Discernment is not the New Pixie Dust

Dear Pope Francis,

Discernment has been a recurring topic in many of my letters over the last year (like here, here and here), and for good reason, it’s an ongoing part of my spiritual journey. The fact that it’s a common component doesn’t necessarily mean that it gets easier over time.

Lately, the challenge has been making a decision and sticking to it. It’s not so much that I’m making a decision and then completely reversing the decision, rather I doubt the decision I’ve arrived at through the discernment process. I expect that when I make the ‘right’ decision everything will fall into place effortlessly, with minimal work on my part. If the last few years have been any indication, I know this is crazy talk.

I’m reminded of a scene in one of my favourite TV shows: Once Upon a Time. In “Quite a Common Fairy” the third episode of the third season, Regina, the Evil Queen, is presented with the opportunity to meet her true love and find what has been missing in her life. The catch is that Regina needs to walk into the tavern and introduce herself to the man that Tinker Bell’s pixie dust has identified, a man with Faith Trust & Pixir Dusta lion tattoo. Tinker Bell leaves Regina outside the tavern to follow her heart to true love, but Regina chickens out, and runs away. Despite the use of magic, Regina would still need to do some work in order to win her true love.

In this scene, I am Regina. Not that discernment is magical, but it has helped to illuminate important information for me, the way the magic of the pixie dust led Regina right to her true love. But also like Regina, that doesn’t mean the work is over. Discernment points the way, but I have to walk it, taking whatever the path may bring, be it fun, adventure, or struggle. Like Regina, I feel intimidated by what the discernment has shown me. God, you can’t seriously be asking me to do that? Are you sure you want me? Wouldn’t someone else do a better job?

On the days that I come dangerously close to running away, when things get hard and I’m questioning my discernment, I remember a passage from Proverbs: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will show you the path to take” (Proverbs 3:5-6). Sometimes it takes a lot of coaxing to stay on the path, but so far, so good.

Inching forward,

Lauren

pixie dust trail

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Take my Advice: Don’t Settle

Dear Pope Francis,

Don’t settle. It’s quite likely that this is the single most annoying piece of advice that I am given. It’s not that I don’t understand it. It’s actually deceptively simple: don’t settle for something less than what you deserve/can accomplish/etc. The sentiment is generally full of care and concern, and sometimes (oftentimes in my case) it does serve as a helpful reality check from an objective third-party.

What gets me about this phrase is that when it’s tossed out as a helpful piece of advice it usually doesn’t give any indication of what ‘not settling’ looks like. Someone tells me not to settle for a guy or a job or anything else, all they have identified is that the option in question is not meeting expectations, but there is no indication of what would meet those expectations. Social movements, like #GIRLBOSS, have developed around empowering people to set their own expectations for their lives so that they don’t settle for something less than satisfactory. While I generally think that we need to have expectations, trying to always set them on our own can become problematic (but more about that in another letter).

Regardless of whose expectations I am trying to live up to, listening and following through on the advice to not settle ultimately requires me to take a leap of faith. I need to believe that there is in fact something better beyond what is right in front of me, and usually there is. That doesn’t change the irritation and confusion of being told ‘don’t settle’ when presented with a really appealing option, or when I want what my friends have.

Taking that leap of faith to not settle requires me to keep searching, praying and probing to see if I really am where God wants me to be. That can be uncomfortable because often it calls for change, growth and uncertainty. It’s those times when it’s more helpful to remember Pope Emeritus Benedict’s line: “The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”

Settling brings comfort at the expense of growth. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell when I’m feeling good because I’m right where I need to be, and when I’m comfortable because I’m settling. Precisely when I’m caught in a period of settling and thinking things feel easy because I’m where I need to be, is when I need to hear the dreaded reminder all the more:

Don’t settle.

In Christ,

Lauren

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Finding the Growth

Dear Pope Francis,

Things on the blog have been quiet for a very long time! It’s been two months since my last letter. In that time, I wrote and successfully defended my thesis, which means that I am now done of school. When I had first finished I was ecstatic. I was relieved that all the months of studying and stress had been worth it.

When the relief faded and the celebrations were over, I was left in a vacuum. My whole life had been caught up in my identity as a student for a long time. Spending time with friends happened naturally around class, my jobs had to be a little bit flexible to fit my school schedule, and between school, jobs and extra-circulars there was always something pressing that I needed to do. But the end of school brought lots of free time that I’m still not entirely sure what to do with.

