Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Mission Accomplished

I've been away from my little African village for a pretty long time now. To get specific, it's been a year. Maybe I'm too fixated on dates and anniversaries, and that's just me, but this anniversary of sorts drew me mentally and emotionally back to Manguo village into the arms and smiles of countless children in a way that I found to be unexpectedly overwhelming. It hit me hard. The intensity of those memories seemed to demand to be shared, in what may be the last post on this blog.

About a month ago the impossible happened: I made contact with one of my children from South Sudan. You can't imagine how much I've missed those kids or how often I've dwelt in memories of them since I said goodbye. Photos of them hanging in my apartment, long phone calls with my mission partners recalling tender memories, silly videos on replay, the comfort of my little brother jokingly calling me "Sista Grace" around the house. When Henry Alex suddenly popped up on my Facebook under "People You May Know", I'm pretty sure my heart stopped for a second. I have not had any communication with any of the South Sudanese since the day I left them. None of those kids have electricity at home, let alone internet access. Henry apparently became the exception when he moved away for school. A kid that was active in every parish and school function during my time there, was always eager to share his heart with me, and his family having become my second family away from home, a contact with Henry of all children was one of the most precious and exciting ways to reach back into that life which I cherish and sorely miss.

So, I sent Henry a Facebook message. As I wrote, all I could think about was this teenage boy sobbing into my shoulder on that horrible morning when I said goodbye to my African village probably forever. Henry stirs a long list of memories- leading games at parish picnics, hours of studying together before finals, on the regular Henry would pick the fattest passion fruit in his garden and bring it for me after school. Calling him one of my besties would not be an overstatement.

A subsequent cardiac arrhythmia took place when Henry actually wrote back to me.  Not only did he respond, but his brief words were piercing. I will loosely quote him, so the grammar and vocabulary choices don't distract from the message. What he shared was this:

Missing you so much!  I pray for you daily.
There is one thing you taught me that I will never forget in my life. 
Before you came to Maridi, I was different.  When you came, I saw you always smiling.  From that moment, I learned how to smile too.  
Thank you for that. 
I'm glad we are able to talk with each other, my heart was longing for it. Send my greetings to all of your relatives and friends.  God bless you!

Inexpressible joy. If there is a single way for me to summarize my personal mission when I left for Africa, and in my life both before and after, it was just this-- that I could radiate the joy of Christ through simply being my genuine self, that His love would be evidenced by my smile.  I've written so many times in this blog, I didn't have anything extraordinary to offer those people. I only wanted them to know that they are loved. I prayed for it every day while I was there and have prayed that same prayer every day since. God is faithful, and my prayers were answered. If no one else, just one person, sweet Henry, was impacted by that love of God through me.

Mission Accomplished.

So what now? I spent a long time battling with purpose and fulfillment after departing from an experience that was saturated in it. It was easy to return to my home routine, and it immediately proved impossible to live the simplistic life I once had. Becoming a pediatric nurse was a new opportunity to love in that intentional way again, and my life has been beautifully unfolding since my return. I have been blessed and am so grateful. Yet I have been blatantly aware, and today more than ever, that it's been an uncomfortably long time since I've played with, prayed with, sang to, held hands, nursed, taught or loved on any of those precious African children who taught me so much about how to live.

In the sadness of moving on, I find incredible hope in Henry's words, as they express everything I want and desire, everything I am capable of and called to in this life. The beauty and truth in what he shared is that my smile is universal, and that joy is something I'm called to no matter the conditions in which I am living. His words convict me. Every Christian is called to be a missionary, we are called to spread love wherever we go, no matter the physical location. I have tremendous peace and solace in this truth, and I challenge every single one of you who ever reads these words to embrace and live that call, wherever you are now and wherever you may go in life. No matter your occupation, marital status, vocation, dreams or plans, you were made to change this world. There are a thousand hearts that can never be the same because they have known you. Your presence impacts the lives of those around you, and you make a difference. Life doesn't always hand out sweet consolations from someone like Henry, but that doesn't mean there aren't a countless number of past or future Henry's in your life whom you have touched in profound ways. Let us join together and start a revolution in our country and world, by choosing to smile today.

