I wore a chapel veil to church for the first time ever yesterday. It’s something I’d wanted to/felt called to do for years, and I finally committed to doing it during Lent. I didn’t make it to Mass last week because, you know, snakes on a plane, so this Sunday’s Mass was my first shot at it.
My biggest concern was not drawing attention to myself. Though a few women at my parish do wear scarves, hats, or veils in church, they’re a small minority, and I didn’t want to feel like I stood out. So when we arrived I slipped into the pew discreetly, which was made easier by the fact that I only had my five-year-old daughter with me (the one of dragon-defeating fame) since Joe had taken the others to vigil Mass the day before. After the first Scripture reading I finally began to relax, and by the end of the Gospel I felt confident that I was just an anonymous face in the crowd.
And then Fr. Uche began his homily. The Gospel reading was about the Transfiguration, and when he introduced the topic, he mused, “What did Jesus go up the mountain to do?” I jumped when a voice beside me shouted at the loudest possible volume:
That would be my sweet daughter’s pronunciation of “pray.” She’s so excited about Jesus and was so delighted to know the answer that she just had to scream it at the very top of her lungs — and, wow, who knew that a young child’s voice could fill an entire huge building like that? The church was packed with about 1,100 people, and I am pretty sure that every single one of them looked over at us in that moment. I had already felt like THE WOMAN IN THE CHAPEL VEIL!!!!, and now I felt like THE WOMAN IN THE CHAPEL VEIL WHOM WE’RE ALL NOW STARING AT BECAUSE HER KID YELLS AT THE PRIEST DURING MASS!!!!
I’ve gotten a lot of comments and emails from women who said that they were interested in covering their heads but had never tried it, so I thought I’d share my experience in case others find it helpful. And yes, there is definitely something ironic, and possibly a little lame, about undertaking a practice that’s all about humility and hiddenness and then writing about it on your blog. I get that. But I’m going to go ahead and crack open that can of worms anyway, because I know that it’s something a lot of us have thought about, and I think that at least a few folks might find a discussion about the practice to be fruitful.
First, a bit of background:
What I Wore
I especially wanted to share this detail since I know a lot of us have a hard time finding something we can feel truly comfortable wearing. I am thrilled to have discovered this chapel veil, which is based on an infinity scarf, from the Liturgical Time Etsy Shop. What’s great about it is that it can be worn as a scarf…
And then slipped over your head to use as a veil!
The design allowed it to stay on my head easily — I didn’t need any bobby pins to keep it in place. Also, it helped me relax to know that I could just drop it down and wear it around my neck if it got to be too much to hassle with.
Which brings us to the question: Why did I get myself into this in the first place?
Why I Wanted to Do It
The practice of women covering their heads at church made sense to me from the first moment I encountered it. It’s not a tradition I’ve ever wondered about, wrestled with, or felt hostile to in any way.
It started, in fact, with my observations about the practice of men removing their head coverings when entering a church. Here in Texas it’s common for men to wear hats, especially cowboy hats, and it was even more common when I was younger. I grew up seeing dashing gentlemen in their fine Stetsons; I’d often come across black-and-white pictures of my grandfathers and their fathers from the 40s, looking like movie stars in their suits and fedoras. On a gut level I understood that men can enhance their appearances dramatically with headwear.
Rarely is a man’s hair his best feature. Many males have thinning hair, and, at least in our society, they don’t have tons of acceptable options for hairstyles anyway. So, for that gender, hats are a prime opportunity to improve their physical appearance and draw attention to themselves. When I was a child I occasionally ended up in churches for weddings or funerals, and when I saw the men remove their hats, they always looked a little smaller and less powerful after doing so. I understood on a visceral level that for a man to bare his head was an act of humility.
For women, it’s the opposite.
