All posts by Stephanie Calis

Born a hop, skip, and jump from the Chesapeake Bay, Stephanie now resides in Appalachia, thanks to love. Her sweet husband Andrew teaches English there. She delights in bike rides, good books, puddle jumping, The Avett Brothers, hammocks, avocados, and the notes Andrew sneaks under her pillow. She is thirsty. Knowing so many others are, too, she spent a missionary year with Generation Life speaking to students about human dignity and authentic love. Her passion is telling young women they possess immense worth and that pure, sacrificial love is real; she thinks a truthful understanding of sex and love is medicine for an aching culture. Upon noticing there were few resources for Catholic brides-to-be, Stephanie decided to make a humble attempt at filling the void. Her blog,Captive the Heart, is a collection of wedding ideas, spiritual reflections, inspired dates, and general ways to plan a sacred, stylish celebration and a holy marriage.

Can A Woman Pursue A Man?

My short answer to this question is yes: I absolutely think it’s possible for a woman to pursue a man, in a real, genuine way that neither defies who we are in our femininity nor buys into what the culture has to offer.

Until I was in my 20s, my dating experience was limited, to say the least.  I was big-time shy in high school.  That’s not to say I didn’t ache for a loving relationship; I definitely did.  During my conversion in college, that desire deepened more and more in my heart as I learned about pure, authentic love and began praying for my future husband.  I loved being surrounded by a community of friends who were growing in faith at the same time I was and meeting other young women who took relationships seriously and weren’t afraid to want both a family and a fulfilling life outside the home.

ReciprocityBut there was something else among young Catholics, sometimes in books (I had a lot of issues with Captivating, but that’s a post for another time) and sometimes in conversations I had, that I started to notice.  They had a lot of opinions, bordering on rules, it sometimes seemed, about dating and relationships:  Guard your heart.  Guard his heart.  Don’t be too forward with guys, because it’s not feminine.  He should always be the one to initiate texts, dates, and hanging out.  Be a little hard to get, because men like having something to fight for.

Whoa.  These ideas represent just one school of thought when it comes to dating, one I know isn’t universal, nor entirely wrong, but at the time, it was pretty confusing for me.  If men and women are created to inspire each other’s inherent masculinity and femininity, I wondered, was it really necessary to analyze things so much and to practically strategize my dating life just so I could follow the Catholic playbook?

The conclusion I think I’ve come to is no; all of that’s not necessary.  In the last few years, I’ve observed that the more intimately you come to know the Lord through prayer and worship, the more deeply you come to know yourself.  As I grew in faith, I discovered, I grew in honesty.  Not without difficulty and a few servings of humble-flavored pie, I slowly, slowly became (and am still becoming) more honest with myself about my shortcomings in virtue, more open with my friends about my struggles, and much more able to see a negative relationship I was in with truthful, critical eyes.  I think, then, that honesty plays a huge role in creating clarity when it comes to dating.

John Paul II’s Theology Of the Body goes back to the Garden, where the Father created man and woman from love and for love.  Man and woman He created them, to each answer the deepest desire of the other’s heart and to be loved in the fullness of their dignity and worth.  Men and women complement each other, and it’s written right into our bodies that men are active initiators of the gift of self, and women are active receivers.

So, do I think men and women each have something distinctive to offer in a relationship and that our sexual difference fosters different roles in giving and receiving?  Of course, and far be it from me to disagree with a Pope, but in my opinion, there has to be a meeting somewhere between theology and our daily lives.  Focusing too much on distinctions and roles, in my observation, can sometimes inhibit the natural growth of a friendship between a man and a woman, as well as the path to romance.  There can be all this head knowledge, but it doesn’t always translate to movements of the heart.  If a woman insists, for instance, that she should only receive, rather than give or initiate, any romantic gestures from a man who’s interested in her, I’ve noticed it tends to squash any potential relationship more often than it helps it along, because there’s a lack of complete honesty and reciprocation.