Let us love, since that is all our hearts were made for. 
-St. Therese of Lisieux

Thank you to all of you who have followed this blog over the past few years; your encouragement and prayers for me had a far greater impact than you will ever know. I pray you feel the joy that you have shared with me. 
You are loved.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A New Dream

Watching a movie after Friday night dinner was somewhat of a regular occurrence in our Salesian community
over the last year.  Only a few weeks after our arrival, Cait and I were given the honor of making the film selection, and we chose none other than Disney’s Tangled.  Classic.  It was a hit!

It’s funny how animated Disney magic never gets old.  In the movie, Rapunzel spends her whole life in her tower room watching the floating lanterns that glow every year on her birthday and dreaming of seeing them up close.  She meets a charming young man who accompanies her on her journey and, just as they reach that spectacular moment for which she’d been waiting, Rapunzel stops in her tracks, anxious about what is about to happen.  She didn’t know what she would do after her hopes were fulfilled, once her lifelong dream had become reality.  She expresses her fear to the man, and he responds, “Well, that’s the good part. You get to go find a new dream.”

Interesting enough, this simple kids’ movie that I’ve seen so many times hit me in that moment, and all these months later, I still haven’t forgotten.  That day, as my dream was at a launching point, I was just beginning to taste the sweetness of my new mission and anxious for all the glory to come.  And here I am today, at its close.  I’m feeling that uncomfortable mixture of joy and pain at saying goodbye to something that has been so good, while anticipating with excitement the comforts of home and being wrapped in the arms of my family and friends in the coming days.  I feel peace, and I know that God is guiding me towards my future.  But there’s a significant corner of my mind that is fearful, like Rapunzel, of what’s next.  As of now, I have no plans, no idea of what’s in store for this next chapter of my life.  What I do know, is that I will never be the same.  Life in America as I once knew it can no longer be the same, because I have been changed by a people and a culture that have taught me the meaning of life.  I don’t know what tomorrow looks or feels like, but I have nothing left to do but go figure it out.  As I sit here in this seat, soaring at an altitude of 34,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean, I feel with certainty that when this plane taps down on American soil, something incredible is about to begin.  I’m off to find my new dream.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Grateful Heart

Happy Thanksgiving! Our South Sudanese Thanksgiving festivities took place a week earlier than the calendar suggested for logistical reasons this year.  As no one here (except the American volunteers) has ever even heard of Thanksgiving, it didn’t cause too much of a riot. We collaboratively prepared a tremendous meal, from the stuffing right up to the pumpkin pie, and were very proud of ourselves considering the limited selection of foods we have available to us in our village.  Our mash of community members, natives of India, Slovakia, Congo, Togo, and Syria, enjoyed a fully American celebration!

The day got me to thinking, and once I started doing so, it was clear that I have far too much to be thankful for in the past fifteen months than I can even comprehend.  My time in South Sudan comes to an end in a matter of days, leaving my heart with an abundance of little joys and great wonders to cherish forever.  As a testament of God’s goodness, here’s my top ten list of thanksgivings here in South Sudan.


10. I am grateful for little boys that punch me in the arms and wrangle my appendages countless times a day, because it’s the only way they know how to say I love you.  

9. I love the opportunity to push my kids to become more than they perceived possible.  I love giving them outlets to expand their creative little minds to even greater limits.  I teach them dances, and they constantly improve in technique and grace. In art classes, I give them challenging prompts, and they create masterpieces.  Relationally, spiritually, morally, they are pushed to achieve higher limits and I am never disappointed by the outcomes.

8. There’s this little girl named Grace.  (Good name, right Mom?) She’s six years old and has the raspiest, yet shockingly high-pitched voice I have ever heard.   She’s constantly beaming, always followed close and at play with her little sister, Flora.  Every time Grace sees me, she runs whatever distance it costs to meet me, and with a wide, gap-toothed smile, she bellows, “Mi na kpi nyamu ro, Sister Grace!”  Her sentiment- I love you.  Then, as I wrap her into a tight hug, she tucks into a little ball inside my arms and giggles.

7.  Naked African babies.

6. I’m thankful for wounded little legs.  I’m not grateful at all for the pain they cause, but I love being able to help make them disappear.