Our hair is one of the main ways we express our individuality. Even for those of us who have no skill at hairdressing, the cut and style of our locks speaks volumes about how we want want people to perceive us. It’s also one of the primary ways we make ourselves beautiful. Imagine a girl standing in front of a mirror, heading out to a party, determined to look as gorgeous as possible…but totally neglecting her hair. It wouldn’t happen. When women want to attract attention with their physical beauty, their hair is one of the first things they think about. It’s a fact of human nature that both genders tend to notice women’s physical appearances, moreso than they do with men’s appearances, and hair is a crucial part of that.
So, long before I’d heard any exegesis about First Corinthians or encountered horror stories about women in abusive congregations being pushed to cover their heads because they were seen as inferior, the idea just kinda made sense to me. I didn’t (and still don’t) think it’s a big deal. I would not push others to undertake that practice if it didn’t feel right to them. It simply seemed to me that men uncovering their heads and women covering theirs was a nice, optional thing that people could do to deflect attention from themselves in a holy place.
If it’s true that this practice is all about blending in, wouldn’t wearing a chapel veil defeat the purpose? I thought. If I end up being THE WOMAN IN THE CHAPEL VEIL!!!!, as I was afraid I would be, then I would actually be drawing more attention to myself than if I didn’t cover my head in the first place. Yet that’s not what happened.
To be sure, one of the reasons it wasn’t an issue is that some women do cover their heads at our parish. Again, it’s not common, but you see it often enough that it doesn’t surprise anyone. It might have been a different story if we went to a more casual church where a woman wearing a veil would be the only one doing so. (Kelly has some great suggestions for those situations.) But the biggest reason that I think I ultimately blended in is this:
It’s hard for a woman with a covered head to be the center of attention.
When I thought of my own reaction to encountering women wearing scarves or veils, it dawned on me that you don’t spend much time looking at them because there’s simply not that much to see. Even if you do a double-take when you first glance at them, your focus soon drifts to something else since you can’t see many of the details that make people interesting to look at. Their hair, most of their heads, and many of the details of their faces and necks are obscured. They wouldn’t hold your attention because it’s boring to look at a bunch of fabric.
What Will People Think?
On the way to church my Neurotic ESP kicked into gear, and I could already hear everyone else’s thoughts:
Wait, isn’t that the same lady who wore jeans to Mass last week and said “And also with you” at the sign of peace?
Did I just see a woman in a chapel veil GENUFLECT ON THE WRONG KNEE?!?!?
These voices continued to pipe up in my imagination once I got inside the church…but when I tried to apply them to actual people, it all broke down.
There was Roxanne, who once dropped everything to come over and pray with me when I was having a hard time. Scattered throughout the pews were at least eight wonderful folks who had brought us homemade meals after babies were born and after my recent health issues. Across the aisle was my friend who volunteers at our church’s health clinic to serve those who can’t pay for medical care; over to the left was the gentleman who recently gave a large amount of financial assistance to a young couple with a crisis pregnancy whom he met when they turned around from an abortion mill where he’d been praying; and behind him was the couple who has cared for over 20 at-risk children through the local foster care system. Noe was undoubtedly out there somewhere too.
Waves of shame rushed through me when I realized: these are the people whom I assumed would be judging me.
Even I am not horrible enough to spend the Mass fixated on other people, rendering damning character assessments based on their outward appearances…yet I assumed that that’s what my brothers and sisters in Christ would do to me?
It was at that moment that I realized that this exercise in head covering brought with it an important, and surprisingly difficult, opportunity for spiritual growth: to presume other people’s charity.
* * *
I think that that last point was my biggest takeaway. To my great surprise, it seemed to me that the people around me were (wait for it…this is going to be shocking…) focused more on the Mass than they were on me. I know, amazing.
It reminded me of the advice that Dr. Phil used to give guests on his show: “You wouldn’t worry so much about what people thought of you if you knew how seldom they did.” (Let me hasten to note that I do not get all my life wisdom from daytime talk shows anymore.) (Now it mostly comes from Pinterest.) Anyway, I have rarely found that saying to be more true than when I covered my head at Mass. Nobody cared — nobody — and it was prideful of me to assume that anyone would in the first place.
So if you’ve ever considered wearing a head covering to church, I encourage you to do it. I think you’ll find it to be a beautiful exercise in hiddenness…as long as you remind your children not to shout at the top of their lungs when the priest asks a question during the homily.
