I don’t do suffering well. Some generous people said that they thought I handled the pulmonary embolism thing gracefully, but a) they would have retracted all of that and slowly backed away in fear if they could have heard my inner dialogue, and b) sitting in a quiet hospital room and listening to my iPod didn’t exactly make me St. Josephine Bakhita. Also, it’s usually the little trials that throw me for a loop more than the big ones: I can kind of go with the flow when major medical procedures go awry, but getting interrupted 50 times when I thought I might actually get ten freaking minutes to write a blog post (no idea where I came up with that example!!!!) sends me into an abyss of despair that makes me angrily question whether there is anything good in the human experience.
Needless to say, when I’m in these kinds of situations, I don’t tend to make great decisions. For example, I have this stupid sinus infection that I (and Augmentin) can’t seem to kick, and the presence of constant pain in my left cheek combined with a baby who wakes me up many times per night has left me in a not-great mental state. (Yeah, I have a neti pot. Hasn’t helped, but I use it anyway because I look so glamorous doing it.) It’s easy to let times like this trigger the beginning of a downward spiral in which I decline opportunities I should probably take, give up on activities that were good and fruitful, and open up my calendar and CANCEL ALL THE THINGS.
To inject some much-needed sanity into my decision making process during these times, I often go through a checklist of questions that my old spiritual director would ask. This post is kind of a rerun since I posted this list a couple of years ago (and I also have a new and wonderful spiritual director now who also asks great questions), but I thought I’d put it up again since these ideas are helping me keep the crazy-think at bay.
6 Questions My Spiritual Director Would Ask When
I Had a Tough Decision to Make and Was Being Crazy About It:
1. Have you prayed about it?
It’s hard to believe that this question is even necessary, but with me it usually is. With embarrassing frequency I’d come to my old spiritual director, Christie, and pour out my angst about some conundrum, ending with shaking my fist at the heavens and wondering why God wasn’t helping me. There were more than a few awkward moments the resulted from her gently asking, “Have you prayed about it?”, and I had to find a way to avoid seeming like a spiritual vegetable while offering the honest answer of “no.”
2. How does it impact your primary vocation?
I can’t overstate the importance of this question. It’s brought more peace to my life than any other thought exercise. The Catholic idea of vocation is that the meaning of life is to serve others, and your vocation (e.g. married life, religious life, priesthood, etc.) is the main way that God intends for you to serve. It’s his primary path for you to find peace and fulfillment — therefore, no legitimate call from God would negatively impact your vocation. God would never call a parish priest to do something that made him feel burdened and resentful of offering the Mass on Sunday, he would never call a father to something that made him feel tied down and frustrated by his wife and kids, etc. It doesn’t mean that the only things you ever do are directly related to the duties of your vocation, but that those duties are your top priority.
Whenever I’ve started going down a path that introduced tension, resentment, or other bad vibes into the family, it’s always turned out to be the wrong decision. This isn’t to be confused with short-term sacrifices that may be difficult, like when Joe was studying for the CPA exam and it was super stressful at times but we were both ultimately on the same page about it; it’s more about choices that fundamentally put you at odds with your spouse or your kids. Over and over again, I’ve found that if a call you hear is really from God (and not just your own selfish desires doing their best imitation of the Holy Spirit), one sure sign is that it will ultimately end up strengthening your work in your primary vocation.
3. What does your spouse think?
Like with #1, I often get so caught up in analyzing things that I forget to ask for Joe’s input, especially if it’s a small matter. My spiritual director would always hone in on this question too, since the Holy Spirit often speaks through our spouses, especially when we’re not doing a good job of listening to him ourselves. (For people who are not married, an alternative might be to ask your parents, siblings, or a trusted friend.)
4. Are you taking care of yourself?
At one point I’d been in a rut and was trying to figure out how to get my life back on track, but it felt like my discernment process was going nowhere. My prayer life was nonexistence, and, worse, I found that I didn’t even really care about praying. When I came to Christie to complain about it, and she immediately asked if I was taking care of myself. I explained that if tearing through entire bags of junk food at a time, drinking too much wine, never exercising, and staying up past midnight to surf the web could be considered “taking care of myself,” then yes, I was doing a fantastic job.
