Remember the Year of Faith?

word-907384_1920When Pope Benedict XVI announced the Year of Faith and that it was to begin on October 11, 2012, I never realized how personal this would become for me. You see, just one day before, I had uncovered evidence that my 20-year marriage was over. And on October 12, 2012, my husband moved out – never to return.

Just like that, it was over. A year and a half of dating, twenty years of marriage, four residences, two adopted children, two cats, two dogs and, yes, it was finished. My life flashed before my eyes. It was said and done. How could this be and how could I not have had a clue?

This realization took me years to comprehend. I had married under the assumption this was going to be for the rest of my life. My parents had been married for 51 years before my mother’s death. My ex-husband’s parents are still married today. I saw no evidence of this looming as part of my future with this man.

Pope Benedict claimed that the Year of Faith was a “summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord.” That’s exactly what it was for me – a summons to keep my eyes fixed on Christ. The world had hurt me and healing would come only from my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I received love from my Church, my parish, my priests and my deacons. I truly believe God opened my heart that year to receive His grace.

I made it a priority to be at Mass each and every Sunday and all Holy Days of Obligation. I went to confession frequently, I spent countless hours in Eucharistic Adoration and I prayed daily. I read the word of God. In retrospect, I spent the Year of Faith as a student of Christ, believing that my very life depended on it. And, really, it did. My life does depend on this faith because some days, it’s all I have.

Pope Benedict XVI explains in his Apostolic letter on the Year of Faith that we must recognize the “interweaving of holiness and sin.” This is true both for the Church and for myself. I had to spend time, both in prayer and in confession, admitting my faults in the marriage. It took me a few years to have mercy on myself, my ex-spouse and on his girlfriend. The Father holds out his hand of mercy to everyone.

It has now been close to four years since my ex-husband left our marriage. I still struggle and I have had to re-think my purpose in life. I am no longer a wife. I chose instead to think of myself as a daughter – a daughter of the King. I will rejoice in this thought and pray that my faith will continue to grow. What strengthens my faith? In his book God Is Near Us, Pope Benedict says, “the Church of the suffering” gives us our hope. Christ achieved it all for us on the Cross.

Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life.” John 6:27

Having a Spiritual Director

A few years ago, I found myself smack dab in “mid life” gasping for air. I couldn’t breath. The reality that my 20-year marriage had ended left me shocked. It was as if I had been run over by a truck — a big mud truckjeep-1318706_1280. Confused and unable to think clearly, I sought help from my parish priest.

The loss of my marriage was the initial reason I sought spiritual direction. Obviously, I needed professional counseling, which I received, but I also needed someone to guide me under the rule of the divine. Left to my own human feelings and sinfulness, I was headed on a path to destruction— in the opposite direction from union with God. I was headed out the door with a wrecking ball!

Spiritual direction is defined as being under the guidance of one who is trained in Scripture and Catholic doctrine and helps you become aware, or “awaken” you, to the spiritual relationship you have with God. In my case, I initially thought God was absent; however, that was not true. God was there, and had been all along; I was not listening. I was too absorbed in my own life, my home and what I wanted to do.

My first spiritual director was my parish priest. I came to my first appointment full of anger, hurt and sin. Because of my situation, he met with me more frequently than under normal circumstances. But eventually, we would meet once a month for an hour. His role was to direct me to the workings of the Holy Spirit in my life. As I would learn, prayer would become essential for me to move forward.

In spiritual direction, I was looking at my relationship with Christ. This was most helpful to me for I wanted to dwell on what I saw as “character flaws” in my husband. There was no need for that. I had my own character flaws to deal with and I spent time in direction learning how to change myself. I learned how to deepen my relationship with Christ. I would learn how to be humble and patient — characteristics of Christ, not me — which took a spiritually mature person to teach me.

After many months in direction, my parish priest was transferred to a new city and a new parish. By this time, I knew spiritual direction was mandatory for me if I was to grow spiritually through my loss. I had grown to love the peace which came with prayer and silence — something my priest encouraged for me.

My second spiritual director, and the one I still see today, is a woman in my parish trained in spiritual mentorship. I have met with her monthly for over three years now. She has maneuvered with me through my life experiences of the death of my mother, the end of my marriage and a bout with cancer. Her gentle guidance, and sometimes rebuke, has been indescribable because it has brought peace to my life.