(P.S. Since I included a couple of pictures, I’m counting this as a What I Wore Sunday post!)
I’m now entering week 10,000 of this pregnancy, with only 40,000 more days to go until the April due date! (I don’t have a calendar handy, so that’s just a guesstimate.) Also, I just found out that I’m seriously anemic, which will help me fill out my “Blood-Related Issues that Make You Feel Like You’re Dying” punchcard.
I thought I’d take a break from my big afternoon plans of staring at a wall (and occasionally yelling utterly empty threats to the kids about what will happen if I have to get off this couch — as if that would happen) and put together a blog post. Can you stand another from the Wisdom via Pulmonary Embolism category? I hope so, because that’s all I’ve got right now.
None of these are earth-shattering enough to warrant their own posts, but here are a few little tidbits I’ve picked up as I reflect back on our Month O’ Doom:
1. Don’t let mixed motives stop you from following a call
In late 2011 I felt strongly called to make my health my number one priority. “Strongly” isn’t even the word. Short of having God hand-deliver a written message with my name printed in bold letters at the top, it could not have been more clear that I was supposed to do this and do it now, and that God was in fact telling me to do it.
I didn’t write much about it at the time, because I knew how it would sound: You want to fit into that cute pair of jeans you used to wear when you were 25, and you’re making it sound like it’s some exercise in holiness. (At least that’s what the voices in my head kept saying.) And there was certainly some truth to it: my plan to get healthy would inevitably involve losing weight and looking better, and there was no way that I could undertake an endeavor like that with perfectly pure motives. Of course vanity was going to come into play.
And so I came very, very close to giving up. This isn’t a call from God, it’s about you committing the sin of vanity, those voices said again. You’re being selfish, and you’re hardly even making any progress! A truly holy woman would give up and do something more worthwhile with her time. Ironically, it was those attacking messages that eventually convinced me to stick with it. I realized that I had almost never faced such severe spiritual attack, and decided that this endeavor must be something that would do some sort of good.
I’ll write about all the details another time, but, long story short, after months of hard, hard, HARD work, I got in the best shape of my life. I weighed less than I did when I got married, and had more energy than I did when I was 18. My improved health helped me serve my family, and the sense of accomplishment had a great ripple effect in all areas of my life. So I figured that that’s what all the spiritual attack had been about: the devil didn’t want me to feel strong and capable, and to be able to serve my family better.
But now I think there may be something more.
The day I ended up in the emergency room earlier this month, one of the doctors saw the CT scan of my lungs before he saw me. When we first began talking, he repeatedly expressed his shock that I was doing so well — he had expected to encounter a patient in far worse condition than I was in. I mentioned that I had spent the last year getting in shape, and he said that it was one of the best decisions I ever made. My strong cardiovascular health made a major difference in my body’s ability to compensate for the clots in my lungs. Things would have been much worse if I’d been as weak and out of shape as I’d been just a couple of years before.
When I think back on that time of getting fit, I don’t think it’s only in my imagination that hindsight reveals a sense of gentle urgency to it. It is as if I hear the Holy Spirit whispering the words, “Something is coming on the horizon. The time to follow this call is now.” Yes, vanity did come in to play in the process; I ended up talking to my confessor about it more than once. But I am so glad that I didn’t let stop me from listening to what God was trying to tell me.
2. Your energy level will ebb and flow, and that’s okay
Someone reminded me of that interview I did with Brandon Vogt a while back, and I could hardly believe that that was me. Who is that woman with all her energy? What is that crazy talk about getting up early to achieve your goals? What those “goal” things, anyway? Sheesh. I would chase her out of my house with a stick if she came in here today.
This sort of thing used to bum me out: I would think back on a time when I was high-energy and clicking on all cylinders, and feel like it must be due to some kind of incompetence or moral failing on my part that I was now shuffling around like a big slob. (Obviously I have a good excuse now, but I have had plenty of other low-energy phases that were due to a variety of more “normal” issues like having a newborn, having three kids in diapers, etc.)