She paused for a moment, then said, “I think we’ve found at least part of the problem.” Experiences of suffering can be amazing times of closeness to God…but if your suffering is self-inflicted due to obsessive attachments to the things of the world, it’s probably not going to lead you to any super spiritual experiences. Christie said that before I began looking into any deeper causes for my spiritual dryness, I needed to start taking care of myself first. Sure enough, once I started eating a better diet and getting some sleep I was able to take the first steps toward getting my prayer life back on track, which helped me in every area of life.
5. Are you making decisions based on fear?
If you hear an inner voice telling you that you need to do something because you’ll be a big huge loser failure and everyone will hate you if you don’t, it’s pretty safe to say that that is not the voice of the Holy Spirit.
Christie always had to remind me of this. For example, at one point I was discerning whether or not to homeschool, but all of my thinking was fear-based: I was tempted to homeschool because I was freaked out about something I’d heard about the local school and I had images of my kids getting bullied playing in my head over and over again. On the other hand, I thought I should send them to school because I was sure I would screw everything up and end up with teenagers who couldn’t read and had mostly imaginary friends.
Christie encouraged me to stop living in fear and start boldly asking what God wanted our family to do, to make a conscious effort to trust that he would give us what we needed when we needed it if we just followed his path. It took a while to silence all the trains of thought that were filled with fear and anxiousness, but once I did the discernment process went much more smoothly, and I quickly came to a decision that brought me a lot of peace.
6. Which path would bring you the most peace?
Similar to the above, Christie would sometimes ask me to imagine myself going through each of the various options that were before me in some dilemma, and to consider which one would bring me the most peace. Fairly often, I would find that when I actually took the time to do this, I was filled with anxiety when I thought of going the route that looked best on paper, and felt a perfect sense of peace when I considered taking the route that seemed a little crazy — and the peace-filled option always ended up being the right path.
I usually get a lot of great questions when I bring up the subject of spiritual direction, so here are some additional resources:
- How to find a spiritual director.
- This spiritual direction blog is a wealth of information on discernment and the spiritual life. Definitely worth bookmarking and reading regularly.
- This post called 9 Things to Do When Needing Direction has some great tips on this topic.
I think I had a mid-life crisis a few months ago.
It was a weird experience, because I didn’t see it coming. Ever since my conversion I’ve had this unshakable sense of peace at the foundation of my life, a sort of root-level happiness that I never knew was possible. Yeah, things are hard, sometimes really hard, and I whine now and then (okay, a lot), but all of that stuff has to do with day to day annoyances. When you look past all that, I’m actually deeply fulfilled with this crazy existence of mine — after all, life doesn’t have to be easy to be joyful.
So I was caught off guard when, one warm afternoon last fall, I found myself riddled with stress and panic at the thought of turning 36.
It was one of those moments when information that I already knew well suddenly struck me completely differently than it had the first thousand times I’d thought about it: a nurse at my obstetrician’s office asked how old I would be when the baby is born, and I answered casually, “Thirty-six.” She left the room while scribbling notes on my chart, and I was left stunned, sitting rigid in the chair as if I’d just received some grave diagnosis.
“Thirty-six? Thirty-SIX?!?! My thirties are mostly gone! Forty is just around the corner! I’M SO OLD!!!!”
Now, I realize the ridiculousness of a 36-year-old thinking that she is old, and I’m sure I will laugh heartily if I re-read this in 30 years. It’s not even that I think that 36 is old, objectively; I just didn’t realize that that’s my age. I guess I’ve been so busy for the past half decade that I never really noticed that I was out of my 20s.
