RESTLESS HEART SYNDROME
I’m Victoria, and I have Restless Heart Syndrome. It affects 100% of the human race, so I’m nothing unique, but it’s worth emphasizing that I have Restless Heart Syndrome, and a severe case at that. Some people—perhaps most people, in our culture built on worship of the self and on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of love and liberty—manage to ignore the symptoms. I never have been able to do that.
To understand the poetry that follows, you need a glimpse into who I am, where I’ve been, and where these sonnets came from. I’m a “cradle Catholic” from New Orleans, but we can begin this story in 2012, when I was living in Chicago after graduating from the University of Alabama with a Master’s Degree in Spanish. I was a doctoral student in Golden Age Spanish literature, published my first academic article that year, and was doing great professionally. My career path as a professor was set; I was hitting all the markers successfully and in good time. I had a small number of close, wonderful friends (well, I’m an introvert) and a supportive family. I was living in the Sacraments.
Despite all this, I was miserable.
Since I’d begun my doctoral program in 2009, my deepest focus had been on my research and my teaching, on the fiction I was writing, and on worldly security. Three years of the stress this caused left me burnt out, with mild to moderate depression. I became convinced, deep down and unshakably, that the research I was doing into centuries-old literature would be incapable of making the difference in the world that I felt called to make. Now, I’m a perfectionist. I’m terrified of making mistakes, so walking away from the career I had always imagined for myself at the cusp of that career becoming reality was not a simple or a fast decision. I agonized over it for months, sometimes praying in tears for God to take control and lead me where He wanted, but always focused internally on worldly things and assuming God would lead me to financial stability, a respectable career, and a comfortable home.
I finally withdrew from graduate school in March of 2013. I moved back to New Orleans and told myself all kinds of things to inspire hope about a blank-looking future, to explain why I had felt so empty: “You were too far from your family.” “You hated Chicago winters. You need more sunlight.” “That department was so dysfunctional it would have made anyone depressed.”
Notice there is nothing there about trusting Christ. My prayer life was practically nonexistent. The thought of a relationship with Christ beyond a weekly reception of the Eucharist, which I clung to and which I have no doubt sustained me through this period of my life, never entered my mind.
In a worldly sense, things began to fall into place in New Orleans. I found an affordable place to rent and a full-time job at a veterinary clinic. My life was heading in a good direction, but I still felt anxious and empty. Worst of all, I could no longer attribute that inner unease to my dysfunctional department or Chicago winters. One night before Lent in 2014, sitting at home feeling frustrated and unfulfilled, I recognized that the common factor between my life before moving and my life afterward was me. I had changed the exteriors of my life, which proved the exteriors couldn’t be the problem. I must be the problem.
St. Augustine, in the first paragraph of his Confessions, famously asserts that “You have made us for Yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” Now, as soon as I acknowledged that I was the problem I wanted to get a clearer idea of the malady, and found myself thinking in exasperation, “I’m just so restless!” Augustine’s quote came straight to mind, and with it came an immediate, stark application of Augustine’s insight to my own life. It was a graced moment, for I had always felt I did “enough” when it came to the faith department. As far as I knew, I always obeyed the precepts of the Church. Over the past years I had even done much spiritual reading, which God used to maintain my intellectual consent to the truth of the faith in the midst of the assault of what passes for “truth” in higher education in the humanities these days. (Reading about God was easy, given my natural academic bent, whereas prayer, to quote Chesterton, was “judged difficult, and left untried.”) And yet, “by their fruits you shall know them.” My fruit was restlessness. If St. Augustine’s claim about restless hearts was true, and I knew it was, then I had to accept an unsettling conclusion: my heart was not resting in Christ.
My spiritual reading had taught me that there are two phases in the Christian life. The first is when Christ tells us, “Come. Come, contrite, and learn from Me. Come receive My graces and My mercy. Come prepare your heart.” The second is, “Go. Go spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth.” Fearful about where my inner turmoil might eventually lead me, I decided to “come” to Christ, to give Him a real chance to act on His promises. I decided to start going to Eucharistic Adoration, though in 27 years of life, I could count the number of times I had gone to Adoration on fingers and toes.
I had always believed that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist. How I believed that and dismissed the graces and the beauty of Eucharistic Adoration for so long is another question, but the Real Presence is objective fact, as astounding as it may be. Therefore, going to Adoration two or three times a week with an open and searching heart, which I started doing, is no light matter. I discovered something that should not have been unexpected on my part: Being in Christ’s Presence is not boring. It can be consoling. It can be motivating and inspirational. It can be uncomfortable. Humbling. Even frightening. You can always depend on Christ to alert you to things you need to consider; those things rarely coincide with the things we want to devote attention to. That’s frightening. But finding Christ’s Presence boring? That’s difficult to do if you keep focused on who He is. As Peter Kreeft likes to say, “Jesus is the one person who never bored anybody.”
Through Adoration I developed the relationship with Christ that I was lacking. I spoke with Him on a personal level, about all kinds of things. I brought Him my struggles and insecurities. I also did something I had rarely done before: I gave Him time to get a word in. I had generally made my prayer one-sided, rarely listening, but one-sided dialogue is impossible, so I let Christ speak too.
One of the first things He did, probably because I’m so impatient with myself, was to emphasize his generosity. I found myself reflecting on, “Ask, and it will be given to you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you.” This gave affirmation that I was turning to the right place, seeking joy and peace from the proper source; it was also a loving warning not to grow discouraged if change should take more time than I liked. It became my reason to choose hope in the weeks ahead when I was tempted to give in to frustration that I did not feel much different than before. I knew to keep seeking. To knock persistently.
