Author Archives: laurenvliet

Planting Seeds

Dear Pope Francis,

It’s spring (not that we really had much of a winter by Canadian standards). Everything is turning green, blooming, and generally looking beautiful.The spring bulbs are starting to blossom. But in order for those bulbs to bloom now, they had to be planted last fall.

This is not the first time I’ve used images of plants and seeds to describe the spiritual life, and I’m certainly not the only one in history to do so (For instance, St. Teresa of Avila talked about watering a garden). In the past few years, I’ve often been the growing and tending stage. The seeds of discerning ministry, school, and making friends, had been planted – partly out of necessity and partly by choice. Now, those seeds have bloomed. One year ago, I successfully defended my thesis and finished school. This capped off three years of new friends, new joys and challenges, and discerning where God was asking me to go next.

For a while I simply enjoyed the blooms in my spiritual garden – the joy and relief that came from finishing school, the bliss of being able to relax with friends, and the excitement and healthy dose of nerves about moving to work in ministry. But now, those blooms are fading, their memories recorded in journals and with pictures. It’s time to plant new seeds.

I don’t know exactly what seeds I’m planting; there isn’t a sign or label anywhere saying what these seeds are supposed to grow into. I think I’m planting some friendship seeds, and of course some faith and ongoing discernment seeds. But there are also some new ones, writing being the most prominent. I have no idea what exactly is going to come from any of these seeds. This is equally exciting and nerve-wracking. What if none of them grow?! the nagging voice at the back of my head asks, better to not plant them at all.

But when this voice gets too loud, I return to the mustard seed: the tiniest of the seeds grows into the largest of shrubs and provides a home to birds (Matthew 13:31-32), and having faith the size of a mustard seed is enough to tell a mountain to move (Matthew 17:20). So, ignoring the nagging little voice, I plant and care for all of the seeds, and have faith that the proper ones will grow, because “…faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1-4), and really isn’t that what gardening is as well?

Preparing the soil,

Lauren

PS: Readers, have you either seen the fruit of prayer in your life, or are you planting some new seeds. Share below, and I’ll be sure to pray for your seeds too!

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How to Walk on Water

Dear Pope Francis,

It is no secret that the story of Jesus and Peter walking on water is one of my favourites, and that I find myself returning to it over and over again. Every time, I see myself in a different part of the story.

This time however, I’m struck by what is missing from the story: after Peter sinks and Jesus catches him, the author simply writes: “when they got back in the boat, the wind ceased” (Mt 14:31). Did Jesus catch Peter and then they got back in the boat right away? Or did Peter try again to see if he could do better the second time? Did Peter give up, and that’s why they got back in the boat?

While I’ll never know that part of Peter’s story, it’s the part I am living right now.

For three years I felt Jesus inviting me to step out of the boat and into the storm of big city living, loneliness, and school stress. The final invitation was to move even further across the country. But since arriving, things have been different.

I no longer feel like I’m being invited somewhere new; I feel like I am exactly where I’m supposed to be: I am standing on the water with Jesus. I can see the waves (the physical differences and distance) and feel the wind (the loneliness), and sometimes they get to me. But for the most part there is peace, and I stay on top of the water.

But now that I’m here, how do I walk on the water? Standing here is great, but I didn’t come all this way just to stand on it.

Unfortunately, Google can’t answer that question (but it can tell me how to walk in heels). The only way to answer the question is to take a step, maybe just a little one, but I need to move forward. Then I need to take another one, maybe a little bigger this time. The answer is to just keep taking steps forward, and as I do, without realizing it, I am walking on the water. I am gaining momentum to keep going.

This is a nice picture, painted with figurative language. But what have the steps actually been? Some of them are quite practical, like getting a desk for my room so I have a comfortable place to work at home. Others are more focused on self-care, like making my days off a priority (a big accomplishment for me), and making new friends. In some cases, I have no idea why I’m taking the step, but it feels right, like making blogging a priority again, and starting some other writing projects.

As with most other steps in my life, I don’t know exactly where these will take me, but as I keep putting one foot in front of the other, it gets easier to trust the process and to keep the momentum going. Patience on the other hand, isn’t always easy, but practice makes perfect (eventually).

Skipping on the waves,

Lauren

PS: These are my steps on the water. Have you been taking steps on the water? Share in the comments!

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2015: The Year in Review

Dear Pope Francis,

A few weeks ago Facebook launched its 2015 Timeline feature, which pulls together ten pictures from the year so people can share the highlight from the year. I played around with mine, but most of the pictures that were suggested by Facebook weren’t actually that important when considering the year overall.