I will admit, we’ve had some tough topics to conquer — forgiveness, honesty, and taking a look at that “wooden beam in my own eyes” (Matthew 7:3). My spiritual director is good for me because she points me to the truth. Without her guidance and prayer, I hesitate to think where my life in Christ might be. I envision I would be stuck under that muddy tire.

My life today is not what I had dreamed, but it is “my life” in Christ. Without spiritual direction, I feel I could have become a bitter, old lady. Instead, I am a woman seeking the heart of Christ, a woman with compassion for others who are hurting. The road is not always smooth, but what does Christ tell us? How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life (Matthew 7:14).

What to do With the Ring?

What do you do with your engagement ring if your marriage ends in divorce? Do you keep the ring and have it fashioned into a trendy necklace? Do you save the ring for one of your children? Do you sell the diamond and pay off some of your bills? 

I’ve had this on my mind lately since my divorce was finalized in April. My ex-husband had given me the ring atop the massive ferris wheel at the Texas State Fair. It was a delightful event and one my ex said he had put much thought into. We were suspended in air and time stopped for jusdiamond ringt a few moments while he proposed. He had even called my father and asked for my hand in marriage before he asked me to marry him.

I thought the proposal was an original idea and I thought the diamond was beautiful; however, our marriage did not last. The ring stayed on my finger for 21 years. Those years were packed with memories that I decided I could not hang around my neck. I decided I did not want to save the ring for one of my two daughters. Anyway, which daughter would I chose to give the tainted diamond to? 

So I decided to meet with a diamond broker to inquire about selling the ring. The dollar amount he was going to give me in exchange for the ring insulted me. The buyout was well below what my ex had paid 25 years earlier. Honestly, my pride was hurt. That ring had deep meaning for me and no amount of money could replace what it stood for.

And so I spent many hours thinking, praying and pondering my decision … I returned the ring to my ex-husband. I took the noble route and it felt good. The ring had once been a sign of our marriage and our fidelity. It no longer served that purpose. No other piece of jewelry — whether re-shaped or made into a necklace — would erase the pain of my divorce. I think I made a good decision.

Is Our First Impression Our Lasting Impression?

I will admit, I’m one who forms a lasting first impression when I meet a person for the first time. Well, at least I used to be, that is, until I was proven wrong. I proved my own theory wrong and then I read a research study that proved my first-impression mentality wrong as well. I’ll explain.cropped-cropped-mallesonemmerling.jpg

Back in May 2015, I started a two-year study program in which I immediately met nearly 100 new people at once. This study program would involve studying at home and online for two years, plus also attending 4 in-residence sessions at a retreat center. The in-residence sessions would last 7 days and would require overnight stays. I would be sharing 3 meals a day and a room with a complete stranger on 4 different occasions.

The first in-resident session was insightful for me. As I nervously walked into the retreat center, collected my name tag and signed in, I stole glances at others around me. They seemed personable, pleasant, and yes, a little plain. No designer luggage was being flung around in this lobby.  My mind wondered as I encountered many warm smiles. I wondered the obvious questions — where had they come from, why were they here and how was this going to go?

At the moment, I didn’t realize my own upbringing, my age, my gender and my own biases played a big role in how I first viewed these people. I curiously looked around and seeing all the new faces, made first impressions in my mind. I was labeling these people. It was immature and irrational thinking, obviously, because I didn’t know a thing about any of them.

One year and 3 “in-resident” sessions later, I’m proud to say I’ve changed most of my first impressions. I noticed that during the course of the program, in which I spent hours talking to these people from across the US, my initial opinions changed. I consciously tried to meet each person along the way and I discovered each person in a different light. What amazed me about this process is that initially, I exhibited what is known as “diagnosis bias.” This is when we label people based on our first impressions of them and are unable to reconsider those judgments once we’ve made them.

Had it not been for an assignment given to me, my first impressions might have lasted. During the 3rd in-residence session, I was required to sit and visit with attendees on a much deeper level. Small talk about the weather or our children was not allowed. The assignment was about studying the lost art of having meaningful conversations. It was here that I saw beyond my first impressions. The light bulb went off. I had misjudged many people. These men and women were anything but plain. They were extraordinary!

Then, as almost planned for me, I returned home to a daughter asking me to help her with a summer reading assignment. She was to read the book Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior.  In the book, authors Ori and Rom Brafman prove the theory of diagnosis bias — our natural tendency to label people and our inability to rethink those initial judgments. Research proved what I had just realized for myself — my initial impressions were wrong.