5. In such a hands-on culture, it’s impossibly rude to see someone, be it friend or stranger, and pass them by without a handshake.  If it’s your friend, the shake lasts significantly longer.  If it’s a close friend, the handshake may take a couple different forms before it ceases and will frequently end in a snap.  The I-love-you shake is more like a clap that makes a hollow, deep sound.  If you really care for the person you’re greeting, your handshake may subtly transition into a lingering handholding for the entirety of the conversation that potentially has the two of you with interlaced fingers walking side by side to your mutual destination.  I greet dozens upon dozens of little hands every single day, and I am constantly thankful for it because each one of those sticky fingers is attached to a heart which I love.

4. I have been so privileged to oversee the Daughters of Mary, the most beautiful, zealous, and committed group young Catholic girls that I’ve ever encountered.  Their wild, playful spirits, combined with a thirst for righteousness in a challenging culture, inspires me daily and keeps me on my toes.  For every dance practice, catechism class, Marian hymn, one-on-one chat in the grass, Hail Mary, tickling match, belly laugh, and shared prayer, to God be the glory and thanksgiving.
3. I am thankful that God gave me the courage to become a teacher.  While I am neither trained nor qualified to occupy such a profession, I’ve managed to teach something to a classroom of children and loved every minute.  My seventh grade students have learned about their faith in a real way this year.  I love that my job directly affects the salvation of their souls, and that if they put into practice the things that I’ve taught them, they’ll be rejoicing in heaven eternally.  Trust me, they’ve already got one foot in the gates.  I’ve spent this year watching them grow in wisdom and knowledge, and I’ve seen them mature and grow from kids into young adults and beautiful people, both inside and out.

2. Praise God for the most amazing American mission partners and best friends a girl could ask for, being exactly what I needed at the exact moment I needed it throughout this entire year.  I am overwhelmingly thankful for the love I have been shown by each one of them and for the necessary support that they provided me.  Sisters Ariel and Theresa, your joy is infectious and your passion tangible.  Thank you for lighting a spark inside me since you arrived in September to keep me focused on the reason I came here, and thank you for loving the children after I go.  Brother Dan, thank you for your steadfastness, your courageous example, your wisdom, and for our many good theological conversations.  And to my faithful partner-in-crime, Sister Cait, thank you for sticking by my side through it all.  Thank you for your loyalty, passion, and constant witness and service to me and to our children.  Thanks for all the laughs, random facts, late night conversations, and awkward moments.  Thank you for demonstrating sanctity to me by showing me what it means to love until it hurts and to give without counting the cost.  The four of you are the best mission sisters and brother I could have ever asked for or imagined, and I love you all.  

1. My present reality is like a foretaste of heaven.  I’ve been loved harder than I’ve ever experienced.  Children that are so excited and overjoyed by my mere presence that their entire faces and bodies light up, just to see me walk by and smile at them.  When a simple hello and a handshake quickly turn into a story about a deep struggle at home.  Where kids see me and know that they are loved, so they return the favor before I even notice that they’ve noticed me.  Where a kid is screaming my name and waving from across an entire schoolyard, and that kid happens to be a six foot tall, seventeen year old male, but innocent as a little boy.  Where my class leaves me love notes on the board to welcome me to my class period on a regular basis, and then sings me a welcome song when I enter.  I am thankful for the simplicity of the children whose lives have taught me everything that is important: the simplicity of life, the value of family, the benefit of hard work, the gift of faith, the necessity of living joyfully through times of peace and times of suffering.  I am thankful for so many laughs, tears, songs, dances, prayers, conversations, games, illnesses, lessons, and spiritual promptings that have brought us together under the sweet mantle of Jesus and Mary.  I am thankful that a crazy band of impoverished children has had the ability to teach me the best of what it means to be a friend, a mentor, a confidant, a nurse, a sister, a Catholic, a woman, and a human being- simply by being as they are.  They're openness has allowed me to come to a deep, personal understanding of the limitless bounds when God is on your side.  I am thankful that God called me to be a missionary in Africa and that my cooperation with His Will was able to completely transform my life for the better through the hands of the small, the sick, and the poor.