So, in honour of the adventure that 2015 was, here are the top five most memorable moments of the year, in chronological order:

  1. Turned 25 (April 2015) – My 25th birthday was one of the best by far, full of friends, laughter, giving back, and surprises. But this also signaled the first time that I seriously thought of myself as a ‘real grown up’. I don’t know what I was before, perhaps a ‘pretend grown up’ because I was still in school. Whatever it was, a switch flipped in my head this year, and I feel like I’m a proper grown up, going to work, paying bills, being responsible, and stuff like that. Sometimes, it’s a little stressful, but I have to say, for the most part, I like it.
  2. Successfully defended my Master’s Thesis (May 2015) – This covers several of days that all run together in my memory: the actual day of the defense, the celebration that evening and over the weekend, and celebrating with my classmates and professors the following week. It’s all a blur. I’ve kept the emails that I wrote in the immediate aftermath so I won’t forget the feelings and my initial reactions. It’s probably one of my biggest accomplishments to date, and despite all of the stress and challenges it came with, I wouldn’t give up the experience. The whole process, three years of classes, a year of intense, focused studying and the actual defense, taught me that by relying on God, I can persevere, even when things are hard and everything around me makes me think I should just give up.
  3. Accepted my first job (August 2015) – Figuring out what I was supposed to do after school was more stressful than I thought it would be. I had to do some soul searching and discerning to figure out what I needed at this time in my life, and where I was being called. But I can see God’s fingerprints all over the job that I accepted. I’m happy to say that I’ve landed right where I need to be, especially since it involved a move.
  4. Moved to western Canada (September 2015) – Three weeks after accepting the position, I said good bye to my Toronto friends and life, packed my bags and moved west. I settled in a smaller city, almost in the middle of the country. Geographically it is very different from what I’m used to, but that’s part of the adventure. I’m calling this ‘the second leg of my multi-year, cross-Canada tour’.
  5. Convocation (November 2015) – I almost didn’t go back to southern Ontario for convocation, but in hindsight I’m very glad that I did. I was only there for a weekend, but it affirmed my decision to move, even though moving posed its own challenges. I realized that as much as I missed my friends in Toronto, it wasn’t the right place for me to be right now. It was still awesome to see my Toronto friends; social media, Skype and phone calls are great, but nothing beats catching up in person. I think I finally learned where the limits of my extroversion are: after three straight days of catching up with people, I was ready for some quiet time.

There it is; my highlight reel from 2015. It was everything I expected it to be: a fast-paced adventure, complete with changes that I wouldn’t have predicted.

For as much fun as 2015 was, I am glad it’s 2016. I’m ready for a new adventure, racing after new goals in a new stage of life.

Wishing you health, peace and joy in 2016,

Lauren

PS: Readers, what was the highlight of 2015 for you?

 

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When Nostalgia is Missing

Dear Pope Francis,

I was in Southern Ontario for my convocation over the weekend. Although celebrating was the goal, I did all the things I did when I was living there: eat sushi, ride the subway, get coffee with friends, and go to lectures. And I loved every minute of it.

There was a sense of returning. It wasn’t like going home (that will always be the East Coast), but there was a sense returning somewhere familiar. As I rode the subway and spent time catching up with friends, I didn’t necessarily have any sense of nostalgia, fondly remembering the adventures of the last three years and wishing I could go back to that time. Maybe it’s because I’ve only been gone for two months, but I think it’s because I know it’s time to move on.

Moving on doesn’t mean I forget, or that I don’t miss people or things (I have yet to find good sushi in Western Canada, and making new friends takes time no matter where you live). But moving on without the sense of longing for the past helps me to know that leaving is the right decision. It also helps me to know that the past has been integrated; many of the changes I underwent and experiences I had while living there are now part of who I am.

A Tree and its Fruit

More than just being part of who I am, the lack of nostalgia helps me to see that these experiences inform who I am, the same way that a good tree is know by good fruit (Lk 6:44; Mt 12:33). But good fruit generally can only come when there is good soil, clean water, and fresh air.

Metaphorically, I am rooted in soil – it is composed of all the experiences that I’ve had. The way plants will absorb nutrients from the soil, I absorb things from the experiences of my life. The quality of the things I absorb shape how I view myself and the world around me. Absorbing positive experiences shapes a positive outlook, and absorbing negative experiences can lead to a negative outlook.

But not all experiences are absorbed right away. Sometimes, they happen and I don’t really pay attention to them. Thankfully those events are generally neutral. They are things like holding the door open for someone else, they happen, but they don’t really register as something important. But there are other things, like some of the personal things I learned while I studied that I can’t ignore.

