Several years ago my parish decided to bring the Called and Gifted workshop to our parish to help our members discern their spiritual gifts and to encourage them to use them in parish ministries. As a member of the organizing committee, I traveled to a neighboring state to experience the program myself. I also received training in facilitating the follow-up interviews and small group sessions that followed our parish’s workshop. I became and remain an enthusiastic believer in the existence and importance of spiritual gifts.
And yet when I was asked to take on a church ministry that did not align with my gifts, I said yes.
Being on the church hospitality ministry (read serving doughnuts once a month after the Mass we attend) did not seem like a big deal, and I was flattered (let’s face it) to be asked. But within just a few days after accepting I had second thoughts.
It may sound ridiculous, but I don’t have the right charism mix for serving doughnuts. I realized this almost immediately and told my husband I wanted to quit.
But he thought it would be wrong to back out. He said he would take over the job if I did not want it.
You know what? John does not have the right charism mix either. He carried on miserably for some time before he finally gave up the job.
If someone had asked me to organize and run the doughnut ministry, I would have rocked that. I have the charism of Administration.
If someone had asked John to recruit hospitality ministers, he would have rocked that. He has the charism of Leadership.
Every ministry in a parish is important. Every baptized Catholic is gifted in some way for ministry. Every parishioner should be offering time and talent in service to the Church. But heed this PSA: There is nothing wrong with saying NO if you are asked to participate in a ministry that does not align with your God-given gifts.
If you are not sure what your spiritual gifts are, here is one online test that is similar to the one used in the Called and Gifted workshop.
I am pretty sure this was the second Christmas book I bought for Emily, so it has been part of our Christmas for over a quarter of a century! She loved it so much that she memorized most of it. A big plus is that nowadays you can get it as a board book!
Now, there are lots and lots of books that tell the story of the birth of Jesus from the point of view of the animals in the stable. But there were other creatures present that you may not have thought of. This book was–and is–a hit with our youngest two, who love all things creepy crawly; and it is a wonderful reminder that God made ALL creatures, not just the cuddly ones.
We are big Patricia Polacco fans and several of our Christmas books were written by her, but I think this recent acquisition is my favorite. Although it’s a Christmas miracle story, it’s also ecumenical and historical and heartwarming.
Maybe it is cheating a bit to include an Advent book but we got this last year and I cannot tell you how much we loved it. We read one story every evening as a part of our Advent celebration. I bought it for my son the animal lover but we were all enthralled and amazed by the beauty of God’s creation as revealed in these stories.
That’s all for this installment! Tell me about your favorites in the comments–I need some ideas for what to order this year!
Founder Amy Brooks of Prayer, Wine, Chocolate interviewed me for this article, in which (among other things) I said: “I am far more likely to be scandalized by people chewing gum or receiving Communion inappropriately than by what they are wearing. At least they are there.”
I need more from my Facebook feed than pictures of artistically arranged food and smiling babies and adorable kittens (not that I don’t love those things). I rely on Facebook for information and spiritual enrichment too. Because as a faithful Catholic I am passionate about social justice, I purposely create a Facebook feed that forms and informs me regarding what I care about most. Here’s how I do it.
I Follow Catholic Accounts
Lots of them, y’all. Being formed in the faith is vital. You can’t scroll down far in my feed before running into some Catholic content. I make sure to follow authorities like the USCCB, but I also follow bloggers and news sources and artisans, many of whom I have found via Catholics Online.
I Follow Pro-life Groups
And not just the ones you’ve heard of. I’m talking groups like Pro-Life Humanists and Secular Pro-Life and many others who share my belief in the sanctity of life even while disagreeing on other issues. Because the dignity of life is foundational to social justice.
I Follow Orthodox Catholics Blogging about Social Justice
I’ll recommend two who write eloquently about Catholic social justice from womb to tomb: Shannon Evans and Steel Magnificat. And through them, I have found other bloggers and pages to follow.
I Follow a Diverse Assortment of Voices
Most folks have a newsfeed that looks like them. I purposefully add people who are not like me, so I can experience diverse perspectives. I want to hear and learn from the words and experiences of people who suffer injustice. I found many of them in this article.