We can do no great things, only small things with great love. 
–Mother Teresa of Calcutta 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Spiritual Motherhood

In the past month or two, a growing number of children have taken to calling me “Mother.” Those moments are always sweet and affirming, one of the best compliments I could receive.  It may, in fact, fuel my desires to stow all of them away in my suitcase when I depart for America!  On the other hand, I find it mildly unsettling, because although those words are so tender, I know that my place among them is not as such.  To my knowledge, despite coming from various degrees of extreme poverty, all of these children are loved and provided for by a parent or guardian.

The high-pitched, little declarations, “Sister Grace is my mother!”, as endearing as they are, opened up a store of emotion regarding my role among these children.  I know that I’m more than a teacher or nurse to any of them.  I’m a part of their lives.  They’re surely a permanent part of mine, like a seal on my heart.  I’ve watched them grow and change over the past year, many from scrawny kids to teenagers or young adults.  I’ve accompanied them through family troubles, school problems, and done a plethora of playing and singing in the meantime.  I know what makes them tick, and I know how to make them smile when they’re down.  There are explosions of mutual love during so many interactions, in their running to greet me, smiles half the size of their faces, and the comfort of a tight hug and a warm conversation.  The relationships that exist between us are authentic and of greater value than any material possession in the world.  All that having been said, I’m neither their mother nor even their older sister; I’m not even a permanent fixture in their physical worlds.  So what am I?

My questions were answered very directly by Archbishop Fulton Sheen in his book, The World’s First Love.  The book is a compilation of deep reflections on the person of Mary, the Mother of Jesus.  Very briefly after these questions had started surfacing and stirring in my heart, the next chapter of that book met my answer head on: Spiritual Motherhood.

Sheen writes:
To beget a body is blessed; to save a soul is more blessed, for such is the Father’s will. There would, therefore, seem to be implied in all [single people] the necessity of apostleship and begetting souls for Christ.

This call to love souls into heaven spoke directly to my circumstances.  It also answered a lot of questions about what I've actually been doing for the past year.  The reason that the kids feel so loved by me is because I’m offering them something unique that they haven’t experienced in the same way before: the love of Jesus via the love of a woman.  Before Cait and I arrived in this village, the children had never before met strong, female role models.  Surely, there are plenty of good and faithful women in their parish and community, but there had never been a female presence at the Salesian Mission where we live.  The religious sisters that now stay here came a few months after we arrived, and all the previous priests, brothers, and volunteers were all men.   When we showed up a year ago, the kids shuttered at a hug or pat on the back, because the only way they were used to being touched by adults is in a strong, disciplinary manner.  In the beginning, they wouldn’t tell us much about their lives, because they weren't used to opening up to adults or receiving nurturing in their trials.  They were very close with and knew well the love of the Salesians community over the years, but the love of a woman is something unique and incomparable.

Today, toddlers up to teens run to hug me, ask me about my life as well as tell me all about theirs, they trust me and appreciate my presence here.  This isn’t because I’ve been their physical mother, but a spiritual one.  This week in my seventh grade religion class, I jumped into some meaty material on the commandments, not the watered-down version they’re used to hearing.  I was able to share with them the Truth of Christ, something that I’m sure no one has told them so directly before.  I want them in heaven.  I’m here fighting for their souls.  I’m not here just to teach a curriculum or to dispense medications.  I’ve also not been sent here to raise the kids or to adopt them.  I’m here to share with these children the most valuable lesson any human person could ever receive: the insatiable Love of Christ.  

I realize now that this responsibility spans much further than a year of missionary service.  Fulton Sheen writes that when we reach the gates of heaven, the Almighty Father is going to ask each one of us how many souls we have begotten for His Kingdom.  Whether single, married, or religious, we will be judged by the same standards.  Whatever our present vocation may be, our calling is each the same: to touch those around us with a radical love that penetrates deep beyond the surface and that calls others to do the same.

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 
Love never fails. 
(1 Cor 13: 1,3,7-8)

Sunday, September 22, 2013

One Year Later

It’s been a year.  I’ve had three hundred sixty-five days of intimate friendships, precious moments, and sweet memories.  I’ve survived fifty-two weeks without a hug from mom or a face-to-face conversation with any of my favorite people from home.  For an entire year, I’ve worn one pair of shoes every single day and a combination of five outfits that have kept my knees and shoulders from ever meeting the South Sudanese sun.  I’ve denied comforts and foregone all the #firstworldproblems in order to have my life radically transformed by a motley gang of precious, mischievous, and affectionate African children.

