Letting Go, and Letting Him In

If there’s something that strikes me about us Catholics, it’s how much we don’t know. I’m not talking about the stereotype that we don’t know our Bible (although, I must confess, I probably know less than I ought to), but rather, that our entire faith is a celebration of the incredible minuteness of our human capacity in the face of the vast ocean of God’s grace. As St. Augustine concisely put it, around 1700 years ago, “If you think you understand, it isn’t God.”
So I’m going to do a little something different with this post today. I’ve interspersed it with stanzas from one of my favourite hymns, “These Alone” by Dan Schutte (video at the end of this post), based on a prayer by St. Ignatius of Loyola. And although my blog has been a good way thus far to mark the new things I’m learning and internalizing every day, this post shall be a reiteration of all the things I don’t know—and thank God for that.
Take my heart, O Lord, take my hopes and dreams
Take my mind, with all its plans and schemes
Give me nothing more than Your love and grace
These alone, O Lord, are enough for me
I actually meant to begin (and post) this two weeks ago, when I was thinking a lot about what it meant to surrender to God’s will. I’m a frenetic planner by nature. Close friends can attest to how I often cannot put my mind at rest until I have a problem set out in a mind map, schedule, or battle plan. This constant need to have my problems delineated and put on the conveyor belt on their way to being solved, to know what’s happening next, even permeates my time off-duty: I, sadly, flip to the ends of books more often than I’d care to admit. (Don’t you? No? Okay.)
Those two weeks came and went without me ever feeling in the right mood to sit down and type a big chunk about what I don’t know, until problems piled up at my door that I had to let in and sort out. And these nights, before I lay me down to sleep, instead of going through battle plans in my head, I’ve been trying to let them go instead: to ask God to “take my mind, with all its plans and schemes”. It seems counter-intuitive that you can be much better off with a tenuous faith in He Who Cannot Be Seen rather than plans which give you a semblance of comfort, but to quote St. Augustine again (very eloquent, this man), “Our hearts are restless, until they find rest in You.”
So take everything I think I know, Lord- take my tangled strings and hanging knots and weave them into the tapestry which I know You have in mind for me. Take my yearnings and longings and uncurl them in the palm of Your hand, place me against Your heart, and keep me there. You know better. Let that be enough for me.
Take my thoughts, O Lord, and my memory
Take my tears, my joys, my liberty
Give me nothing more than Your love and grace
These alone, O Lord, are enough for me
“Strangely enough, if God’s will is to be done, there is only one way things can end. And that’s crazily comforting. There’s no need to make plans or worry about how to get there. God can handle that,” said my friend Anne over skinny pizzas one day (I paraphrase your words, dear, but I hope I got the gist right).
It seems that growing up, our problems are more open-ended than multiple choice, and sometimes the distance between where I am and where I want to be terrify me so much (to paraphrase Tracee Ellis Ross) (too many quotes?) (never too many quotes). But it is in these chasms that I hear, most clearly, the voice of God calling me to Him, to trust him. As Father Clifford said in his Homily two weeks ago (on the Sunday when I ought to have written this post), “God speaks to us most powerfully through interruptions.” What we see as a long-fought-for, long-trudged road coming to a dead end may well just be a curve in the road He has in mind.
And the strangest thing is, once we start to let go of the human conception that we know what is best for us, and start to glimpse the enormity of His excellent plan, there is so much joy. There is a fullness of joy which I cannot hope to entirely comprehend and terrifies me in the same way vast oceans and great mountains and beautiful flowers terrify me: when I realize that I am a small part in a huge and wonderful world, and I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
I surrender, Lord, all I have and hold
I return to You Your gifts untold
Give me nothing more than Your love and grace
These alone, O Lord, are enough for me
The second reading on that Mass two weeks ago was from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, 12:8-10: “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
Three times St. Paul asked the Lord to rid him of his afflictions. (I must have badgered God at His door far more often than that.) (Sorry.) But like St. Paul, I only found peace once I stopped asking for more, and started asking for less. I need to learn to stop asking for God to fill my half-empty pot with more of what I think I want/ need, and to start asking him to empty me so He may fill me with Himself. As Sir Thomas Browne wrote, at least three centuries ago,
“If thou could’st empty all thyself of self,
like to a shelf dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the ocean shelf,
And say, ‘This is not dead,’
And fill thee with Himself instead.
But thou art all replete with very thou,
And hast such shrewd activity,
That when He comes He says, ‘This is enow
Unto itself—‘twere better let it be,
It is so small and full, there is no room for Me.’”
I like to think that at the end of the day when we reach Heaven’s doors, I will lift up my empty hands and tell Him, “Here are the gifts You gave me, Lord. I have used them all, and now I return to You.” As another friend wrote to me a few weeks ago, “God loves you so much, and He loves you enough to give you this life. That alone should bring you so much joy.”
Let me be filled with Your love and grace, God. Nothing more, nothing less.
When the darkness falls on my final days,
Take the very breath that sang Your praise
Give me nothing more than Your love and grace
These alone, O Lord, are enough for me
Admitting you don’t know anything, when you’ve made an entire life on being the one who knows what’s going on, is terrifying. But it’s also really liberating.
One of my favourite books of all time, Anne of the Island, has this to say about death: “I think, perhaps, we have very mistaken ideas about heaven- what it is and what it holds for us. I don’t think it can be so very different from life here as most people seem to think. I believe we’ll just go on living, a good deal as we live here- and be ourselves just the same- only it will be easier to be good and to- follow the highest. All the hindrances and perplexities will be taken away, and we shall see clearly. Don’t be afraid, Ruby.”
I think it’s also super applicable to letting God’s will reign in our lives- we will be ourselves just the same, only it will be easier to follow His word.
Lord, help me to let go of the bitterness and anger I feel when my plans don’t come to fruition. Help me to walk by faith and not by sight. Help me to keep my head lifted to the sight of Your eternal glory and fullness of grace, and help me to walk by this light, forever and always.
I don't know so muchbut You always know better.
For those who are curious as to what “These Alone” sounds like, here is a video (filmed at my church!):
For a truly inspiring article on opening your heart to God’s joy and love in the midst of human grief, read this!