I Read, Listen, and Learn
I make sure I am clear on Church teachings. I engage in discussion and debate with other Catholics on social justice issues. Other times I learn more by listening. It can be hard to read posts from people who challenge my worldview. I feel uncomfortable. And then I realize I know very little about what it is really like to be part of an historically marginalized group. That’s when I stay quiet. I don’t offer my opinion unless asked. I do not always agree but that does not mean I always have to argue. I am used to speaking up, to having a seat at the table. Part of my learning is to give up that power and to listen to the voices that often go unheard.
What about you? How you decide what belongs in your Facebook feed?
Catholics are especially called to pray for the dead on All Souls Day. We are encouraged to visit a cemetery to do so if possible. So to commemorate this day, I am giving my readers a virtual visit to a graveyard.
I was delivering a meal to a new mother two years ago when I happened to pass Glenwood Cemetery on Central Avenue Pike in Powell, a very old cemetery located next to a somewhat newer church. I came back later in the day to take pictures but new got around to writing a post. I will come back later to give more detail about the cemetery and those who rest there, but for now, please just enjoy the pictures, read the names, and pray for the dead.
Some lived long lives, some barely lived at all. Some lived and died long ago, some were buried recently. Some are fondly remembered, some are forgotten. God knows and loves them all.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, rest in peace. Amen.
If you are busy like I am (and who isn’t busy these days), daily dedicated prayer time may seem out of reach. And yet we NEED daily prayer to help us cope with our overwhelming, stressful, too-busy lives. As Saint Francis de Sales famously said, “Every one of us needs half an hour of prayer a day, except when we are busy – then we need an hour.”
For the past year or so I have struggled to develop a prayer routine that works for me. I tried getting up earlier in the morning, which I know works well for many people; but I often fell asleep while trying to pray, or hit the snooze button instead of getting up. The spirit may be willing but the flesh is indeed weak.
I tried other times of day too, but my schedule is unpredictable, and nothing seemed to stick for long. Even my twice-weekly Mass and rosary walk that I kept up for an entire school year became a thing of the past once I no longer had a child in school right across the street from the church.
I realized that the best way for me to work prayer into my daily schedule was NOT to assign a definite time and place to it, but rather to make sure I fit it in any way I can. I found some apps that are helping me do that and I wanted to share them with you.
You may be familiar with the practice of Marian Consecration. I recently completed Father Michael Gaitley’s 33 Days to Morning Glory program for the second time. I wanted to pray a short consecration prayer every morning, and I keep this app open to the one I want to say.
This is the ultimate prayer app with just about every Catholic prayer you can imagine. What I love about it is that you can make a favorites list and then put it in the order you want. Here I have the next three prayers I want to say each day, and I will probably add more over time. For now, I say the Morning Offering, the Litany of Humility, and the Prayer for Generosity.
There are many rosary apps available, of course. And ideally I’d rather use an actual rosary anyway. But I can play this one and pray along while my hands are busy doing other things. I like that this one automatically opens up to the proper mysteries for the day, and I like that I can increase the replay speed a bit.
I have actually been using this for over a year. I start it as I pull out of the driveway to pick up my kids from school, and it is just about the perfect length for the ten-minute drive. This is a daily session based on Ignatian spirituality including music, scripture, reflection, and prayer.
This is a Catholic meditation app, and introduces you to different types of prayer, like Lectio Divina or the Examen. I use this in the evening after dinner when I typically sit out on the front porch for some alone time. I love that you can choose five, ten, or fifteen minute guided mediation and prayer sessions.
With the help of these apps, I find I am able to meet my prayer goals most days. All told, I am consistently praying over 30 minutes a day now and I feel hopeful that I will be able to add more over time and will be able to continue this routine.
Have you used these apps? Do you have any other favorite prayer apps?
Growing up in Tennessee, New York City was to me the epitome of everything frightening about Up North: crime, noise, crowds, and unfriendly people. Two stops in the Port Authority bus terminal while in college confirmed all my worse fears. I had very little desire to see more of the place.
John had several friends in college who were New York natives, plus he grew up in Baltimore, which is only five hours away, so he had been to the city several times and rightly thought I was silly. He thought taking the kids there for Fall Break last year would be a great idea–they very much wanted to go–and he was right.
Typically, I took about a million pictures, and that is what most of this post will consist of, with some travel tips and deep thoughts sprinkled throughout. 🙂
Travel tip #1: Have friends in New York who let you stay with them for free. 🙂
Mandi, Sameer, and their three kids live in this beautiful home in an historic Brooklyn neighborhood and they were the most welcoming and generous hosts ever. Mandi is John’s stepsister’s daughter which I guess makes her my step-niece by marriage, but she just says we are cousins which is a lot easier and more accurately reflects our actual relationship. We had fun spending time with them and we could not have been more comfortable.
