Thanks a Million, 2015!

We are on the cusp of new year: 2016. A year of new possibilities, opportunities, triumphs, failures, births, jobs, classes, etc. It is exciting to look forward to what is to come and to make resolutions for a fresh start. However, I want to take a moment to look back with a dash of nostalgia in this heart full of gratitude.

In the spring, I learned the importance of leisure the hard way by not having any whatsoever. I spent my times hitting the books, writing papers, and serving the organizations I was involved in. It was an extraordinarily fruitful time, but also a wearying one. I was also encouraged more than I ever have been by my professors to keep pursuing my education, and their confidence in my capabilities made the strenuous semester well worth it.

When summer came, I immersed myself in books and Netflix, and perhaps reveled in the leisure a little too much. By the second week of summer, I was ready to return to school and being busy. Instead, I tried to take my mother’s insistence that I didn’t have a job or take classes with a reflective mind. I spent a lot of time reading and readying myself for my time abroad, and I have to say I’m glad my mother forced me to take a step back from the hectic busyness to enjoy my summer.

Then came Ireland. Oh, Ireland. The first weeks were a headache and a half trying to adjust, but once I acclimated to the weather and the culture, I relished every experience. I traveled solo to Italy and England – in the same week. I let go of a lot of my anxiety and fear. I learned how to sleep through any amount of partying. I met people from all over Europe and delighted in their diverse cultures. I was welcomed by the kindest Irish people.I saw beauty in every green hill, fluffy sheep, and breathtaking lake. I became a pilgrim not only spiritually, but physically, to Knock and Rome and Assisi. I spent authentic quality time with Christ, relying on Him while all I held dear were thousands of miles away.

It wasn’t just a trip. It wasn’t just a semester in a foreign country. It was the most amazing opportunity and leap of faith I have ever taken. And I am so grateful. I fell in love with a new country not by merely visiting there, but living there. I had time to form habits and get to know the city of Limerick. I teemed with nervous excitement leaving Texas because I didn’t know what I was facing, but I had a heavy heart leaving Ireland because I knew exactly what I left behind.

2015 has been a year of learning and growth for me, both in a classroom and from experiencing the big world beyond the classroom. And now I look forward with joy and anticipation to what 2016 might have in store for me.

I hope you celebrate a very happy new year! May God bless you on your way.

Sláinte!

Study(ing New Places) Week

Plane. Train. Automobile. Underground. Water taxi. Bus. Weary feet. We did it all during the week we were meant to be studying for our final exams. My friends and I packed up our backpacks and left from the Dublin Airport for a week of traveling and exploring.

 

We arrived in London Monday afternoon eager to discover the city. We spent the evening wandering Piccadilly Circus, looking into the beautiful window displays and behaving like children in the six-story monstrosity of Hamley’s Toy Store. We saw Buckingham Palace at night, nice and devoid of tourists. In Hyde Park, we came upon a Christmas carnival where we courageously braved some very high swings. Our eyes were watering from the wind, but we had an amazing view of the whole city.

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Tuesday dawned early as we excitedly hopped on the underground to Paddington Station, which is around the corner from the hospital where Princess Kate had the royal babies. From there we went on to check out 221B Baker Street and do some sleuthing. Afterwards, onward to watch the changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. It was quite the ceremony! Onto the underground once more to Westminster. We came out to the most beautiful, radiant scene of Big Ben, minutes from chiming the hour. Though gray all morning, the sun peeked out to illuminate our view of the famous clock and the Parliament buildings. Though we didn’t get to go inside, we spent several minutes marveling outside Westminster Abbey, in awe of the architecture and the historicity.

We meandered down to the National Gallery and spent a solid two hours gaping at Fra Angelico, Bernini, Van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne, Renoir, and Rembrandt to only name a few. From there, we found (with some trouble) the Cheshire Cheese where Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson, and G.K.Chesterton among other authors liked to grab a pint. Afterwards, we went back across the city to see the Brompton Oratory followed by the enormous department store, Harrod’s.

Wednesday, we got up to begin the day at the Tower of London. The tour was fascinating, and it was mind-boggling to walk in the footsteps of the royalty, the prisoners, and those sentenced to death, particularly Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher. The crown jewels were absolutely spectacular in person! Afterwards, we sped across the city to see Kensington Gardens and Palace, which were absolutely gorgeous!

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The rest of Wednesday was spent in traveling to the airport and flying across Europe to the Venice airport. We made it to the city of canals at 11, exhausted but excited to see the sights the next day. The water taxi ride to our hostel was eerie as the city was covered in fog and mist. The waters were grey and dreary, and honestly a bit foreboding.

Thursday was bright and misty, allowing us to soak in the boats, canals, and bustle of Venice. The day had no particular agenda, and we spent most of it wandering around the narrow streets and riding the water taxis just to soak it all in. We also ate a LOT of gelato. A lot a lot. We saw the Basilica di San Marco, which is spectacular. The inside is in the Byzantine style, and every inch is covered in amazing mosaics. How beautiful it was to pray before the remains of St. Mark the Evangelist. His mark is all over the city in the Marcan symbol of the Winged Lion.

Venice is beautiful, and it was a delight to take a deep breath and not worry about cross the city as we had to do in London. It was nice simply to wander with no commitments and demands.

Friday morning made a parting of the ways as Taryn went to make it to Belfast, while Lena and I took the train to Assisi. The train ride was peaceful and rife with the first glimpses of the beautiful Italian countryside – olive trees, vineyards, and rustic homes. Arriving in the Assisi train station was so very exciting. Lena and I found our Bed and Breakfast before making it to the Basilica di San Francesco for daily Mass. We prayed before the tomb of the saint, absolutely reveling that we actually made a pilgrimage to Assisi.

