This is the story of my ascent out of brokenness and into the arms of mercy. Through suffering, God tore down the walls of what I knew and made something more beautiful than I imagined. I know this, if you think you know God and have put him in a box for your comfort, you need to break open the box and see how much more God has in store for you. God’s love really can’t be fathomed.
I am what they call a cradle Catholic. I have grew up going to church, attended Catholic schools, and generally been involved in Church activities or teaching in some way shape or form all of my life. For many years, God was packaged nicely in a box of my own forming. In 2010 though, I had an awakening. It was as if I went from the idea of Christ to a friend of Christ. If you knew me before then, you would have said, she is a good Christian girl, but I was going through the motions doing what was asked. Looking back now, I was missing so much.
I had already begun learning much more about my Catholic heritage by taking the catechesis classes from Aquinas College and I was amazed at my lack of understanding of the beauty of the church. I found myself thinking that I had bought into some of how the media portrays our Catholic faith, as a set of rigid non loving rules that suck the fun out of life, but the classes were starting to open my eyes to that false narrative. It was also during this time that my son was enrolled in a Catholic school in our Diocese. In August of 2010, about a week before school started the Priest at the school my son was going to went on the internet and said things contrary to Catholic teaching. I found myself angry. I pulled my son out of the school and asked for a refund of what had been paid for the coming year.
I was attacked online by some people for pulling my son out and for not seeing how great and modern the Priest was. I was in anguish. I cried and cried. But the thing is, I knew what the Priest did was wrong, yet one of the things he said was okay was a thing I was practicing; Birth Control. I was standing up against this preaching, but I was living a lie myself. In my pride I had been convinced of my rightness. I had no humility. I thought myself right, not wanting to look at 2000 years of Holy Spirit inspired teachings, as if the Holy Spirit had somehow stopped inspiration when this modern idea presented itself. When I think of it now, it’s as if I was looking up at the God Man who was hanging on the Cross for my sins and saying to Him, “you can’t possibly know how hard it is.” I was ashamed. But I still wasn’t ready to change.
As I cried and felt isolated I knew I was angry for a reason. Because I knew deep down in my heart that the teachings of the church were correct and I had chosen to live with what the world taught. I felt like a hypocrite. I started to read more. I read Pope Paul VI’s Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae, and I was astounded by the prophetic words the Pope uttered about Birth Control; he spoke of divorce, abortion, infidelity, moral decline, an anti-child mentality. He had hit the nail on the head. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Still, this was so hard, my husband and I had made mistakes. Could God forgive me? I looked at my 3 young beautiful children, I knew the encyclical was right, the world looks at them as a burden, but they are a gift.
Throughout this time of turmoil, I felt isolated because I had pulled my son out of a school and disagreed with a Priest that was so beloved by so many. And please understand, I pray for this Priest. I wish nothing but love for him. But I thought he was leading his flock astray. The Bishop stepped in and the Priest apologized. But MY life, was now seemingly filled with anxiety and isolation. Most people I knew at the school agreed with the Priest and were angry at the Bishop, save a few in my circle. There was one person at the school in particular who I was surprised did not judge me harshly for leaving. In fact, she invited me and my son over, and that was my friend, Veronica. Though I have no idea how she felt about what the Priest did, she did not judge me for my decision and she still wanted our boys to stay friends even though they would now be at different schools. In fact, even though I knew she was separated from her husband, she never spoke ill of her husband either. She was dignified and respectful. Though I am sure she had closer friends she probably confided in, she never oozed the bitterness I often see in separated and divorced couples. I believe she was truly a Christian in my heart, by how she treated people.
On August 28, 2010, just a mere 3 weeks after the Priest went on the internet, Veronica called me and asked if my son could spend the night at her house. Though I had allowed him to dozens of times before, that night for some reason, I was uneasy. I told her no, but that he could come over and play for the afternoon and that I would pick him up before dinner. Around 4 o’clock I drove out to her house to pick him up. I stood in Veronica’s kitchen area and we chatted about our boys. She told me how each of them had a gift and what special children they were. She had taken them to the grocery store to buy their favorite ice cream to eat. My son also wanted cereal which she generously bought for him and gave me to take home for him. I thanked her and I drove away.
The next morning she was murdered. Right there where I stood talking to her. Her soon to be ex-husband had hired a hit man to murder her because they were separated and really who knows why else. I felt like I got punched in the stomach. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t stop crying.
In my agony, I laid on my bedroom floor crying, wailing really. Here was a beautiful young mother, 39 years old murdered, leaving her 8 year old son motherless. And for what? I cried out to God in anguish and anger. How could you let this happen? Why Lord?
