St. Therese of Lisieux once said that everything is grace. That has certainly been the theme of my life. From my twin sister Madison’s and my entrance into the world 14 weeks early, to her entrance into eternal life 23 hours later and my diagnosis of cerebral palsy, God has surrounded us with His love.
God ultimately used my difficult birth to call me to Himself in the Catholic Church. I can confidently say, sitting here today, that everything is, indeed, grace.
I had several surgeries as an infant and toddler, followed by years of physical and occupational therapy several times a week. Originally, I was told I would need a walker for the rest of my life, but at two years old, I pushed the walker back to the doctor and told him I didn’t want it any more. I wore leg braces throughout those years of therapy, and I always felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. People would often stare at me in public, and I remember one instance when a man in a department store could not stop looking from my feet to my face, as if the world owed me some grandiose amount of pity. So, I looked at him, then at my feet, and I said, “Oh, where did these come from? I didn’t have these when I came in here!” His face was priceless. Making light of my disability was the way I buried the pain of the feeling that I didn’t quite measure up. My cerebral palsy still affects my left side, causing me to limp, and I don’t have the same dexterity in my left hand as I do in my right. Because I don’t have a normal gait, my limp causes some weight-bearing issues, and I am in constant pain.
When the world was on the brink of the new millennium, I was on the brink of preschool. I walked in the door of an unknown place, clinging to my mom for dear life. The old cliché would become true of me: it was the first day of the rest of my life. Because of my physical struggles, it was important to my parents to send me to a place where they knew I would be well cared for. That place “just happened to be” St. Michael’s School, a Catholic institution.
Raised in the School’s Embrace
It’s funny… almost every teacher I had at St. Michael’s still remembers certain instances when my failure to keep my balance gave them heart failure. For instance, in the fourth grade, I was rushed to the hospital after suffering a concussion. By the time we reached the hospital, I was unresponsive and placed on life support. That was the root for understanding the love of Christ through the Catholic Church. I don’t remember anything from that day, but I know from my parents that the hospital waiting room was filled into the night with family, friends, faculty, and staff from the school. I had no idea that one person in that room, Msgr. Victor Ciaramitaro, would have a great impact on my spiritual journey.
One of the first things he did to that end was assign Fr. James Clark, then a seminarian, to teach our fifth-grade religion class. I learned a great deal from Fr. Clark that year. As a matter of fact, so many things I hold dear to my heart today, I first learned from him. It was as if Msgr. Ciaramitaro had handed him the Truth of the Catholic Faith in a gift box, and Fr. Clark slowly unwrapped it for us each day. Of all the things I remember from that year, two stand out in my mind as the biggest seeds that God planted in my soul. In one class, Fr. Clark drew the timeline of Church history on the board with the dates of each religion’s inception. At the time, I attended a non-denominational church, and not seeing it listed anywhere on the board, I raised my hand and asked him, “Where do I fit in?” Of course, it never occurred to me that, ten years later, at 20 years old, I would ask that same question of myself. The other thing that strongly resonated with me was how obvious Fr. Clark’s love and devotion to the Blessed Mother were. I didn’t know where he had gotten them, but I knew they were something I didn’t have, and they were something that later, I would begin to ache to experience and to know.
Loved From a Monstrance
While at St. Michael’s, teachers would take us to Adoration, and we would sit there for what seemed like forever (so probably about 15 minutes), but the more we did it, the more I liked it. Though I wouldn’t have defended the True Presence then, I wouldn’t have denied it either. I had sat attentively through enough Masses to know better. At that time, I couldn’t outright say that the Host was Jesus, but like Mary, I really began to ponder these things in my heart. Several years before, when all my friends went to Confession and received their First Communion, I was so jealous. I wanted to go to Confession, too, and I wanted to receive the Eucharist. What may have started out as wanting to do it because my friends were doing it eventually became an agony, a hunger. Slowly but surely, although I didn’t realize it, God began to remove the veil from my eyes.