But whatever. No big deal. I tried to brush it all off as soon as I left the doctor’s office, assuring myself that I must just be in one of those moods where everything seems overwhelming and horrible. (Just that morning I had called Joe to wonder loudly if life is even worth living anymore, which resulted in an awkward silence when it came out that the question arose because we ran out of butter.)
The hours turned into days, my mood improved, and yet I continued to be plagued by some unsettling feeling about my age. I’d be going through my routine, feeling fine, and then — boom — that I’M GETTING OLD! feeling would slam into me and leave me reeling.
I tried to get to the bottom of this weird new anxiety, but had little luck. I went through this mental process I often turn to in times of stress, where I think through possible explanations and try them out like trying keys in a lock. Yet this time, none of them fit: Anxious about mortality? Nah. We Catholics think about death all the time, and I’m fairly comfortable with the knowledge that my life on this earth won’t last forever. Worried about looking older? I’m not immune to bemoaning new gray hairs and wrinkles, but it doesn’t bother me that much. Missing the “freedom” of youth? Oh my gosh. I was never more of a slave than when I was supposedly living the high life in my 20s. Do not want to experience that again.
I walked around like this for days, maybe even weeks: stressed about my age, stressed about the fact that I was stressed, and stressed that I couldn’t analyze my way out of my stress about being stressed. (Yeah. It’s hard to be me.) Then, finally, it hit me, and I understood what was at the root of my anxiety.
The ah-hah moment came when I stumbled across an old DarwinCatholic post, in which Darwin makes a profound point about our little daily choices adding up to create a life – specifically, that if our choices are poorly thought out, it may not be a life we want to live. He analogized it to constructing a building:
The house or office you are sitting in was built according to a plan and a purpose, a purpose from which it is now only able to deviate to a limited extent. My house cannot suddenly become an office tower, though it has an office in it. My office building would make a very poor house. But they are built knowingly, according to a plan. And yet, our lives seem often constructed to a purpose without the architect knowing that he is in constructing something with walls and doors — an edifice which will suit some ends well, and other poorly. Individual choices pile up unto some particular type of life, and once that life is built people sometimes find it is not, in fact, the kind of structure they want to live in.
After reading that, I got it.
People probably experience mid-life crises for a variety of reasons, but, for me, what happened was that I looked up and realized that my building is well on its way to completion. Even though I am happy with the way it’s turning out, it was startling to realize how much of it is done. Last time I checked, it was still a bare foundation with endless possibilities; it now has a definite design, a clear trajectory. Many of the choices I have already made rule out other, future choices I might have once considered. As a 36-year-old mother expecting my sixth child, it’s extremely unlikely that I will ever be a top makeup artist or ascend the Seven Summits or become a professor of physics. It’s not that I care that much about doing any of those things, but when I was 20, they were all options.
Now, they are not.
It was when I internalized that fact that I realized that the pain of my mid-life crisis was, at its root, fueled by my attachment to options.
I’ve long given lip service to the idea that the secret to life is seeking God’s will on a day-by-day, even hour-by-hour basis. Ever since I read the (incredible and life-changing) book He Leadeth Me, I have been a big believer in this idea that the most important way to be fulfilled and have an impact on the world is simply to ask God what he wants you to do right here, right now; to rest in the knowledge that God always has something important that he needs you to do, no matter your age or your physical abilities or your circumstances, and that it’s probably more exciting than your own plans anyway.
But believing something and living it are always two different things, and it wasn’t until my little mid-life crisis that I realized just how much hope I placed in having options. Rather than resting in the life that God has given me, and trusting that he’ll give me whatever opportunities I require to do what I’m meant to do in this world, I still relied on having lots and lots of choices for the future in my back pocket (you know, as a backup, just in case God dropped the ball with his plan and I had to take over).
And when I realized that many of those choices were gone now, with more disappearing with each passing day, it was a startling moment of coming face to face with my own attachments.