I feel like I’ve finally been given the perspective to really get what Hallie was saying in her famous “thriving through the seasons” post. There are seasons where “thriving” might look like what you’d expect it to look like: you’re getting tons of stuff done, getting out of bed when the alarm goes off, starting the day ahead of the curve, hitting the ball out of the park with your daily work, and generally living a productive, orderly life. And then there are seasons when you find yourself in circumstances where getting the dishwasher loaded once a day is, truly, an impressive accomplishment worthy of celebration — and that can be “thriving” too.
The thing that always trips me up is that there really have been times when I was just in a rut, and the main problem was that I’d stopped trying. But I’ve come to see that if I can honestly say that I’m doing my best more often than not, that that’s really something to be proud of — even if “my best” is a lot less impressive than I’d like for it to be.
3. You’re on the roller coaster, so you might as well have fun riding it
I think that one of the hardest things to deal with in life is having your plans derailed. Maybe it’s just me, but I love the feeling of being in control. I relish it. I am rarely happier than when I feel like I have everything all planned out, when I can admire my self-made crystal ball at ease and rest in the knowledge that I basically know what my life will look like a year from now.
And so it tends to knock me off my feet for a while when I’m blindsided by unexpected turns of events, and I’m left with my shattered crystal ball as a brutal reminder that I’m not really in control of much at all.
For a long time I resisted these situations. My reaction was to scramble to get back in charge, to wrestle with God for control of the universe. It only took me a few short years to clue in to the fact that I am me and God is God — i.e. not only is it impossible for me to run the universe, but I shouldn’t even desire to do so, because God’s plans are always better than mine, even when I don’t understand them.
I’ve come to see it like I’m on a roller coaster — only this one is so long and vast that I’ve never been able to see it from afar, and I don’t know where it’s going. Heck, I don’t even know if the thing is safe. It is not always fun to be on this trip. There are times when I’m screaming, “Dude, I just puked, do NOT send me over another huge dropoff AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!!!!!” But I’m slowly learning to appreciate the fact that this ride was designed just for me, but a Creator who loves me more than I love myself. I can white-knuckle my way through it and fight against it the whole time; or I can relax in the knowledge that it will eventually take me to exactly where I need to be, and laugh at the thrill of all the twists and turns that come along the way.
When Joe first saw me in the hospital, he said I reminded him of this scene from Office Space:
I had tubes in my nose, a 16-gauge IV in my hand that was causing me constant pain, had just received a daunting diagnosis that left me with a ton of questions about both my immediate and long-term circumstances, and yet I seemed…happy.
Undoubtedly, a large part of that can be attributed to being lifted up by so many wonderful prayers. But there was something else, too, that was responsible for my surprisingly peaceful state of mind:
December was a hard month. I couldn’t seem to stay on top of anything, and my inability to deal with life seemed to get worse by the week. Three days before Christmas I cleared off an entire evening to wrap presents, and quickly became so angry and overwhelmed that I went to bed in disgust instead. I felt like I barely survived the chaos of Christmas day, and in the week before New Year’s Eve I hardly lifted a finger around the house. I was unmotivated to do anything. I began backing out of social events, and felt exhausted by even the simplest tasks around the house.
I was aware of my abysmal state, and knew what the problem was: I’m lazy. And kind of a whiner. Not to mention not being fully dedicated to my vocation, and unwilling to carry my (small) crosses. Christ asks a few simple things of me, and even gives me this lavish, first-world life surrounded by luxuries, and I let a little pregnancy fatigue keep me from getting the job done! If only I were more open to God’s grace, I’d be able to unload the dishwasher without feeling like it was such a big deal.
These are the thoughts that were going through my head for the better part of a month. And so when the doctor at the Emergency Room sat me down and told me that my lungs were full of blood clots, some of them large, and that he was astounded that I’d been able to function at all, I almost cried with relief. To be completely honest, I was more relieved than I was scared. I know the facts about pulmonary embolisms and know how dangerous they are. Later, I did experience worry and fear. But first, relief.