If I could possibly summarize a year’s worth of life lessons and transforming experiences, it would be best done through the following quote.

The most important hour is always the present.
The most significant person is precisely 
the one sitting across from you right now.
The most necessary work is always love.
(Meister Eckhart)


People first. Life is comprised of so many choices.  In the modern world we live in, even here in the jungles of Africa, we face the daily struggle of being consumed by a cyber-world that can swallow hours of our time in what feels like just a moment.  The rule I’ve set for myself from the beginning of this mission is to always choose the person in front of me before anything else.  If I have planning or grading to do for school, but a little one wants to play, the schoolwork can be done later so that the child can be loved now.  If I want to check facebook and see what everyone did over the weekend, but I know the kids will be overjoyed for me to come greet them before the school day begins, I try to always choose my kids.  When it comes to responding to an email from home versus a meaningful conversation with one of my site partners, I try to be present to the one before me.  This started out as a mental rule for mission, but I’ve realized that this outlook will directly translate into my life back home.  I need to constantly put people first.  They're what really matter.

Fear not.  There’s something awesome about being called a “missionary”.  It’s like a mental superhero cape that you throw over your person as you step onto foreign soil.  There’s a complete trust and surrender to God, knowing that, since He’s already gotten you this far, He must want to do something wonderful through you.  It enabled me to walk into this mission ready and unafraid to do whatever He wanted of me.  In the beginning, I saw myself taking risks, entering into difficult conversations, ready to go out of my way to help someone who needed it, not hesitating to do whatever love demanded.  The results were glorious-- beautiful relationships, lots of little victories, and many visible graces.  But here’s the thing.  I’m just me, just trying to love, and without any special powers to do anything different than what I’ve been capable of doing every day for my entire life.  Back in the States, far too many times, I hesitated.  I knew the right thing to do, but what would people think?  What would the consequence be?  Aren’t I too busy right now?  And the list goes on.  As this fearless me has tackled teaching middle school classes, fostered meaningful friendships with teenage boys, and gotten a delicate handle on two foreign languages, I realize that the impossible is always possible with the help of God.  It doesn’t matter where I am or what magical wardrobe I’m donning, but what does matter is that God is beside me and ready to work through my weaknesses.  The only effort He requires is just for me to try.

Simplicity.  We need so much less to survive happily and peacefully than we can even fathom in our luxurious homes in America.  I’ve barely missed the restaurant chains, strip malls, or ten-dollar movie tickets of my past life.  I spend half my day on Saturday, every Saturday, washing my clothes by hand.  I save every scrap piece of paper, plastic, or fabric lying around in hopes of using to for a future project in school.  I don’t have any money, but neither does anyone else around me.  I eat the same food every day.  I wear the same clothes every day.  I wear my hair in the same style every day.  And you know what?  I’m still happy.  I’m happy just being me, without the fluff.  I have nothing to hide behind-- what you see is what you get.  What matters are the matters of the heart.  I’m valued for my ability to [attempt to] dance, to draw, to bandage a wound, and to love Jesus.  I’m loved because all I have to offer is Jesus, and fittingly, He is Love.  


It’s been a wild ride and a challenging, exciting adventure.  With three remaining months, I’m hoping and praying to take in and appreciate every last second with those sweet children and loving adults who have unknowingly taught me how to view the world through different eyes.  To God be the glory.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Preciousness of Life

This week I caught a unique glimpse at the fragility and gift of life.  In general, I see life’s preciousness 1000x more clearly since coming here, in the radiant faces of too many malnourished, malaria-infected, barefoot little Cabbage Patch Kids that run around this place all day.  Having witnessed the contrast of the full circle of life within the last week has offered new vision to my daily African routine.

On Sunday morning after church, among a crowd from my Daughters of Mary group, we went to visit our friend Joice, a new mother who had delivered her baby girl less than 24 hours before our arrival.  As I picked up the little babe and cuddled her in my arms, I was thinking of nothing except the tiny and beautiful masterpiece before me.  Then, as I watched her being passed around by the group of excited primary school girls and looked into the proud face of her teenage mother, impressed upon my heart was the weight of the situation.  This society is overloaded with children producing children.  Yet despite the difficulties and many cultural imperfections, still they grow into good, strong women like their mothers before them.  It became all the more apparent what a miracle it is that this unbelievably tiny human being now has an irreplaceable role to play in the story of the world, despite the fact that her life was a “mistake”.  That little girl, at one day old, was indescribably perfect and her future limitless.  Maybe she will light the spark that this nation needs to change for the better.  

