Faith to Fire
I was a very prayerful little girl and was born and raised in the Catholic Faith. I grew up in a little town in New York state. You could see St. Mary’s church and its parish hall from our living room window. The parish priest came over for dinner often, and my family was immersed in the life of the church. My faith was deep, and I conversed with the Lord as though I had a direct phone line. I felt His presence in my life and knew He could move mountains.
But when I was six years old, about a week before Christmas, someone forgot to extinguish the candles on our Advent wreath, and our live Christmas tree caught on fire. I awoke to my dad screaming my name through the roaring flames. By that time, most of the house was already gone. There was so much black smoke that it was hard to see and breathe, but my dad carried me through the flames. Somehow I wasn’t burned.
He told me that I needed to go to the neighbor’s house to get help. As I ran outside into the freezing cold, I got to the corner of my property and turned around. I saw my house nearly gone and was torn between getting help from the neighbor or going back into the house to save my dad. He was trying to get to my 11-year-old sister Maria, but the enormous flames surrounded her doorway, blocking him from entering. I believe he would have died trying. I ran back into the burning house to get him, and he came out to the neighbor’s house with me to call the fire department. Ironically, the fire department was located on our small street less than a mile away! But the phone lines were down, and we couldn’t reach them at first. When they finally showed up, they couldn’t find my sister right away. Once they found her, she was alive but unconscious, and they rushed her by ambulance to the hospital.
I will never forget being in a hospital room with my father as we were both recovering from smoke inhalation and waiting to hear how Maria was doing. I was praying for God to save her, but my worst nightmare came true when the doctor came into the room to tell us that she had died. Although she was unburned, her heart and lungs had given out due to smoke inhalation.
My dad wailed and screamed as he hugged me. In that moment, my heart could feel his aching heart so deeply that I couldn’t even think of my own. To see a man, my father, in this excruciating interior pain — there are no words.
The Pain of Loss
The pain of losing my sister is indescribable. Our entire family was hurting so much. Life seemed purposeless, meaningless and hopeless. That night, I didn’t only lose my sister. I lost my mom to depression, my dad to alcoholism, my house, toys, clothes — everything and everyone I knew and loved.
I felt lost and alone, as if I didn’t exist anymore or have a reason to live. I had questions and no answers. Why did this happen? Where was God? Why was I saved and not my sister? Why did God leave me behind to a miserable life that felt like death anyway?
A few months later, on my seventh birthday, I was really missing my sister, and a thought occurred to me. I knew Scripture well, and that God had the power to raise the dead. I had a deep, childlike faith and came up with a plan! I put together all of my dolls to make a life-sized form that resembled my sister. Then prayed and asked God to bring her back. I asked Him to raise her, but nothing happened. I thought maybe He hadn’t heard me or I hadn’t prayed hard enough, so I tried again, but still nothing happened. I then tried a third time. When nothing happened, I was utterly devastated. I missed my sister so much! I knew God had the power to raise the dead, but I thought He must not love me enough, and I lost my trust and hope in Him.
I subconsciously disconnected my phone line from Him, and although I still prayed, I didn’t have the same faith. I still went to Mass with my family, but as years went on, my doubts grew greater and my spiritual life weakened.
Loss to Sin
During my teen years, I began to justify sin and grew farther and farther from God. My grandparents, who had helped to raise me and lived down the street from us, were extremely devout Catholics who went to daily Mass and prayed the Rosary several times a day, as well as many other prayers and novenas. With each sin, I felt like a total failure. It was as if there was no hope for me. Yet I hid behind a mask of seeming to have it all together. This was something I had become good at doing.
Having grown up in the theater and being on stage since I was five years old, I began early in hiding behind character roles and finding temporary relief in not having to face up to being myself. I was unsure of who I was, anyway, so it was more comfortable to pretend to be someone else. During high school, I began traveling to New York City for auditions and voice and acting classes. After I graduated, I moved there to pursue my dreams.
I spent around five years in New York City, then moved to Los Angeles for five years before moving to Austin, Texas. I was an actress and model; later I owned and was the spokesmodel for a national cosmetic company. During these years, I modeled for national brands such as Jergens and Target. I was on a billboard in Times Square, hosted a TV show for ABC-5, was in independent films, appeared on multiple book covers and was a guest on news shows such as those on NBC. To the world, it looked like I had it all. Yet the more I had, the more empty I felt.
Loss of Myself
Also, during those years, there were many roles and positions that I auditioned for but didn’t get. Most people don’t talk about this, but there is a tremendous amount of rejection in the entertainment business. Being judged by how you look and how much money you can make for someone else is very difficult. It didn’t take long for me to become lost, and my self-esteem plummeted.
Given these pressures to create false images that satisfy the desires of the world, I never felt like I was good enough. I struggled for years with poor self-image, and although I was never formally diagnosed with an eating disorder, I was 97 pounds for over five years. Like so many models, I never thought I was thin enough.