Boldness can be good, and even holy, I think.  If he’s interested, has initiated the first move, and you like him, say so!  Being honest with yourself and potential dates about your feelings, instead of keeping a man guessing for the sake of maintaining his interest or hiding one’s inclinations out of fear or convention, just seems to make things so much simpler and clearer for both people involved.  As women, I think our role in pursuing men involves directness and a willingness to make our feelings and intentions clear, and to return his gestures, like phone calls and time spent together, rather than leaving it all up to him.

The first time my husband  Andrew asked me on a date, I had just ended my first serious relationship a few weeks before and knew I wasn’t ready yet,  though I really liked him.  So I told him so.  After spending several more weeks in prayer and discernment, I felt like the time was right, but I knew that the ball was in my court.  He, after all, was waiting patiently and so sweetly for me, and if I didn’t say anything to this boy I knew was special, how would things ever get rolling?  I saw him and asked him to ask me out again.  “Okay; soon then,” he said.  Not ten minutes later, he asked and we made plans for our first date.

Before my husband, I think I’d still held onto some conventions about Christian dating, about how the guy should always do this, the girl should always do that, and all that jazz.  I was amazed to find that as our relationship grew, I thought about those conventions less and less, and it was so good.  Instead of blurring the lines of what manhood and womanhood required in dating, both of our identities became so much clearer.  We revealed more and more of who we are, not just to each other, but to ourselves, because of the easy honesty between us.  I realized that it’s not who does what so much as the fact that equality in dignity and in love is the most essential part of a relationship.  Andrew was, and still is, such a gentleman, but suddenly it didn’t seem to matter much if I treated him or drove us to our destination now and then.  Serving each other and giving gifts were acts of love, not declarations of masculinity or femininity and who wore the pants.

Being on the other side of marriage now, I guess some aspect of pursuing each other is over, but I’ve learned that it really is so important to still initiate love and pursue my husband as a woman, in everything from our physical relationship to how we get chores done.  For us, I think having strictly defined notions of what a husband does and what a wife does would put more pressure on being a certain way for the other and wouldn’t let our natural skills, inclinations (I enjoy cooking more than my husband does, for example, while he never minds doing the laundry), and affections flourish.

Chastity Is More Than Physical.

I blame the pig roast.

When I was 19, a friend invited me to his family’s annual Labor Day Party.  I came with two friends and a baguette.  I left with a huge crush.  I’d already known my friend to be a man of deep faith, teller of cornball jokes, lover of Emmas Mr. Knightley, and remarkable cook.  Suddenly, in the context of white lights setting the backyard aglow, seeing him with his family, and feasting on things like chocolate chess pie, all those qualities took on some kind of magic.

The Fullest

He left a few weeks later for a semester abroad.  By that point, I was convinced I’d found my future husband (spoiler alert: nope).  I always hoped the man I’d marry would be a reader, a charmer with an acute sense of wit, a good dancer, and would be from a big family.  Plus, he could cook.  Best of all, he was a serious Catholic whom I knew any girl would be privileged to entrust her soul and her life to.  I considered all the boxes checked.

He sent travelouge emails to a group of us back on campus.  I responded to every one.  He hinted at childhood embarrassments involving weddings and awkward attention.  I clung to hope when he said to me personally, “It’s a story best told in person; I’ll regale you with it sometime.”  We had a class together the following semester.  I’m pretty sure I bathed myself in perfume before Philosophy 212 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Then came the Rosary.

At the weekly prayer group we were both a part of, each person would state his or her intentions before we prayed the Rosary together.  “I’d like,”  he said, “to pray for my girlfriend.”

Slam.  There went my heart.  Somehow I made it through the next hour, then promptly left in search of a place to empty my dangerously full tear ducts.  My college was over 200 years old, founded by a priest and featuring four chapels.  All of them were occupied.  After half a frustrated hour of trying to find somewhere empty, I settled on the back pew of the main chapel, where a grief group was meeting far away from me, up front (maybe I should have joined them?).

