The Purpose of Unexpected Joy

Bonne année, mes amis! Happy 2016!

Despite growing up 25 miles away from New York City, I never spent New Year’s Eve in Times Square, much to the chagrin of my European friends. I never felt a desire to stand in the cold for 10 hours in the middle of a drunken mob, waiting for an event that was over in a blink. This year, being a part-time New Yorker changed that.

One of my friends from my NYC Catholic book club was the organizer of an annual New Year’s Eve party at St. Malachy’s Church, one block away from Times Square. I expected a fun night with a few good friends. Little did I know that God wanted to give me an NYC afternoon adventure with a new friend from out of town, a sparkly disco ball mask to wear, Mass in a beautiful church, drinks and dancing, and the crown jewel of the evening: getting to pass through the police barricade around Times Square and watch the ball drop in person with a million rejoicing people and probably a billion pieces of confetti.

I never asked for it, but God decided to give His little girl one last gift to celebrate the end of the year.

Today, I kept asking myself why I of all people received such unexpected joy at the end of the year. A few weeks ago, my book club discussed the purpose and beauty of suffering, how it can shape us into better people and teach us to rely more heavily on God, among other things. After this discussion, I expected God would bring some suffering in my life in order to put these ideas into practice. But the end of my year was so joyful that I got a little confused. 

Of course, this is only the first day of 2016. A lot of suffering can happen in the near future. But is there a purpose to joy? Are we supposed to just appreciate joy, or is there a responsibility that comes with joy?

The comparison between my average expectations for the evening and what I experienced reminded me of a quote by C.S. Lewis from his book The Weight of Glory, “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about … when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

We often don’t expect to find joy because we don’t think we deserve it. We’re not miserable, so we don’t need anything to bring us joy. We’re just moving through life trying to get it all done, and that’s enough for us. Besides, why should we be so happy when so many people in the world are suffering? But those who have experienced deep joy know that it’s impossible to hide. It shows in your face and your smile and your eyes, and other people can see it.

That’s the great responsibility that comes with the great power of joy: to let our joy spill over into the lives of others, to use our light to cast out, even partially, someone else’s darkness. One of my coworkers told me recently, “Your smile is the first thing I see when I walk into the office, and I know it’s going to be a good day.” In 2016, I hope to continue to bring joy to others, no matter what suffering I may have to face.

God doesn’t just want us to feel “fine,” he wants to give us joy! Jesus says in Matthew 7:11, “If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give to those who ask him.” So as we move into 2016, I challenge you to expect joy. Expect love. Expect positivity. Expect laughter. Expect friendship. And when you or someone you know is in a tough situation, use your joy to make a difference.

Thank you to all who have followed this blog for the past three years. I wouldn’t be here without you. Here’s to making 2016 the best year yet!

À bientôt!

– Vicky

Question of the Week: One of my New Year’s resolutions is to post on this blog every Friday. Share your resolutions in the comments below!

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Dear HONY Girl: An Open Letter

I’ve followed Brandon Stanton’s photo blog Humans of New York for a very long time and I love it. I’ve always believed that people are far more interesting than meets the eye if you know how to ask the right questions, and this blog is proof. There have been so many moving and funny stories shared thousands of times on social media that come from this blog. HONY was even able to raise more than $1 million for a school in Brownsville, Brooklyn after a photo of its valedictorian went viral.

So why do I bring it up? Last week, one post broke my heart. The subject was a young woman, though she didn’t show her face, only her hand. On her finger was a silver ring that spelled LOVE in curlicue letters. In the accompanying caption, she said that she had been in an emotionally abusive and manipulative relationship for five years. Please read the original post here.

I commented on the Facebook post, like more than 33,000 others, but I wanted to write more. Please share this post with anyone who is in a similar situation:

Dear sweet sister,

I’m so sorry this is happening to you. But I understand. I understand because I’ve been there.