When I can’t ignore an event, the temptation is to wish that I could go back and relive it over and over again – this is nostalgia. It is wishful, and never going to happen. More importantly, it can get out of hand and be unhealthy because I never get passed it. I am so focused on wishing that I can go back in time, that I’m not open to what is going on right now.

Over the weekend, I felt at peace with all the memories of my time at school. I learned a lot, but they are the lessons that influence my life now. I don’t want to go back and re-live my time in study group, or getting coffee with friends, or eating sushi. It’s not because I don’t miss it, but because I learned important things – like valuing deep conversations, and diversity in my friendships – and I can find these things in new places and ways, with new people. This opens up new possibilities, and that is exciting. The excitement outweighs any nostalgia, and almost balances out the loneliness that inevitably comes with moving somewhere new.

The challenge in the days, months and years ahead is to remember the lessons, and allow them to continue nourishing my life. Let the lessons reveal themselves anew as the seasons of my life change, and I continue to grow and develop as a person. It won’t always be easy, and no doubt the temptation for nostalgia will continue to be present, but focusing on the present helps.

Enjoying the memories,

Lauren

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Colours of the Season

Dear Pope Francis,

A seasonal controversy erupted last week across North America. Starbucks released their traditional seasonal red coffee cups, but this year the cups are solid red. There are a number of vocal people slamming Starbucks for being anti-Christmas because the cups don’t have snowflake and other seasonal designs. Personally, I don’t care what colour the cup is, as long as the contents inside taste good.

There have been lots of responses to these complaints, everything from Ellen DeGeneres devoting one of the monologues on her show to the topic, to social media posts about how this is another example of the disconnect between the first world and the impoverished.

And I agree with these critiques. But this also points to another reality – we don’t know how to wait anymore.

It’s November. Christmas is in approximately six weeks. By the time this is published, the red cups will have been available for about a week. That means that the cups were released before Remembrance Day (or Veteran’s Day if you’re American), or about a week after Halloween. It feels like yesterday it was August and pumpkin spice lattes were back in stock, and now the Christmas drinks are out.

If we can put down the Skinny Peppermint Mocha for just a second, and think about this. Of the next six weeks, we are going to be spending four weeks in Advent, a liturgical season that is all about waiting. We use candles on a wreath to count those weeks, lighting a new candle each week. As the days and weeks progress we watch the candles get shorter, visibly showing us that time is passing. As a kid, I remember Advent feeling like the longest four weeks of the year, but it made Christmas all the better because I had been actively waiting for it to come.

Maybe, for some people, the launch of Christmas cups, drinks, decorations and carols is how they mark the transition to the holiday season, but I see a gradually shifting emphasis. By focusing on things like seasonal cups and Christmas merchandise in the stores, it cheapens the experience of Advent. The anticipation, waiting with baited breath, that are the hallmarks of the season becomes tedious rather than exciting. We’ve already been bombarded with reminders that Christmas is coming, that we need to be frantically waiting and preparing for the perfect holiday. In the onslaught, we miss Advent’s subtle calls, like the different hymns and prayers in the liturgy, the use of the Advent wreath, and the symbolism of the colours.

So in the coming weeks, maybe we can be less concerned about the colour of cups, or even what kind of seasonal drink options there are to put in those cups, and slow down. Focus on the season when it arrives. Rather than skipping it, let’s give Advent the attention it deserves, one of prayerful waiting, counting the weeks as the wax candles burn.

Skipping the seasonal drinks for a few more weeks,

Lauren

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The Gift of Hope

Dear Pope Francis,

I went to the mall yesterday and met up with some friends. I bought a new dress and some other things. The whole day seemed entirely normal, except that it wasn’t. Anytime I stopped and looked around the mall, I wondered if the people dining at the Parisian cafes had felt like I did, before the shooting erupted.

I’ve felt sad, with just a twinge of fear since I first heard about the shootings in Paris on Friday, and it’s only been compounded by reading about the other terrorists actions around the world. I’ve been thinking about how many violent attacks there have been in the last few years: terrorists, depressed individuals shooting at schools, martyrs, and full-scale war. There is so much, and part of me just wants to hide from it all. My heart wants to shrink away from all of the pain of the world, because that would hurt less.

I imagine that hearing about each of these horrific tragedies dims the metaphorical light in my heart just a little bit. If it keeps dimming, eventually the light will be gone, and with it my ability to hope that peace will eventually come.