I sobbed for three hours straight, not picking my head up once (if you’re reading this, and you’re the one who left some tissues on the pew for me, thank you).  The next six months felt like a breakup, though, of course, there was no relationship to be broken apart in the first place.  I cried some more, at least once a day.  My iTunes play count for Taylor Swift’s “Teardrops On My Guitar” and Lifehouse’s “Somewhere In Between” surged.  I wasn’t hungry often, but I remember trying to make myself eat a lot of Special K.

I like to think my feelings ran deeper than just infatuation.  I wanted him to be happy, wanted to see him flourish, felt proud of his gifts.  Maybe there was some raw material there for genuine love.  Except it wasn’t meant, at the time, nor ever, ultimately, to become that.  Heartbreak sucks, big time.  And yet looking back, reining in my feelings from the start, being present instead of planning my wedding, could’ve eased the sting.  My heart hadn’t just run away from me; it had, like, hopped a bullet train.

We long for love.  Ache for it, in fact.  And that’s such a good thing.  Without prudence, though, without patience, there’s a huge risk, I’ve learned, to being vulnerable at the wrong time.  There you are, eating Special K in bed and listening to Taylor Swift.

Conventions in Christian dating often communicate messages of “guard your heart” and “there’s a season for everything,” but I’m actually getting at something a little different.

Karol Wojtyla, the man who’d become John Paul II, and, in my opinion, one of the wisest ever intuiters of love and human nature, wrote in Love and Responsibility that an idealized beloved “often becomes merely the occasion for an eruption in the subject’s emotional consciousness of the values which he or she longs with all his heart to find in another person.”

Yikes.  Is that what I’d been doing?  I knew, down to my soul, that this boy was incredibly worthy of love.  Yet I’d idealized him nonetheless, desperately hoping (and actually believing) he was The One and elevating all his goodnesss to a level that would be impossible for anyone to match in real life.  The Pope explains that an excess of sentimentality “leads to a variety of values…bestowed upon the object of love which he or she does not necessarily possess in reality.  These are ideal values, not real ones.”  Of course, this can lead to disillusionment upon discovering one’s beloved isn’t perfect, or, in my case, some long-term emotional brokenness.

So often, chastity is associated with the physical.  True; that’s so valuable and worth it, but I’ve realized it’s important not to overlook the role of emotions, too.  If chastity is about cultivating freedom from desire, in the sense that one recognizes its good without being enslaved to it, then I can wholeheartedly say from experience that chastity is more than just physical; it involves tempering one’s emotions as much as tempering the body.

There’s hope, though: simply being aware that the tendency to idealize exists in the human heart can offer a glimpse of clarity, I think, in heavy crush mode and even in a relationship.  With open eyes, there’s the potential to love another person through his or her faults and to let yourselves be perfected, slowly  and humbly, by Love Himself.  It puts emotions in a proper context.  Edward Sri says, so rightly, “sentimentality can be a beautiful, enriching part of love, but it must be integrated with other essential ingredients.”

Five years later, blissfully, exultantly married, I am slightly wiser, though still so in need of education in love.  My husband is all kinds of things I never even knew I wanted.  Never once have I compared him to anyone I used to think I’d marry.  But we both understand the other is far from perfect.  My tendency to laziness means I wait until our underwear and sock situation gets dire before even touching the laundry.  His impatience once turned a 15-minute bake time for brownies into an hour.  But by grace, we aren’t disillusioned; instead, we’ve somehow been given a clear vision of who we are and how to be better.

No.  You know what?   I don’t blame the pig roast after all.  I blame my beating heart; not because it’s bad, but because that’s how my heart is made.  Should it be pure; should it be emotionally chaste?  Absolutely.  But knowing my heart can be pierced with the wound of love isn’t, to me, a fault at all.  It’s a mercy and beauty.  One to be governed with virtue, yes, but one that is so wholly, amazingly human.

This post originally appeared on Arleen Spenceley’s blog.

Not Ready For Heaven: Things I’m Embarrassed to Admit

When Roger Ebert died of cancer a few months ago, I came across this article he wrote about his wife, whom he adored, and their frequent wanderings and adventures.  Maybe it was just my pregnancy hormones, but I couldn’t stop crying.  It was her second marriage and his first, late in life, and he says, “this woman never lost her love, and when it was necessary she forced me to want to live. She was always there believing I could do it, and her love was like a wind forcing me back from the grave.”  The image of a woman essentially caring for her terminally ill husband as a full-time job, with patience and fortitude, and even calling him out at times,  just does me in.