Getting Over Nasty Funks!

I’ve been wanting to do a post like this for some time. This summer dealt me some nasty funk, but the nasty funk also helped me to clean up my standard operating procedures for getting over bad times. This is not to say that the bad times are over; I think there are still going to be some days in the months to come when I feel particularly vulnerable. But happiness is, sometimes, a choice.

I don’t mean to say that in the way The Worst Advice in the World is, “Snap out of it!” Because there are going to be times when no matter how much you want to be happy, you get confused about what would get you there, and this makes the choice all the harder. I mean that in the sense that sometimes you have to be your own sunshine and make your own battle plan to achieve your own happiness.
Photo credit: Pinterest
There are good days, when I find myself smiling and laughing and loving my life. This Monday evening was one of them. I miraculously won a pass to a Meet & Greet session with the lovely dancer, Miko Fogarty. I didn’t know what to expect to come away with when I arrived: while I love ballet, I harbour no aspirations (delusions) of becoming a professional ballet dancer, and talk of performances and competitions seemed quite exclusive to me.

Miko at Prix de Lausanne. Original photo credit: Gregory Batardon
I didn’t expect to hear this: that Miko, an amazingly dedicated and disciplined dancer, has bad days too. She went through a bad funk of her own when she was thirteen or fourteen, when she felt burnt out with the pressure of school and dance. Hearing her talk about her experience and how she dealt with it really resonated with me.

I’ve compiled a few tips I remember from the session below, as well as a list of my own from what I’ve learnt the past few months:

Miko’s tips

1.   “Allow yourself to have bad days, but always remember to reset the next morning.”
I think it’s important to recognize that everyone has moments of weaknesses, and it’s not always your fault. You have to extend to yourself the same kindness and compassion you would extend to others, and that includes allowing yourself to have the bad day, and acknowledging all the nasty emotions you are feeling. The important thing, however, is to reset. Every brand new morning is a gift, unencumbered by yesterday’s sorrows. 