Brafman says we pay a price for making those initial first impressions and not going back to reconsider them. We miss meeting and knowing some awesome people. Psychologist Franz Epting says we prevent ourselves “from seeing what’s clearly before our face.” My own first impressions taught me this truth.

I believe if we are aware we are doing this, our lives could change. We would possibly give others a chance to be in our lives. I know for myself, I’ll revisit my first impressions when I meet someone new again. I’ll dig deeper into their story and hopefully discover my mistakes of labeling. And who knows — maybe they will not judge me and stay with their first impressions of me either!

Silence on Retreat

I recently attended a 7-day spirituality retreat offered through the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. The week was filled with study, prayer, daily Mass, spiritual direction, a movie and many meals. There were 100 other men and women from around the United States on this retreat with me. The priests and sisters from the Apostles of the Interior Life, the archdiocese School of Faith team and the Holy Spirit lead us during the week.

Day 6 was a day of silence. No talking! During that day, I wrote these thoughts as I was reflecting on what had occurred while on retreat. I will share my insights with you.


Now, I come to a place of rest. A day of silence. A time and space to sit and reflect with Our Lord on what has transpired in me. It is starting to sink in that God is asking me to be an instrument of His love. He is calling me to continue loving His Son and allowing His Son to love me so I can love others. The emotions are real, they are deep and, as is typical for me, there are tears.

Mark 6:30-32 The apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported all they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.”

I’ve tried to meet each person attending this session. This is the third time in a year we’ve been together for a 7-day stretch. I’m sure I’ve not met everyone, but each person I’ve met has touched me in a different way. What amazes me about this process is how the Holy Spirit takes my first impression and shows me how I am judgmental. When I am allowed to sit and get to know one of God’s children on a personal level, all of my first impressions are proven wrong.

We have studied the lost art of having meaningful conversations this week. There is no small talk about the weather, our clothing or our children. We are asked to go to that next level of deeper conversation. During this time, a friend disclosed her marriage problems. She knows of my divorce and that God has provided strength. I am able to assure her that God hears prayer and he works for our good.

At breakfast, a man discussed the reality of his life. “How have you handled your wife living in a nursing home and being left to raise your 6 children?” I asked him. My heart softens as I hear him tell me how all 6 of his children do their own laundry. I discover the strength God has given him to endure. Before he spoke, however, I only saw his round, soft belly, his bald head and the t-shirt he was wearing. But through his words of courage, I saw his heart. Jesus shows me how much He loves this man.

During one of my daily breaks, I checked my emails. I had an email from my family practice doctor. A recent CAT revealed several cysts on my kidney. The doctor tells me I need to go see a nephrologist. My health issues continue and I’m determined my suffering will not be wasted. I believe in redemptive suffering.

It was a wonderful week. The great “take away” for me is the importance of silence. If I allow no time in my day to silently reflect, how can I know which way God is leading me? How can I hear his voice? How can I rest? I’m convinced silence is a must in my life.

That Hair Thing

Three years ago I shaved my head. It wasn’t for shock value; I had cancer. I had made the decision to shave my head before the chemo drugs made it fall out. I didn’t want to lose clumps of hair around the house. That was the method my mom chose when she had chemo. I wanted to face baldness straight on.

My oncologist had told me to expect my hair to begin falling out around day 18 after my first chemo treatment. I counted each day diligently until I arrived at day 18. I knew it was coming. What anticipation I had to “dare” my hair to fall out. “I’ll be the lucky one and not lose one hair,” I thought foolishly to myself.

Sure enough it happened. Day 18 in the shower, a clump came out. Darn. That evening, I planned to shave it all off. I needed the support of my daughters to be in the home with me. I could not do this alone. I would use the grooming kit we had bought for our two Shih Tzus.

I’ll never forget the feeling of taking that first swipe across my head. I was full of emotion. I thought of Britney Spears and how 5 years earlier she had shaved her head. This was different. Either I would shave my head or let chemo have its way. I wanted to win and just be in control of something.

My hair had been my glory. For years, stylists had commented on how thick my hair was or how much hair I had. It was one of my finest features. I spent hundreds of dollars keeping it coifed and colored. Let’s face it. My hair was a hobby.

God knew I needed a little humility. I was vain about my hair. I needed a reality check so I could have compassion. I needed a reason to turn to God and acknowledge He was in control of my life. I needed poverty of spirit to detach from this crown of glory.