Wound of Love

The reason why it kills me, I think, stems from a realization I had about myself a while ago; a realization I’m actually not comfortable with at all.  Here goes: as a Christian, I’m embarrassed to say that I often don’t feel ready for Heaven.  Not in the sense of being unprepared, though I almost certainly am (aren’t we all, except by grace), but in the sense that my fully human, earthly mind can’t fathom something that will fill my soul more than being married to my husband Andrew and raising our future family.  I find myself secretly hoping the Second Coming won’t happen during my lifetime, I tear up immediately when I think of being separated from my husband, and I struggle sometimes with the idea that, theologically, there’s no marriage in Heaven.  There.  I said it.

I feel so immeasurably blessed by my husband, a man who shows me Christ’s love in such a real, tangible way.  The thing I wonder and worry about sometimes, though, is if, by loving him so much, I somehow love God less.  I am in awe of my husband, thankful to him, passionate about him, and I trust him completely, in a way that goes far deeper than just feelings.  Shouldn’t I see the Father this way, to an even deeper extent?  I know, of course, that Andrew isn’t, nor should he be, the ultimate source of my happiness.  I should never make him into an idol.  Still, I feel guilty sometimes.

The thing that brings me peace is the thought that if love and marriage on earth are meant to give us the tiniest glimpse of Heaven, and if Heaven is such a banquet of perfect love, where we’re free from our weaknesses and imperfections, I don’t even know what I’m missing out on.  Of course it’s better than anything I can imagine, because I literally can’t imagine it.  For now, I feel like I should constantly be on my knees in thanksgiving for that small window into divine love that He’s given me.

Smarter words than mine come to mind.  St. Augustine famously said something like “make me a saint, but not yet.”  Get me to Heaven, but not yet.  Maybe he and I are talking about slightly different things here, though I certainly fall victim to pushing off holiness for later.  I pray to desire it now, to be not afraid.  And Victor Hugo concluded Les Miserables with, “to love another person is to see the face of God.”    No truer words, I don’t think.

Love Is a Battlefield

Aside from the good stuff like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a lot of questionable things came out of the 80s.  Perms, spandex, Rick Astley…if there’s a kernel of truth from that decade, though, it’s this: love is a battlefield.  Thanks, Pat Benatar.

chastity, purity, forgivenessSeriously, during my engagement, I became more aware of spiritual warfare than I ever had before, particularly when it came to chastity.  At the time, I was working full time as a chastity speaker, and my boss had told me to expect a battle.  Before then, to be honest, I’d always considered attacks from Satan to be kind of a superstitious thing.  As I began work, though, and as my husband and I embarked on our year of long-distance dating and engagement, we struggled constantly.  The deeper I fell in love with him, I realized, the more I wanted to express that love fully.  Don’t get me wrong; that’s a good and even holy desire, but of course, it has its time and place.  Up to that point, our physical relationship was something I was proud of–the degree of purity we’d preserved had healed me from a past relationship, and I could honestly say I’d never felt lustful towards him.  I heard Christopher West say that the human heart is a battlefield between love and lust, and he’s absolutely right.  I began seeing the reality of that statement more and more.  You know as well as I do that pretty much every women’s magazine portrays being lusted after by a man as an ideal, but that’s such a lie.  Even having not bought into the culture, I’m sure I’m not the only one who knows firsthand how disgusted with yourself you can feel after you’ve treated the one you love best as more of an object than a person.  I feel incredibly blessed to be loved by a man who constantly strove to put his and my desires aside in the interest of preserving as much as we could for our wedding night, humbly asked my forgiveness when he faltered in doing so, and always, always, made me feel so protected and honored even when it was hard.  He still does.