I know how it feels when love is romantic and exciting when you’re together, yet you cry for hours when you’re alone. I know how it feels to believe that your worth is directly related to your relationship with another person. I know the fear that if the relationship ends for any reason, it would be all your fault and you would be a failure. I know how complicated your feelings can be; how can this person hurt me so much if he says he loves me? I’ve bought the lie that physical harm is the only kind of abuse. I know rejection, self-loathing, anger, and despair, and I know wanting to get up the next morning and do it all again, thinking this time will be different.

However, it seems like it hasn’t been different. It will never be different with him. You can’t change his behavior, but you can change your perspective.

Many comments on your photo, mine included, told you to get out. It’s not too late. You CAN get out. You say you’re scared to leave; I understand that too. But let me tell you some truths about you that may help you.

You were created, beautiful and worthy, fearfully and wonderfully, by a master artist. By your very existence, you have value and deserve to be treated with respect. You know deep in your heart that you were made for free, total, fruitful and faithful love. You know that you deserve more than a relationship that robs you of your self-worth, your joy, your goals and dreams. You deserve a partner who celebrates YOU, all of you, as you were created to be. You are worth celebrating.

It is only through believing these truths that you will find the courage to break free. Trust yourself. Trust my words. The longer you wait to break up, the harder it gets. This relationship does not merit another second of your time. Seek help. If you think your safety is in jeopardy, have an authority figure go with you to break up. Reach out to family, friends, a clergy member, a counselor, anyone who will support you. If you can’t find anyone to help, call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

I wish you all the beauty, joy and love this world has to offer, and I wish for the world all the beauty, joy and love you have to offer it. I love you. I’m praying for you.

You are enough.

Love,

A sister

‘Old Fashioned’ Hopes and Fears

Who doesn’t love romance? As a culture, we’re obsessed with it. We try to groan every time a new romantic comedy comes out, but we secretly get the warm and fuzzies after we watch it on Netflix … or in a movie theater by ourselves. But Christians looking to pursue God-centered relationships that eventually lead to God-centered marriages don’t have too many role models in modern rom-coms.

Enter “Old Fashioned,” a new romantic comedy from Skoche Films hitting U.S. theaters Feb. 13, the same day as that other big-budget “romance” about glorified domestic violence.

OK, short synopsis: Antique store owner Clay was a chauvinist frat boy until he found Jesus and developed his own Joshua Harris-style ideas about love and courtship. Will o’ the whisp Amber moves into the apartment above his store, and … you can guess where this is going.

I’m a Catholic Christian, but I’m not obliged to like or support all forms of media marketed as “Christian” (for a further explanation, check out this awesome video from Blimey Cow.) I’ve recently started to watch more Christian films, and in general, they range from the harmlessly mediocre to the downright offensive — don’t get me started on “God’s Not Dead.”

However, after watching the trailer for “Old Fashioned,” my cold, cynical, secular heart began to feel the same warm and fuzzies I used to get from romantic comedies. I’m a sucker for love stories, but when two characters in a romantic comedy share a few shallow lines of dialogue, hook up and then suddenly have a long-lasting, healthy relationship, I scratch my head. There is definitely a need for romantic comedies that show women and men taking dating slowly and treating each other with respect and dignity. However, Christian films also need to rise above the level of “good … for a Christian movie.”

With this in mind, “Old Fashioned” could restore my faith in Christian films if …

1. … the script doesn’t feel like it was cut-and-pasted from the pastor’s Sunday sermon notes.

I don’t mean to be disrespectful to the work that pastors and priests put into their sermons. However, many Christian movies I’ve seen have deserved the label “preachy.” An audience doesn’t like to be talked at. After watching these films, I feel reprimanded rather than entertained. I’m not saying that a film’s sole purpose is entertainment or that churches shouldn’t use popular media to connect with their members. However, Christian artists should focus on producing quality content just as much as spreading their message. Christian films don’t get a pass on screenwriting guidelines; they still need to develop plot and characters to their full potential, which brings me to …

2. … the characters are relatable and well-rounded; not all Christian characters are saints, and not all non-Christian characters are demons, or worse, “projects.”