JourneyI doubt I’m alone in dreading the end of things. Endings bring change, and change can be difficult to navigate. Over the last few years, I have come to appreciate endings for two, related, reasons. The first reason is that the end of something gives you a perspective that you didn’t (and couldn’t) have at the beginning. When I started my Masters, there was no way I could know the twists and turns my journey would take, but standing at the end, I can look back, reflecting on the things that I’ve learned, with a clearer perspective of what happened because I can see the whole.pruning

The second reason I appreciate endings is because they show me growth edges. A ‘growth edge’ is a place for growth in my life, and usually come only after some pruning. The pruning can come in a variety of ways, perhaps jarring, as in a sudden death, or more gradual, like childhood friends growing up and growing apart, or some combination of the two. Regardless of how something ends, the pruning that comes with the end leaves space for something new to grow. In my case, I have the time to explore new areas of interest, like social media and writing, because I don’t have to spend all my time doing school work.

We discover growth edges only when we can step back and look the whole, which is why we often find them when something has ended. In reflecting back on my time in school, I realized how much I love writing, and that it is no longer sufficient for me to simply write for myself, so I want to spend my free time honing my writing and communicating skills. Figuring out growth edges is not necessarily as simple as arbitrarily deciding that I want to work on something; it needs to be part of a larger reflection and discernment about where God may be calling me in the future. So I’ve spent time talking with people, and discerning and praying on my own, trying to get a sense of what my growth edges are. It’s been a surprisingly fun process.

Ultimately, the change that is happening is going to push me, but change always does. Focusing on the growth edges helps me frame the end of school, and the changes that go with it, as something positive and life-giving, rather than something overwhelming and life-draining.

Embracing the growth

Lauren

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Embracing the Season

Dear Pope Francis,

Things have been oddly quiet on the blog for much longer than usual. That’s more indicative of what’s been going on in my life, rather than not having anything to say. All of the words that I’ve been writing and reading over the last month went into my thesis. I’m happy to say that the draft is done and submitted, although there will be some last minute tweaking and polishing from my supervisor. In the meantime, it’s all about writing the final papers for my classes and studying for the thesis defense in May.Winter wonderland

Lately, I’ve been acutely aware of the saying, “for everything there is a season” because the seasons of my life are changing. I repeat this line to myself frequently: there’s a season for being single, a season for school, a season for working. What I’m realizing now is that each of those seasons comes with certain things, the same way winter comes with snow and spring comes with rain, being single comes with times of loneliness and being in school comes with times of stress.

When I felt lonely or stressed, I thought there was something wrong. Yes, I’m in the seasons of being single and a student, but in my mind, that meant that I should only feel the good things: empowered and free as a single, and enriched and growing as a student. But winter isn’t only gently falling snow and skating, and spring isn’t all flowers and sunshine, so neither will the seasons of my life be only rosy, even when those seasons seem good.

Spring flowersEvery season comes with good and bad. As a single person I love my independence and freedom, but there are times when I feel incredibly alone, and I long for someone. It’s the reality of being single. But being in a relationship brings its own good and bad. As a student, I’ve been able to learn and experience some incredible things about myself and the world around me, but I have worked very hard and been very stressed in the process. I’m looking forward to being done of school, but I know from watching my friends that being a young professional will come with its own rewards and challenges.

So, for everything there is a season. I am wrapping some very long seasons in my life, and it feels good. I’m looking forward to what is next, the good and the not-so-good.

Embracing the change,

Lauren

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Desiring What God Desires: A Lesson in Humility

Dear Pope Francis,

The spring I turned fifteen is burned in my mind, for a variety of reasons, but one of the most important is that I learned a foundational faith lessons that continues to profoundly shape my spiritual life. It’s this: that God always answers our prayers, sometimes it’s not in the way we want or expect.

I learned this in the context of the death two of my grandparents, both in the spring of 2005, one in April and one in June. In both instances, I prayed for a miracle, by which I meant that they would make a miraculous recovery. Instead, they both passed away reasonably quickly. At first I was angry because God didn’t answer my prayer. But as my mother pointed out, God did. I didn’t get the miracle I wanted, but I got a miracle in that neither grandparent had to suffer, which likely would have been even more painful for everyone involved.

This lesson has been reinforced in every season of my life over the last ten years. Every time it humbles and scares me because it reminds me that ultimately God directs my steps and the events of my life.

This isn’t to say that I become an automaton, and blindly follow what God tells me to do. I can choose whether or not to follow God’s direction, and generally speaking, I know from experience that following God is good idea. It is in moments when I’m either discerning where God is calling me, or struggling to choose to follow God, that I pray that I will desire what God desires for me and from me.