After Mass, Sr. Mary Frances of the FSE sisters picked us up for dinner, and we got dinner and shared lovely conversation. Then she took us to Mary of the Angels, the basilica built around the Porziuncola, the original church that St. Francis built. It was there that my heart felt squeezed with the reality of where we were. How very good God is!

Saturday, we returned to San Francesco to investigate further the artistry and architecture. Taking our time, we wound our way back up the city poking around the Christmas market and marveling at the views of the Umbrian hillsides. In the afternoon, we walked down to San Damiano, where Francis received the vision from God and St. Clare established her monastery. So. Incredibly. Beautiful. And oh so peaceful. My heart was full walking in the beautiful way of the saints!

The monastery was a place surrounded in the spirit of true peace. What wonder that God brought us, two little girls from the US, to the beautiful Assisi. We climbed back up into the city to explore Santa Chiara before ending our day.

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Sunday dawned very, very early as Sr. Mary Frances picked us up for 7am Lauds followed by 7:30am Mass at San Damiano. It. Was. Amazing. And a little bleary eyed. Following Mass, Sister took us to their house for breakfast before dropping us off at the airport.

What a week! And this description is but the bare bones of it all! Britain is great. Italy is gorgeous. And above all, God is good!

May God bless you on your way!

Wondering and Wandering

A mere two full days after I returned from Rome, in the most bewildering week of my life, I went on to Birmingham, England. I flew into Birmingham rather than London for one reason alone – to visit the Birmingham Oratory.

The Oratory was founded by Bl. John Henry Newman in 1848, and today they have a gorgeous shrine there with his relics. In addition to its significance with that  blessed and prolific cardinal, J.R.R.Tolkien and his younger brother were essentially raised there after the death of their mother. Instead of being entrusted to family members, the two boys were entrusted to the care of a priest, Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan, who was to raise them to be diligent Catholics. The Oratory is fantastically beautiful – and I was blessed with the opportunity to go to daily Mass and Adoration there.

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I found my way to the Birmingham train station from my hostel and caught a train to Oxford. The difference between the enormous, bustling, industrial Birmingham and the sprawling, quiet, and nature-nurtured Oxford were immediately apparent from their difference in train stations. Birmingham has perhaps 20 some odd platforms, and Oxford has two.

From the train station, I found my way to my accommodation – I stayed in a dorm room inside Somerville College. I felt like a proper Oxonian staying in the same halls as some of her students. I made a beeline for the Eagle and Child (aka the Birdy and Baby) where Tolkien, C.S.Lewis, and the other members of the Inklings would meet to share their writings and a pint or two. I ended up talking to a sweet woman who was from Dallas, and she and her husband ended up buying my lunch and inviting me to eat with them. It was a great conversation talking about school, faith, and literature.

 

After departing, I wandered through the streets of Oxford, determined to end the day at Magdalen College. I felt much more at ease in Oxford than I had in Rome. Rome was amazing, but stressful as it is so enormous and I didn’t speak the language. In Oxford, I took my ease navigating the streets, not worrying if I got lost. I was there to fill my lungs with the crisp autumn air, to revel in the glory of academia, and walk the walks of my literary heroes.

I eventually found my way to Magdalen – the college where Lewis taught. The college has expansive and beautiful meadows as a part of its grounds. I spent close to two hours wandering the footpaths, my mind and heart caught up in a myriad of thoughts. Primary among those thoughts was the conversion of Lewis, which began one evening walking those very paths – known as Addison’s Walk – with Charles Williams and Tolkien. They discussed Myth and Truth, and this conversation among others eventually resulted in Lewis’ conversion to Christianity.

That night, I went back to the Eagle and Child to read Tolkien’s Essay on Fairy-Stories, drink a pint of {ginger} beer and enjoy the atmosphere of the cozy (cosy?) pub.

Saturday dawned early and misty as I rose to attend daily Mass and Adoration at Tolkien’s home parish – Sts. Gregory and Augustine. I enjoyed a wet walk down to the church. It’s a small, sweet, distinctly British parish. It was me and the old men for Saturday’s celebration of the liturgy. I found great peace there as I ruminated upon Tolkien feeding his own faith there, the faith that shaped his worldview and his writings.

After leaving his parish, I walked further on to his and his wife’s grave. It was a cemetery obviously well looked after. Most of the graves had tokens of love upon them. Tolkien’s, too, had tokens that were obviously from admirers. It was beautiful to visit the home of his faith on earth and then to visit the home of his physical remains on earth. My mind meandered to the Grey Havens at the end of Lord of the Rings, and wandered further still to Christian faith in the Resurrection at the end of time.

I walked back into Oxford proper, and spent some time at Blackwell’s book store – which is a beautiful place for any and all who love the printed word. For the rest of the afternoon, I meandered among the colleges, the buildings, the streets where great thoughts have been conceived, taught, written. I spent a good hour getting drenched in the meadow’s at Christ’s Church College – and loving every autumnal gust and rain drop.

That night, I went back to the Eagle and Child for another night of reading and ginger beer drinking. I ended up talking to guy from Cork (which is not too far to where I’m living currently in Limerick). He bought my drink, and introduced me to his mother and sister. We got into a great conversation about academics, the Church, and traveling. They were an absolutely delight to talk with, and I was bewildered and pleased that two out my three times to the pub produced the fruit of new friends and thoughtful conversations (as well as free refreshments). Just as the Inklings cultivated their friendships in conversation there, I was provided with the right circumstances to interact with friendly travelers and take joy in common interests.

