked into it, the more that missing piece started to fade. I thought I was being called to the religious life. Even when talking to some Sisters of Providence (SP) they asked me, “Why don’t you become an SP?” I gave them the same answer - I was discerning it. One day, I went to a college youth group called Maximize Your Faith connected to Saint Joseph University Parish. The first time I went, I realized two extraordinary aspects of this community. The first being my life has changed because of the people I met. The second discovery: I found that missing piece. I needed a place to help my faith once again. I needed a diverse community to continue to push me to become the person I was being called to be. I was in a new stage of my faith journey, and I needed to be spiritually fed at this new stage. After that first Maximize Your Faith, I no longer felt the call to become a sister. That feeling or small voice was just a sign for me to keep searching in the right direction toward an intimate christ-centered community.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (Mathew 5:6, NRSVCE)
After graduating college, I am again missing the gift of Christian fellowship inside a thriving community. That small voice again suggests something is missing, and it may be more than just one piece missing. I moved away from my home town and away from SMWC, to live with my husband. With the pandemic going on right now, my husband and I do not feel comfortable going to church in person. The public act of worshipping our God in a community is something that we both miss very much. Watching mass online is not the same and lacks the Eucharistic reception in person, and I feel that it could be one missing piece. I also miss engaging in a christ-centered community in high school and college, where I actively grew in my faith more. I feel as if that is another missing piece.
I want an organization like the TEC community or the Maximize faith group, where I live now. I may need to initiate the start of such a group in my local community, post-pandemic. The pandemic makes these two missing pieces hard to fill. But, with it being Lent, I have started a way I can help build my faith. I have the “Best Lent Ever Journal.” With this journal, I listen to a video and write in the journal. It is a way for me to be held accountable for my faith journey. I don’t think this isn’t exactly what will fill these missing pieces in my spiritual practice, but it is a start.
I challenge you to look into your life:
Do you have a missing piece that God is prompting you to fill with renewed prayer practices?
How can you enable Christ to fulfill his work within you?
How can he fill those missing pieces?
8 O taste and see that the Lord is good;