Photo credit: Pinterest
2.   Get inspired.
Even amazing ballerinas have days when they run out of inspiration. I remember a piece of advice I once received on law school, which is that you shouldn’t be worried if you’re doing badly; you should only be worried if you stop loving what you’re doing. There are some days in ballet when I really want to quit. I think of all the odds which are stacked against my favour (I’m too old/ I’m too fat/ there are so many people better than me) and think that there is no point going on. But then I go home and watch a few videos of my favourite ballerinas on YouTube and think, “Ahhh. This is why I’m staying.” If you can, and as Miko suggests: watch a live show. (Or create a new Pinterest board. This totally counts.)

3.   Meditate.
Sometimes you can literally feel a knot of tension in you. But it’s important to find some quiet time with only yourself to sort out that knot; to lay it flat, and lay it to rest. I find myself doing this on long bus rides, in pockets of time in the afternoon, or even just before I go to sleep. 

Amy Poehler always knows what to say. Photo credit: Pinterest
4.   Sleep!
Miko identified one of the root problems of her stress as a lack of sleep over time. It’s important to know the controllable factors which may be causing you to react in a certain way. Sleep is always good. I always find that problems are easier to deal with after a good night’s rest.

My own tips

1.   Create your own playlist.
I think over time you get a sense of which songs make you feel which way, and which songs you reach out to when you want comfort or an extra burst of sunshine. Please file all these songs away into a playlist, either on YouTube or Spotify or whatever you fancy, and pull them out whenever necessary. Music really does wonders to lift (or worsen) your mood; pick judiciously!

For a soothing song which sometimes makes me cry but also feels like a mother’s hug when I’m alone at hostel, “Someone’s Waiting For You” (Shelby Flint) is wonderful.

For somewhat aggressive, power-tripping songs, I like “Run the World (Girls)” (BeyoncĂ©); “I Love It” (Icona Pop ft. Charlie XCX); and “Really Don’t Care” (Demi Lovato).

For healing, happy songs, “Gonna Get Over You” (Sara Bareilles) is absolutely great (she did a mash-up of that song with "Forget You", it’s fabulous!). Also try “Now is the Start” by A Fine Frenzy.

Edit: how could I forget?! Tori Kelly's "Unbreakable Smile" helped me through a lot. It's hard to resist smiling through this one.

You can find the playlist I made here.

2.   Reach out.
I think it’s very easy, when you’re down, to shut yourself up against the world and not let anyone in. It can be very hard to talk about the problem (or problems). But at the same time it is truly amazing what nasty funks can reveal about the people around you. For me, it revealed that I have the best friends ever. One of my best friends arranged a surprise get together with all my closest friends in law school, just for me. The same best friend and a couple others would allow me to call them randomly in the middle of nowhere, just to hear me whine (and sometimes cry) on the other side.

Don’t shy away from making social plans, either. I had great times meeting up with friends whom I wasn’t close enough to to share my problems with, but who nonetheless cheered me up wonderfully the way friends do: with plenty of shared memories and laughter.

3.   Try new things.
One of my best friends told me this, and I didn’t know how I was going to manage it, but when I look back I realize I’m now reading my first non-fiction book in ages (“Yes Please” by Amy Poehler, which so far, is laugh-out-loud funny and epiphany-causing at the same time), trying to improve my hand lettering with new pens and/or new methods, and sometimes dressing differently just for the heck of it (yes, this counts).

4.   When you’re ready- have a schedule.
Keep busy, and keep recognizing your accomplishments, even those which may seem very small or insignificant. The first day you wake up feeling amazing? That counts. Having tasks to tackle, and finishing them, can be a fabulous adrenaline kick all on its own. You are amazing, and you are going to feel amazing someday soon.