On Sunday, I relished a luxurious morning to wake up, eat, and prepare for Mass at my leisure – the Oxford Oratory is on the campus of the college I stayed in! Bl. John Henry Newman preached in, Gerard Manly Hopkins was curated at, and Tolkien attended the Oxford Oratory. It is a beautiful, historic church, and I thoroughly enjoyed Mass there. It was nice to see other college students attending there – I (most unfortunately) have seen too few during my time here in Ireland.

After Mass, I headed for the train station to get back to Birmingham and fly back to Limerick. My time in Oxford was too brief, but it was an excellent restorative. Rome was a spiritual home, but Oxford felt like a academic/literary home. Though it was new, it felt familiar. To use Tolkien’s now famous quote from the Fellowship of the Ring, “Not all those who wander are lost.” I spent my weekend in Oxford doing much wandering and wondering, treasuring the opportunity of doing both immensely.

May God bless you on your way – and may yours be filled with much wondering and wandering as well!

 

Rome Sweet Home

Rome. The Eternal City. The Heart of the Church.

Just two weeks ago, I boarded a plane by myself and flew to a place where I did not speak the language, where I did not have a common cultural history, and where I did not know what to anticipate. But I did go where God was calling me.

There are many things about my pilgrimage to Rome that I could recount to illustrate my certainty that without God’s will, there would have been no way I would have made it in the first place. Instead of recounting these, however, I will ponder them in my heart and for the present time only recount the bare events as I experienced them. My understanding of this pilgrimage has yet to blossom, so there are no insights I have to shed. I have only to proclaim first the goodness of God and second my wonder and awe in my unworthiness.

I arrived on Thursday night, a bit dazed and confused after a long day of traveling across Ireland to the Dublin Airport and then further flying across Europe to Italy. I stayed in a guesthouse run by sisters belonging to the Pontifical Institute of Maestro Pie Filippini, and though the sisters seemed very sweet, they spoke no English whatsoever. We communicated primarily through smiling, some exasperated hand gestures and sighs, and some excited pointing at my saint medals. My room there was extremely comfortable, and a nice, quiet, clean refuge to return to after the hustle and bustle of Rome.

On Friday, I began by getting lost on my way to the Basilica of St. John Lateran. I eventually found it, but to be honest, it greatly overwhelmed me, and I wasn’t able to properly to take it in.

Our Mother Church!

Our Mother Church!

After dazedly walking through John Lateran with mouth open wide, I went to climb the Scala Sancta, or the Holy Steps. When St. Helena did her excavations in Jerusalem, she found stairs that we believe to be the steps from Pontius Pilate’s praetorium, which Jesus climbed several times the day of His Crucifixion. The faithful are only allowed to climb the stairs on their knees, moving at a reverent pace. Utilizing the pamphlet available and gazing upon a gorgeous mosaic of the Crucifixion, climbing the Scala Sancta was the most fruitful meditation on the Crucifixion of my life thus far.

After collecting my ticket for the canonization, I met up with another American woman traveling alone named Maria. We walked down together to the Sancta Maria Supra Minerva, where the body of St. Catherine of Siena (minus her head!) resides. It was beautiful to be in the presence of the earthly remains of such an indomitable woman and Doctor of the Church!

My day continued in its beautiful glory and bewilderment as I went to meet a seminarian at St. Peter’s. My heart stopped when I first caught sight of the dome. I thought, “Surely, that’s not it. OHMYGOODNESS THAT’S IT.” I practically ran the rest of the way. The columned arms of the Basilica were an embrace – a warm welcome home.

First sighting!

First sighting!

A kind American seminarian, Joseph, gave me a delightful tour of the Basilica. It is so beautiful! How I wish I had a more eloquent way to describe St. Peter’s, but all I am currently able to do is affirm the great beauty of the physical building, and to marvel at the greater beauty of all that has happened there and all those who have faithfully offered up their prayers to God there.

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Several days before I left, the opportunity to go down into the Scavi – the Crypt of St. Peter – practically fell into my lap, which is not something that happens to just anyone! Saturday dawned bright and hopeful as I trekked towards the Vatican to meet with those I was meant to go on the tour with. It. Was. Fascinating.

Vatican Hill was originally a cemetery for Roman families – and I was able to walk among part of its “City of the Dead” on our tour. In 320, Constantine filled in everything on the hill to lay a foundation to build his basilica, because it was also the area of St. Peter’s burial. Until Pope Pius XII gave his authorization in 1939, no one had seen what lay beneath the basilica for 1600 years! How privileged we are to live in a time when it is possible to see the wonderfully preserved City of the Dead and remains of the Constantinian Basilica.

The most amazing marvel were the remains of St. Peter, which I saw with my very own eyes! I SAW ST. PETER. I saw, with my physical eyes (and I pray some spiritual vision as well) the Rock upon whom Christ built His Church. The man who was born a poor fisherman and died a martyr for radically following Jesus Christ and spreading His message. What grace! Safe to say I lost it before his tomb and wept profusely, begging for his intercession for us all.

On Saturday afternoon, I was able to visit with the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist who live in Rome. How I love that community! The three sisters there welcomed me cheerfully and gave me a peaceful place to talk about my experiences with joy.

That evening, I went to the Vigil for the Canonization with Maria at the Basilica of St. Teresa of Avila. The parents of the two children who were miraculously healed by the intercession of Zelie and Louis gave their testimonies. Everything was in Italian, so I did not understand much, but it was wonderful to simply be present and to watch the other faithful celebrating these two wonderful witnesses to Christian love and family life.