In the midst of my anguish, a thought came over me. God said, “I don’t want this, people choose this.” I asked God, “what, what in the world can I do, in this awful place?” He answered me. He said, “Susan, good in the world starts with you.” I began to think. I thought about how I had seen Veronica and her husband in church together and I wondered, how can a person who would murder sit in church? God answered me again. He told me that her husband did not start out a murderer, but that his sin had grown in his heart and gone unchecked, and had lead down a long dark path. I remembered the bible verse that stated, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”( Matthew 5:28) That was the moment that verse made sense to me. I never had understood it. I had always thought, “how can a thought be a sin?” But after her murder it made sense to me. Sin starts in your heart and takes over until you act on it with your hands. And if we never take the time to examine our conscience, or think about what is right and what is wrong, well then, we can really go down a wrong path.
So I asked God, “what can I do?” He told me that the only person I could control was myself. That I can choose to love and spread that love outward. For me this meant examining my own conscience and trying to become a better person. Something that given the classes and the school incident had been a long time coming. I asked myself, did I love my enemy? Or even my neighbor, for that matter? The answer was a resounding, NO. Oh my, I thought, I have not always spread love and left people better off for knowing me. I had also not accepted the wisdom of Church teaching. “If you love me Susan, you will keep my commandments.” I thought about Confession. I had always disliked this Sacrament and dreaded going. But here, in this place, crying on the ground, I found it to be a gift. A gift I was grateful for. But I did not know where to go because as I was transforming I came across so many, including Priests who could not understand what I was going through or what was happening to me. I remember one day walking down the small main street in my historic town with tears coming down my face. I walked into the church on main street. It was not my church at the time. I asked for the Priest and he made himself readily available. This was not something I was used to at all. I went into his office. He put on his stole. I sobbed, and sobbed, and sobbed. I think I confessed everything I had ever done or could remember doing. Then the most amazing thing happened. He did not judge me. He told me God loved me. He gave me Penance and Absolution. While conveying this Sacrament on me he truly acted in persona Christi. In telling my sins, I was able to encounter Christ. In this Sacrament, I received the grace that Jesus offers to us when we choose to ask for it. I took a good hard look at myself and my selfishness started to burn away because of the love I encountered in confessing. The Sacrament makes me try to do better, and though I know that I am a sinner and will continue to have failures, I can receive His sanctifying grace and forgiveness when I go. This helps me to spread His goodness forward. This sacrament, confession, truly healed my soul.
I thought of my friend Veronica, and her name and her beauty. In Catholicism while Jesus is in His Passion, walking His way to Golgotha, bloodied and beaten, He comes across a woman named Veronica. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. A small kindness. This man, this God man, was bloodied, beaten, tired, in agony, and this woman, Veronica, provided a brief respite, if you will. A few seconds where the sweat and blood were wiped away, and for a moment, however brief, He felt love from this woman. It did not stop His Passion, His suffering, but in a world that was mocking Him, scourging Him, that woman’s touch with the cloth must have felt glorious. So He imprinted His image on her cloth. Veronica, means “True Image”. He left her the mark of His love. And so because of my friend, Veronica, who also had provided me love and respite when I left my sons school, I knew I must spread love and kindness where ever I go. With God, using me I can bring good out of the ashes of her death. I cannot stop suffering, but I can offer that respite to those who are lost, poor, lonely, unwanted, or unloved. Because of her I decided I will wipe the Face of Jesus, in those that are suffering, as long as His grace and mercy allows me to.
This experience taught me to have a conversation with God. I built a peaceful place in my home where I go to pray. I started to offer thanksgiving for things that once had only made me feel bitter, like dishes and laundry. A path of gratefulness overcame me. One day, not too long after my confession, I went into the historic chapel at the church on Main Street. There, with the Artwork, the Stained Glass windows and the beautiful Tabernacle behind the altar, I was surrounded by all things Catholic. Everything that felt like home. There was no other person there at the time, so I laid prostrate on the floor in front of Our Lord in the Tabernacle. I felt so unworthy, but also blessed, and so loved. How could I have possibly lived all these years and not seen this? Not seen HIM. Not seen the love, that He was chasing me, calling me to Him, and I had only halfway opened my heart. Intellectually I had known the teachings my whole life, but now Jesus Himself pierced my heart. I wanted Him to have all of my heart.
Throughout this journey and the heartache of losing my friend, my soul was at once broken, then rebuilt by God. I have told God, “I am all in.” I have been working on building my trust in the Lord. Some days are harder than others, but so many blessings and small miracles have since happened that I am getting to the place where trust is getting easier and easier. I feel joy where I once had only felt panic. Before I start my days these days, I tell the Lord, “I trust in you. Show me the next step, I will follow it. Transform me totally to conform to your will.” No matter the suffering, there is always hope. Hope’s name is Jesus Christ.