But that prayer, to desire what God desires, is huge, especially when I remember that what I expect from this prayer may not be what God actually responds with. For instance, right now my prayer is centred around next steps, and asking God to guide me to where he wants me to be. I have ideas about where I would like that to be, maybe closer to my parents or staying where I am because I’m settled here. But this doesn’t mean that God isn’t going to call me away, outside of my comfort zone. As Benedict XVI reminds us, we weren’t made for comfort, but greatness.

But even though I know it’ll probably be a little bit uncomfortable, I keep praying that God will grant me the grace to desire what He desires for me and from me. Trust me, it’s a grace that I can genuinely desire that His will be done. To be totally open to His will is simultaneously the scariest and most liberating prayer because it means I need to strip away my plans in order to be open to God. I like being independent, in control, and deciding my own path, but in order to be open to God’s will means that I need to be open to whatever comes, whether or not I think it’s what should happen.

Humbly yours,

Lauren

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Safe Sex: Not an Either/Or Conversation

Dear Pope Francis,

A couple of weeks ago, the provincial government of Ontario announced that it is introducing a new sexual education curriculum that would focus on teaching about healthy relationships, consent and internet safety. In light of some of the big events and scandals that have come to light in the last year alone about sexting, cyber-bullying, and sexual harassment in schools and workplaces, these topics seem more relevant than ever. However, in the Catholic world, people are concerned about how healthy relationships are going to be taught, namely that methods for safe sex will be taught, rather than abstinence. As a practicing Catholic with an awareness of the society we live in, I’m struggling to understand why safe sex and abstinence can’t be taught.

I will never forget my ninth grade health class, when my teacher’s mantra was “don’t do it until you’re 47”. She said it several times every class. But, part of the curriculum was to discuss sexually transmitted diseases, their symptoms and how to prevent their transmission, including safe sex. My teacher taught us the curriculum, but maintained throughout that that best way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, as well as teen pregnancy, was to not have sex. Basically, without using the word, she was making abstinence a norm as well as giving us the information necessary to make an informed choice about being sexually active. At no point did she sugar-coat the truth. She acknowledged that as teens and adults we would want to be intimate with our boyfriends or girlfriends, but she always reminded that those actions would have consequences. Maybe we wouldn’t get an STD or pregnant, but there could be emotional hurt and/or regret, perhaps in the moment, or perhaps years later.

So, while I affirm the Church’s understanding of sexual intercourse as something to be saved for marriage, and that’s a choice I’ve made for myself, it is an informed decision on my part. I know the risks of being sexual active with multiple partners, both physical and emotional, and I don’t want to take those risks. I am incredibly grateful that I was given the information and then trusted by the adults (most importantly my parents) in my life to make the decision for myself.

I concede that not every ninth grader (or teenager in general) would make the same decision I did. Statistically speaking, many won’t. But that doesn’t mean that teaching about abstinence in a hyper-sexualized world is outdated. I think now more than ever, young people, both teens and young adults, need to be reminded that abstinence is perfectly acceptable, whether or not you are religious. I didn’t attend a Catholic school, so my ninth grade health teacher didn’t base her beliefs about abstinence on faith principles. Instead she used common sense, “if you don’t want to have a child, then why are you doing the action that is properly meant to make a child?”

So am I concerned that abstinence probably won’t be taught at all? Yes. But I don’t think the answer is to only teach abstinence either. It shouldn’t be an either/or conversation. Teaching healthy relationships can, and should, include both abstinence and giving the necessary information for teenagers to stay safe if they choose be sexually active, which includes both the physical and emotional risks associated with having multiple partners. In a Catholic school, this should include the Church’s teachings on pre-marital sex, but the conversation on abstinence shouldn’t be limited to Catholic schools. It is important information for all people to have.

Respectfully yours,

Lauren

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A Year Later

Dear Pope Francis,

Meredith and I have been writing letters to you for a whole year. It was exactly one year ago today that Meredith published our joint letter. I have to admit, I’m a little surprised that we’re still going.

It’s hard to say who was more nervous about this blogging endeavour, Meredith or I. I was shocked when I had seriously suggested starting a joint blog to Meredith in January 2014, and more than a little relieved when she didn’t mention it for a few weeks. When it did come up again, I was surprised and worried about writing letters to you every week. I didn’t actually think I’d be able to find things to write a letter about every week.