Being bald in the winter time in Kansas humbled me. Being bald also screamed to the world “I have cancer.” Being bald was a good lesson for me. It forced me to face my own mortality and my vanity. It gave me compassion. It helped me realize it’s what’s inside my heart that counts; not what’s on my head.

This is me with my friend Amy on the day she had her head shaved. We were both undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.

I went proudly to the rest of my chemo treatments as a bald patient. We were all bald together and it was affirming to be in unity with other cancer patients. We were getting chemo so we could have a chance to survive. Our hair was the least of our worries.

In the end, it was an honor to be bald and not have a covering for my head. I learned to be more transparent and not hide behind my hair. The time with no hair was transforming for me. It put things in perspective especially when a friend asked me to join her when she shaved her head. I understood.

1 Corinthians 11:15 “but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering.”

Prayer Before Surgery

doctor-650548_1280I was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer three months after my mom died of cancer. My sense of urgency to remove the cancer was enormous. Terrified, I consulted with my family practice doctor a few hours after my mammogram. I was going to need help navigating my way through the maze of doctors and treatments I would need.

“Seek first the kingdom of God” ran through my mind. I had memorized the words to Matthew 6:33 years ago in Bible study. I prayed, quietly asking God to take care of me. Then I called a few close friends who I knew were particularly close to God. They had strong prayer lives so I asked them to begin praying for me. Ironically, I had just called on them two weeks earlier with the news of my impending divorce.

The day following the mammogram, my friend drove me to a surgeon’s office to have a needle biopsy. Before we began our 30-minute trip to midtown, she asked if she could pray for me. Absolutely. My friend prayed out loud asking God to work out the details of my illness and keep me at peace. As she drove, I was unbelieving of my fate. I went into the doctor’s office and had the biopsy. With the exception of needing more lidocaine, the procedure was flawless.

For the next two weeks, I desperately discussed my surgical options with four different surgeons. I had invasive lobular carcinoma and would need a bilateral mastectomy and hysterectomy. I needed to find a team of three surgeons. My general surgeon (who had performed the biopsy) called five plastic surgeons in the area. They were booked. It was, after all, the holiday season. I continued to pray, my friends prayed and I made a plea for prayer through my CaringBridge journal.

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Matthew 6:33

I became a “nurse navigator” frantically trying to coordinate three surgeons’ schedules. I needed a general breast surgeon, a plastic surgeon and a gynecological surgeon. They needed to be available in one hospital, in one operating room in one afternoon. I learned not all doctors had surgical privileges in the same hospitals. I began to think I was asking for a small miracle, but I continued to pray.

By now, prayer had taken on a different meaning for me. It was no longer a quick request I threw God’s way. God was becoming my friend, my advisor, my counselor. I would have lengthy conversations with Him. I talked and then I listened. I quit watching television to make more time to hear Him. I knew my life depended on His answers and I knew He wanted to help me. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

Around the third week of November, I was in despair. I could not find a plastic surgeon to team up with my general surgeon. Breast augmentation surgery was taking precedence over removing my cancer. This was a busy time of year when plastic surgeons were typically booked months, even years, in advance. Besides, cosmetic surgery cases paid cash.

God heard my pleas. The teaching director from my Bible Study had read my CaringBridge post. She called me on a Saturday morning to see if she could help. This connection would change the course of the rest of my time with cancer. Not only had she gone through breast cancer herself, but her husband was an oncologist. I felt elated as if God had placed me in that Bible study class years ago for this very reason.

After discussing my dilemma, I changed my course of action. It was obvious I would need to choose another surgeon and another hospital. I had just needed to hear those words spoken out loud. This phone call had been my gift. It was my wake-up call. And it had been orchestrated by God.

By the next week, I had scheduled all my surgeons. Every detail was covered with precision. More answered prayers. I knew God was not responsible for my cancer, but He was making things happen so He could take care of me. Even the timing of my annual mammogram had been helpful. If the appointment had been a few months earlier, it would have overlapped my mother’s time in hospice.

In the end, I was confident in the team of doctors God had prepared for me. I was humbled with their expert knowledge and skill of performing the surgery. God had been faithful even in the details of the surgeons’ schedules. My radiation oncologist referred to the timing of it all as a “small miracle”. The procedure took place on December 18, 2012 and lasted 5 1/2 hours.