So, when we were together chastity was a struggle.  What I fought even more, if you can believe it, was purity in my own heart.  Even when I was apart from my then-fiance, I couldn’t get the devil off my back.  Between my engagement and my job, I was more determined than I’d ever been to be pure in my thoughts, words, and actions, yet at the same time, I was having a harder time of it than ever.  I was constantly going back to confession for what felt like the same old sins, and there were a few times when I just broke down with anxiety.  On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a day when Our Lady’s conception crushed the head of evil, I was consumed with worries about money and about my worth as a woman.  Rather than looking to Mary as a perfect model of faith, beauty, and especially purity, as I usually do, I saw her as an unattainable ideal whom I could never come close to imitating.  It felt like one thing after another, and some days, I had a really hard time not seeing my marriage as a finish line I couldn’t wait to just stagger across, when the whole fight would presumably be over.

Have you experienced anything like this?  Being in love is so exciting–you’re growing closer emotionally to another soul, and you’re probably spending plenty time together.  All of those things are good and beautiful, but they can also add up to serious temptation.  Most people probably wonder why, if it’s such a battle, not to just give in and stop fighting.  But I knew I wasn’t just following the rules.  I was so internally, happily convinced of the right path, knowing it was the best way to show my love.  I’m not saying all this to depress you.  Instead, I want to encourage you and remind you that it’s not just you.  There were times when I felt so unworthy of my friends, my reputation, and my fiance’s love.  I felt like a big fake.  It’s that feeling of, “if only they knew.”  But believe with your whole heart that you are good.  You are worthy.  You are also human, and the Lord delights in our humanity, flaws and all.  Looking back, I’m sure that through every attack on my purity, I was receiving graces I didn’t even know about, and certainly not because I deserved them.  So ask for the grace to refuse your temptations, to silence the part of you that feels unworthy, and to endure whatever trials your relationship is going through.  Run to His mercy as many times as you need to, and be renewed.  The Father is so loving and so gentle with us- remember to be that to yourself, too.

A Benedicitine monk told me once to combat spiritual warfare by standing between the pillars of Our Lady and the Eucharist.  He said that when we recognize darkness, to say, “Evil, I reject you.  I claim victory.  I claim the Cross.”  Easier said than done, maybe, but it really is so powerful.  You have my prayers.  Now go claim what is good, true, and beautiful and claim what’s yours.

The basis of this post originally appeared on Captive the Heart.

A Cry In the Desert: Out of the Dark Night and Into the Light

I am a woman under siege.  Lately, for reasons not entirely known to me, I’ve constantly fallen into despair about my worth, my talents, and my virtues.  Several times a week I inexplicably find myself in tears, hopelessly unable to believe that I’m beautiful and dignified simply because I am made in His image, that I’m not too lazy at home and at my job, and most significantly, that I’m worthy of my husband’s love and forgiveness.

Is it that these spiritual onslaughts are because of my loving marriage?  Is it my efforts working with the youth of my parish?  Is it that my husband and I are on the cusp of major changes, involving more school, moving, and starting a family soon?

darkness, light, Avett Brothers lyrics, Head Full of Doubt

This is not to say that I think I’m completely awesome when I’m not feeling burdened this way, bursting with talent and perfect in virtue; far from it, in fact.  What I’ve become so aware of in recent years, though, is that anytime you’re doing God’s will, in discernment and in action, the evil one will pursue you in any way he can.  I felt it during the year I spent as a pro-life and chastity speaker, during my engagement as I tried, and often failed, to be pure of heart, and during a period of unemployment.

Have you felt this way, too?  Have you felt the same sorts of spiritual attacks as you feel like the least valuable, least perfect among your friends and family, asking the Lord again and again to show you your worth?  It’s that constant question of “What do I possibly have to offer the people in my life, when they all seem so much better than me?”

As young adults, we’re faced with so many unknowns and can easily have the sense that our lives haven’t really “started” yet: there are questions of what will unfold when school is over, where we’ll live and work, what our vocation is, and ultimately, how to be holy.  Sometimes, in seeking these answers, the pursuit of holiness can feel like nothing less than a battle.  That’s because it is.  Spiritual warfare is real.