Any practicing Christian will tell you that they are not perfect; anyone who says otherwise is kidding themselves. Following Jesus Christ is not easy, and faith is a life-long journey that can’t be completed in the span of a two-hour movie. So why, in so many Christian films, are all Christian characters automatically “good guys” and all non-Christian characters automatically “bad guys”? Real people aren’t as black-and-white as that. Judging from the trailer, “Old Fashioned” could be taking a step in the right direction, as Amber, by all indications, is not a Christian. My only hope is that the movie doesn’t make her a pet project for Clay to convert. If the filmmakers want the audience to believe in these characters, they need to write them as real people who struggle and sin but also dust themselves off and try again.

3. … it has other selling points besides being countercultural or “non-secular.”

Once “Old Fashioned” was acquired by Freestyle Releasing, the same distributor of “God’s Not Dead,” it was pitched as a squeaky-clean alternative to the BDSM-filled juggernaut “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and Freestyle even planned to release their film on the same day. Its tagline: “Chivalry makes a comeback.” While this is a smart marketing move, the film needs to stand on its own as a well-made movie. If you want people to have faith in your product’s message, you need to put effort into the product itself. Again, see the Blimey Cow video I mentioned earlier.

4. … it doesn’t preach to the choir.

Last year, I had the great privilege to lead a Christian women’s retreat at my college. That same weekend, one of my best friends from high school was planning a visit. Though she doesn’t really practice any religion, she came on the retreat like the wonderful and supportive friend she is. When I asked her how she liked it, she said some parts, like our praise and worship hour, made her feel out of place, but that she really enjoyed listening to the testimonies of the retreat leaders and meeting some of my friends. Christian films can’t get their message out if their filmmakers are only concerned with adhering to religious dogma. There need to be elements of the story and characters that anyone of any religion can identify with.

5. … you wouldn’t know the difference if the film was made by a secular production company.

HOLD IT BEFORE YOU UNFOLLOW THIS BLOG. Just hear me out. When I say that there should be no difference between a Christian film and a secular film, I don’t mean that Christian filmmakers should jeopardize their values to appeal to the lowest common denominator. On the contrary, they should use their God-given talents to produce quality entertainment that has a Christ-centered message. The trick is finding God in secular media. Themes such as love, sacrifice, friendship, courage and community do exist in Hollywood. It may take a bit of digging, but there are good values in many secular films. Well-made Christian films have the potential to show the film industry that we don’t need to watch sex and violence all the time … and that a popular book series doesn’t necessarily deserve a cinematic adaptation. *cough*

“Old Fashioned” isn’t being released internationally at the moment, but if you’re in the U.S., find a screening near you and check it out this Valentine’s Day weekend!

This time, you get TWO questions! 1) What are your thoughts on “Old Fashioned” or “Fifty Shades of Grey”? 2) Do you know any Christian films that fit the above criteria? Seriously, guys. I need my faith restored in Christian cinema.

Bon Saint Valentin!

– Vicky

You Were Worth Dying For: My Lenten Dating Fast, Day 20

I needed to reach a breaking point in the dating fast. And I did.

My dare for Day 17 was to meditate in front of a crucifix. The idea was to imagine Christ on the cross saying to me, “I did this for you. Just for you.”

My problem is that I really, really suck at meditating. My brain is always buzzing with 10 different ideas at once. When I try to focus on my post-Communion prayer during Mass, I inevitably think about something else the whole time and then do a quick father-son-holy-spirit-amen after the priest says, “Let us pray.” However, I’ve found that my brain is more inclined to focus, especially during prayer, when my hands are occupied. So to combat any mental wanderings, I brought my journal with me into the meditation chapel on campus. After a minute or two in front of the cross, I opened up my journal and began to write: “Are you just as you were when you were 15?”

At age 15, I felt called to take ownership of my faith in a way I hadn’t before, which is a story for another time. As I wrote in the meditation chapel, the question that plagued me was whether God had really made me a better, more holy person in those six years. And for the first two-thirds of the time I spent there, I thought that I was the same person as I was at 15, just with more sin.