This reminds me of a scene in season four of the show Once Upon a Time (caution: spoiler alert – in case you haven’t caught up). In the second half of the season, Rumpelstiltskin, the Dark One, is experiencing heart trouble. All of the bad deeds he has committed are literally turning his heart black and snuffing out the good magic. In the season finale, the Apprentice saves Rumpelstiltskin by casting the darkness out of his heart, leaving him with a clean white heart.

Every time I hear about a violent attack, my heart is blackened, dimmed a little bit. It’s not that I’m turning evil, like Rumpelstiltskin, but I loose my ability to hope. Like Rumpelstiltskin, when my heart gets too close to becoming entirely black, it can be restored. God clears out all of the gunk, all of the fear and worry, and gives me a clean heart, ready to hope again. The Apprentice used magic to clean Rumpelstiltskin’s heart, but God uses something event better – He uses grace.

God pours out grace to clean us in lots of ways, but they are not always tangible. But I can tell when God has used grace to clean my heart, and allow me to hope for the best, despite seeing awful things in our world.

Praying for the world,

Lauren

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Stay Inspired

Dear Pope Francis,

How to get beyond the mundane? That’s the question I asked at the very end of my last letter. It was a question that I had been asking myself for weeks before I posted that letter. More than merely ask the question, I was wrestling with it, grappling with it. Fighting with myself as I proposed solutions and ways to move forward.

I could get up early everyday and exercise. I could focus on getting more sleep. I could take a cooking class. I could experiment with new recipes at home. I could start volunteering. I could read for fun. I could write solely for the joy of it. I could look for publishing opportunities. I could start watching a new series.

As soon as I decided on any one course of action, I’d change my mind. I’d fall asleep resolving to get up early, work out and pray before going to work. In the morning, I’d decide to lounge in bed and read a book instead. On the weekend I’d resolve that this would be the week that I would finally post a new letter. But when the next weekend rolled around, I hadn’t even come up with a topic. I did however, try making curry for the first time, and made an excellent apple crisp.

None of these things are bad. I’ve rediscovered my love of reading and cooking solely for enjoyment. i’m devouring books, and I love Sunday afternoons because that’s cooking day.

But none of these answers really satisfied me. They didn’t get to the heart of the problem. And the problem was that in spite of all of the wonderful things I want to do – exercise, volunteer, read, pray, cook, write – I feel overwhelmed by the freedom of having the time to do these things. Instead, I get lost in the mundane because that is easier. I get lost in details at work, in stressing about finances, in figuring out exactly what to do with my time to make the most of it. Focusing on the mundane makes me feel busy. When I’m busy, there is no free time anyway, so I don’t need to worry about squandering it.

Except that stressing about the mundane, trying to get all the details perfect, is exactly what is squandering my free time. Worse than that, it makes me feel listless and uninspired.

“To be inspiring, you constantly need to be inspired”

That was the line that snapped everything into perspective. I heard it during the very last session of a conference I was at. It was the concluding remarks given during an informal Q&A session. It was like a spark, a jolt, a really cold wave of reality.

All that busyness created by worrying about the mundane things was sapping my inspiration. All those things that felt indulgent, that were expressions of my freedom, were things that inspired me. They helped me feel human and whole. Instead of trying to limit them: forcing myself to slow down when I read, or not exercise because I might not have a full hour afterwards to get ready, or whatever other excuse I was making, I should be soaking them in. I can always go back and re-read the book. Being a couple minutes later than I’d like to be or having damp hair is not the end of the world.

While I don’t wake up everyday and plan to inspire people, I need to be inspired for my own well being. So here’s to a weekend of socializing and reading and cooking.

In Christ,

Lauren

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This Is It

Dear Pope Francis,

Things have been quiet on the blog for a while. There have been some big life changes that I needed to work through before I was ready to share them. As I think about all of the changes that have happened over the last six months, one phrase comes to mind: “This is it”.

That phrase is an expression in Newfoundland, usually a response to the question “whattaya at?” (what are you doing). Taken literally, “this is it” suggests that whatever the person is doing is simple, without deeper meaning. What you see is what you get.

So what am I doing? Well, I moved, again. I took a job as a full time youth minister in Western Canada. I’m working, I’m (mostly) settled in a new, smaller city, slowly making new friends. This is it. I’ve moved on my own before, and by contrast, this move has been much easier. It all feels normal, and without deeper meaning.

Except that I know there is something deeper here. The decision to move again was not one that I made quickly, although the realization that I was stuck and needed to leave Southern Ontario felt like a cold wave overwhelming me unexpectedly.The story of how I stumbled into this job has God’s fingerprints all over it. And God’s grace has been gushing since I arrived.

