Honduras!

Me: “Guess where I’m going for Spring Break?!?!” Dad: “Please say anywhere but Honduras…” Me: “Uhhhh…” *mischevious grin*

I was just perusing through my posts and noticed that something very important was missing.  I am doing something major in one week and I failed completely to write about it.  I guess the excitement of nunhood has been consuming my thoughts lately 🙂

Anyway, every year my school offers the opportunity to participate in spring break service trips to various places around the country.  For the first time, this year they planned an international trip.  Not wanting to pass up the opportunity, of course I applied.

That’s right folks, in one week I will be traveling to central america once again, to Guatemala’s neighbor, Honduras.  We are working with a program called Students Helping Honduras and staying in El Progreso.  This organization recruits groups of college students to come for one week and assist in building schools and with various other projects.  Their main purpose to improve opportunities for children in Honduras.  They work on building schools, providing school supplies and also run a children’s home.

Since I’ve been so multimedia lately, here’s a video about a village they’re basically building from the ground up:

This will definitely be a new experience for all of us, as we’ll be working with a new organization and with other college students from around the country.  It should also be an interesting experience for me personally, since I have recently surrendered by desires to be a foreign missionary.  It will be more important than ever to listen to the still small voice of God during this trip.

Isaiah 55:8-9 “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways”

Once in a while, as I’m going about planning my perfect life, God stops me in my tracks and sets me straight again.  I have all of these grand plans involving saving the world and “changing the system”.  I said in my last post that I want to have a “cool” life.  My idea of that and God’s idea are probably radically different.  I’m okay with that though because God’s plan for my life will be AMAZING, not just cool.  In order to follow his path I have to leave the one I’m on and give up all of those big plans I have for my life.  And this is incredibly scary.  What if instead of being a roaming missionary and saving all of the children of Africa he asks me to stay in little old Scranton?  What if instead of ministering to the desperately poor he needs me to tend to the spiritual needs of the lost and lonely teenagers of this country?

Ironically, the one thing I am fairly certain God is calling me to doesn’t scare me at all but is something I long for.  It is also something I am scared to talk about because I’m afraid of what others will think.  Recently I have realized that if I am ashamed of what God wants me to do, there is a serious problem.  He should be the only one I am trying to please.  As Galatians 1:10 says: “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

So it’s time to tell a story.  This story starts a few years ago when I was in high school.  My relationship with God was just beginning to blossom and I had just recently begun to trust him when he asked me to surrender my life to him.  I was at a Steubenville Youth Conference with my friends and brother.  Before the last Mass of the weekend an announcement was made that there would be a blessing of all those who were discerning Religious Life or Priesthood.  Sometime during Mass an image popped into my head:  me walking up to the altar when they asked who was considering Religious Life.  I knew without question what God was asking me to do and I was shocked.  The possibility had never even crossed my mind and God took me completely by surprise.  Throughout the rest of Mass I argued with God and sat in complete disbelief.  As Mass drew to a close and the time was coming near, I began to sob and asked God to not ask this of me.  Then they asked any girls interested in religious life to come forward and against my every instinct, I began the long trek towards the altar. Tears streamed down my face but I knew I was doing the right thing.  We were asked to promise to discern God’s call for a year.

Later my brother said in surprise: “I never knew you wanted to be a sister!”  and I replied in distress, “neither did I!”

I only seriously thought about the possibility of becoming a sister for about a month after the conference, and then in the midst of school and boys, it fell by the wayside.  Then I went to college and everything changed.  Suddenly I had a solid Catholic community to foster and support my faith.  For the first time in my life I was around Sisters and I learned what it actually meant to be one of them.  After fighting with God for the first couple of years, I finally admitted that God was still tugging on my heart.  After much discussion, discernment and prayer, something incredible has happened: my will is in line with God’s.  Not only have I embraced the call to religious life, I want to be a Sister.

As graduation nears, I’ve realized that I’m trying to figure out how I can mesh God’s plan with my own by being a sister while still doing all the things I want to.  This is not true surrender and is only causing me stress.  I am continually being surprised by God and reminded that his thoughts are high above my own.

Matthew 16:24-26  “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”

The “G” Word

I want to have a really cool life.  You know those people who are introducedas having spent three years in the bush of the

I want to be her!

Congo, working for the UN and starting their own organization?  I want to be one of those people when I’m older.  As my last year of college flies by and the “G” word approaches, I can’t wait to start building up that list of experiences.  I know that in my last post (I apologize for the severe lack of posting) I was all set to begin applying for the Peace Corps.  However, anyone who knows me knows I change my mind about my life plans every week.  Now don’t get me wrong, I am 99% sure that I am going to do some kind of service overseas after I graduate, but there are just so many options!