But, a year later, I’ve found tons of things to write letters about (I’ve included links to some of my favourites throughout this letter). And the ideas keep on coming.

By no means have we been perfect about getting our letters posted on time. There have been typos and grammar errors along the way. But I have learned a lot by writing these letters. Sometimes it has been cathartic; other times, it helped me to figure out what I think about big issues. It gave me something concrete to focus on when I felt like I was losing my grip on life. Most surprising it helped me get comfortable with the idea of other people reading my thoughts and words. Finally, and most importantly, this blog is a fun project between friends that has brought us closer together.

Where will the next year take Meredith and I? Quite literally, God only knows. A lot has already changed for each of us, and I suspect the next year will be no different. My hope is that the letters will continue, that we can continue sharing our thoughts on being young, independent Catholic women in this fast-paced world, and that our thoughts and ideas will trigger conversations with our readers (either online or in person). Personally, I hope that this blog continues to be an opportunity for growth, development, and something to keep me writing even when I’m swamped with other things.

As we set out on our second year, Pope Francis, pray for us, for wisdom, clarity and courage to follow the narrow path that God calls us to walk.

Praying for you,

Lauren

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Becoming Aware and Having Hope

Dear Pope Francis,

You may have noticed that I didn’t write you any letters last week. Life happened, and it took me to New York for three days for a reunion and symposium on Professional Ethics with Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics. It was a fantastic trip, but it totally threw off my week.

IMG_20140616_073530

The Freedom Tower when I was in New York in June 2014

One of the highlights of the trip was finally going to Ground Zero, where the World Trade Towers fell in September 2001. I have wanted to visit Ground Zero since my first trip to New York (with Meredith) in March 2012. It was even more powerful because the Freedom Tower that was built near the same site, was my landmark for navigating between the hotel I stayed in and the museum where the symposium met. Every time I went outside, I located the Freedom Tower so that I would know if I was going the right way.

The Twin Towers collapsed when I was eleven years old. That day, and the ones that followed, marked a turning point in my consciousness. Not only did these events have practical implications for travellers around the world, but more personally, it was the first time I remember being aware of current events. It was after this point that I noticed how many car accidents I heard about, or robberies, or poverty. I began to grasp the fact that, while I live in a very safe place where I had enough food, clean water and access to education, not everyone did. I knew that bad things had happened in the past, like World War II and slavery because of stories and books I read, but September 2001 was the first time I remember realizing that bad things were still happening.

Seeing the building foundations, various missing posters, and memorials from the collapse, only served to reemphasize that awful things are still going on. It’s hard to know where to begin, what to think or do in light of these things. It’s overwhelming because I am just one person. No matter how many times I (or others) tell myself (me) that I can do anything, that I can change the world, I must still face the reality that I am still just one person, with the limitations of time, physical abilities and resources. I don’t have the financial means to solve world hunger. I don’t have the luxury of time and language to solve the deep-seated conflicts in the Middle Easter. But I do have something; what I do have is hope.

In X-Men: Days of Future Past, when a young Charles Xavier refuses to use his powers because it means feeling people’s pain, the older Charles Xavier tells his younger self: “it’s the greatest gift we have, to bear their pain without breaking, and it is borne from the most human power – hope”. Having hope doesn’t magically grant me more time, physical abilities or resources, but it does give me perspective. It reminds me that I’m not the only person who is saddened and outraged by what is going on around the world. It also helps me work in my sphere of influence, in my corner of the world, but I’m not alone in that; there are thousands, if not millions, of people working for good in their own spheres of influence. It’s by doing it this way, in a seemly disparate fashion, that we will change the world.

Developing my superhero name,

Lauren

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Being Professional

Dear Pope Francis,

Within five months I’ll be done of my master’s degree. There is something unique about a Master of Divinity, namely that while it’s a master’s degree, it’s specifically intended to be a professional degree, rather than a primarily a research-based degree. A large component of the work I do in this program is applying the theology I’ve been learning. That might be appropriating it into my own life and spirituality, or developing programs or talks incorporating the information. Some parts have been incredibly practical, like learning some of the ethical issues of being a minister in the Roman Catholic Church, or any Church for that matter.

Often times, people turn to their faith with their questions, their joys and their fears. Turning to their faith can also mean concretely turning to the Church. They build relationships of trust with the various Church leaders, be it a priest, deacon, lay minister, chaplain, whomever. Whether we agree with it or not, leaders are put on a pedestal, held up as an example of how to live, what to think and how to practice the faith. These factors put the minister in a unique position, because they are privy to sensitive information about the people in their congregation, and how the minister responds to that information can drastically influence people’s impressions of the Church as a whole.