Venerating the relics of Zelie and Louis.

Venerating the relics of Zelie and Louis.

Sunday dawned bright and early as I woke up before the sun to meet Maria so we could make it to St. Peter’s by 6am to get in line outside the gates. For two hours, we talked with those around us, watched the line rapidly grow, and tried to prepare our hearts for what was in store. At 8am, the gates opened and once through security, we ran to find good seats. Praise be to God, we found seats four rows back from the front of the section for the general audience. For another two hours, we watched the square fill up with people of every nation, age, and walk of life. We watched the seminarians, priests, bishops, and religious file in. We prayed the Rosary in Latin with thousands and thousands of our brothers and sisters, sharing together in an ancient devotion in the ancient tongue of our Church.

The Canonization Mass was the most heart-inflamingly beautiful liturgy I have ever participated in. To hear as Pope Francis proclaimed my patron saint’s parents saints – my heart burned with the fire of the Holy Spirit in awe of these two people who simply (though not easily) fulfilled who God created them to be. Sainthood and holiness cannot be equated with doing or saying exceptional things, but rather by truly allowing the extraordinary grace of God to work in you in your daily life. This is holiness: to submit to the will of God, to be who He made you – you and most specifically YOU – to be!

Ss. Zelie and Louis Martin.

Ss. Zelie and Louis Martin.

So close to the altar.

So close to the altar.

Today we the Church celebrate the Feast of All Saints! We joyfully celebrate those who came before us who answered God’s call to holiness by being who He made them to be. Today we pray that we too may answer His call and joyfully join the ranks of the saints someday in Heaven.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow for bringing me to Rome. I am so incredibly grateful. It is an experience I will reflect upon for the rest of my life. My pilgrimage there made ever more present to me the reality and gravity of our faith. So many have gone before us on the pilgrimage through this life to Eternal Life. The Eternal City which felt like home made me long ever more for the Eternal Home. For now, the road goes ever on.

May God bless you on your journey!

Knock(ing) on Heaven’s Door

On October 3rd I had the opportunity to make pilgrimage to the Shrine at Knock, in Co. Mayo, and what a blessed day it was! I woke up before the sun and boarded a bus – I traveled for three-ish hours by bus to reach the tiny village that is home to the popular pilgrimage site. When I say tiny village, I mean TINY. The village consists of a handful of hotels, coffee shops, religious stores, and the sprawling grounds of the Shrine itself.

The Shrine property includes a visitor center, Adoration Chapel, book store, museum and cafe, reconciliation chapel, the Basilica, and the parish church, with the Shrine on the rear wall of the church.

In August of 1879, Mary, St. Joseph, and St. John the Evangelist appeared to 15 villagers in Knock for two hours. The message of the apparition was a silent one, unlike many other well known Marian apparitions. Since 1879, millions have made pilgrimage to Knock seeking the intercession of Our Lady. Many have been healed of physical and non-physical ailments, and many have simply experienced the peace of the place. In 1979, Pope St. John Paul the Great made pilgrimage and said Mass there, to a crowd of nearly half a million! Bl. Mother Teresa also made pilgrimage there in 1993, drawing another large crowd to her powerful personality.

Many have made pilgrimage there, and I was so overjoyed to join the ranks of these other pilgrims. It was my first time visiting the site of a Marian apparition, and I must say that I experienced a peace there that I have never felt in my life before. I participated in Mass at the Basilica with hundreds of others, and felt connected to them through the Blessed Sacrament of Our Lord and also the tender affection for Our Lady. It was a long, yet extraordinarily peaceful and joyful day. Thanks be to God!

The Basilica.

The Basilica.

The Shrine itself.

The Shrine itself.

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This past weekend, I embarked for Galway City with two friends. We had a blast exploring the city – so many shops, so many street performers, and so many interesting sites within the compact city center. It’s a bustling city, with many students and tourists milling about. We really, really enjoyed going out in the evening to find live musicians.

Old city wall inside the underground mall!

Old city wall inside the underground mall!

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Galway Cathedral!

Galway Cathedral!

Magical children's store!

Magical children’s store!

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On Saturday, we took a day tour of Connemara, a beautiful mountainous region in County Galway. My heart was overwhelmed by the majesty of the mountains and the peace of open fields, lakes, and sheep at every altitude. We also visited the famed Kylemore Abbey, which was built in the latter half of the 19th century by a dedicated husband for a beloved wife. After her premature death, the castle and estate were sold, and in 1920 the Irish Benedictine Nuns began to call the castle and the estate their home. They ran a girls boarding school there from the ’30s until 2010, and still live and work on the site. It was GORGEOUS. The castle (now abbey) and the grounds are astonishingly beautiful, and I loved the serenity of the castle nestled in the heart of the Connemara Mountains.

CONNEMARA MOUNTAINS

CONNEMARA MOUNTAINS

Kylemore Abbey - Benedictine nuns still live and work here.

Kylemore Abbey – Benedictine nuns still live and work here.

Sitting room inside Kylemore.

Sitting room inside Kylemore.

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On Sunday, we traipsed about the city some more, went to Mass at Galway Cathedral (which has an AMAZING choir), I experienced the coolest bookstore I’ve been to yet in my life, and we enjoyed the sunny weather out on the Bay.

Coolest book store I've been to in my life.

Coolest book store I’ve been to in my life.

Galway Bay!

Galway Bay!

All in all, a wonderful weekend in Galway. (And yes, we sang Galway Girl on a constant loop haha!)

