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

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Loving Like Santo

There are so many kids here that are impossible not to fall in love with.  They bat an eyelash and you are instantly captivated.  Once they come up and hold your hand, it’s game over.  They start calling your name across the schoolyard, running to you with beaming smiles and open arms.  The kids here are radiantly beautiful, and in no other circumstance in my life have I ever felt so loved or enveloped by sweetness.

Of the dozens of bright-eyed, smiling faces that greet me on a daily basis, there is one that usually takes a little more effort to reciprocate.  Santo is a ten-year-old boy who wanders freely; he doesn't go to school or do any significant work at home, he just spends his days roaming around alone, and usually winding up in our yard.  He is always dirty from head to toe, with soiled, ripped clothing and a foul odor.  I meet Santo at least once in a day and usually far more.  He yells, “SISTER!” from any distance, no matter how far away, and he continues to shout until I take notice and respond.  A massive smile and a distinctive “How are yooooou?” is followed by a hug that lasts far too long, usually until he is removed from my body.  There is the occasionally inappropriate touching, and then calling me his wife.  He tells people that he’s bought both Cait and I for 4 Pounds… (We are worth far more!)  If I let him, he throws an arm over my shoulder and keeps us walking side-by-side, literally until he is removed.  The next bit of the conversation is a routine dialogue that never varies from the following:
              "I'm fine. How are you?" I reply to his initial shouting across the playground.
              "Fine. Gomoro (I'm hungry)," he informs. "Issm tachy munu (What's your name)?" The question never fails to follow.  Let me assure you, the boy knows my name quite well.
              "Grace.  Issm tachy munu?" I reciprocate.
              "Santo," he'll say, like this is news to me.  Then he'll inevitably question, "Sister Caitie wen (Where is Sister Cait)?”
              "Kporo yo (At home),” I inform.
              "Brother wen (Where is Brother Dan)?"
              "Kporo yo (At home).”
              "Abuna wen (Where is Father)?"
              "Kporo yo (At home).”
And so it goes, Santo will continue to ask me about every Salesian community member that lives or has ever lived in our house for the entire length of time until I reach my destination and we part ways.

Perhaps you’ve already picked up on this, but Santo is a child with special needs.  He’s an epileptic, so he drops into convulsions on the ground at any moment without warning- quite frequently, in fact.  There is no special school for the handicapped, and no support for those with special needs in this place.  I’d say he’s lucky to even be alive and to have a mother that takes care of him at all.

As I have interacted with Santo day in and day out for all these months, it has become very easy to give a quick handshake, shrug him aside, and continue on my way.  It’s easy to become short when he repeatedly asks the same questions.  It’s especially frustrating when he acts like he’s your husband.

But as I have recently started to take a step back and look at the boy who stands before me, I am suddenly struck by the image of Christ.

Santo loves unconditionally.  In almost a year, there has not been a single time that I have passed him by without fully receiving all the love he has for me.  I could be a quarter mile away and if Santo spots me, he’ll scream for me relentlessly until I respond.  He is the same with every member of our Salesian community.  It doesn't matter how short or unkind I've been in the past, he's always ready with big hugs (uncharacteristic of this culture) and his unique and massive smile that literally beams.  Santo has profound joy upon interacting with any other human being.  Genuine elation results from something as insignificant as one of the Brothers walking past him.  It's something that many Christians strive for, that limitless ocean of charity, that Santo innately offers the world through his simple little life.  Santo is teaching me a beautiful lesson, one that I have been taught over and over again but rarely observed in such a concrete way: My vocation is to love.  

Santo calls me out in my weakness, first to begin by better loving Santo himself, the little one who loves me so much.  From there, I must strive to offer this charity with every daily interaction.  When I am tired, when I’m grumpy, when I’m feeling introspective or down on myself, and for a million other reasons every day that I forget my simple duty in this world, Santo calls me to love others as Christ Himself loved.  Just as with Santo, Christ can only use our human weaknesses to aid us with His glorious and capable strength.  

When I think of this pure love, I can’t help but call to mind one beloved priest that served on our campus at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Fr. Rick.  Fr. Rick had a tremendous daily workload- teaching classes, leading many groups on campus, commitment to his religious order, spiritual life, and priestly duties, not to mention his main apostolate, which was heading the Priestly Discernment Program on campus.  Despite Fr. Rick’s packed schedule of work, prayer, and daily activity, he never stopped loving.  The person in need was never second to his To-Do list.  Father was never more than a phone call away, day or night.  Students flocked to him for spiritual advice, wisdom, and encouragement regularly.  Why?  Because he has been graced with an inherently and undeniably Christ-like way.  He loves as Jesus loves.  When Fr. Rick looks at you, it is like Jesus himself is gazing into your soul.  His words are always Spirit-filled and life giving.  I’ve never experienced anything like it before or since.  Fr. Rick is a father, brother, mentor, confidant, confessor, supporter, cheerleader, and friend to literally hundreds of students on that campus, because each and every one of them feels uniquely cherished and cared for by his paternal presence, as I’m sure the Apostles did when they sat before Jesus.  I have thought more than a few times throughout this mission that if I were to love the little ones here just a tiny fraction as much as Fr. Rick has loved our campus at Franciscan, I’d consider this a complete success.

Innocent, silly little Santo has called me to love radically today.  He has called me to reach outside of myself and to emulate Mother Teresa’s challenge:

“I have found the paradox, 
that if you love until it hurts,
there can be no more hurt, 
only more love.”

I think we all need a little more love. God bless you, Santo. Mbori du na mo.