As I wrote, I felt the weight of all the things I had done wrong in the past six years, even the ones that had been absolved through confession. My heart felt like lead. I began to cry. I’m generally not a crier during prayer, but God brought me to my knees in that moment. I asked Jesus, “Why was I worth dying for? I have all this sin on my heart. I hate myself for all the ways I’ve hurt You and others. How can You say You love someone like me? I don’t deserve it.”

I was writing furiously and sobbing alternately. Here I was trying to grow closer to God, doing all the right things — going to Mass three times a week, praying, going on a dating fast, listening to Christian music, etc. — yet I still felt like a horrible human being. I couldn’t see God working in my life. I wasn’t a saint, therefore, I had to be the worst sinner in the world.

Suddenly, everything changed. I began to write out the lyrics to “By Your Side” by Tenth Avenue North: “Why are you striving these days? Why are you trying to earn grace? … Look at these hands and my side. They swallowed the grave on that night, when I drank the world’s sin, so I could carry you in and give you life.” After I had written out a good chunk of the lyrics, I turned the page and wrote five words in huge letters: “YOU WERE WORTH DYING FOR.”

In that moment, Jesus’ mercy penetrated all the layers of shame and self-loathing that had been weighing me down just a few minutes prior. Mark 2:17 reads, “‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.'”

For much of my spiritual journey, I have battled the false idea that I need to cross off every item on a spiritual checklist before God can love me. God never said, “I will only love you if you don’t sin.” If that was the case, He wouldn’t have sent us His only Son, Jesus Christ, so that we might be free and forgiven from our sins.

This is our faith. This is amazing grace. Believe it. Jesus’ mercy is yours. Take it.

À bientôt!

– Vicky

What are some of your favorite ways to pray? Tell me in the comments below!

“I Want Heaven for You”: My Lenten Dating Fast, Day 9

‘And like I can’t force the sun to rise or hasten summer’s start, neither should I rush my way into your heart,’ – Brooke Fraser, ‘Love is Waiting’

Over the past few months, I’ve been obsessively watching talks from the Steubenville Conferences on YouTube. For those of you who don’t know, the Steubenville Conferences are a series of Catholic youth conferences held through the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. They have amazing and faith-filled speakers every summer. Seriously, if you ever need a spiritual pick-me-up, just watch one of their many, many videos.

Two of my favorite flavors of Steubenville talks are the Men’s and Women’s Sessions. As you might expect, these talks focus largely on God’s plan for love and marriage, and as you also might expect, the speakers tailor their message to suit each gender. For the women, the speakers focus on chastity, modesty and body image. The men’s session focuses on chastity, lust and pornography. These aren’t the only subjects they talk about, but they’re themes that I’ve seen across the board.

I now think both talks should be required viewing for both sexes. Why? Because on the most basic level, men and women deal with exactly the same things.

A theme that comes up frequently in the Men’s Sessions is seeing a woman as a beautiful human being to be loved instead of an object of lust to be used. Praise God that that message is getting out there! But I think a similar discussion of lust is missing from most of the Women’s Sessions: how do women fall into the trap of lust, and how can we get out of it?

Sarah Swafford is one of the few Women’s Session speakers I’ve seen talk about how women use men physically and emotionally. Since I saw the video of her 2013 talk a few weeks ago, I’ve noticed how I use guys without even realizing it. Have you ever met a guy for the first time, looked into his eyes, and immediately thought, “Is this the guy I’m supposed to marry?” I have, and I don’t think I’m alone here. Swafford calls it “The Emotocoaster,” where you go from meeting a guy, to mentally planning out your whole relationship, to Facebook-stalking, to texting, to spilling your soul on the phone every night, and on and on. And it repeats for (almost) every guy you meet.

Now of course, this “emotocoaster” looks pretty similar to how many romantic relationships begin. But what’s the difference? Most of the time, when women get on the emotocoaster, we see the object of our affection as just that — an object to be had, a trophy male specimen to be won, instead of a human being with emotions, needs, opinions and desires.