I’m not revealing my struggles out of martyrdom, not to garner praise or invite pity, though I’d certainly welcome prayers.  I share them so I can share something else with you, too: hope.

A few months ago, on Halloween night, I attended a talk on this exact subject, spiritual warfare.  There was talk of temptation, talk of clinging to Our Lady, and talk of the incredibly real existence of evil.  What I absorbed surprised me.

St. John of the Cross, explained the monk who spoke, wrote about periods of spiritual dryness so intense that it feels impossible to believe God is present.  Though this notion is discussed in St. John’s Dark Night of the Soul, it’s ultimately all about the light.  When you feel like the Lord is so absent, said  the monk, He is actually more present than ever.  Think, he said, of when you’re looking into the sun.  Its light is shining so intensely that you can’t even sense it; all you are is blind.

It’s brought me such consolation and fortitude to meditate on the fact that the Lord loves in this way; He is always present, and most present, when we can’t even sense Him.  We’re conformed to Christ through our baptism, so doesn’t it make sense that we experience, to an extent, everything He did, for good or for bad?  This includes His temptations in the desert–temptations to weakness, temptations to self-doubt.

Even as weak as I’ve felt lately, and among my frequent awareness of spiritual attack, this season of Advent has me looking at things through a lens of anticipation and waiting in hope.  Jesus’ birth restores our hope, and here in these last days of Advent, we’re out in the desert in a different way.  We’re crying out; preparing the way.

My husband is such a living sanctuary of the Father’s love as I struggle.  He reminds me, as we heard in the talk, that planting myself firmly between the pillars of the Eucharist and Our Lady is spiritual armor and a wellspring of hope.  Constantly, he implores me to be gentle with myself, and as hard as it often is, I know that doing so is one of the greatest ways of rejecting evil.

We need to give ourselves permission, I think, to feel the aches of purification and to be vulnerable.  It’s okay, and it’s redeemed by the one who comes to us as a baby, ever so humbly.


Break Me Open: The Discomforts of Evangelization

Often, I wonder what an authentically Catholic, person-centered approach to evangelization looks like.  So many goods, particularly sex, love, the body, and the family, have been twisted and misinterpreted by the culture.  The truth is ours to reclaim.

I still can feel the floor under my little carpet square.   Seven years ago, I went on my first Steubenville-style retreat, Mount 2000.  There I experienced the lack of sleep, shortage of showers, and crowdedness of floor space otherwise known as the youth conference for the first time.  The featured speaker, Matt Smith, a Catholic who’d been on MTV’s The Real World, came to discuss being in-but-not-of the world and the various worldly situations he faced while on the show.  To my surprise, he spoke at length about how much he welcomed these situations as opportunities to witness to faith and virtue.  In fact, he said, he soon began praying to feel uncomfortable, the better to form himself more into who he was meant to be.

Duc In Altum, John Paul II quotes

How ridiculous, thought my exhausted, unshowered self, who had been semi-permanently contorted, Indian style, all day.  At the time, I received the idea that someone would actually seek out discomfort as patently absurd.  That weekend, beautiful things happened as the Lord began His long work of refining my rough edges, yet I still couldn’t fathom a desire for awkwardness, self-consciousness, and vulnerability.

Maybe it’s the Lord’s way of humbling me, then, that in the years since my high school self struggled to comprehend that prayer for discomfort, I’ve faced plenty of sensitive, potentially embarrassing matters.  I didn’t even have to pray for them.  I never wished differences of opinion in moral matters would strain some of my relationships, never hoped to be reviled as I prayed and counseled outside an abortion clinic.  And I certainly never harbored childhood dreams of approaching strangers and talking to them about sex, as I found myself doing on my first day as a pro-life and chastity speaker, on a mission trip to the Jersey Shore.

No; surely I wouldn’t have desired any of those circumstances, but this life is a constant lesson to me that it’s not about what I want.  The Father gives generously, in ways we didn’t even know we were wanting, and He gives mercifully.  It really is a mercy and an act of love to let ourselves be broken and remade in pursuit of Heaven.