There is truth to the accusations that I’m ungrateful, spoiled, and lazy. No false humility here — I really do posses all those attributes to some degree or another. But it was simply not true to say that those faults alone were the cause of my suffering. I was struggling against a terribly difficult physical condition, and my body was running in the red zone for all of my waking hours. In those weeks when I was unaware of the reality of my situation, I worked under the incorrect assumption that my circumstances were normal, and that therefore the problems must come down to spiritual and mental character defects on my part. Not surprisingly, this caused me to be in a state of constant inner turmoil. In fact, it was reminiscent of the hidden angst that simmered silently within me when I was an atheist: whenever you live under false assumptions about reality, you will live in anguish. It may be buried and only pop up occasionally, or it may burst to the surface in explosions of acute despair, but whenever you try to jam a square peg of your perception of reality into the round hole of actual reality, there will always be friction.
And you know why I bring this up? Because I think I’m not the only one who could benefit from an outlook-shattering diagnosis.
Once I felt like I had permission to admit that one area of my life was legitimately hard, I began to look at other areas as well. And in the process I’ve been reminded of something I’d known for a while, but had slowly forgotten: that 21st-century motherhood is really hard, whether or not you have clots in your lungs.
Yes, motherhood has always been hard, and our ancestors faced more grueling physical challenges in a month than many of us do in our entire lives. I wouldn’t trade my life for that of my great-great grandmother. However, I think that being a mother today comes with exponentially more psychological challenges than moms have ever faced before. A few examples that come to mind:
We live in isolation. From time immemorial mothers have raised their children in close-knit communities, surrounded by their own mothers and aunts and cousins and nieces and lifelong friends. In traditional human villages, women would gather to wash and cook together, their kids running around freely with friends and relatives. Even the more-isolated farm wives and suburban moms of our grandparents’ generation had refuge to the classic sanity-saving phrase, “Go outside!” (My grandfather reports that he and his siblings often only saw their mother at mealtimes and after sunset, since they spent so much time hunting and exploring each day). Mothers were never meant to be the sole people in charge of their children’s wellbeing all day, every day. It is utterly unnatural to go for 12 hours without having a face-to-face conversation with another adult.
And here’s a big one that’s rarely acknowledged: it feels like what we do isn’t important. It is important, of course…but the reality is that, thanks to all those wonderful modern conveniences, what most of us do on a daily or even weekly basis doesn’t necessarily contribute directly to anyone’s survival. Pouring effort into my vocation can bless my family tremendously, and makes all the difference between thriving and just getting by. But the reality is that if I were to totally slack off and not do much of anything for a few days, everything would be fine. Nobody would starve. We’d still have shelter and food and clothes and clean water.
Not so for the women of history. I doubt that my great-great-great grandmother and her friends had to remind themselves that motherhood is the most important job in the world: if they didn’t cook, their children would literally have nothing to eat. If they didn’t fetch the water from the well, there would be nothing to drink. If they didn’t launder and mend the clothes, there would be nothing to wear. The daily work that the housewife of 1813 did was of life-and-death importance; the daily work that the housewife of 2013 does doesn’t have anywhere near that level of urgency. And that’s a good thing — I don’t think any of us would want to go back to a time when basic survival was so difficult — but it’s also worth admitting that it’s a little demoralizing to know that most of your day to day work falls under the category of “nice to have” rather than “have to have.”
I could go on: the fact that our isolation means that no one outside of our immediate family ever sees the fruits of our labor; that our kids are constantly lured to become peer-oriented; that the norms of our culture push us to pile way more onto our plates than we can realistically handle…but you get the idea.
What we modern moms do is hard, and not just hard in the way that motherhood has always been hard. We’re laboring under unique conditions that few people in human history have ever experienced, trying to thrive in utterly unnatural circumstances. It may not be hard physically, but it’s a great challenge psychologically.
My point here isn’t to wallow in self-pity, or encourage anyone else to do so. In fact, as odd as it may sound, my hope is to inspire fellow moms to deeper peace and gratitude.