Everything is Grace

I flew over the Atlantic ocean to spend a semester in Ireland nearly five weeks ago. Almost since the moment I arrived I have wanted to share this journey with y’all. But every time I sat down to write my first blog post something held me back. Either I became distracted, or I argued with myself about what to write, or I became anxious that I wouldn’t be able to capture the experience. Now I am refusing distraction, I will plow forward with whatever words are given to me, and I have reconciled myself to the fact I will inevitably fail to capture all that I have seen and done and felt.

I’m going to give y’all the condensed version of my last five weeks for two reasons: 1) Telling every detail would make for a ridiculously long post (if you want more insight, I would be more than happy to fill you in if you contact me!), and 2) I have something much greater on my heart to share than the basic itinerary of the last five weeks.

Week One:

I left the continental United States for the first time in my life to come to Limerick, Ireland! In the Houston airport, my phone was lost and/or stolen. That was an adventure. Two days after moving into my new apartment, I went to Dublin for three days. My time in the city itself was happily spent meandering around, visiting Trinity College, St. Stephen’s Green, and a ton of churches that I randomly stumbled into.

The River Liffey.

The River Liffey.

Our Lady of Dublin inside Whitefriar Street Church.

Our Lady of Dublin inside Whitefriar Street Church.

I left from Dublin for a day tour of the Wicklow Mountains, and I can honestly say that my heart was completely captivated.

The bench from Leap Year - my super touristy moment.

The bench from Leap Year in Enniskerry – my super touristy moment.

The amazing Wicklow Mountains!

The amazing Wicklow Mountains!

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The breathtaking beauty of Glendalough.

The breathtaking beauty of Glendalough.

The rest of week one was filled with orientation and meeting the other international students, which was a lot of fun!

During the weekend I took a jaunt with several friends to the town of Adare, reputedly the most charming village in Ireland.

Thatched roof cottage in Adare.

Thatched roof cottage in Adare.

Week 2:

Adjusting to a different way of education was difficult at first, and almost all of my pre-approved classes fell through. I ended up in Modern Drama, Theology of the New Testament, German, and Celts and Early Christianity. I really enjoy each of my professors, but it is strange not taking my usual flux of theology classes. I miss my Church Fathers and complicated papers.

The first weekend after classes began, I was blessed with the amazing opportunity to accompany a professor to a seminar held at Clonmacnoise. Clonmacnoise is situated in the middle of Ireland, and during the Middle Ages it was a great place of study and prayer. Thousands of monks, religious sisters, and lay people worked, prayed, and studied there. Now Clonmacnoise is one of the two largest and best preserved monastic sites in Ireland.

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Week 3: The second week of classes brought with it a little more security and familiarity with my new routine. On Friday, a group of us explored the events open for Limerick’s Culture Night. We explored a local museum, walked the medieval walls of the city, and stormed King John’s Castle. It was a blast! Saturday, we went on a day tour the Cliffs of Moher, and my words fail to describe the awe-inspiring beauty of the Cliffs. If I could only recount all the thoughts that streamed in my head in awe of the majestic landscape.

View from the tower of King John's Castle overlooking the River Shannon!

View from the tower of King John’s Castle overlooking the River Shannon!

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On Sunday, we visited the nearby town, Ennis, which was very charming. We also visited Craggaunowen, a heritage site that has reconstructed a crannog and a ring fort from ages past. It was a cold and wet day, but it suited the mood of the serene woods and ancient living situations.

Beautiful woods at the Craggaunowen site.

Beautiful woods at the Craggaunowen site.

Week Four: I experienced quite a bit of homesickness this week. I was finally settled, and I was no longer rushing around to get everything I needed. This meant I had time to think more and more about the people I was missing. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to Skype with a number of friends and family. This was the first weekend with some established rest. On Sunday, I was supposed to make a pilgrimage to Knock, but I unfortunately missed the bus to get to the Marian Shrine. Instead, I made the trip to Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, and spent a lovely day there with good friends.

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Week Five: This has been a very good week so far, though it is not quite over. My classes are going well, and we’ve had some very fine weather for strolling through the park. I’ve experienced fall for the first time in my life, and I think I’m beginning to see what the fuss is all about.

Today, October 1st, is a very important day for me, and for many of the faithful in the world. Today, the Church celebrates the feast day of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She is my patron saint and is very near and dear to my heart. She is one of the four female Doctors of the Church, and much can be gleaned from the words she left us with during her short life on earth. Below is one of my favorite quotes, one that has been on my heart constantly since I came to Ireland:

“Everything is grace, everything is the direct effect of our Father’s love — difficulties, contradictions, humiliations, all the soul’s miseries, her burdens, her needs — everything, because through them, she learns humility, realizes her weakness — Everything is a grace because everything is God’s gift. Whatever be the character of life or its unexpected events — to the heart that loves, all is well.” -Saint Thérèse of Lisieux

Everything I have experienced on this journey so far has been a grace. Everything. From losing my cell phone, to sitting in pubs talking to people, to spending time before the Blessed Sacrament, to walking literally everywhere, to expanding my horizons in sometime uncomfortable ways, everything has been a grace.

In the hub bub of getting over here, I forgot for the first few weeks that this is not merely a trip abroad, but this is a pilgrimage. My very first blog post, and in fact my entire blog, is dedicated to my understanding of being a pilgrim in this world. And I somehow lost sight of that, and lost sight of God’s specific call to me to come to this land.