We could have taken the subway, which was right around the corner, but we blew all the money we saved on lodging by Ubering everywhere instead because we are wimps. Our very first Uber driver spoke only Chinese and did not know how to get to the ferry for the Statue of Liberty, which we all agreed should be our first destination. We made it though!
Travel tip #2: Allow each traveler to pick a couple of must-visit attractions, since there is no way to see everything in one trip. The Statue was one we all agreed on.
Travel tip #3: City Pass. We bought these in advance and it guaranteed us tickets to all the things we most wanted to see and saved us money and time in lines.
There is a park where you wait for the ferry, and this sculpture of immigrants to to the United States is prominently displayed there, a visual reminder of the “tired and poor . . . huddled masses . . . and wretched refuse” welcomed for so long by Lady Liberty.
We were grateful for no rain as we approached the island, but sad that visibility was not that great.
Y’all, I may have gone a little crazy taking pictures of the Statue, but you know what? I don’t care. I could have stayed there with her all day. This was by far the most meaningful part of our whole vacation to me. We didn’t book early enough to get to go inside the Statue, but we listened to the audio tour, explored the gift shop, had lunch, and walked everywhere we could. I might have cried a little, thinking about what Lady Liberty stands for and how far our country seems to have strayed from those ideals. I did not want to leave.
Finally we said good-bye and boarded the ferry for our next stop, Ellis Island. If I had known there was so much to see there, I might have left the Statue sooner. There was room upon room of exhibits, full of information about the history of the Island and the people who were processed there on their journey to America.
We took one last trip on the ferry back to where we began, and got a good look at the monument below to American soldiers who died in the Atlantic during the Second World War.
It was getting late and we wanted to squeeze a few for sights in before heading back to Brooklyn, which leads to Travel Tip #4: Visit sites in the same general location on the same day. I know that sounds like a no-brainer, but it requires figuring out where things are in advance if you are in an unfamiliar place. The walking directions that Siri provided were helpful in getting us quickly to our last stops of the day, one specifically requested by William and one by Lorelei.
Here is what William wanted to see, and you can tell how happy it made him!
Lorelei wanted to visit the graveyard of Trinity Church to see the grave of Alexander Hamilton, since she was (and nearly a year later remains) obsessed with the musical Hamilton. Sadly, the churchyard was locked for the evening, but we still got a decent view.
And after that we headed back to Brooklyn to rest up for the next day’s adventures!
We spent the majority of our second day at NYC at Ground Zero. And yet I did not take nearly as many pictures as I did the other days. There is something about the 9/11 Museum that demands reverence and attention. It’s a place I wanted to fully immerse myself in rather than stand outside of and evaluate. Most of the images below were probably taken within the first hour we were there, then I stopped until we were at the outside portion of the memorial.
The flowers indicate a birthday. We were especially moved that unborn children were commemorated.
The new World Trade Center building, Freedom Tower, is impressive:
We didn’t go up to the observatory, though–we had different skyscraper plans, as you will see. We ended day two with dinner in a neighborhood Italian place in Brooklyn.
Bright and early the next morning we got up, ate, and went outside to wait for our Uber. We had a long day ahead of us.
The Natural History Museum was our first stop. We spent several hours there. It wore me out. I don’t know why but as much as I enjoy them I find museums exhausting.
I am just going to dump a lot of pictures below as I believe they will speak for themselves.
As you can see, we spent most of our time with the dinosaurs. I have just a few more pictures of some other things we saw:
We walked to our next stop, which was less than a mile away. We didn’t have time to walk through Central Park but at least we caught a glimpse:
Here’s another famous landmark we happened to pass and were excited to see, which I will admit we all recognized because of Moonstruck, my favorite movie of all time:
Our actual destination was the Church of Saint Paul the Apostle. This is the Mother Church for the Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle, otherwise known as the Paulist Fathers, the priests who have staffed my parish church since I was a very little girl. Our former pastor, Father Joe Ciccone, who baptized Lorelei, was the pastor at Saint Paul at the time, although we had slight hopes of seeing him given that it was after five when we arrived.