I have kept diaries pretty faithfully since middle school and I like to go back and look at them once in a while.  While doing this recently, I was reminded of my deep rooted desire to be a missionary.  I have felt a tug from God towards missions work for many years now and am finally realizing that I could be doing it in a year from now.  The fact that in a year I will probably be leaving the country and my family for at least two years is a terrifying and exhilarating thought.

As you know my faith is the most important thing in my life.  Part of the reason I am no longer interested in joining Peace Corps is because I would like to work with a religious organization which will support me in my faith.  The other reason is that Peace Corps volunteers are very independent and often isolated, whereas I would prefer to live in community with other volunteers and work as part of a team.  I am also thinking and praying about what exactly it means to be a missionary and how this would be different than doing a service program.

Here are some of the different organizations that I am looking at applying to:

Maryknoll Lay Missioners

Society of African Missions

Franciscan Mission Service

While the “G” word is somewhat scary, I am excited to see what God has in store for me!

Psalm 23:4: Even though I walk through the darkest valley…

Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

In my post about my summer plans I mentioned that I felt a little lost when I returned from Tanzania.  That was a bit of an understatement but I’ve been struggling with the idea of posting about it.  What I’m about to share is very personal but I think it’s necessary to tell you about it.

My whole life I’ve been a hardcore perfectionist and hate letting people see when I mess up or am upset.  College has pretty much cured me of that though and I’m learning how important it is to let other people see my scars and tears.  This newfound openness was put to the test this past year.

As I’m sure you can tell from my posts about Tanzania, I had an incredible experience of God there.  His presence has never been more tangible than it was for those two months.  My relationship with Him became effortless and my faith grew in leaps and bounds.  When I returned home it felt like I had left God in Tanzania and my life was suddenly void of any meaning.

About a week after I returned to the states I wrote this:

I felt so much closer to God when I was living simply in Africa.  I wasn’t surrounded by possessions and my days had a pretty simple routine.  It was easy to connect with God.  But God doesn’t want our faithfulness only in the easy times or only when we’re in trouble.  He wants our love and devotion all of the time.  Carrying over what I learned in Tanzania is the real test.

I am not proud of the person I became during the period of time between coming back and returning to school.  The sudden lack of structured routine and responsibilities drove me to extreme laziness and a complete lack of God.  Once I got back to school this got better:

I’m finally back at school and I feel like I’m alive again.  I have a purpose and a role here.  My break from God is over. I hate that it happened at all but all that’s left to do is forgive myself and try harder.

Then around November, when all my work started piling up, I found myself missing Tanzania more than ever.  I became apathetic and depressed; I no longer cared about what I was doing and lost sight of what God needed me to be doing.

Here’s some excerpts from my journal at that time:

My energy is entirely spent; I have given everything I have.  It takes so much energy just to smile and pretend everything is okay.  My walls are falling down and my mask is starting to crack.  I don’t have the energy to care about anything anymore.  I just want to shut down and forget about everything, pretend the world doesn’t exist.  People are expecting things of me and I have nothing left to give.

A sorrow has seeped into my soul and I don’t know where it came from.  Simple conversations, smiling, takes more energy than I can muster, but I have to do it because I can’t let anyone see my weakness.  I am eternally cheerful – this just doesn’t happen to me.  How can I fight something I can’t name?

Soon after this, the cycle started all over again with Guatemala.  I wallowed in my sadness rather than trying to get help (because I didn’t want to admit that something was wrong) or fight it in any way.   Finally God gave me the kick in the pants I needed:

Last night I was genuinely and completely happy for the first time in months.  The fact that the feeling was completely foreign to me finally made me realize that I have a problem.

A song called “Sunrise” by Brandon Heath helped get me through this period of time.  That moment was definitely my sunrise.

Everything turned around after that.  Anytime I felt sadness overwhelming me, I prayed fervently for God to lift the darkness.  And He did!  As soon as I identified the root of my apathy (missing Africa and a distance from God) it was much easier to fight it with Jesus’s help.

I should add a disclaimer to this post and say that I also suspect that I suffer slightly from SAD(Seasonal Affective Disorder) which probably contributed to my depression occurring during the winter.

While it is unfortunate that this happened, I am absolutely sure that it has made my faith stronger.  In fact many Saints and holy people, such as Mother Teresa, went through periods of darkness and we admire their faith.  I’ve been falling deeper in love with God every day and am trying to learn as much as possible about His incredible love for us.

A while ago I wrote about the dangers of apathy and now I have experienced those firsthand.  It is complacency that will be the downfall of Christians, not horrendous sinfulness.  Take a moment today to really think about the incredible things God has done for you and the wonder that should be your response to that.  Becoming numb and ignorant to the world around me created a chasm between God and myself; don’t let the same happen to you.

January 5th – “Making the road smoother”

On our last day in San Lucas we literally helped “make the road smoother”, as Fr. Greg pointed out was our job on the first day.  We also learned some patience and that there is little sense of a schedule or hurrying in Guatemala.