Almost nothing has gone according to my plans for this experience. Five weeks ago, this would have made me worried sick. But in the last five weeks, I’ve gained a fair bit of perspective on my anxiety. I’m learning how to be flexible with my plans. A pilgrim has to be flexible. The destination may be solid, but the journey there can take many unexpected twists, turns, and may present some obstacles to overcome. My journey has seen a lot of change, a lot of variation in the plans I had originally intended, and although there has been some grief I have mostly experienced great joy in the unexpected moments of my journey.

Whatever graces come my way in this life, I must remember that this world is hardly permanent. Some day, it will all pass away. My dear best friend in heaven, St. Thérèse, reminds us that “The world is thy ship and not thy home.”

This understanding of the world and of the human condition came from the family in which she was raised. Her parents, Bl. Zelie and Bl. Louis, experienced much suffering in their lives and in their deaths. In spite of their earthly sufferings, they always looked forward to the joy of Heaven, the joy of abiding forever with God. Right now, I am reading their family correspondence, and it is very illuminating about Thérèse’s home life. Her parents were not perfectly pious people to be placed on pedestals. On the contrary, they experienced the uplifting joys and crushing sorrows of raising children and losing children, of trying to run a business, and watching the world around them change dramatically over time. What Zelie and Louis do provide us with is an insight into a home where Christ and His Church came first above all, where children were showered with love, where extended family was cherished, and where spouses mutually supported each other in all possible ways. They are a beautiful example of Christian marriage, and of a solid Christian family.

On October 18th, Bl. Zelie and Bl. Louis will be canonized saints by Pope Francis in Rome. Everything is grace, and I am blessed to announce the grace I have been given in the opportunity to attend the Canonization Mass for the parents of the Little Flower. I am in complete wonder and awe that this will really be happening in two weeks! I have been praying for this opportunity for months, and blessedly, my prayer has been granted. Their canonization will take place during the Synod on the Family, and they are, most significantly, the first married couple to be canonized together.

Two weeks from today, I will embark for Rome, for the heart of Christianity since St. Peter. Praise God from whom all blessings flow! I head for Rome as a pilgrim, and though I may encounter difficulties on the road to Rome, I accept all the Lord has in store for me as a grace.

So I ask you to pray for me as I prepare for and embark on this pilgrimage to Rome. Please send me your prayer requests, and I will carry them with me on my heart as I embrace the experience and walk the streets where so many prayers have been offered up to God.

May God bless you on your way!

Leaving the Shire.

Tomorrow, I leave for a semester abroad in Ireland. I will leave behind family, friends, and home to embrace a foreign culture and people. I have never left home like this before, and I never anticipated that I would.

The last few weeks were a flurry of packing, looking up information, spending quality time with quality people, and saying goodbyes.

As I’ve said goodbye to many friends, it has dawned on me how very, very blessed I am to have the friends I have. I have been given not one, but TWO wonderful surprise going away parties by my friends and family at my parish and my friends at my university. There has been a lot of laughter, a lot of food, and a lot of tears. I am so in awe of the people God has placed in my life. They have done nothing but shower me with love and kindness and well-wishes and prayers since I made the decision to study abroad (except in those brief moments of “Kenzie don’t leave! No wait, go and have adventures!)

Although the goodbyes have been difficult to say, my heart has been overflowing with gratitude. I am so incredibly grateful to belong to communities who have helped me to grow closer to Christ through their witness, helped teach me about what it means to make Him present to others, helped show me how to love. The power of friendship cannot be underestimated and should not be under appreciated. How truly, truly marvelous it is to have so many people that make it so hard to leave.

During my preparations to leave, I’ve been watching and reading about J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The story is rife with adventures from home, the power of friendship and fellowship, learning about the broader scope of the world, and insights about how the individual participates in the story of creation. While anybody who knows me knows that I could talk LOTR alllll the day long, that is not what I am going to do. Instead, I want to focus in on a very brief quote that has pierced my heart most especially in the last few days.

At the end of Return of the King, Frodo, Bilbo, Gandalf, Galadriel, and Elrond board a ship at the Grey Havens to cross the Sea to Valinor. It is the end of their presence in Middle Earth because Valinor is essentially the Middle Earth equivalent of Heaven. Merry, Pippin, and Sam must say goodbye to Frodo whom they have sacrificed themselves for and whom they love dearly.

Gandalf here imparts some wisdom that has been on my mind often:

“Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”

The last few weeks have seen me with many tears rolling down my cheeks. But the thing is, most of them are not out of the sadness of parting. Some of them are, I will admit, but for the most part, I have found them to be tears of gratitude.

Saying goodbye is bittersweet. The leaving part is bitter because it is difficult to be apart from those you love. But the leaving part is sweet too because it offers you an opportunity to truly reflect on the goodness of those you love.

The fruits of confronting the awe-inspiring goodness of my friends and family are tears. Not all tears are an evil. These have been tears inspired by the great goodness of the people around me.

How could it be that God has chosen to bless me with so many amazing individuals who I not only consider friends, but family? How could it be that I am surrounded in the unselfish, self-giving love of these beautiful people?

I have forged these friendships on mutual faith, and a mutual understanding that encountering the other person is truly an encounter with the Divine. Each of us are made in the Image and Likeness of God. When we recognize how and for whom we are made our relationships change. Encountering the other becomes an encounter with the Creator. We are shocked and delighted by the profundity of love that we find in the other, because he is and we are sustained by Love Himself.

Small wonder that I am having such a difficult time leaving such friends!

So this post is for all of you who make leaving home so hard. Thank you, each of you, for touching my life in ways I will never be able to fully understand. Thank you for being a shining light in my life. Thank you for embracing me as I am and yet always encouraging me to grow and become more fully myself. Thank you for the assurance that I am loved and I will be missed. Thank you for daily reminding me that life is a joy and a privilege, particularly when I’m sharing it with you. Thank you for being my friends and thank you for becoming my family.