Eventually, my grade school years ended, and it was time to move on. It was excruciatingly difficult to leave my elementary school, which, to me, was like another home. I started high school at Immaculate Conception High School in much the same way that I had started preschool. But there, too, I started to gain a support group for the revelations to come. One of the things I constantly struggled with was the vast difference between what I knew to be true about Catholics and what I heard from others about Catholics. Though I was still very respectful of Church teaching because I knew I couldn’t deny it, I was more and more involved with my own non-denominational church and youth group. My English teacher my freshman year, Adrien Alsobrook, had us journal for twenty minutes a week, and I almost always wrote about my faith. I started to become more settled in Protestantism at this point — or so I thought — but I knew that the faith of three people that I looked up to the most at Immaculate Conception was different, and I wanted what they had in that faith. Peggy Steffan and Principal Sally Hermsdorfer were also big influences in that area. Peggy was the chair of the theology department and taught sophomore and senior theology. I denied several requests from her to be part of the campus ministry team because I knew it required a commitment that I wasn’t ready to give. She never pressured me, but always left the door open. She was convinced, though, that one day, I would walk through a much larger door: the door to our Holy Mother Church.
High school was the place where I began to realize that I had suppressed a lot of feelings: hurt, rejection, longing for a purpose in life, and survivor’s guilt; I spent many mornings in Sally’s office crying it all out. She was ever-patient and never hurried me along. She sat with me in my grief and what I felt was hopelessness. She reminded me constantly of my dignity and never let me think for one second that God didn’t love me.I adopted the same view of our humanity that Martin Luther had penned: we are nothing but dung with snow on top — the snow being God’s righteousness, which is the only reason we’re seen by Him as good. For someone with a physical… Click To Tweet
As I grew in my knowledge of Protestant theology, however, I adopted the same view of our humanity that Martin Luther had penned: we are nothing but dung with snow on top — the snow being God’s righteousness, which is the only reason we’re seen by Him as good. For someone with a physical disability, it was especially crushing. I began to doubt God’s love for me because I believed there was no good in me; I believed I was broken. What did I do to make myself this way? Why did I survive childbirth, when my sister did not? Sally and I continued these meetings through all my years of high school.
A Cross and an Emptiness
At the time of high school graduation in 2014, I was so steeped in Protestantism that I decided to attend a Baptist seminary in my town for college. I honestly can’t recall what I wanted to accomplish by going there, other than I loved theology, and I wanted other people to love it, too. Even though I was a Protestant, I was very proud of my Catholic education. I knew how much my parents had sacrificed for my brother and me to have a quality education. What I quickly learned, however, was that there was deeply-seated anti-Catholicism in the world. The things I heard about Catholics became a personal cross because they were attacking people I loved. What do you mean when you say that Catholics need to be saved? What do you mean that they worship Mary?The things I heard about Catholics became a personal cross because they were attacking people I loved. What do you mean when you say that Catholics need to be saved? What do you mean that they worship Mary? Click To Tweet
As my college career began, for the first time in my life, I started a new school year in a non-Catholic institution and without the Mass. That left a noticeable void in my life. But whom in this new world could I tell? They would just ask me why I was going to a Baptist school in the first place. I had no answer to that, so I kept my longing to myself.
My college experience was one of hard lessons and growth. For instance, in my sophomore year, I had to take a course on the history of Christianity. I had taken church history as a junior in high school, so I wasn’t expecting anything earth-shattering. But when the professor got to Martin Luther, after I had sat through the first 1500 years of history, I rather indignantly proclaimed aloud, “Fifteen hundred years, and one man comes along, and we think he’s right?” The crickets that followed made me realize that I might have spoken out of turn, but I really didn’t care.
Thus began a journey of a different kind. I started venting to Adrien, my old English teacher. I had so many questions, but she knew it was different when I texted her one day and told her, “I don’t know how anyone can read John 6 and not believe in the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.” She knew I was serious. I had reached a point where I couldn’t stand before God one day and tell Him I knew the Truth but rejected it.