As I would find out a few months later when my health took a dive, this happens in other areas of life as well: in addition to time, you often don’t realize just how much you rely on things like power, money, or (in my recent situation) health until you don’t have them anymore. I always thought that my hope for a truly fulfilled life rested in God alone. Now I see that the breakdown was more like: 30% hope in God, 30% hope in robust health that allows me to engage in activities of my choosing, 30% hope in having plenty of time to do all sorts of other stuff in the future, and 10% in having the resources to make it happen. As we age, those other commodities dwindle — a 110-year-old doesn’t have a whole lot of health or time or resources, for example — and only God is left.
At least for me, a mid-life crisis is nothing more or less than a realization that every day brings us a little closer to that point when all we have left is God, and that we may be closer to that point than we thought we were. It sounds kind of depressing, like something I’d shout into the phone at Joe at 3 PM when I’m exhausted and the baby won’t nap and someone just spilled yogurt on the wall (“ALL I HAVE LEFT IS GOD!!!”), but it’s really quite inspiring. To go through a mid-life crisis and to come out the other side is to go through a process of purification, in which you accept the things that are gone, and realize that they were were never the source of true happiness to begin with.
I received a copy of a new book while I was at the monastery this week. I planned to read it when I got home, but as soon as I glanced at the first page, I knew I’d been given something special. I ended up spending hours poring over its pages, soaking up its insights and nodding and just about saying out loud, “Finally, someone is explaining this in a way I understand!”
That book is Choosing Joy by Dan Lord, and you just have to read it.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Dan, he was once the lead singer of a popular punk band and is now a devout Catholic. He’s the husband of Hallie Lord, a friend of ours, and the editor of Catholic Exchange. He’s also one of the most talented writers I’ve encountered.
To give you a feel for his writing, here is the beginning of Chapter 1 of his book:
Joy is not something you would expect to find in someone like my dad. His father abandoned him and his younger brother when they were both infants. His mother stayed, but she was hard-shelled and aloof. The three of them blew through the slums of 1940′s Atlanta like fallen leaves, moving to and from squalid apartments with gaping holes in the walls and broken plumbing. Everyone around them endured the same dreary poverty; one family they knew literally lived in a chicken coop. The males of this world were almost all like my dad’s father: human driftwood, coming and going as they pleased, pathetically lazy or darkly savage. My dad once described for me a fight he witnessed between two men which culminated in one of them slicing open the other’s stomach with a straight razor.
Would you believe that Dan’s father went on to experience profound joy in his life, thanks to his relationship with God? Using his father’s story as a launching point, Dan spends the rest of the book pondering that most pressing of human questions:
How do we find joy when our earthly circumstances are miserable?
And — here’s what I loved — he first takes a hard look at what joy is. This is an important question for those of us whose default state is a spiritual dry spell, who don’t often have emotionally powerful experiences of God. For a long time I thought that that meant that I just wouldn’t get to experience the whole “Christian joy” thing, but I’ve slowly come to understand something that Dan hits home in his book: that joy is not the same thing as a surface-level emotion; that it’s possible to have all sorts of mental or physical tribulations on the surface, yet still have true joy deep within your heart.
It seems like a lot of folks I know are struggling right now. Some are having financial problems, others family problems; some are dealing with physical or mental health issues; others are just bummed out about the state of the world. Many of them report that the worst of it is the impact it’s had on their spiritual lives. “It’s one thing to face this endless stream of one problem after another,” someone I know said recently, “but by far the hardest part is that all of this has made my spiritual life like a barren wasteland.” She seemed to feel guilty as she lowered her voice and added, “My relationship with God doesn’t bring me happiness anymore.”
If you feel like this, or even close to it, read this book. It doesn’t offer quick-fix solutions (Dan points out that Christian joy isn’t an instantaneous thing that happens the moment we believe: “Joy is not a flag Jesus plants in us; it is a fruit Jesus grows in us”). There are no promises that it will make all your problems go away and leave you in a peppy mood for the rest of your life. It’s better than that. It’s a field guide for wading through the thorny trails of earthly life, and finding the only thing that is real and true underneath it all. It’s a detailed instruction manual for making your soul fertile soil for the seeds of the Holy Spirit, from whom all true joy springs.
