In 2016, images of Discalced Carmelite Sister Cecilia Maria were spread throughout the internet. She died painfully of cancer on June 23 at the age of 42. Take a look at the pictures. She does not appear to be suffering; instead, her face shows the beauty of true joy and inestimable courage as she waits to meet Jesus.
When I was a child, I thought I would grow up to be someone like Sister Cecilia. After all, I intended to be canonized one day. I imagine God, knowing my future, kindly laughed at my plans.
In my youth, I immersed myself in stories of the saints. Martyrs were my favorites. These saints showed great courage, and I just knew I would possess that same trait one day. With God at my side, there was no reason to fear suffering or death. I would be an example to the world, just like my saintly heroes.
St. Joan of Arc was my favorite. When I was young enough to be playing with Barbie dolls, I used tin foil to design armor for my Barbie. At the time of my Confirmation in eighth grade, I picked Joan as my patron. I did not realize at the time that my name (Janet) shared roots with the name Joan. Now that I know, I think it is appropriate to be named after St. Joan twice. Maybe she can help me find the courage I always thought I would have, but now find myself lacking.
I am surrounded by courageous people. My husband is a retired Army Colonel and a combat veteran. He entered the military during the Vietnam era. It took an extraordinary kind of courage to be a soldier in those days. Many never made it home, and for those who did, overcoming trauma became an issue. Stateside, military personnel who were preparing for war and those who came back all had to face American citizens who could act hateful towards them. I am glad to see that one thing we have learned over the decades is to appreciate our veterans.
My mother suffered immensely for years, both mentally and physically. My dad and my mother-in-law’s agonies were not as prolonged, but still severe. None of them blamed God or grew away from Him during their difficult times. In my dad’s case, the last time I saw his face light up during conversation was while speaking of God and about his return to the Catholic faith. I strongly suspect his suffering brought him to that point.
Then there is my daughter. She lives with many painful health problems, beginning with migraines when she was only three years old. She is an adult now, and we are still trying to resolve several issues. As her mother, sometimes I cry out to God in frustration. Meanwhile, my daughter continues to love and serve Him.
Medical misdiagnosis and later complications kept me bedridden at one time in my life. That is when I learned how easy my faith was shaken. Ultimately God used it for good, and I became passionately Catholic through my search for truth. Still, I look at people who have lost their children, or people who live with chronic mental or physical conditions, and I wonder how long I would endure in their shoes.
Many of us probably wonder how we would handle those kinds of circumstances. What I notice about myself is how cowardly I am in many areas of my life. If you view my Facebook page, you will find lots of cute animal pictures and shares from humane societies and rescue groups. If you recognize St. Joan as my profile picture, you will realize I am Catholic, but most of my posts do not give it away.
I discovered I like to veil at Mass, but even there I am timid. My initial desire stemmed from the wrong reasons. I wanted to wear a veil to Mass because I find them feminine and beautiful. When I finally did take the risk, I learned it enhanced my ability to worship. This piece of cloth on my head is a constant reminder of being in the presence of our Lord in the Eucharist. It keeps distraction to a minimum. The veil affords intimacy during moments of private prayer within Mass without taking away from communal worship. Even with all of this, I veil infrequently and only when I expect to not be alone in doing so.
Birgit Jones wrote about her decision to veil. She says, “One deterrent for me was the impression my veiling would give to others. What would they think or say? Would someone comment negatively?” I relate to that all the time, not just when I wear a veil to Mass. Often, I am quiet about religious or political beliefs because I prefer to avoid conflict.
If I am so concerned about what others might think or say that I hesitate to wear a head covering at Mass among fellow Catholics, what will I do if God calls me to something truly difficult? I am okay with being timid in places like Facebook, where I do not expect to influence anybody. Often it seems we can more readily bring people to God by first being approachable. However, I have seen how suffering revealed my weakness. Scripture tells us that following God is not easy. As I age, it is likely that there are more difficult days to come. How will I respond?
Reading the story of Sister Cecilia, I was struck by these words: “Her joy was accompanied — or perhaps explained — by a profound state of prayer.” Prayer does seem the obvious solution to cowardice. Rather like spending time speaking with loved ones enhances our relationships, so too does prayer bring us closer to God. Prayer helps us to hear Him and understand His desires for us. It helps us to conform ourselves to Him.
God reaches all those who listen, though. There are those who hear God and follow Him before they ever utter their first prayer.
My daughter has a friend named James. When I first met him, he was an atheist, raised in an anti-Catholic family. Fortunately, anything he had been told about Catholics and Catholicism did not affect his friendship with Marissa.
James is Catholic now. I asked him what lead him to believe in God. He told me of a time in his life when he wondered, “Is this all there is?” It was the order and complexity of life that ultimately brought him to theism. He considered everything from DNA to the capabilities of man to create, build, and advance scientifically. It did not seem possible to James that all of this was a matter of chance.
Then I asked him what lead him to Catholicism. He said that once he concluded that God exists, he examined different religious traditions. Catholicism was among them because of his friendship with Marissa. In asking questions, he discovered more answers in Catholic teachings, explanations that were confirmed in Scripture and tradition, than he found through his Protestant friends and pastors.
James had to make a decision. He knew his family would not take his conversion well. I asked him what it was like to tell them. He responded that at first, he would attend Mass secretly. When he finally talked to his family, they took it better than he expected.
Unfortunately, over time their acceptance has waned. James’ family turned against him when they learned he opposes gay marriage. His lesbian sister does not understand how he can be part of a church that teaches against her way of living. She sees it as a direct attack on her. His mother is not planning to attend his wedding because she refuses to set foot inside a Catholic church. In general, his relationships with his family continue to slide.
I asked him if he thinks he could renew those relationships if he left the Church. He believes giving up Catholicism would bring him closer with his sister again, “but it would mean that I would drop back into ignorance. Worse, I would be turning my back on Christ.”
James would not see losing his family relationships in order to be Catholic as being particularly courageous. He would likely argue that losing Christ is far worse. I would agree. Still, James had committed to following the path to the truth before even knowing Christ. Many Christians are not that strong. They hesitate to do anything that would split their families or offend others.
We see among Christians a tendency to misunderstand what it means to love. There is a belief that it means accepting everything, even sin. It means having some kind of warm feelings towards everyone. We forget that Matthew 10:22 (NABRE) says “You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved.” We are called to love, but we will be hated. It sounds to me like love is something other than accepting everything in everybody.
In a previous column I said, “If I could only request one gift of God for me this year, it would be for the courage to follow wherever He calls.” I have not asked for that gift yet. I have not been brave enough. Maybe it is time for me to ask. When I do, I need to add one more request: courage to endure to the end.