Tomorrow, this Hobbit leaves the comfort and familiarity of her Shire. Tomorrow, I begin a new adventure. Tomorrow, I cross the Sea. But don’t worry. This isn’t Middle Earth. I am not going to Valinor never to return. I’ll be back come December. Expect many blog posts to come with updates on the mountains I cross, the dragons I slay, and the people I encounter.

May God bless each of you in your own adventures in this world.

Consumer Culture

Last month, I twice experienced something most girls are known for loving: I went to the mall. Now, contrary to the female stigma, I positively detest shopping at the mall. The second time I went, I spent FOUR hours trying to find a cardigan for a friend’s wedding. It is nearly impossible to find a wedding appropriate cardigan in July unless you are an 85-year-old woman. It’s safe to say, the day nearly ended in all-out meltdown after being extraordinarily frustrated with secular culture and too-tight, too-short, too-low-cut clothing. But that’s a post on modesty for another day.

What truly baffled me about my recent mall encounters is the culture of consumerism. I went to the Galleria, and everywhere I looked was another gaggle of girls all carrying heavy loads of bags. At every turn was another designer store with thousands of dollars of merchandise. In my typical ponderous way, I marveled thinking about how much all the merchandise in the entire Galleria cost. I marveled pondering how much the average person spends at a trip to the Galleria. How very much money and time we spend on things!

We love to be consumers. We love shopping, acquiring the next big thing in shoes, bags, clothes, whatever it is. We love things. Things. We LOVE our things.

Most of us can’t spend an hour truly dedicated to God on Sunday, but we can spend hours glued to our social media. Most of us can’t take the time to genuinely hold a conversation with another individual, but we can watch Netflix on our HD TVs. Most of us can’t spend two hours reading a book from the library, but we can spend two hours seething in envy at the mall over things we can’t have.

How have become so attached to our things? Why is it that so many people seem to derive their self worth from how much they own or what name-brand things they own?

Today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 19 describes the young rich man. He followed the commandments, and he lived a good life. All he had to do was walk away from his things and follow Christ. Instead, he walked away from Christ, feeling sad because he had many things. We don’t know what became of this young man. For all we know, he did turn away from his things and turn towards Christ. However, this passage highlights what I’m trying to get at: the man was sad at the thought of giving up his things. He was not ecstatic to follow Christ, but sad over his worldly possessions. He loved God and followed His commands, but he also clearly loved his things as well.

I am not opposed to having things. There are definitely things that we ought to have. And I’m not opposed to having nice things. I like nice things.

The problem is loving the things of this world too dearly and not loving the eternal things enough. The problem is loving the things that will pass away, and not caring enough for the things that will never pass away.

Earlier this summer I read a commentary on the Song of Songs by the early Christian theologian and philosopher, Origen. In it he says,

“All the same, you must understand that everyone who loves money or any of the things of corruptible substance that the world contains is debasing the power of charity, which is of God, to earthly and perishable objects, and is misusing the things of God by making them serve purposes that are not His; for God gave the things to men to be used, not to be loved.”

This is clearly a problem that man has been struggling with for a long time. The consumer culture has not completely sprung out of the last century. However, because it has been such an abiding problem of man’s, all the more reason to seek solutions to these kinds of problems.

Things are not to be loved. Things are to be used.

We could all do with a little less time with our things which will pass away. We could all do with a little more time contemplating the eternal things, such as the souls within each human person we encounter. I mean really! How amazing is that? Why don’t we spend more time on that than on the computer each day? Marvel over the things that last forever, not those which will be obsolete in fifty years.

Just some food for thought.

May God bless you on your way!

The Walking Wounded

The sun glared. The heat wrapped us up in its devouring embrace. 

“By the statue of the Agony in the Garden,” I mumbled. 

“I found the grave,” my brother said. 

I stared at the stone. In gray and black it spelled out very few facts about the man: 

James William Key, MD 

January 30, 1953 – July 2, 2003

I found that I couldn’t cry at the grave.

After leaving the cemetery we stopped by the church he was raised in, where he had taken us, and where his funeral was held. When I entered the chapel, my heart became confused. It both sank deep into my stomach and somehow also rose up to my throat. I stared at the golden monstrance, stared at the Body of Christ, and did my best to offer it all up to him. In the restaurant we went to at lunch, I felt like my face gave me away. People looked up at me as I walked towards our table, and they looked into my eyes. I tried to smile, but I think the eyes gave me away. There they found the impenetrable sadness, the grief unexpressed. 

Yesterday marked the 12th anniversary of my father’s death. July 2nd has been the weirdest day of the year for me since then. Not necessarily the saddest, but certainly the strangest. It’s hard to put into words, but I need to try. That’s why I’m writing this post, so that I might be able to formulate both to myself and to those around me the state of my heart on July 2nd.

The cold and curt gravestone cannot capture who the man was. He had been a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a friend, a doctor, a Catholic, a football player and coach, a lover of musicals, a fan of the Beatles, a restorer of the family beach house. He was many wonderful things. But people are complicated. He was complicated, too. He was sad, very sad. An inexplicable sadness, an incurable pain clouded over him. It was his cross that he did not know how to bear. Not only was he sad, he was also angry at times. He couldn’t really control it. He was sick as well as sad. He was very sick. Because of the sickness, he sometimes said and did terrible things. Though he never physically hurt me, sometimes I was afraid of him. But mostly, I loved him, and I was sad that he was so sad. I was only eight when he died. I couldn’t process it. I couldn’t understand it. I wept for hours. I remember going to the viewing, and seeing his body in the casket and thinking, “Surely he’s going to wake up now. It’s all just been an elaborate misunderstanding, an elaborate joke.” But he never woke up, and the casket was closed. On the day of the funeral, I had a difficult time crying. I thought that I ought to be crying as his daughter. But I couldn’t. My emotions were mixed. I loved my dad, and I was so sad that he was gone, but in a terrible way I was relieved, too because I also feared him at times. And then I felt even more terrible for feeling relieved. How could a daughter be relieved by her father’s death?

