There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned Catholic young adult conference to remind you how much of a disaster you really are. Perhaps to some people, walking into a conference full of young married couples, children, priests, and religious is the recipe for excitment, but for an anxious me there may be nothing more stressful.
Don’t get me wrong- I love going to talks, I love the Spirit-filled periods of Adoration and Confession that always seem to be present during retreats, and I love meeting new people and hearing their stories. But, for lots of reasons, this conference just wasn’t clicking for me.
I arrived at 9am after working a night shift at the Senior Center, exhausted, with hands shaking from the ridiculous amount of coffee I had consumed, my stomach churning from yet another bout of nausea I’d been experiencing all summer (I’m still not entirely sure what’s causing it), and all the feelings left over from a college student’s first experience with heartbreak. A recipe for the perfect retreat experience, right?
I came into the retreat feeling ill and directionless. For weeks I had felt as though I was teetering between feelings of despair and quiet, timid hope. Anyway, as I walked into the retreat, I put on the mask of happiness we are all too used to wearing and fought back tears for several hours.
“Just pull yourself together!” I told myself angrily. “Your life is good, you shouldn’t be this upset. Get it together!”
But I couldn’t. The feelings of despair built up throughout talks, Confession, lunch, and Adoration. I was desperately unhappy, and so angry at God. If I’m being honest, I think I hated Him that day (don’t worry, I’ve since apologized).
Comparison is the thief of joy, right? Absolutely. I realized that part of the reason I was so upset during the retreat was because I wasn’t living in the moment. I was comparing myself to the priests and religious, and to the wives and mothers. They have their lives figured out. They trust God enough to find their vocations. They look like they are happy and peaceful. And then my friends and the young, single missionaries. They are laughing. They are experiencing freedom in their singleness. So why can’t I? Why can’t I pull my crap together? Why can’t I count my blessings?
I realized that one thing I suck at is just letting myself be. I am awful at sitting in the painful emotions, at leaning into my fears, sadness, and anger. But that’s okay. I’m learning. My friends, if you struggle with this, then be still and know that you are learning too. It’s a journey, and we don’t have to be perfect at it.
Truly, given my mindset, it could be nothing short of Divine Providence that I was able to be even the teeniest bit receptive during the conference. Luckily, God is all-forgiving. Even though I had spent most of the conference grumping at Him, He still blessed me with a talk by Gomer (Michael Gormley) of the Catching Foxes podcast.
(If you haven’t listened to the Catching Foxes podcast with Luke and Gomer, then I highly recommend you do so! They are hilarious, holy, and honest about their wounds. Here’s a link: https://www.catchingfoxes.fm)
Gomer’s talk was exactly what my weary, grumpy, ungrateful heart needed. As dramatic as it sounds (and I sure as I am that Gomer would puke upon hearing this) it truly nurtured my soul.
Gomer was just so honest. He shared about the struggles he experienced with depression after he lost his long-term girlfriend, and the exhausting period of waiting it took for her to accept him back. I found myself relating to his tale of the young drama-queen Gomer, because I’m a bit of a drama queen myself, especially in seasons of waiting or suffering. He talked about the agony of prayer and of living a life on this side of Heaven- a life where we make mistakes and those mistakes have consequences. A life where we don’t realize what we have until we lose it. A life full of sin, separated from God.
After Gomer’s girlfriend broke up with him, he thought his life was over. He pouted and cried and basically just had a miserable existence (he said it, not me). His spiritual director told him two things. One, Gomer needed to read the Book of Job, and, two, Gomer wasn’t grateful enough for the goodness of his girlfriend. Read the Book of Job, and be grateful. I thought to myself “well, I’m pretty much just as dramatic and lost as Gomer, so maybe I should do those things too.”
The topic of Gomer’s talk was “How to Pray”, so I expected a long-winded explanation of the different types of prayer and how I was doing everything wrong. Well, Gomer did talk about how I wasn’t praying correctly, but it wasn’t because I don’t follow a certain format, or because I get tired and distracted too easily- no, my prayers are often flawed, I realized, because I’m not honest with God.
When Gomer’s spiritual director told him to read the Book of Job, he was showing him an example of true, honest prayer. The Bible is filled with groaning and wailing, with complaints and anger… especially the Book of Job. Good Lord Job…
“My own utterance I will not restrain;
I will speak in the anguish of my spirit;
I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.
Am I the Sea, or the dragon,
that you place a watch over me?
When I say, “My bed shall comfort me,
my couch shall ease my complaint,”
Then you frighten me with dreams
and terrify me with visions,
So that I should prefer strangulation
and death rather than my existence.”
Quite honestly, there have been many times in my life where I don’t think I relate to any Biblical character more than Job. So often, I look at my life and complain. “I’ve tried so hard!” I think to myself. “I’ve given up so much for God, and this is how He treats me? Why must I suffer?”.
Whenever I begin to think like this, I try to hide those selfish and hardened bits of my heart from God. I wait until I feel a bit better to pray, so I can craft pretty and loving prayers to present to the Lord. Or, if I pray in the moment, I use it to look at the bright side. I’ll try and be upbeat, positive, and grateful, even if I am feeling none of those things. And perhaps there is a place for that in prayer. Perhaps there is a place for positivity in prayer, even when I feel like crap. But, more than anything, God wants us to be honest with Him. He doesn’t want our pretty little poetic prayers- He wants us. He wants relationship. We don’t need to sugarcoat things for God. He knows our suffering, and He wants to journey through it with us.
After Gomer’s talk, I decided to put his advice into action. I was driving home from the conference. At this point, I had been awake for 39 hours, I was still too nauseated to eat, I was hungry, I was sad, and I was anxious. I knew I had two hours to sleep before my next shift, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to rest with my racing thoughts. So, I spent the 20 minute drive home yelling, literally screaming and crying, to the Lord. I’m sure the other people on the highway thought I was a lunatic. I felt like a lunatic. But, I had also never felt more myself in front of God. Finally, finally, I was telling Him how I felt. I was allowing Him to experience my misery with me. I was so angry and so sad, and I let Him feel all of it. And, in doing so, I felt all of it. Verbalizing my pain to the Lord allowed me to truly feel.
I wish I could say I felt better immediately after. I didn’t. But incorporating this raw honesty into my prayer has been transformative in my relationship with God.
Throughout the book of Job, it is apparent that Job is afraid of the sheer power of God- he is afraid of what God might allow to happen to him. If Job had been all-knowing, then he would have seen that God wasn’t causing his boils and the deaths of his children. God was allowing the devil to test Job, because He trusted in Job and believed he would be faithful. Imagine if we could see our trials through a different lens- as chances to show God our faithfulness, over and over again. But, trust me, I know it’s a struggle to do that. I especially resonated with this passage:
“For what I feared overtakes me;
What I dreaded comes upon me.
I have no peace nor ease;
I have no rest, for trouble has come!”
I often feel like that. I feel that the moment I think I’ve found peace, I get hit again with yet another trial, another test. But like Job, we must take heart in the fact that God is faithful. Not all our prayers should be yelling out in anguish. But many of them certainly can be. In the end, however, we must remember we aren’t yelling at God for the sake of yelling at Him. We are crying out to Him earnestly, because we want Him to know our struggles. Just like in Job’s story, there will be joy in the end.
P.S. No matter how crappy you feel, please go to conferences and retreats like this! Yes, the retreat was difficult for me, but I learned so much about myself and about God, and will definitely be going next year:)