Jason Evert says that, as Catholics, human sexuality is not something we should try to get rid of, but something we should take control of and refine in order to fulfill our true calling for authentic, life-giving love. One naive reason why I wanted to go on this dating fast was because I thought that by not dating, my attraction to guys would go away. I know, sounds backwards, right? It is. But I have been so angry at myself because I still look at guys I know and wonder if they’re “The One.” I haven’t been loving Jesus because I’ve been so focused on not liking guys. My “dare” for Day 2 of the dating fast was to write a love letter to God. I still haven’t written it.

My goal for the next week of the Dating Fast is to focus more on Jesus’ love for me and my love for Him, instead of worrying about not being attracted to men. I know that God put that attraction to men and desire for marriage and love in my heart, and He will realize it in His own time. In order to combat my emotional use of guys in the present moment, I’ve started looking at guys I find attractive and thinking, “I want Heaven for you.” In other words, “I want what’s best for you, even if it doesn’t include me.”

I’ve come up with percentages to keep in mind: 33.3% of the heterosexual guys I meet are called to marriage with a woman that is not me; 33.3% of them are called to a religious vocation; 33.3% of them are called to a single life; .1% are called to marry me. 

My math-major roommate has full license to pick apart my hackneyed calculations, but they’ve helped me put things into perspective. I’m going to hold out for that .1%, the one man Jesus has picked out for me, and only me. Until then, I’m going to let Jesus, the only man who can satisfy all the desires of my heart, love me.

Thank you so much for your overwhelming support of my last post. I’m keeping all of you in my prayers this Lenten season.

À la prochaine,

– Vicky

The Difference Ten Years Makes

I’m so happy to be home for Thanksgiving break, but today was a bittersweet day in my house. This morning, my family — one grandma, two parents, two aunts, an uncle, two cousins, one me — piled into our minivans and arrived at Mass uncharacteristically early (9:17 for a 9:30 service!) at my grandparents’ church. No, this is not our usual Sunday routine.

Today was the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the liturgical year. It also marked ten years since the death of my grandfather.

Perhaps it’s because I’m only 21, or because the aforementioned decade spanned all my hormonal and formative teenage years, but ten years seems like a lifetime ago. As I stood by Grandpa’s gravesite after Mass this morning, I remembered the day of his funeral. I could not convince myself that the little girl of twelve who placed a rose on a black coffin carefully for fear of falling into the gaping hole in the ground was me, had been me. I feel like I don’t know that girl anymore.

Ten years never seems like a long time. It’s a drop in the world history ocean, and when older adults talk about how they’ve been at this job or lived in this place for ten years, our limited human understanding compresses that time into a more digestible span of six months or a year at most. I’m writing this post at midnight, so I could possibly dive into a long-winded theory about how technology and the hyper-connectivity of the world have altered our perception of time, but I’m not going to.

In an attempt to grasp the change that can occur over the span of a decade, I’ve listed a noteworthy event from each year of the past decade of my life. It has been…

Ten years since my grandpa died only a few days before Thanksgiving. Before going up to bed, I called to his hospital bed in the living room, “Goodnight, Grandpa. I love you!” The next morning, he was gone.

Nine years since my parents tore down the tiny two-bedroom ranch house I grew up in and built our current house on the same property. We moved back in after living with my grandparents for ten months. When we first moved in, everything was cold and whitewashed, and I didn’t know if I could ever call that house “home.”

Eight years since my town built a new middle school and I had to leave all my friends behind for eighth grade. It was awful, but least we had our eighth-grade dances on the same night. J

Seven years since I had my first boyfriend for a grand total of three weeks.

Six years since I had the best freshman year of high school. I reunited with my old friends, made some new ones, and had a few teachers who were so inspiring that I go back and visit them to this day.

Five years since I made my NYC theatrical debut … in a tiny theatre tucked into a corner of Greenwich Village.

Four years since I attended an intensive acting conservatory for high school students for the month of July. It was a crazy thrill ride, but I ultimately decided that I wasn’t called to be an actor.

Three years since my disheartening senior year was infinitely brightened with the arrival of an acceptance letter to my beloved college. Sadly, it was not to Hogwarts.

Two years since I became heavily involved in my college’s Catholic community, where I found my second family — my brothers and sisters in Christ.