We took some time to wander around and pray inside the church. Travel Tip #5, for Catholics anyway, if there’s a cathedral or other notable church where you are vacationing, spend some time there. It will be beautiful and it’s free!
While the kids and I were wandering around, John made a call and discovered that the office was still open so we decided to go around the corner and see if Father Joe was still around.
He was! We had a short visit with him–the reason he was still there was that he had a dinner engagement nearby–and then we proceeded to our next BIG event!
I won’t lie–the crowd was big and the lines were long, although our City Pass helped. But it was worth it!
Wow, that was a long day. We got home late and exhausted, but we still pressed forward the next morning with more big adventures in store.
Our first stop on our last full day in New York was by William’s request. William has favorites of many things, and that includes a favorite building, the Chrysler Building. For many years he has talked about what a beautiful building it is, and we had promised we would make sure to include it in our trip. The evening before he had already seen it all lighted up from afar as we stood on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, but he wanted to see it up close.
Just see how happy he is!
Unfortunately you can no longer go upstairs in the building unless you have legitimate business there, so we had to content ourselves with spending time in the lobby.
We thought we were humoring William, but the truth is that we were grateful for his obsession because it truly is a beautiful building and we were all glad we got to see it.
You know a person could spend days in here, right? So we knew we would have to choose where to concentrate our efforts deliberately.
William wanted to see the Egyptian displays, and they were close at hand, so we started there.
Lorelei and I wanted to see paintings. William did not want to leave Egypt. So we left him there with John and headed upstairs.
Lorelei was especially interested in seeing the Van Gogh collection.
I cannot express what it is like to be absolutely surrounded by fabulous and famous works of art. In every direction were works that were very familiar to us.
We were especially excited to see the painting below, a replica of which hangs on our family room wall!
At one point, Lorelei and I sat down in a random room just to rest and when we got up to leave we realized we had been sitting in a room full of priceless Picasso paintings without even noticing!
Having accomplished our main goal, we headed back downstairs to reunite with John and William, get a snack in the museum restaurant, and view some of the medieval collection.
Most of this collection had religious significance of course and we were mesmerized both by that and by the age of some of the pieces which were over 1000 years old.
Then it was sadly time to go back to Brooklyn and pack up to leave the next morning.
John had one final surprise for me. We made a detour to Queens as we left the next morning and stopped to take a picture of this:
This is the Castorini home in the movie Moonstruck which as I have already mentioned is my favorite film of all time and which also holds special memories for us as we saw it on our first “dating anniversary” in February 1988.
We drove home by way of Baltimore. John and the kids spent time with his mother while I was fortunate enough to attend a Catholic blogging conference nearby. It was a magnificent trip and I cannot believe it was already a year ago!
The following is a guest post from my friend Heidi Indahl, and all photos are hers. You can learn more about Heidi and her ministry at the end.
From Conception to Natural Death.
As Catholics, we use this phrase often. Honoring the dignity of life from conception leads us to protest abortion laws and educate others on the nature of contraception. The dignity of life at the point of natural death leads us to rally against assisted suicide laws and elder abuse. To honor the space in between is to act for social justice and for the benefit of the marginalized. Have you ever stopped to consider, however, what honoring the dignity of the human person from conception to natural death looks like when only a short time passes between the two?
Such are cases of miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant death.
As a church, can we do a better job of including these smallest of persons (and as an extension, their families) into our work as a pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-family people?
I think we can.
And more importantly, I believe we should.
I believe speaking for babies lost to miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant death is as hard as it is because the world has written these lives off as unpreventable losses . . . casualties of natural law and the fallen state. Health care providers blur the line between early miscarriage and chemically induced abortion in their usage of terminology and procedures. Celebrities grieve their miscarriage publicly one day and shout their abortion the next. Family and friends tell women every single day to get over it because it just happens. We all have a thousand messages a day telling us that the unborn baby is not a life that is important. Even when we know the truth, the culture makes it easy . . . indeed, safer . . . to just stand by thinking, man, I hope that doesn’t happen to me!
And yet, it does happen.
Statistics of pregnancy and infant loss remain relatively unchanged. We might not be able to change the frequency of this death through legislation or social justice action, but we can change the reality for a forgotten group of people inside our faith communities.