This is one of the most needed books to have come along in years. It answers just the right questions, in just the right way, at just the right time. You won’t be sorry you read it.
It was Yaya‘s birthday a couple of weeks ago, and when the time came to write up a card, I froze. How could I possibly express my appreciation for all that she does for us? This was when I was bad-busy, when I’d gotten myself in over my head with so many commitments that I considered the day a success if I remembered to feed the kids lunch. So finding the right words to tell her what I wanted her to know for her birthday seemed impossible.
I went down to the store, and headed for the greeting card section. I felt immediate relief as I looked at all the options. There was such a variety of sentiments inscribed in the insides of these cards, I knew I’d be able to find one that said what I was trying to say.
I finally found one that fit the tone and ideas I wanted to get across, and when I brought it home, I underlined key phrases to indicate my personal signoff on the pre-printed message. I then added a brief, hand-written note at the bottom that echoed the sentiments written in the card, and signed my name. As I slid it into the envelope, I was so grateful that I’d found a card that conveyed what I could not. I’m sure Yaya would have been blessed by a basic “Happy birthday! Love ya!” message in an it’s-the-thought-that-counts way, but it was a blessing to her and to me to have the fullness of what I was bumbling around to express articulated so clearly.
I keep thinking of this example whenever I sit down to pray.
My prayer life hasn’t been great lately, and I realized that part of the issue was that I was drawing a blank every time I’d sit down to share some dedicated moments with God. I found myself uncharacteristically tongue-tied, starting my prayers with statements like, “God, you are good. So, so good. Yup…pretty good — err, umm, really good!” (Technically there’s the option of simply being still, and communing with God without words, but I’m not yet at a level of spiritual maturity where I can hook that up on any kind of regular basis. It always degenerates into this ridiculous split personality thing, where I’ll have a thought, then one part of my brain says, Shhhh! It’s silent meditation time!, then the other responds, Then why are you talking? YOU shhh! Yeah. It’s absurd.) Anyway, I know that all of my attempts at prayer were pleasing to God, even if they sounded to me like something out of an insipid haikus contest. And I realize that prayer is not all about me. But, per the advice of my spiritual director, I also needed to be realistic about where I am in my spiritual life, and admit that if this kept feeling so wrong, I was probably not going to continue setting aside time for prayer on a regular basis.
And so, rather than banging my head against the wall trying to express everything that was on my heart, I turned to the prayers of the Church. I had forgotten how many options there are! I could get back into the Liturgy of the Hours, or simply pray a daily Rosary. There are all the great litanies and novenas, not to mention the basics like the Our Father and the Glory Be.
The first thing I was drawn to was the Litany of Humility, and as I read it, my mouth formed the words I’d been trying to say all along:
From the desire of being preferred to others…Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted…Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved…Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated…Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised…Deliver me, Jesus.
Then, one day after receiving the Eucharist, I remembered that I had a card with the words to the Anima Christi in my purse. I almost got teary-eyed as I moved my lips silently to say:
Soul of Christ, sanctify me,
Body of Christ, save me,
Blood of Christ, inebriate me,
Water from Christ’s side, wash me,
Passion of Christ, strengthen me…
Later, the prescribed meditations of the Rosary forced me to stop thinking about myself and meditate on the Lord; I started a novena to the Holy Spirit, and it instilled me with a new awareness of our great Advocate; and the Our Father, of course, helped me say to God everything that needed to be said.
This process reminded me of the card I’d picked out for Yaya. Just as I’d underlined phrases and added a hand-written note in the card I gave to her, with my prayers I closed my eyes and poured passion into the words that most perfectly articulated what I’d been trying to say, and then at the end I added my thoughts (though they were often about as articulate as “Yeah. That. Amen.”) For times like now when I can’t quite seem to find the words to express what I need and want to say to God, I’m so thankful that the Church offers me these “Hallmark cards” that I can send instead.