Yet what could I do? I still had two years of college left, and there was no way I was going to transfer to another school and start over. I also knew I had to keep my budding Catholicism to myself because I would be anathema in the Baptist world. If that happened, I knew I would have to go to school somewhere else. I didn’t want that, and a lot of fear followed.I became increasingly aware of others’ disparaging words about Catholics, because what was once personal through my association with Catholics was now personal through my own decision. Click To Tweet
What was I going to do with my life? What if someone found me out? I became increasingly aware of others’ disparaging words about Catholics, because what was once personal through my association with Catholics was now personal through my own decision. Attacks on the Catholic Faith became harder and harder to bear.
In my junior year, I took a class called Basic Bible Doctrines. In most cases, the professor would start with what the Catholic Church mistakenly believed about x, y, or z. Quite often, though these misconceptions and indifference bothered me, I had to let them go. But there was one topic I couldn’t let go: the Eucharist. For whatever reason, it was a joke to them, and there were several fallen-away Catholics in that class who agreed with the professor. I knew I couldn’t stay in the classroom, so I simply, and without drama, excused myself and used my absences for that week. I couldn’t stomach their ignorance because not being able to receive the Eucharist had become simply dreadful for me, and it was something I struggled with until the day I came into the Church.I couldn’t stomach their ignorance because not being able to receive the Eucharist had become simply dreadful for me... Click To Tweet
In the midst of all this “fun,” an incident occurred during my senior year with a professor who reinforced my ever-present feelings of brokenness by sharing, ironically, in a counseling class, that “marrying someone with a physical disability is like marrying someone addicted to drugs.” I was shocked. He was talking about me! I got up and left the class, hysterical. With the advice of my parents, I went back to talk to him before I asked the administration to intervene. I went in, giving him the benefit of a doubt — we all say things we don’t mean. Like a knife to my naivete, he informed me that he couldn’t help that God made mistakes. He called me a mistake, and I was crushed. Though the school handled it appropriately, it did not erase the wound or the resurfacing of old insecurities.
On a lighter note, I took an elective my last semester on the first, second, and third letters of St. John. Part of the class was a discussion about certain verses. When it was my turn, I proceeded to define the hypostatic union (Jesus is fully God and fully man), and the professor stopped me and asked where I had learned that. Without thinking of how it might come across, I said, “From Fr. Clark, in fifth grade!”
As unsettling and harsh as these situations were, and as exasperating as they seem to me now, I really felt that I was living a dark night of the soul. The only people who knew that I was going to become Catholic were a core group of Catholics from my years of Catholic education. It got to the point that I started having to tell people about my troubles because it was too much for me to carry them by myself. What was so odd to me is that no one I spoke to was surprised. Everyone, including Msgr. Ciaramitaro, was expecting it. I was the only one who was surprised! Now, as I reflect on my story, it seems ridiculous that I lived through all of that, yet it never registered with me that I was meant to become Catholic. Now, I can look back and see how all the pieces fit together, even the pieces that I tried to fit in my Protestant worldview that never worked.
I was in the thick of all this searching when a friend, Mary Pat Van Epps, invited me to the annual Forget-Me-Not Mass at Holy Rosary parish. The Mass was for anyone who had experienced the loss of a child, especially through miscarriage, stillbirth, or after birth. I had confided in Mary Pat how much I grieved for my sister, and I was so encouraged that she didn’t think it was odd for me to attend. Madison and I did share a womb for months, and the only thing that separates our bond now is that she is in eternity. I even talked my mom into going. The Mass was familiar to her because she had worked in Catholic schools for years, and it was the first time we had ever had a bonding moment over our shared loss.
It was beautiful and heartbreaking, but it was special because, while reading The Lamb’s Supper by Scott Hahn, I learned something that had never crossed my mind before: my sister, being in eternity, was present with the angels and saints at every Mass. I could only imagine what it would feel like for me to go to Mass on our birthday for the first time, participating in the Eucharistic sacrifice together. I’d always wondered what it would be like to do “normal” sister things, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend our birthday together than to one day spend it at the table of the Lord.