All of the unborn deserve dignity in their deaths. They deserve to be properly buried if at all possible. They deserve to be remembered in the prayers of the Church through mass and other available rites. Their families need the same social support and comfort that we provide to all those grieving the loss of a beloved member of their family. We are not just supposed to bury the dead, pray for the dead, and comfort the sorrowful when it is convenient, easy, and socially acceptable. We are supposed to do it for every single human person that it is in our control to do so for.
I regularly speak with well-catechized, every-Sunday Catholics who have no idea that the Church provides a variety of funeral and naming rites, memorial suggestions, burial sites and more** for infants who pass away before or shortly after birth. Women whose doctors say flush the fetus and they do, because no one has ever told them there is another option.
We can do better for our friends, our family, and ourselves.
A couple facing pregnancy and infant loss should never wonder inside the walls of the Catholic Church if their child’s life was valued and important. It was. Our whole pro-life argument is centered around the idea that the value of a life isn’t different because the life hasn’t existed as long or hasn’t produced the same contribution to society. That doesn’t cease to be true because a person has passed away.
Every person matters from conception to natural death, because we know God formed human beings in His image and likeness. Not because of their contribution to society. Not because of their age, race, gender, or hair color. Not because of the circumstances of their conception or death. But because in them is the image and likeness of God himself.
And in them we can find God.
**Check with your local diocese for approved options. If they don’t know, advocate for the next family to face this grave loss by helping get something in place!
John and I were married thirty years ago today, at 12:30 p.m. to be precise. To celebrate our anniversary and to reflect on what all those years have meant, I am sharing one picture from each year, with commentary.
Fall 1991. A lot happened in a year and a half! We learned we were expecting our first baby. We decided to move to Knoxville to establish residency so John could attend the University of Tennessee College of Law. We left good jobs in D.C. for no jobs in Knoxville and settled into a two-bedroom apartment, I found a job as Secretary of the Liberal Arts Advising Center. John worked in the UT Traffic Office by day and sold shoes at Proffitt’s (a local, now defunct department store) by night. Emily was born in February 1991, and John started law school later that year. We have never regretted this decision.
February 16, 1992, dressed to go out to celebrate our 5th dating anniversary. We still celebrate that day every year. At this point we were living on a combination of student loans and part-time jobs. John was making fundraising phone calls for Tennessee Right to Life and I was the Foster Care Promotional Coordinator for Sertoma Learning Center. Later that year John started working as a law clerk. Childcare for Emily was cobbled together: my little sister watched her all summer, my grandmother helped once my sister was back in school, I brought her with me when possible, and she spent one day a week in a Parents Day Out downtown. I hated having to leave her.
July 1993, New Orleans, where we were taking part in Katrice and Rico’s wedding. Katrice was one of my best friends in high school. She and Rico are godparents to our oldest son, and we celebrated their son’s college graduation with them earlier this month. What I remember about this day is that I was hot and miserable and suffering from morning sickness. John was getting ready to start his third year of law school and I was preparing to return to grad school and my Graduate Assistant position in the College of Liberal Arts.
May 1994, John’s graduation from law school! I love this picture. We were very popular in law school because students with babies were rare and ours were spoiled by all our friends. Jake was three months old when John graduated. And he was four months old when we found out we were expecting another baby, just days before John took the bar exam. Thankfully he passed and landed a job in Oak Ridge reviewing OSHA regulations shortly afterwards. I was able to quit my job and have never worked outside the home since.
Easter 1995, a classic picture and one of my favorites of all time. Teddy arrived when Jake was 12.5 months old. He had only learned to walk about two weeks earlier. Two babies at once were a lot to handle and most of that first year is a blur.
Christmas 1996. We still had two babies in diapers (and two cribs!) but we also had our first house! A year in a dreadful two-and-a-half bedroom apartment after Teddy arrived spurred us onward to home ownership and we loved our sweet 1940s house in South Knoxville.
Halloween 1997. The kids were two, three, and six. They spent most of their time outside, and I spent a lot of time outside as well, having discovered a love of gardening. By now John had his own solo practice, and I did (and still do) very part-time grant writing and editing for my mother’s non-profit organizing work.
February 4, 1998, John’s 32nd and Emily’s 7th birthday celebration. Looking back now, those years of being overwhelmed by the needs of little kids seem like the golden years. It was hard, but it was simpler.
February 1999. The date is a guess, but this was taken at a restaurant at what was probably a birthday celebration and we have four of those at this time every year. I make a lot of cakes for awhile!