And in exactly one month and fifteen days, it will be one year since I arrived at the Orly Airport in Paris, loaded down with two huge suitcases and a fever, made the two-hour train ride to Nantes, and met my adored French host family for the first time.

It’s amazing what ten years can do.

Grandpa, I know you’re up in Heaven, and I hope you’re proud of me. Thank you for watching over me. I love you.

À plus!

Vicky

Loving Regina George

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(Photo credit to shame-full.com)

I’M BAAAACK!!! (in the States, that is.)

Don’t get me wrong; I loved my life in France. But one of the things I missed the most about America was my college’s Catholic community. I was reminded of how much I missed it three weeks ago during our Fall Retreat. Our theme for the weekend was community: what it is, how we could strengthen our bonds of community at our school, and how we could bring that same spirit of community to the rest of the world.

One of the most poignant and challenging talks of the weekend came from one of our new campus ministers. He talked about community through the lens of Jean Vanier’s book “Community and Growth.” Vanier is a Canadian Catholic theologian who founded L’Arche, a community for adults with developmental disabilities that has offshoots all over the world. One part of the book discusses enemies, or people we don’t like for one reason or another. How can we love them as God loves us? Vanier says that in order to build community throughout the world, we have to recognize that every single person has flaws and virtues alike.

During that section, one scene from Mean Girls played through my head. Cady (Lindsay Lohan) demands of Aaron Samuels what good he sees in his girlfriend, queen bee Regina George (Rachael McAdams). Aaron retorts with, “There’s good and bad in everybody. Regina’s just more up front about it.”

I think everyone can name one or two people in their lives who were their own Regina Georges — people who were just so mean and nasty that you couldn’t help but hate them. After our campus minister finished his talk, I realized how much of a grudge I still held for my own Regina Georges, even though hadn’t seen them since high school! I still associated anger, pain and malice with their memories because I had never found a constructive outlet through which I could express my feelings (and no, I’m not talking about hitting them over the head with a croquet mallet.) Anyone who knows me personally knows how much I hate confrontation. I just can’t do it. Even though these few individuals in high school were mean to me and to others, I could never bring myself to tell it to their faces. So I turned to God.

When I got back to my room that night, I wrote in my journal: “10 Things I Admire About ________” I made myself list 10 different things for each person. It was hard! I had to let go of my prejudices and see these people for who they really were: flawed human beings, yet beloved children of God. To each list, I added a bonus #11: “He/She is my brother/sister in Christ, therefore I should love them accordingly.” As soon as I finished, a wave of relief washed over me, as if my heart had just dropped a heavy burden that it had been carrying for many years. Jesus calls us to forgive one another, every single time, every single day. Believe me when I say forgiveness doesn’t just heal the person you forgive; it heals you, the forgiver.

Vanier also suggests that our enemies are a reflection of our own flaws: “Their presence seems to awaken our own poverty, guilt feelings and inner wounds; it seems menacing and brings out in us either aggression or a sort of fear and servile regression…Others bring out our envy and jealousy; they are everything we wish we were ourselves. Their presence reminds us of what we are not; their radiance and their intelligence underline our own poverty.”

When I looked over the lists I had made, the one trait that dominated them was confidence. These people knew their worth, and would walk into a room with their heads held high, talking to anyone and everyone with no trouble at all. These are traits that I don’t have. Therefore, I saw their confidence as arrogance and ridiculed them, thinking “I’m better than them because I tear myself down daily, become a wallflower at parties, and tell myself I’m not smart enough, pretty enough, etc.” That is a false sense of modesty. True modesty says “I am beautifully and wonderfully made, but not more or less so than anyone else in the world.”

So if you’re butting heads with your own Regina George, try making a list of his or her most admirable qualities. If you prefer, you can change #11 to: “This person is a human being, with both flaws and virtues. Therefore, I should treat them with the same amount of respect and love that I would show the person I love the most.” Even if it doesn’t change this person’s attitude toward you, it will change the way you act and think about them, and the world will be a little more peaceful for it. Remember, we are all human, and God loves us all.

À bientôt!

Vicky