I’ve seen firsthand that many times, it’s only when you sacrifice comfort that you begin to honestly, fragilely connect with another person.   During my year of service after college (the same one where I talked about chastity on the boardwalk), I spent a week traveling between several Florida college campuses for an initiative called the Genocide Awareness Project (GAP), which involved standing all day next to graphic images of abortion and engaging students in dialogue about life issues and personhood.  Rightly so, passerby did not come quietly.

Like the other exhibit volunteers, I’d received extensive pro-life apologetics training beforehand, rooted in logic.  I began our first day apprehensively, though, unsure if I even felt at peace with this avenue of sharing the pro-life message. Around me, a few other volunteers seemed to take a rather combative stance and challenging tone, relying solely on arguments to strike up conversation.

I wanted so deeply not to view GAP as a debate to be won so much as an opportunity to speak the truth with love.  The truth was certainly there, in the form of twenty-foot high graphics, and it seemed to me that in the midst of such a polarizing, emotionally charged environment, charity was imperative.  I spent parts of the days in prayer, parts of them in conversation, and as the week progressed, I noticed something.

Logic-based discussion, I found, sometimes changed someone’s mind on abortion and sometimes didn’t.  Those conversations tended to end inconclusively, with each of us unsure of when to say goodbye.   Ultimately, without even making a conscious effort, my tactics began changing.  Somehow, I stopped seeing them as tactics and more as opportunities to listen and offer my attention to stories that some individuals had never told anyone before.

Instead of launching into a series of questions after asking a student, “What do you think of the images?” I started saying to students, honestly, that I hated the pictures as much as they did, and that I’d much prefer not to be standing there, except for the fact that I’d seen how men, women, and children have been so hurt by abortion and deserve so much more.

Something changed.  Being real, in a way that defied most stereotypes of a typical Christian, opened up so many ways to communicate. I spoke with post-abortive women, with victims of rape, and with students whose beliefs fell all across the spectrum.  It occurred to me that if I and each person I spoke with had stayed on the fringes of the issue at hand, afraid to wade into the messy center, we might have had an intellectual discussion, might have considered new viewpoints, both of which are good, yet we would never have truly seen each other.

Loudly tossing off arguments from a distance, I realized, was a safety blanket, and so were all of my talking points.  Yes, they were valuable, but getting up close and personal was so much better.  After all, what’s personal is oriented toward the person, as an individual and not just another passerby. 

I learned that honesty, empathy, and showing someone my scars go so much further than the safety of simple platitudes or surface-level discussion.  Leading with my heart let me get out of the way, so the Lord could enter the cracks and flood them with healing.  You have to literally cast out into the deep, to not fear the places in a soul where there’s darkness and hurt.

I certainly don’t say this because I feel qualified to judge or to preach; I say this because I know for myself what it’s like to feel called out.  Hearing the truth is rarely a comfortable experience.  Not when, like me, you face rejection upon sharing a message that the culture desperately needs to hear.  Not when another person draws attention to your flaws, and not when you’re faced with hard realities you’d prefer to ignore.  It requires such a willingness to receive.

I used to be so afraid to make myself vulnerable.  And yet, I’m slowly learning that it’s only in letting the Lord break me open into my realest self that I’m purified and that I truly become, in my limited way, a vessel of His love to others.

Matt Smith was on to something.  A willingness to be uncomfortable, I think, is a major part of self-knowledge and of bearing the Gospel.  Discomfort doesn’t indicate that something’s gone wrong; it means something is going right.  Look to the Cross: we’re not meant for comfort, but for greatness.  What better way to be great than to cast embarrassment aside; to be humble, with no falseness and no interest at all in our own glory?

My prayer is simply this: that I might do the Father’s will and His work only with pure love.  May I be humble, bold, and sincere.  May I be not afraid.

The Allure Of the Crunchy Catholic

Flax oil was the gateway.  When I got engaged two years ago and signed up for Natural Family Planning courses, I received a hefty box containing workbooks, charts, a thermometer, and most interestingly, the book Fertility, Cycles, and Nutrition by Marilyn Shannon.  Figuring the months leading up to my wedding and eventually, babies, were as good a time as any to really learn about my body, I opened up the book and promptly determined that my caffeine consumption, my sugar intake, my failure to take multiple supplements, and the fact that I had never made my own bread or yogurt were all going to doom my best efforts at NFP.  At Shannon’s suggestion, I started taking flax oil to help regulate the last phase of my cycle.