My mixed feelings spiraled and I spent my third grade year in a depression that my classmates could not understand.

On July 2nd of every year, I still have mixed feelings. I have sorely felt his absence in my life. Now those feelings are dominated by a sadness for his sickness, and I am no longer relieved that he’s gone. But I began to build walls to “protect myself” from others when I was 8, and I really only stopped building them when I was 16 or 17. Since then, I have been working on taking them back down and truly embracing the people around me. However, it’s all a process. I rediscover new walls often. I cry my eyes out on days where nothing significant has happened, but I simply recall a new facet to the man who was my dad. Yet I can’t cry on the anniversary of my dad’s death. He was complicated. I am complicated. Life is complicated.

Something I have learned from the things that have happened to those that I love and from the things that have happened to me is that you never know what cross someone is bearing. Most people I meet, and probably most people who read this probably had no idea that my dad, his death, and his memory have been some of my most profound struggles in my life. We never know the cross people are bearing. Often, people are struggling up Calvary, and they feel that they must struggle in silence. Often, people struggle and manifest their stress in being unkind or violent because they do not know how else to release their pain.

Man struggles. Man is wounded. Our world and our hearts have been invaded by the horrors of sin, suffering, and death. We are the walking wounded.  But I implore you, whatever it is that you are struggling with, let not your wounds wound others. I have spent too much of the last 12 years wounding others because of the wounds I carry and the walls I built. Instead of wounding further, try a healing course. If you are wounded spend time thinking of the people around you who are also surely carrying wounds. Let your wounds make you more compassionate and more empathetic towards those you meet. Begin to heal the wounds instead of harming others; help instead of hindering relationships by your walls. Allow your wounds help you embrace faith, hope, and charity. I need to allow my wounds, and Jesus Christ my Healer, to do the same for me.

Please pray for me and my family and the crosses we bear. Please know I’m praying for you, too. May God bless you on this strange yet marvelous journey of life.

Twenty and Feeling Fine

Two months ago, I turned twenty-years-old. The weeks between then and now have been a flurry of finals, graduations, and celebrations. In the midst of it all, I have been reflecting a LOT on what crossing the threshold into my twenties means for me. As I waded through these musings on my age, I thought I might share them with the world. I’d like to make my blog posts more regular (hopefully weekly) so I can develop my writing skills. So, without further ado, below are twenty musings of mine on being twenty-years-old. 

20. I am no longer a teenager! Thanks be to God – the teenage years were difficult. I am over and done with teen angst. 

19. I can say that I have lived in two different millennium, two different centuries, and three different decades which is pretty weird when I stop and think about it.

18. A lot of people credit their twenties as the best decade of their life. I don’t know if this will prove true in my case, but I’m looking forward to the next decade!

17. I’m on the threshold of growing up. I have still got some time before I fully enter the adult world, and I am glad for the breathing room in my process of maturation.

16. I am halfway through my college undergraduate years! This is both amazing and terrifying.

15. I have so much enthusiasm about learning about myself and the world around me. Though I have plenty on my plate, I do not yet have the cares that adults in the working world have. I have the blessing to learn more about myself and the world I live in during this time of my life.

14. Living in hope is essential for me. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, “The one who has hope lives differently.” I want to live differently than the masses who live in despair.

13. I have time to figure myself out. I’m only twenty, and I have (God-willing) time to discern the options for my future life.

12. Honestly, saying twenty rather than nineteen sounds more sophisticated and I enjoy that. 

11. Though my life so far has been tumultuous at times, I have been given a lot of perspective from my experiences. I have an abundance of experiences to reflect on and glean from.

10. It’s been six years since I truly began a personal relationship with Christ. Six! How much I’ve learned about Him and myself in these six years.

9. I appreciate that I’ve made it to twenty years of age because apparently I made a very dramatic and difficult entrance into the world.

8. My circumstances in life are such that not only are my basic needs met, but I have manifold blessings that I do not strictly “need.”

7. From the womb, my mother began a literary love in me that I continue to foster. Books have taught me invaluable lessons and taken me on many adventures. There are so many books I have yet to read – and a lifetime to read them! May the bibliophilia continue for all my days!

6. I have learned that adults don’t have life figured out either, so the pressure to have it all together all the time has dissipated.

5. I’m due for a quarter-life crisis. QUARTER LIFE. Woweee.

4. I feel like I’ve come so far, and yet, I still feel like a baby. It is a bewildering precipice that I stand on. 

3. I have learned SO MUCH in college thus far. I can’t wait for all the amazing things I’ll learn in and out of the classroom in the years to come. 

2. I may be young, but I have been given so much. I want to use what I have been given to glorify God in all I do whether it be in school, at home, in the Church, or my relationships with others. 

1. I am surrounded by beautiful people. My friends worked really hard this year to make the celebration of my existence on my birthday really special for me. My family loves me unconditionally. I was beyond BLESSED to celebrate my twentieth birthday on Easter Sunday. Christ gave all for me, and I want to use this life to give all for Him.