They say the eyes are the window to the soul. When I look back at my modeling pictures from this time of my life and look into my eyes, I see such emptiness — a look of nothingness and deep sadness that I’m sure many overlooked as they concentrated on the external glamour. I had no idea of my true identity in Christ, or that I was made for more. I was becoming an image of the world, and I had many false gods, such as materialism and vanity. It was consuming me.
Poverty of Riches
I had thought, “Once I have this, I’ll be happy.” Or, “Once I do this, I’ll be happy.” But nothing satisfied. I was only checking off the boxes. Still, material wealth followed. I had two dream houses on the ocean in Florida and a dream house in Austin with an Italian courtyard and a Hill Country and lake view. I was flying back and forth between New York City and Los Angeles, meeting with magazine moguls and celebrities and having designer clothes sent to me. To the world, it looked like I had it all, but I had NOTHING! I was looking for healing and acceptance in all the wrong places.
About eight years ago, I flew to Los Angeles for a photo shoot for my cosmetic company. I was standing on top of a building with the Hollywood sign behind me and the sun shining down on me. Wearing a $4,000 gown and having my photo taken as the face of the company, it looked like a mountaintop moment, as if I had finally made it.
But that wasn’t the case. I hadn’t made it.
After a series of other events that night, I realized that I had never felt more lost and alone. I had hit a spiritual rock bottom. I was hiding behind those character roles, hiding behind makeup, hiding behind what appeared to be success and glamour. Hiding, hiding, hiding, from the truth. I wasn’t even sure what the truth was anymore, but I was aware that I was hiding from it, and I was tired of hiding. There was so much pain in hiding. So much pain in trying to look “put together” all the time, when in reality I was falling apart. I needed truth, I needed healing, I needed to know who I truly was and how to get out of the mess that I was in. I wanted to be free, but I was bound by the heavy chains of sin, selfishness and lies about my identity. It was a pivotal time. I was having this identity crisis, and I spent that night crying on the floor of the shower in my fancy hotel room in West Hollywood. Weeping, sobbing. I felt so broken, so empty.
In this desperate moment, I cried out to God. I truly prayed for the first time in years. I thought I had been praying all that time, but my prayers were always so shallow. I prayed for things like, “Lord, I want to work with so-and-so celebrity,” and “Lord I want this,” and “Lord I need this” — as if “this” was what I really needed.
My Sins Become Their Sins
I had no relationship with God and no idea who He was, or who I was, anymore. In that moment in the shower, I finally opened my heart to a relationship with Him. I admitted my brokenness and my need for Him. I begged Him to save me and come back into my life. In that moment, I began my journey home.
When I returned to Austin, I continued to pray and ask God for guidance. About a week later, I was in my bathroom and, suddenly, I had an encounter with the Lord. I saw my life flash before my eyes. It was like a near death experience, like being called to judgment. I saw every sin I had ever committed. It was excruciating to see those sins on my soul, to see how I had offended such an amazing God. Worse, I was shown how I had misused my gift of leadership, and I saw the effect my sins had on others and how, when these people followed me, it hurt more and more people. I saw how one little sin turned into another sin. And how, with each one, I became more and more blinded, until I couldn’t see the truth anymore. It was like a snowball effect.
I had mortal sins on my soul. But the worst part of what I saw was that my “good column” — the column listing what I was created for, and the use of the gifts I had been given, was nearly empty. I had become totally self-centered. I hadn’t loved.
There are no words to describe the pain I felt. The pain to have my spiritual eyes opened and see that I had not fulfilled the will of God and wasn’t who He created me to be. The pain to see all of those wasted gifts and graces.
This was a profound experience, and through it, my life was changed forever. I had a choice to make. Would I keep on living the way I was and heading in the wrong direction, or was I ready to turn back to God and surrender my life to Him? Was I ready to start filling my “good column” and be who I was created to be? It took me nearly two years to get more clarity on this experience, and in the meantime, I discovered that others had faced something similar. The Catechism mentions that, at the end of time, everyone will experience it:
When he comes at the end of time to judge the living and the dead, the glorious Christ will reveal the secret disposition of hearts and will render to each man according to his works, and according to his acceptance or refusal of grace. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, The profession of faith §682)
In the same way, St. Faustina writes in her Diary: “Suddenly I saw the complete condition of my soul as God sees it. I could clearly see all that is displeasing to God. I did not know that even the smallest transgressions will have to be accounted for. What a moment! Who can describe it? To stand before the Thrice-Holy God!”
In His Mercy
Praise God! In His mercy, I was given another chance. I wasn’t dead, but finally coming back to life. I was being resurrected in Him, in the truth, and I finally knew what it meant to be beautiful. It is love alone that is true beauty, for without love, all is a big, ugly nothing.
Right after my experience in the shower, I had a tremendous amount of gratitude that I was given a new chance to love and serve. I was hungry and thirsty for truth, and I immediately started reading the Bible. I read the entire Bible from front to back in two months. The passage about Jesus being lost in the temple and listening to the teachers (Luke 2:41–52) kept coming up in my prayer. I asked the Lord, “Where can I find a temple like this and learn from your teachers?” I told Him, “I want to get lost in your temple!”