January 2000, dressed for church. Teddy’s hat came from a New Year’s Eve celebration John and I had attended at Club LeConte.
March 2001. And then there were four! The arrival of William was exciting but rough, as I had postpartum hypertension and had to remain in bed for about a month after he was born, with ten-year-old Emily taking care of her brothers when John was at work. We were beginning to be very cramped in our 1400 square foot house and our Mercury Sable. Both were replaced later in the year.
Christmas 2002. When the big kids were little, every December meant a trip to the portrait studio for Christmas pictures to insert in our Christmas cards. By this time I was taking a roll of film with my own camera and then sending triple prints. The closest family members got the worst pictures! Here the kids are standing in front of the house where we had lived for just over a year, a 3000 square foot Queen Anne Victorian built in 1889, in a non-gentrified but walkable neighborhood just a couple of miles from John’s office downtown.
August 2003, the big kids’ first day of school. It was the last year they would all attend St. Joseph School together. Jake was in third grade, Teddy in second, and Emily in sixth, but Jake and Teddy were both homeschooled for their fourth grade year.
November 2004, Lorelei’s first trip to church. We didn’t know it then, but she would be our last baby and the last family member to get to wear John’s heirloom baby dress.
Christmas 2005 marked the end of a hard year that included periods of unemployment, financial difficulties, and John’s hospitalization. Looking back now I can see that it was the only beginning of the most difficult period in our family’s life so far.
September 2006, celebrating my mother’s birthday. This photo includes Ella and Zachary, my sister Anne’s children. Ella is 17 months younger than William and Zachy is 17 months older, and they grew up playing together.
Spring 2007. William is wearing his St. Joseph School uniform. Kindergarten was his only year in Catholic school. He spent the next year at the public school down the street, then was homeschooled for several years while I struggled to figure out why he wasn’t as easy to teach as Jake and Teddy had been. We called the back stairs in our kitchen the “snack steps” because that’s where I would sit the little kids to eat something while I was cooking. You can see evidence in this picture that our old house was starting to crumble a bit.
May 2008, Jake’s graduation from 8th grade, taken next to Holy Ghost Church. We were all smiles, and very proud of Jake who graduated with straight A’s and won some academic awards, but I was putting on a brave face. The day before this I was in the hospital undergoing outpatient surgery after having miscarried our last baby.
November 2009. I’m not sure who snapped this picture of John and me the afternoon of our move into a new home. It wasn’t a happy move, springing from financial necessity of being upside-down on the mortgage of our disintegrating but much-loved Victorian home. But I love that the picture shows us supporting each other.
May 2010, Jake’s first prom. I love this picture for the personality it shows, but also because it was a bright spot in an otherwise difficult stretch where John and Jake (who have a great relationship now) did not get along well at all. Something else noteworthy about 2010 is that it is when I became John’s legal assistant, working from home to run his office.
Fall 2012, Senior Night. John and I are not athletic, and our kids showed no interest in sports until Teddy wanted to play football in 8th grade. It was all new and exciting to us and we thoroughly enjoyed those few years as football parents.
March 24, 2018, our first wedding. Jake and Jessica were married at Frozen Head State Park. Six months later, they moved to Nashville.
July 2019, our first cruise. We sailed on Royal Caribbean’s Grandeur of the Seas to Bermuda, in honor of our upcoming anniversary. I haven’t blogged about the cruise but I plan to. It was wonderful and we deserved it.
“[Love] is the unity that binds us all together, that makes this earth a family, and all men brothers and the sons of God.” ~ Thomas Wolfe
This guest post was written by a young Catholic man who asked that I publish it anonymously due to the personal nature of the subject. I was happy to do so as mental illness affects so many families, including mine.
There has been a significant growth of awareness about mental illness in recent years, and I am grateful for it. As a Christian who suffers from mental illness, I want my fellow believers who may be unfamiliar with it to know a few things.
What is a mental illness?
According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these.)” Mental illness is common. The American Psychiatric Association also say that in any given year, 19% of U.S. adults experience some form of mental illness, and 4.1% of Americans have a serious mental illness.
How does it work?
I’m not a doctor, but I like to explain the foundation of mental illness and the need for treatment by comparing it to physical illness, something almost everyone can relate to.