On Friday morning, not but five days later, the news reached our compound that the mother of one of my students had passed away overnight.  I hadn’t met the woman, as she lived a distance away from our mission, but I am very close with her daughter, Mariam.  With this horrible news, Cait and I went as quickly as possible to the funeral place to offer our condolences and mourn with our children.  My first moment of heartbreak was to gaze upon the beautiful, young woman before me that didn’t look much older than fifty.  The second was to be clutched tightly by Mariam as she wept into my shoulder, repeating again and again how her mother had left her alone.  No words were adequate, so I held her in silence.  The same pain surfaced minutes later, when her younger brother was in my arms.  It’s impossible to convey the emotion of consoling these devastated teenage children left with only their memories of a woman who impacted them so deeply during their short lives.

I can’t even begin to imagine their pain, and yet this is the reality for each one of my students who have all suffered the loss of immediate family members.  I have students absent from my class for funeral services on a regular basis.  A nation rampant with disease, an underdeveloped healthcare system, the continued practice of tribal witchcraft medicine, and the physical and emotional trauma that accompanied decades of war in their homes, among so many other factors has left all of my students heartbroken and devastated time and time again.  Seeing it firsthand illuminated for me the pain that they all have to swallow and suppress on a daily basis in order to keep looking forward each day.  A pain that somehow becomes normal.

For a culture of intense trial and suffering, I can honestly say- never have I met a more joyful people.  Why?  It’s simple.  Because they’re happy to be alive.

Life is a gift.

“Life is an opportunity, benefit from it.
Life is beauty, admire it.
Life is a dream, realize it.
Life is a challenge, meet it.
Life is a duty, complete it.
Life is a game, play it.
Life is a promise, fulfill it.
Life is sorrow, overcome it.
Life is a song, sing it.
Life is a struggle, accept it.
Life is a tragedy, confront it.
Life is an adventure, dare it.
Life is luck, make it.
Life is too precious, do not destroy it.
Life is life, fight for it.”
― Mother Teresa

Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Today I feel called to share something a bit deeper than the goings-on of Don Bosco Health Centre and the like.  The past few weeks have been a transformative experience for me, internally.  I’m going to share, really deeply, my heart.  I pray God will do with this moment of vulnerability what He will.

The biggest interior struggle that has been consistently plaguing me throughout my months here in Africa and for most of my life is this concept of feeling beautiful.  In my mind, beauty has always been a feeling that was amplified or diminished based on how close I was to my ideal weight and how often I was complimented on my appearance by someone outside myself.  Last year before mission, completing my first half-marathon, finally having parted with four years of cafeteria food, and having a handsome boyfriend to remind me constantly, left me feeling beautiful for the first time in a long while.

I never anticipated that coming to Africa would so drastically challenge that.  With a monotonous and fixed daily diet of almost exclusively carbs and vegetables fried in oil, my weight was affected in a way I would never have predicted before coming one of Africa’s poorest countries.  Additionally, it came as a little bit of a shock to enter into a culture where it is not offensive to call someone fat.  My sense of self-worth was on a steady decline.

Something needed to change within me.  I decided to dedicate the entire month of July to serious fasting and reflection on who I am in the sight of God.  I challenged Him to unveil my beauty, though, deep down, I doubted he’d truly be able to counter this lifelong struggle.   My sinful, human nature felt too wounded.  Of course, I was wrong.  God’s grace is more powerful than any human insufficiency, and He cares about our every need.  God had a profound message of healing and hope for my little heart.