When I prayed this, an image of the Catholic Church came to mind, and I resolved to start attending daily Mass. I had spent nearly 12 years away from the Catholic Church — the worst 12 years of my life! And all that while, I had told people I was Catholic and attended an occasional holiday Mass with family, but I really wasn’t practicing my faith.
Coming Home to Peace
After this encounter, I didn’t walk, but ran back to the Catholic Church. I will never forget my first Mass after returning, and how at home I felt. It seemed so right, and it gave me indescribable peace. When I received Jesus in the holy Eucharist, my soul was filled with immense joy and humility. I felt so little, yet safe in His arms. I had a desire to help others, not just myself. It was as if I was being re-created. The peace in my heart confirmed that I had finally found home and was headed in the right direction.
As I continued with daily Mass, I grew in my conviction that I also needed to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. At the time of my encounter with the Lord in the shower, I hadn’t realized that I was supposed to go to Confession before receiving Jesus in the Eucharist. In His mercy, He gently led me there.
Although the peace I sought was returning, I had nearly 12 years of sin still weighing on my soul like a thick, dark cloud. The last time I had gone to Confession was in college, when I came to visit my family for a weekend. My grandmother had thrown me into the confessional by my hair. Looking back, that was one of the best things that anyone could have ever done for me — although at the time it didn’t register that way with me. Even my grandmother knew how lost I was. She was a devout and holy woman, and she had never stopped praying for me to come back to the Church. I’m convinced it was her prayers, my father’s prayers, and the prayers of my uncle Vinny (who is an ordained deacon) that allowed this divine intervention which I so desperately needed.
So I went to Confession with my twelve years of sin written down. I felt so bad for the priest who had to hear it all! But I knew it had to be done. On the other hand, when I got home, I really struggled with believing that I was truly forgiven. I went back to the Sacrament of Reconciliation the following week, repenting of my doubts and lack of trust in God. I also fasted and prayed to lift the dark cloud I still felt hovering over me.
That night, I went home and was crying on my knees by the side of my bed, with deep repentance and contrition. Suddenly, I found myself shouting out the words, “Abba, Abba!” I remember feeling shocked as these words came out of my mouth. I had read the Bible, but didn’t remember Romans 8:15 that says “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, “Abba, Father!”
As I yelled out these words, “Abba, Abba,” with a deep cry in my heart, I had another encounter with the Lord. In a moment, I was filled and flooded with His peace and love. All the darkness and heaviness lifted! I felt a lightness, and my tears turned into praise!
I had experienced God’s healing power of love so deeply that I couldn’t keep this good news to myself. I wanted everyone to know the love of our heavenly Father and experience His love and mercy like I did. Soon afterwards, I began spiritual direction with a priest and started to become involved in church ministry. I read the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church and was floored by all of the truth and its answers to many difficult questions. I spent countless hours in front of the Blessed Sacrament and asked God over and over to tell me who I was, so that my identity could be rebuilt in Him and founded in truth. I was relentless and, over time, I was restored and healed, so that I could glorify Him with my life.
Discernment to Serve
As I began to serve, I started to discern a call to full time ministry. And after nearly three and a half years of discernment, I decided to close the doors of my cosmetic company. I was having a hard time telling women that their problem was how they did their eyeliner, while knowing they had much greater issues to deal with and, above all, how God desires us to find our true identity in Him.
The Lord began to call me into ministry. By divine providence, I became a Director of Youth Ministry and Confirmation. Then I was called into full time speaking and evangelism. I share my story and the healing power of God’s love with youth and adults, with a focus on the sacramental life of the Church, our true identity as God’s beloved children, and prayer. I have a passion for speaking about healing, true beauty, spiritual warfare and Theology of the Body, and I have a certification in the Catechesis of Human Love from the Diocese of Austin. I also value the power to evangelize through the arts and have upcoming faith-based film, television and on-camera projects, in addition to speaking events.
During my conversion, I fell in love with St. Teresa of Avila and was deeply impacted by her book, Interior Castle, which I felt put into words much of what I was experiencing. I spent four years of formation as a Secular Carmelite (OCDS). Although I can no longer attend the meetings due to my schedule, I’m a Carmelite in my heart forever!
Beauty from Ashes
For the rest, my confidence is in God alone. It is He who moves mountains and redeems our past for His glory. I could tell countless stories of amazing encounters that the Lord has put in my life to know, love and serve Him. A friend of mine constantly reminds me that God equips the ill equipped, and He alone knows what we need. He has certainly provided in miraculous ways and longs for all of us to live in union with Him. To God be the glory!
A fire nearly took my life, but another fire — that of the Holy Spirit — saved it. The power of the Spirit and the joy of the gospel bring to light how God fulfills His promise to bring good out of everything. It’s a promise He makes to all of us when we surrender our lives to Him. I’m so thankful that I finally know who I am and how loved I am. I’m finally free. I’m finally home.