We’re hesitant to admit that our lives are difficult in any way. We feel the pain, but then we look around at our washers and dryers and smartphones and televisions and all the other trappings of our first-world lives, and we feel embarrassed to complain about anything. It feels easier, and certainly more noble, to blame ourselves, to assume that the problem must simply be moral failings and character defects on our parts.
But what I found with my undiagnosed medical issues is that when we refuse to accept real suffering as legitimate, it actually makes it harder to be grateful. We spend so much mental energy fighting the wrong battles and beating ourselves up over phantom failings that we don’t have much energy left to take stock of all the wonderful things in our lives. Living in a false reality is exhausting and demoralizing. It’s much easier to be happy, peaceful, and close to God when we acknowledge the truth, even if that involves acknowledging that some things are hard.
I’ll never forget the powerful, soul-cleansing relief that poured over me when I learned that there really had been something wrong with me for all those weeks. Even though I had not begun to receive treatment and felt no better than before, I was suddenly inspired to do my best despite my circumstances. Almost immediately, I began to approach my situation with joy. Once I stopped lamenting sins I wasn’t really committing, I could take a clear look at the sins I was committing, and made a better confession than I had in months. Even sitting there in a hospital room, I felt closer to God and happier with my life than I had in a long, long time.
I feel like I’ve been given a divine permission slip to stop defaulting to self-blame for all of my little daily difficulties (not just as it related to my lungs, but in every area of life) and I want to share it with you. If you’re a mom and you’re struggling, let me just tell you that the problem is not you. Well, I suppose I can’t know that for sure; if you find that you’re regularly too drunk to put the Cheez Whiz on your kids’ cookies for dinner, then maybe the problem is you. But, short of that, my guess is that your suffering is due to your difficult circumstances far more than it is due to laziness or lack of holiness or ungratefulness on your part. What you’re doing is hard, harder in certain ways than what your grandmothers experienced, and don’t let the voices in your head tell you otherwise.
Just like the medical professionals in the ER did for me, Dr. Jen is here to give you a diagnosis: you have condition called “life as a 21st century mom,” and it’s known to cause fatigue, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, confusion and conditions mimicking insanity. Your suffering is legitimate, and it’s not your fault.
I wish for you that same moment I had, when I was hooked up to wires and IVs, dried blood splattered down my arm, tubes all up in my nose, and yet was so profoundly relieved to know the reality of my situation that I gave my husband a big grin and a thumbs-up sign as if to say, “Life is awesome.”
Today is my birthday. I turn 36.
Not only have I now passed the halfway point of my thirties, but it’s a brand new year, I just had a brush with a medical condition that is often fatal, and my whole life has been turned upside down by my recovery. So, as you can see, I have no choice but to write a long and reflective blog post that opines about the meaning of life today.
It’s a lot of pressure, really. I was lying in bed yesterday, mentally writing my post about all the Important Things I’ve taken away from this situation, and was mildly disgusted with myself that the first thing that came to mind was a list of tips about how to sneak contraband into the hospital that you’re technically not supposed to have. (And the next thing I thought of was a recipe for this amazing-sounding martini I discovered while surfing the web in the ER that I cannot wait to try as soon as the baby’s born.)
But I do think that I have learned a lot from this situation, even if the real insights were buried under ah-hah moments about sneaking Bendaryl into the hospital so that you can actually sleep.
Interestingly, facing my mortality was not what jarred me out of my usual routine — we Catholics are always thinking and talking about death, and since my conversion I’ve lived with a fairly constant awareness that, truly, not one of us knows the hour or the day that our time on earth will end. Having the ER tech whisper to me that the last guy who came in with a pulmonary embolism was dead 15 minutes later wasn’t what shocked me into a new way of seeing life. Instead, what has been the real bucket of icewater over the head for me has been the shattering of all my plans. I’ve only now realized that I tend to live in this weird mental space where I am pretty aware that death could come at any time…yet not all that aware that something mildly less catastrophic could happen. If I found out that I was going to die tomorrow it would shock me less than, say, if I found out I was going to lose the use of my right arm. I guess you could sum up my outlook as, Today could be the day the Lord calls me home…but if he doesn’t, good thing I have all these carefully laid out plans and that nothing could possibly go wrong with them!