Photo credit: Pinterest
5.   Be your own sunshine.
I once read that smiling at yourself in the mirror, however forced, can really lift your mood. It sounds ridiculous, but on one of my worst days I woke up and told myself, “TODAY IS A BRAND NEW DAY AND YOU ARE AWESOME.” And it kinda worked. You have to be firm about loving yourself. 

Photo credit: Pinterest
On a related note, another avenue (haha) that really helped me through another nasty funk last year was this blog post by Avenue Maria. Maria is a lovely blogger from Australia who never fails to cheer me up.

This has turned into a super long post with probably more semi-colons and “wonderful”s than it ought to have, but I do hope it helped. If it has helped you, and you feel okay with it, let me know! I’d love to hear from you.


147. Finding Joy

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a college student in the face of looming deadlines must be in possession of an existential crisis. (Or at least, I hope it isn’t just me.) It occurred to me the other day how my panic attacks and general existential crises had been accumulating in frequency more and more since I returned to Law school for the second semester of my first year- that “life had not mirrored her spirit back to her with its old, perfect, sparkling clearness” (Anne of the Island). And there is no set way to get this clarity of mind back. I guess the image I had in my head was that of a rubber ball, and wondering why I wasn’t bouncing back as quickly as I used to be able to, until I realized that a more appropriate image would be a bunch of rubber bands that had gotten so tied up together that they couldn’t bounce back unless they were untangled. I needed to untangle the many worries I had in my mind, before I could set my mind at rest and move on.

It usually helps to look at the bigger picture, and that’s when I got my first epiphany. Being someone who very much looks to books and movies for life advice and kind of charting the way my life is going, it took me a while to realize this, but somewhere along the way it stopped being me looking ahead to fiction to see how things were supposed to pan out, but rather me looking sideways to fiction. Fiction began to run parallel to my life, instead of the runner in front of you whose number tag you focus on to keep your feet steady. I was so used to the groove of holding fiction as an ideal for my own life; I held its characters on pedestals, and felt like adulthood could only be achieved through stepping over a magical, indeterminable, inextricable threshold of age. I couldn’t see it coming, but I would definitely know when I had crossed it, and I definitely hadn’t.

But I suddenly realized that when my life started to echo the questions I saw in books and movies, when fiction wasn’t so fictitious anymore, when I started having my own questions that didn’t have so direct an answer –or any at all- I realized that all these struggles- all this thinking- is a sign that we are at that magical age betwixt youth and old age. Taylor Swift got it right when she said “we’re happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time/ it’s miserable and magical”. This is what songs are written about. This is what books are written about. This is what films are made about. We’ve reached. We’re here.

And what do we do now?

It takes a lot to find liberation in this confusion. A couple of days ago, I was telling my mum quite frankly that I didn’t like who I was becoming in Law school. I felt like I was losing the discipline, and the generosity, to love. I felt like, when given “the choice between what is right, and what is easy” (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), I had, too many times, chosen what was easy. And that was to give in to a life that was mediocre and ordinary, which was only scratching the surface in terms of the depth and wealth of significance that life has to offer. I felt like I had failed the little girl in me, who at 7 thought that 20 was just such a magical grown-up number at which I would of course have my life figured out. At 7, I probably did not imagine that it was possible 20-year-old me would be stumbling.

To this colossal sense of failure, my mum smiled (and possibly laughed internally, though more out of commiseration than scorn). “That’s growing up,” she said.

But what does growing up mean? I always thought there was just one step between being a kid and being an adult, but now it seems it’s more of an ocean. More importantly, what does growing up in God mean?

I think our sense of failure is based on that mind-set of viewing life on rigid scales instead of as a very indeterminate ocean, but once we let go of that mind-set, it becomes a lot easier to live in Christ. During one of his Lenten addresses, Pope Francis said something that really stuck with me: “The Lord never tires of forgiving. We are the ones who tire of asking forgiveness.” Past redefining the word ‘failure’, it’s time to chuck it out of our vocabulary. I think it’s very dangerous when we scale life down to a kind of list where we just check in the boxes. God’s view of our life is so much more than that. “Perhaps this is the moment for which you have been created” (Esther 4:14), and God is not waiting for you to reach a certain checkbox on the list. He is with you every uncertain step of the way.