Ministers in the Church are not necessarily unique in this relationship of trust. Without realizing it, society often attributes greater respect to different roles and jobs than others. For instance, doctors are often more highly respected than hair stylists based solely on their career. While it is important that we question these unspoken assumptions about respect-based-on-career, people in those careers need to be aware of their position, and act accordingly. There are limits on what is acceptable behaviour for a doctor, police officer, lawyer, journalist, and a variety of others.

My assumptions about some of these professions were highlighted in December when news about a scandal at Dalhousie Dentistry School hit the media. A group of young men had been making misogynistic and utterly inappropriate comments about their female classmates in a private Facebook group. While I don’t want to downplay the important conversations about rape culture and gender inequality that are happening because of this, there is also an important conversation to be had about professional ethics.

Dentists, like other professions, are privy to some sensitive information about their patients. Having spent my fair share of time in a dentist’s chair, I know how nervous some people can be before opening their mouths and letting someone, even someone who has studied for years, poke around in there. I would be even more nervous knowing that my dentist could have been making inappropriate comments about drugging women with the gases he has easy access to.

I understand that these young men are still in school, but they are in a professional school.  When I was doing my field placement as a student, I made sure that I was professional, including how I dressed and interacted with everyone in the placement. Professionalism is not something you graduate into, you receive the diploma and then you have to start acting professional. It is something that should be practiced as a student. It is a habit and a skill to be learned, it needs to be practiced.

Does this mean professionals can’t share inside jokes with their peers? Certainly not. What it does mean is that they must be aware of what they are saying about whom, and what they are saying. Are they slandering others, either patients/clients/etc. or peers? Are they spreading gossip? Would they want the person they are talking about to hear what is being said? Depending on your answer, maybe you should rethink what you’re categorizing as ‘inside professional jokes’.

 

In Christ,

Lauren

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Respect and the Freedom of Speech

Dear Pope Francis,

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris are awful, and, like many other attacks, draw other issues to the light. This time, it’s the freedom of the press.

Let me say from the outset that I think freedom of the press is important. It is imperative that people have an opportunity to express their beliefs using the printed word and editorial cartoons. But is there a point when this is taken too far? People were obviously offended by what Charlie Hebdo was publishing about Islam, even though it was intended to be satire. Does this mean there needs to be a level of civility in the freedom of the press? I can’t speak to the content of Charlie Hebdo, as I’ve never read it or knowingly seen any of their editorial cartoons, but this question goes beyond this one tragic incident.

I know that the opinions Meredith and I express in these letters are not held by everyone in the Catholic Church, and certainly not in the world. But when I sit down to write to you each week, I don’t do so with a malicious intent towards anyone else. These letters provide me an opportunity to think more deeply about things, and a platform from which to share these ideas. I would hope that journalists and cartoonists don’t set out to offend anyone when they sit down to write or draw either.

These ideas are then juxtaposed with the scandal around the American television show 19 Kids and Counting, starring the Duggar family. This scandal stemmed from the family’s involvement with the pro-life movement and advocating against laws granting more freedoms to trans-gendered people. Many people took issue with how these beliefs have been expressed, particularly because they seem to revert back to a time when being homosexual was unacceptable and illegal, thus infringing on other human rights. As a result, protesters called for the Duggar’s show to be cancelled.

While people jumped to the defence of the Duggar family on the basis of the freedom of speech, I see a parallel with the freedom of the press. What gives anyone the right to take away someone’s right to express their beliefs, whether or not we agree with them? This right does not take away the importance of being civil and respectful, nor does it matter whether it is print journalism, cartoons, a speech or an interview. What I see developing is a horrible double standard: if we are going to poke fun at religion, then it is acceptable to be shared with the world, but when someone stands up and expresses their religious beliefs clearly and chooses to stand by them, it’s a problem.

I don’t necessarily agree with everything either group, Charlie Hebdo (what I know of them) or the Duggars, expressed in their opinions, nor how they presented it, but there needs to be more civil ways of addressing my concerns than resorting to violence and eliminating one’s platform. Maybe that means getting involved in organizations that have the power to lobby the government or raise awareness in the public. Maybe it’s as simple as a writing a letter. Regardless of how it is done, it needs to be done in a way that fosters dialogue and respect, not violence and hatred.

Praying for the world,

Lauren

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