But now all my plans are toast, and as I face a third trimester of pregnancy with a compromised ability to breathe, wonders about whether there will be lasting lung damage, and tricky long-term health management questions, I have been smacked upside the head with the reality that all my delusions of control through planning were just that — delusions.
I’ve been sitting here thinking of all the things I thought I would be doing in 2013 that I will not actually be doing. The crazy-intense curricula that would forever ensconce me as Queen of All the Homeschoolers, the cool speaking gigs in interesting places, the challenging but exciting writing opportunities, and those elaborate home organization projects that would surely make our entire house look like something off of Pinterest, have all either had to be hugely modified or scrapped altogether. Heck, I’ll be excited if I can walk up the stairs without flopping on the bed to gasp for breath at any point before summer. And here’s the most surprising part of all of that:
I don’t really care that much.
Starting with the moment my OB came to my hospital room to explain my diagnosis, I kept waiting to feel a great wave of mourning for all my plans. I waited and waited. But it never came. And when I look back on what God was teaching me in 2012, I see why.
In 2012 there was a very clear, specific message that was presented to me over and over again, reinforced to me countless times in countless ways. It seemed kind of random, and I wasn’t sure exactly how it would apply to daily life, but it was undeniable that it was something God wanted me to understand. The message was this:
It’s all about the human person.
Though I had felt the silent whispers of this concept in various forms as the months went on, it was Cardinal DiNardo whom I first heard articulate it, in a speech he gave at a benefit dinner in which he recounted something that John Paul II told him on his first ad limina visit to Rome. The great pontiff could have talked then-Bishop DiNardo’s ear off with hours and hours of advice about what it takes to be a good shepherd, but instead he left him with that one truth to ponder. On the bishop’s last day in Rome, John Paul II leaned in close to him and said, “Remember, Your Excellency, it’s all about the human person.” No matter how important or sweeping our plans may be, no matter how big or small the scope of our authority, everything we do must be ordered toward connection with individual human beings.
The message simmered within me all throughout the year, but it’s only now that it’s all gelled.
I’ve come to see the radically freeing truth that our plans only matter to the extent that they’re ordered toward deeper intimacy with individual people. What makes this truth so freeing is that, if your ultimate goal is to make the world a little brighter of a place by touching one person at a time, you can do that under any circumstances. You can live a life ordered toward human intimacy as a jet-setting movie star or as an invalid confined to a hospital bed; whether you find yourself surrounded by Hollywood directors or the nurses on night shift, you will always find yourself surrounded by people in need of love.
And so, to the extent that my plans for 2013 were rightly ordered in the first place, they actually haven’t changed all that much. I may have thought that on that one weekend in March I would be connecting with the people seated at my table after I gave my speech; instead, it looks like I’ll be connecting with my family, my neighbors, the people in my parish, or whoever else I can encounter without getting on a plane. The details may be different, but the goal is the same.
This is especially freeing in light of my birthday.
I’m not immune to the occasional pang of “I’m getting old!” thoughts that probably plague most citizens of our youth-obsessed society. MTV culture tries to paint aging — or illness, or disability, or any condition other than being young and healthy — as a great limiting of options. Alas, you can no longer [insert description of supposedly glamorous activity]. That’s for people who are [younger / healthier / prettier / wealthier] than you are. But the truth, which I understand with such great clarity after all I’ve been through in the past week, is that if your plans were not love-driven in the first place, then they were the kind of stupid, time-wasting plans that people shake their fists and rue through tears on their deathbeds; and if they were love-driven, then there are no worldly circumstances that could prevent you from executing them, even if the details change a bit.
And so I find it profoundly liberating here on my birthday, as I enter into the daunting territory of a year full of questions and unknowns, to know that as long as my life is ordered toward love, it is a life with limitless possibilities.