In 2018, as my college graduation approached, I was anxious to get out and to become Catholic. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I also didn’t know what to do with myself during that long summer’s wait leading up to the start of RCIA. I had already begun praying that I would never lose sight of what it had been like to be without the Eucharist, so that I wouldn’t take Jesus’ total giving of Himself for granted. But all the things that had been stirring in my heart over the past several years were finally about to happen!
One of the most special tenets of Catholic teaching that I have since held onto for dear life is redemptive suffering. The pieces that didn’t fit into my Protestant worldview fit here, now, because in so many ways redemptive suffering had called me home to Mother Church. It was my clarion call, and I was recognizing and answering that call. There was a purpose for my physical suffering and my emotional suffering from the lack of love I received from my Protestant friends and family when I came into the Church. As a Catholic, I finally know why cerebral palsy was given to me: to give it back to God. As sweet as the gift of suffering is, sweeter still is the gift of receiving the Lord Jesus in the Eucharist, the source, summit, and strength of my life.One of the most special tenets of Catholic teaching that I have since held onto for dear life is redemptive suffering. Click To Tweet
Today, my life is still not all sunshine and roses. The constant pain and muscle tightness get annoying, but if having cerebral palsy means my salvation, then thanks be to God. What Mother Teresa said is true, “Suffering is the kiss of Jesus… that you have come so close to Him that He can kiss you.” I would not give that up for anything.
When the day arrived in 2019 when I came into the Church, with the Alsobrooks as my sponsors, not only were there pews full of people supporting me, but Mrs. Steffan, who had gone to be with Our Lord in 2018, and my sister Madison were also there with me at that Eucharist. After the Easter Vigil, Sally took me aside and reminded me how I used to cry at Mass in high school when everyone went up to receive the Eucharist, and I couldn’t. I was floored; I had forgotten. This encounter was further confirmation to me that God does, indeed, choose us before the foundation of the world, because my life, if it shows anything, certainly shows that.
A Place for Me
When I was in high school, we would go on a class trip every year. As sophomores, on our way to the Smoky Mountains, we spent the night in Nashville with the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia. I was captivated, and I loved them instantly. The day we arrived, Sr. Mary Angela Highfield, OP, the Vocations Director at the time, sat down and talked to us about how there is a hole in our heart for God, and if we tried to fill it with anything else, we would never be fulfilled. I took it all in; that conversation and the way she looked in our eyes were things I have never forgotten. But one day, not long after I had come into the Church, I remembered that story with a different kind of fondness: the steppingstone that it, too, was along the way for me to never veer far from the true, the good, and the beautiful in the Catholic Church.
With this developing love for the Dominicans, I inquired about applying to the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The bylaw of their order requires certain physical criteria that, unfortunately, my cerebral palsy prevents me from meeting. Though I desired so much to wear the Dominican habit, it was imperative I come to understand that their “no” was God’s perfect will, and it was up to me to accept it or not. At first, I was not willing to do so because it brought back the searing comments from the professor about those with physical disabilities. I started to believe the lie that there was no place for me in the Church, either. It became such an obstacle in my willingness to trust God that I knew I had to take it to Confession.
I had carried the hurt from that professor around with me for so long that it had turned into guilt because I couldn’t let it go. As I told all of this to the priest in Confession, including the “no” from the Sisters, he asked me if I remembered what God said to Paul when he had his thorn in the flesh. I said, “His grace is sufficient,” and the priest replied, “…and His power is made perfect in weakness. His power is made perfect in your weakness.” Before, I had only held onto the first part — “God’s grace being sufficient.” Now, for the first time, through the grace of the Sacrament of Confession, I started to believe the part that God truly meant for me to hear. I’ll never forget the priest’s final words: “It’s your witness to the Church.”His power is made perfect in weakness. His power is made perfect in your weakness. Click To Tweet
God never slacks in keeping His promises. When I was ten years old, I raised my hand and asked Fr. Clark where I fit in. Ten years later, God said, “I’ll show you. You fit right here. Home was always waiting for you.” God had shown me the way back, by showing me where it all began.