Reading this book was one of those experiences where there’s so much information that you freak out, convinced you’ve been doing everything wrong, go a tad overboard on amending every relevant part of your life, and eventually, after a few months, find yourself on a much more moderate keel, hopefully with new knowledge to spare.  That book, along with the coworkers who became my sisters and brothers during my first job after college, revealed to me a fascinating, heretofore unfamiliar breed: The Crunchy Catholic.

You might know one yourself.  It’s your friend who walks or bikes instead of drives whenever possible, composts, homeschools, cleans everything with vinegar, carries her babies in a sling, puts raw honey in his tea, prefers warm salt water over NyQuill, and would never touch meat with hormones or antibiotics.  The hardcore ones eschew microwaves, drink raw milk, and brew kombucha, a fermented tea made from a live bacteria culture that looks like a mushroom.  I am not making this up.  In my case, a marginal interest in all this eventually turned into a much deeper awareness of what I put in and on my body.  It turned to a life of kale, quinoa, Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap, coconut oil, organic apple cider vinegar with apple strings floating in it, and a rampage during which I tossed most of my beauty products, deciding they were all toxic.

Mumford and Sons, Awake My Soul, LyricsWhile I was drinking fermented things and giving chastity talks, my then-fiancé was living the lean existence of a bachelor and graduate student.  He spent exactly $30 a week on groceries and survived almost solely on frozen burritos.  I’m not making this up, either.  As my crunchiness increased, he’d ask me sometimes why I felt it so necessary to go above and beyond typical conventions of healthy living.

I asked myself a few times if my desire to be countercultural was just pride.  Maybe, at first.  But I had other reasons, too.  “Think our future children’s health!” I’d insist.  “I want us to have a nice long life on earth together before we go to Heaven!”  “Eating kale even when you hate it will sanctify you and get you to Heaven!”  He persisted, and I wondered: what’s the draw of a less processed, slightly weirder lifestyle, and what exactly distinguishes a Catholic hippie from a non-Catholic hippie?

I certainly never want to do anything for no reason.  That’s the great thing about the Church, isn’t it, that there’s always a perfectly natural, logical explanation, with our deepest fulfillment in mind, for every truth and every teaching?  And I definitely wouldn’t call myself a hipster, arbitrarily following a path just for the sake of being original.  So I thought about it — the appeal of the crunch. Aside from the fact that I feel physically better when I eat well and am content knowing I’m living more simply (thrifting, foregoing the gym in favor of runs and bike rides outside) and thinking critically about the medical and nutritional staples that are marketed as essentials (bleach, dairy, certain vaccines, and, of course, hormonal contraceptives), I think there’s also something deeper at work.

The answer, I think, lies in the Theology of the Body.  It lies in who we are.  According to John Paul II, the body expresses the soul, so why wouldn’t I want to nourish my body just as well physically as I do spiritually?  Maybe it is just temporary, this life, but I say it’s worth nourishingThere is a deep peace that comes from knowing you’re living as you’re created to live; as in, living in a way that embraces our humanness.  After all, our bodies, our flesh, are so essential to who we are as humans and how we share in Christ’s life—it’s only through His body, and our own, that we can experience the deepest satisfaction of our longings in the Eucharist.

Do I want to be healthy?  Of course.  In a countercultural way?  Well, yes, but not just to make a statement.   In First Corinthians, Saint Paul says my body is a temple, but I don’t want to turn it into a site of idolatry as I worship my own pride in how I raise my future family, or my own self-image as a result of my eating and exercise choices.   I don’t want it to be a Holy of Holies, either, to be feared when I one day sit my child in front of the TV or eat the occasional slice of pizza.  No; I want to be a tabernacle, a dwelling place for what’s pure, what’s good, and what’s holy.