As I began, my immediate question was this:  I know that the object of beauty has intrinsic, unmerited value.  For example, the beauty of a tall oak tree, a vibrant flower, or a sweetly composed melody remains constant.  Why then does my human beauty seem to fluctuate on a day-to-day basis?  Why does it feel like a seesaw inside me, contrasting from highs to lows based on material, physical things like clothing and hairstyle?  It immediately surfaced that I had confused the concept of attractiveness as synonymous with beauty.  Being told I was beautiful or feeling that way was directly linked with looking attractive to someone of the opposite sex.  I knew this couldn’t be true beauty.  Attraction is based in emotion, which is subject to change with ones mood.  Though attraction is also a good, it doesn’t go beyond the surface.  Beauty must be more.  Why?  Because God is the ultimate source and foundation of all beauty.  Because God is perfect beauty.  Because within anything of beauty, God is present.  From the heavens to the earth to every human being that walks this planet, beauty dwells where God is found, and God is found in what is beautiful.  If you look at a mountain range, a rainbow, or an African baby, what do you see?  Beauty.  Why do we see beauty?  Because God is marvelously hidden within.

This reflection reminded me of an experience I had while studying abroad in college, during a few days spent with a group of friends in Interlaken, Switzerland.  The snowcapped Alps were breathtaking.  As we stood in awe, gazing up at the wonder before us, one of my friends shared with me this beautiful reflection:  When God created the world, woman was the last and most precious gift given to Adam in the Garden.  She was the crown of all God’s creation.  All other created things were for the necessity or pleasure of the human race.  To God, the human person, created in His own image, is exceedingly more ravishing than any object He had made.  Before God, as a human being and specifically as a woman, I am incomparably more beautiful than even the Swiss Alps, and, in fact, He only created this grandeur in order to give humanity a small, pleasing glimpse of their own magnitude before Him.  I recall this moment often when I gaze upon the beauty of the world, as I can more clearly see God’s love for me within it.  
As I began to distinguish the difference that existed between beauty and attractiveness, I still hadn’t fully understood the depth of this beauty in a way that satisfied my desire to feel physically attractive.  I kept digging for answers in prayer, which just so happened to be supplemented (unintentionally) by the book I was reading, “Men, Women, and the Mystery of Love”, by Edward Sri.  Here’s what I learned.  In the context of relationship, attraction is surely a good, but it is not an end.  Alone, physical attraction is far too shallow to sustain any relationship.  Physical attraction seeks for pleasure.  One is only attractive to the depth and breadth of a cultural expectation: size, shape, dress, hair, looks.  It is a fantasy realized or the indulging of a carnal desire.  Independent of other greater goods to sustain relationship, physical attraction will ultimately dissatisfy when good looks fade with age or when someone more aesthetically pleasing comes along.  Of course, we all hope to be physically attracted to our spouses every day for the rest of our lives, but I’ve come to realize that perhaps that which lasts, and, in some cases, even that which initially attracts, isn’t attractiveness at all, but, in fact, beauty.

Beauty is the image of God within—the goodness, the virtue, the wonder with which God has graced each human heart.  It lies in the soul and radiates outward, presenting itself purely on the face, in the words, deeds, and in the very nature of a person.  It can be measured by the profundity that one is moved towards God in the presence of another.  Beauty is what draws two people together and keeps them together for a lifetime.  This beauty surpasses all limits of age, shape, or any material accessory.  Beauty draws ones whole self, the person is drawn to the person, and the sensual desires are thus satisfied by this goodness that radiates outward from the depths of the soul.  As a radiant, multicolored sunset naturally draws ones spirit heavenward, so should the good within the beloved be a gateway of the goodness of God.  

I can only picture Our Lady in this moment.  As she strode towards her cousin, Elizabeth, on that Visitation day, not only living completely in the Will of the Father and united in intimate friendship with Him, but physically carrying His Son within her body, nothing more beautiful could ever have been or ever will be on this earth.  In that moment, Mary could have been saggy-skinned, baggy-eyed, 400 pounds and sun burnt, and Elizabeth wouldn’t have been anything but captivated by her beauty.  Captivated by God Himself.

As I process all this, I come to a marvelous realization.  What I was searching for all these years was actually quite skewed and, in fact, in many ways an impossibility.  While focused on attractiveness, I was working for a goal that could never be satisfied, no matter how thin, stylish, or glamorous I might become.  I suddenly see myself with a new clarity.  What I want is to be beautiful, and suddenly, beauty is attainable.

 I am beautiful because I love.
-Our Lady of Medjugorje