So this isn’t it. There is a reason that I am here, no matter how mundane things may be feeling right now. Which begs the question: how to get beyond the mundane?

In Christ,

Lauren

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Self-Worth and Social Media

Dear Pope Francis,

Increasingly, social media dominates our lives, so it’s not surprising that when you took questions from youth in Sarajevo, someone asked about social media. For better or for worse, ministry will continue to make use of social media. When it comes to things like the New Evangelization, effective use of social media is helpful, because thousands of people can be reached with minimal work; all it takes is a like, a share or a re-tweet.

But where social media becomes problematic is when we forget that it is a means, not the end in itself. When we treat popularity on social media as the goal, we reduce the events of our lives to the fodder to post and get likes, followers and retweets. We share the updates about how well our lives are going. Perhaps the worst of these is the ‘humble-brag’, when someone brags about a success by trying to hide it behind a complaint. When we turn our lives in the means to achieve social media notoriety, the value of the experience is determined by the online response. Suddenly, my trip to Europe last summer is no longer valuable because I experienced personal growth, thought more deeply about important issues, and accomplished something on my bucket list; it is only valuable for boosting my online persona as someone who is spontaneous and adventurous, and well-travelled as a result. Instead of allowing that event, and other life changing events, to be a spring board, launching me forward, being hung up on the social media response keeps me focused on myself and where I am, creating (perhaps unknowingly) a rut.

Treating social media as the goal leads to doubting my own worth as a person. In the same way that events are valuable insofar as they boost my online persona, I stop treating my self-worth as something inherent, and make it something tied to external factors, how many likes, retweets and followers I have. Social media is just one example of the way people attach their self-worth to externals (think about the people who are obsessed with weighing themselves, the size of their cloths, or how much weight they can lift at the gym).

On this point, I think the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council were quite prophetic:

“All who, of their own free choice, make use of these media of communications as readers, viewers or listeners have special obligations. For a proper choice demands that they fully favor those presentations that are outstanding for their moral goodness, their knowledge and their artistic or technical merit. They ought, however, to void those that may be a cause or occasion of spiritual harm to themselves, or that can lead others into danger through base example, or that hinder desirable presentations and promote those that are evil.” (Inter Mirifica: Decree on the Media of Social Communications, 9)

This passage most obviously applies to the classic examples of harmful media, like pornography, and while that it is spiritually harmful, it glosses over the other spiritual harm, like degrading the value of our lives in order to get likes and followers. Perhaps even it is more spiritually harmful when we tie our self-worth so intimately into our social media persona that how we treat ourselves and value our lives is determined by that, because often times we don’t realize we are doing it. We are so used to being to connected via social media that we stop paying attention to how it makes us feel, and the role it has in our lives.

Logging out,

Lauren

PS: Watch for my next letter, when I’ll pick up this topic again, and talk about the importance of mindfulness and social media.

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Finding Iggy: Going to the Frontiers

Love deed IgnatiusDear Pope Francis,

Happy feast day!

I’ve been following lots of the social media updates on Twitter and Facebook about the Feast of St. Ignatius. There have been lots of cool quotes, well wishes to the Jesuits, and funny pictures with the cartoon Iggy to celebrate St. Ignatius’ legacy and the contributions of the order he founded.

What has been popping up for me all day is Ignatius’ idea of being sent to the frontiers; going to those places where other people either can’t go or don’t want to go. The frontier may be a literal place, like a remote mission territory. It could be working with a marginalized population in a very populated city. It could even be spending time with a single person who is feeling like they are at the edge of society.

I’m thrilled to see social media feeds full of pictures and thoughts about spiritual things, especially when they have to do with such a cool saint, but being called to the frontiers issues me a challenge.

I am challenged to go beyond myself, and the safety of posting my thoughts and reflections online. I am challenged to go, to act, to do something to serve my neighbour. One of the quotes floating around today illustrates this: “Love ought to show itself in deeds more than words.” Being called to frontiers, wherever that may be, is to be done with love, and that requires actions. Tangible things that, with God’s grace, I do to share the Gospel with the people around me, even if I don’t explicit talk about Jesus-stuff.

At its heart, this is about following St. Ignatius’ oft quoted maxim: find God in all things. In order to go to the frontiers, in order to serve people or situations with love, I need to genuinely believe that God is there. I need to be willing to find the grace in the hardest moments, and open myself up to allow God’s love to flow through me.

And I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the spiritual contributions of St. Ignatius all year round!

Embracing my inner Iggy,

Lauren

Go Forth Ignatius

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