Originally we were scheduled to work at the women’s center again but were met with confusion upon arriving there.  Apparently we had been sent to the wrong place.  Laughing off the miscommunication, we waited patiently to hear where we would really be working.  Eventually we were taken to the road that is being built up to the coffee fields to make access to them easier.  Our task was to move rocks to create a foundation for the road, then cement would be poured over those.  We created an assembly line and got to work.  By the end of the day, we had barely made a dent in the work but I know it made a difference nonetheless.

Our last night in San Lucas was a bittersweet one.  We would miss the homemade tortillas and special green sauce that was served with every meal.  We were dreading leaving the wonderful coffee and laid back atmosphere.  Having already experienced leaving Africa, I knew the depression that would come with going home and braced myself for the feeling of loss.  We took one last walk around town and held on dearly to all we had learned.

I think the hardest part of coming home is implementing everything you have learned and spreading that knowledge to every one at home.  I’ve tried to hold onto the sense of peace and enjoying every day that I experienced in Guatemala. This experience reinforced and renewed many things that I learned in Africa, which I needed reminding of desperately.

Gracias a Dios (Thank God)

January 4th – Picking Coffee!!

I’m going to start putting dates on my posts so you have context as to when each thing happened.

Picking coffee...yes those are my hands

Today we finally did what we had all been anxiously waiting for – picked coffee!  Coffee is the heart and soul of Guatemala and we were excited to get into the nitty gritty of that heart and soul.  We all became addicted to the stuff within 24 hours of being in San Lucas.  It was time to see where liquid sleep comes from.  This might surprise you but coffee does not start out looking like the beans we buy.  They look like cranberries to begin with and then are roasted and go through a complicated process before they get to the store shelf.

Another thing I didn’t realize is that coffee trees often grow on the side of a mountain, so picking it can be quite precarious.  People risk their lives everyday so you can have that delicious cup of joe that gets you through the day.  We balanced on rocks and against the trees and experienced the life of a coffee picker for a short three hours.  I have such an appreciation for coffee now!  We were exhausted after just three hours – I can’t imagine doing that for hours every day.

Between 12 of us we picked 75 pounds of coffee that morning.  Bringing the experience full circle, after lunch we worked in the garden where the coffee trees start out as baby plants.  We were weeding and for some reason this is where I started losing my sense of purpose.  I started getting really anxious about what God wanted me to do in Guatemala and why he had brought me there.  I think this is a sign of my lack of trust.  God has the bigger picture under control and to me the pieces might not fit together, but for Him they do.

Back in San Lucas…

Back in San Lucas, we finally got to get our hands dirty with some concrete service.  A wall was being built by the women’s center, so they put us to work helping with that.  We created columns to support the wall and all worked on different parts of that.  It was cool that we all created a part of something bigger.  That reminded me of the fact that we all have a role to play as part of the group and in the world in general.  As part of our reflection we’ve been talking about how we’re all connected as one human family.  We are all an essential part of this family and God needs each and every one of us to bring about his kingdom here on earth.  This is an idea I understand intellectually but haven’t quite accepted in my heart.  I’ve been struggling to figure out my role recently and where God is calling me.  For example, building those columns felt meaningless until you thought about the fact that it freed up the more skilled workers to do something more important and helped get that wall built a little faster and the women’s center opened sooner.  It’s all about perspective.

That afternoon we shifted gears and learned a little more about Guatemala’s people and it’s history.  A woman named Shona who helps run the parish programs talked to us about her experiences in San Lucas.  She has been living in San Lucas since before Fr. Greg came so she has experienced the incredible difference he has made first hand.  She talked about how poor and oppressed the people were before he came, especially the women.

The most heartwrenching thing she talked about was a period of violence in 1981.  There was a ton of guerrilla warfare in response to the severe oppression the people were experiencing.  The Mayan people were coerced into helping the guerilla fighters who offered them land, houses and money.  Once the government found this out they targeted the Mayan people as a whole and began killing anyone who was even remotely suspected of helping the guerrilla fighters.  The families of these targeted people were often killed also.  Shona’s husband was caught helping the guerrilla, was captured and presumably killed.  She never knew for sure what happened to him and has to live with that horror every day.  She must have told her story a hundred times but still teared up when talking about her husband.

After her husband was taken, Shona and her children became a target also.  Despite this danger, she helped countless mayans during this time.  She told one story about traveling to rescue 11 orphans who were hiding in a church a few hours from San Lucas.  They had to pass through three military checkpoints on the way back and convince the soldiers that all these children belonged to Shona.  She literally risked life and limb for these children she didn’t even know.  The thing about her story that amazed me the most was her complete trust in God throughout everything she went through.  She kept saying, “Gracias a Dios” – Thank God.  It would have been so easy to blame God for all of the terrible events of that year, but instead she leaned on him for hope and strength.  I long for the courage to trust that completely.