When a person experiences a physical illness, it essentially means that their body isn’t functioning the way it would when healthy. When a person has the flu, a very common physical illness, they have a viral infection of their respiratory tract. This infection causes symptoms, including fever, fatigue, and physical pain.
When a person experiences a mental illness, it means that their brain isn’t functioning the way it would when healthy. Mental illnesses often last for years or even a lifetime.
I want to address the most commonly referred to forms of mental illness: Depression, Anxiety, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, more commonly known as OCD. These terms are often used to describe everyday experiences and emotions that are not necessarily mental illnesses, which leads to confusion.
Depression is a commonly used term, and feeling depressed does not necessarily mean a person experiences mental illness. It is ordinary for a person to feel depressed and sad when life is hard.
Major Depressive Disorder, a mental illness, can cause people to feel depressed and sad when things in life are good. It alters the brain, causing chemical and hormonal imbalances that affect a person in negative ways.
When people suffer from Depression, the mental illness, they may experience sadness, hopelessness, and excessive feelings of guilt and worthlessness. Physically, they may experience restlessness, fatigue, or sleep in excess or lack. If left untreated, or if treatment is ineffective, it can lead to suicidal thoughts and inclinations.
As with depression, anxiety is a commonly used term and a widely experienced emotion. Feeling anxious does not necessarily mean that a person experiences mental illness.
There are several types of what are called anxiety disorders. Among them are Generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Anxiety disorders are mental illnesses; the brain’s functioning is altered.
When a person has an anxiety disorder, their anxieties, or worries, are often persistent and irrational. A person may fixate on a specific thought or happening nonstop for hours or an entire day. These fixations can be so severe that they hinder a person’s ability to function.
OCD is a term that is widely misused to describe someone who is a perfectionist or very detail-oriented. According to Mayo Clinic, OCD “features a pattern of unreasonable thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead you to do repetitive behaviors (compulsions).”
They also say that “Ultimately, you feel driven to perform compulsive acts to try to ease your stress. Despite efforts to ignore or get rid of bothersome thoughts or urges, they keep coming back.”
Obsessive-compulsive disorder causes what is known as a vicious cycle where obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior beget only more obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior. Obsessions and compulsions can be physical, mental, or both. Individuals who suffer from OCD can experience obsessions such as repetitively washing hands, needing to re-check whether a door is locked, arranging physical items a certain way, or repeating specific thoughts or prayers for lengthy periods without respite.
How to and not to treat a Christian with mental illness
The Bible has a lot to say about worry and anxiety.
In Philippians 4:6, St. Paul says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” In Matthew 6:34, Jesus says, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” 1 Peter 5:7 says about the Lord, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”
These verses are easy to remember and share with others but may be of no solace to a person who experiences mental illness. Why is this?
When you suffer from mental illness, not worrying, not being anxious, and being happy can often be beyond your control, even with the help of medicine.
If I get provoked by criticism, a personal attack, or hearing bad news, I can literally think about such a thing for the rest of the day, making it take longer to go to sleep.
I know to my core that God loves me, but telling me not to worry, or to be joyful at times doesn’t help because it is simply something I’m often not able to control. Prominent Christian speakers have said things such as “there is no such thing as a sad Christian,” and “worry is practical atheism,” which I think are insensitive and untrue, especially when considering the experience of Christians with mental illness, and that those are common, natural emotions.
Never, ever, ever, criticize a person’s faith when they are struggling not to worry, or when they feel depressed and sad rather than joyful. I’m not less holy, less faithful, or less believing than anyone else if I don’t feel joyful or if I am overwhelmed by worry.
What should you do?
From my perspective, offering a listening ear, without telling people how to think, is the best thing a person can do to help. Suggestions may be welcome and helpful, but at times they may not be. Praying for them is essential and asking to pray with them when in-person can also be comforting.
Though miraculous healings occur, as with a physical illness, mental illnesses such as Depression and anxiety disorders are not problems that you can simply pray away: it requires treatment and stigma has no place in preventing someone from seeking it out.
If you know someone who shows signs of depression or an anxiety disorder, ask if they are seeing a counselor and taking medicine, and if they say no, encourage them to speak with their doctor and a licensed counselor. A psychiatrist can evaluate someone and determine if they have a mental illness, and then provide them with medication and refer them to a counselor. A counselor can provide practical ways that a person can cope with their thoughts and experiences, which when combined with medicine can make things much better.