Therefore, I think it’s time to think of life more as a long journey in which we constantly strive for God’s image. Failure implies that one day, we are going to succeed. But it’s just like that earlier image of growing up, that one day we’re not and one day we just magically are. There is never going to be a day in which we wake up magically perfect in God’s image. The whole point of Lent, as this rather illuminating article suggests, is that we are never enough. The point of making sacrifices in our lives is not so much that after we are done, we’re on the next level (and therefore, if we somehow tripped up in our Lenten sacrifices, it’s not so much a fatal step backwards to Hell and doom). The whole point of Lent is that we will only be enough with God, when we recognize that we are smaller than Him, and can only be made whole with His hand. Our only greatness is in His greatness. As Mother Teresa said, “He will use you to accomplish great things on the condition that you believe much more in His love than in your own weakness.”

It is quite easy to acknowledge that it’s “the end of the day” that matters. When we are caught up in results and deadlines, it is easy to escape stress by consoling yourself that it’s God who matters. But that can sometimes fall into the trap of creating a dichotomy, between following the rat race and following God. It’s a bit like that “Sunday Catholic” phenomenon- you’re only a Catholic when you go to Mass on Sundays. But once you leave the Church physically, you snap back into your “other” identity. Grace, Law student; or Grace, ballet dancer. We need to translate this acknowledgment into our daily lives. Our identity as a child of God can and should be assimilated wholly into our “other”, secular identities as students, workers, siblings, daughters, and friends. After all, it is for this that you were created.

“How on earth do those people make the time to love?” one of my friends said today. ‘Those people’ refer to the same people this article referenced: those incandescently good people who seem to have life figured out, and life, for them, is radiating that joy and that goodness. Again, there’s that sense of the step dichotomy: that one day you’re just ordinary, and the next day you climb a step and you’re there. But I think the answer is that love is not something you make time for. Love –and the generosity of love- is a habit.

Part of my moral crisis was the sense that as I grow up, love becomes more of a choice than an instinct. It pains me to have to make the choice. There are people who are going to frustrate you, hurt you, but as the Lord’s Prayer goes, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” While it is true that the childlike mind chooses love so easily it’s not even like a choice, it is not necessarily fatal to our identity as a child of God if we recognize how difficult this choice really is. Rather, it reinforces the strength of our eventual decision to love as He loved us. Someone wise (I forget who) said that we don’t have to like people, we just have to love them.

Shailene Woodley in her acceptance speech for Best Female Performance at the recently concluded 2015 MTV Movie Awards thanked the author John Green for “wearing integrity and compassion on your sleeve”. And while this shouldn’t be such a novel thing (pardon the pun) as to warrant mention in an awards acceptance speech, it is. Being kind and loving does take courage, because it’s not what everyone does. It’s not what is commonly prioritized today. It’s not easy.

Going back to how to concretely translate the concept of “glorifying the Lord by your life” into your daily life, I think the answer is in how you measure the success of a day. Again, the idea of success (and, therefore, failure)! But again, this is not a yes-no dichotomy. The ocean of love is an infinite scale. And I think the best measure of how a day has gone is in how you have reflected God in your dealings with others, and in your life. How happy have you made others? How much love have you given- and given freely? One of my favourite hymns (and I have many) goes, “Freely, freely you have received- freely, freely give/ Go in my name, and because you believe, others will know that I live.”

God lives. God has arisen. And it is up to us to reflect that joy in our everyday choices. “Rejoice always. Pray constantly. Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess 5: 16-18) There is so much we don’t know. There is a plethora of uncertainty. But the liberation in our confusion is the knowledge that God has planned for it all. You are so small in His sure and wondrous hand- rejoice, and trust!