UNEXPECTED APPOINTMENT WITH THE PHYSICIAN
Two months after I started going to Adoration, my boss went on a trip to England. This meant that, instead of the usual half-day I used to work on Fridays, I had to work a full day for a few weeks (a ten-hour shift). The Friday of May 30, 2014 was a nightmare. Every complaining, impatient patron to walk into the vet that day, I ended up serving: simple bad luck on a day when we were all overworked and emotionally strained. Not even the puppies made things feel bearable, and they usually were good for that.
I got home around 7pm, with barely enough time to scarf down dinner and shower before an 8pm tutoring session with a student over Skype. After that, I would need to go to bed. I was exhausted, dreading going to work the next morning, and annoyed that I’d had pretty much no time for myself that day. Then I got a message from my student just after 8:00 saying she had to cancel. She’d been called in to her crazy job.
My unexpected couple of free hours before bed found me on Facebook, because I spend far too much time there. I was scrolling through my newsfeed when I saw a link to the Novena for the Seven Gifts [of the Holy Spirit]. May 30 that year was ten days before Pentecost Sunday and Day 1 of that particular novena on the liturgical calendar.
Well, I clicked the link. Apart from God’s grace, I’m still not sure why. Novenas were hardly on my radar. I knew novenas existed, knew the term referred to a prayer or sequence of prayers prayed daily for 9 days, but I never sought them out. For some reason, I clicked that link. I figured that since it was Day 1, why not see what was there? I began to read the Consecration to the Holy Spirit, which was the first prayer I saw.
On my knees before the great multitude of heavenly witnesses, I offer myself soul and body to you, Eternal Spirit of God. I adore the brightness of Your purity, the unerring keenness of Your justice, and the might of Your love. You are the strength and light of my soul. In You I live, and move, and am. I desire never to grieve You by unfaithfulness to grace and I pray with all my heart to be kept from the smallest sin against you. Mercifully guard my every thought, and…
I broke down sobbing before the end of the prayer. The only way I can describe the experience is to say that I watch a lot of football, and God blindsided me like a blitzing linebacker, which goes to show of how little faith I really am. I’ve known God all my life, and the first thing I should have realized is that if we invite Christ in, He’s going to respond. I had been begging Him to come for weeks without expecting a personal response, and yet, I received just that. This moment, this novena: this was the answer to my pleading. Christ was not only calling, He was calling me BY NAME. I realized so many things all at once.
First, I realized how dreadfully I had overlooked the power, love, and protection of the Holy Spirit. Every week at Mass, I recited the Creed. I’d profess that, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.” Yet I rarely thought about the Holy Spirit. I don’t think I had considered the gifts of the Holy Spirit since Confirmation class, when I was 12 years old. Fear of the Lord, Piety, Fortitude, Knowledge, Understanding, Counsel, Wisdom: those gifts were what I’d been longing for. This was God acknowledging, “I know you’re feeling unsettled and frustrated and afraid. You very much need these gifts. We both know you are weak; what you are overlooking is that My gifts are very real. And they are there for you. Ask. Please ask for them. Ask, and you will receive.”
Second, I didn’t know this at the time, but by temperament I’m a strong melancholic. That means, among other things, that I yearn very openly for perfect beauty, perfect goodness, and perfect truth, and I deeply understand and regret how I fail to live up to my potential. This prayer was unlike any other prayer I’d ever read. It addressed those sharp, personal longings so explicitly and fully that it felt written especially for me. “I desire never to grieve You by unfaithfulness to grace and I pray with all my heart to be kept from the smallest sin against You. Mercifully guard my every thought….” I can’t describe the sense of hope and peace those words gave me. In the midst of a Godless culture that despises holiness they affirmed that my newfound quest for holiness was the right thing, encouraged me to go deeper in that quest, and assured me that although I failed daily God loved me, was with me, and wanted me to keep trying.
Thirdly, it felt significant to discover the novena how I did, when I’d been working all day (something out of the norm for Friday), I’d had a horrible shift that brought out all my restlessness of heart (which made the “keep trying” message very apt), and I should have been tutoring, after which I planned to go straight to bed. I should never have had time to find the novena. In all truth, I found nothing; He dropped it in my lap.
Last of all, I know how much of a perfectionist I am. I “discovered” that novena at the end of its first day. If I had come across it on day two or three, there is no way I would have looked at it. Not if I couldn’t pray it the full nine days leading to Pentecost.
God knew that. God was working with my personality, my flaws and quirks. He was saying, “You need this, and if I don’t give it to you now, you won’t take it, but don’t worry. I made sure you got it.” He was humble and gentle enough to work within the arbitrary parameters I set in order to reach me. And he reached out to me in a way so tangible, so personal, that I could do nothing but weep. Yet it’s a simple event that sounds like a coincidence. I suspect that’s how God often reaches out to us: in ways that we could pass off as coincidence, only we know in our hearts there is nothing coincidental there. “I am the Good Shepherd,” says the Lord, “And I know mine, and mine know Me.”
The intensity of that experience is unique in my life. It was so profound that it left me thinking in startled joy, “It’s all true. He’s real. I’ve believed in Him my whole life, and He’s real.” It also crossed my mind, “This is what a conversion must feel like.” I had no doubt that I’d just met the Risen Christ, and He changed everything for me. He gave me a spiritual jolt. A shock of life. I had an intimate encounter with His personal love; in its wake I came to recognize that I couldn’t keep living like I used to, couldn’t keep thinking like I used to, couldn’t keep taking His love for granted. I learned that I couldn’t keep watching tons of trash tv. I couldn’t keep being so hard on myself when God Himself treated me with such patience and care. I discovered I couldn’t keep focusing on where I am in the eyes of the world, or comparing myself to other people who have accomplished more than me in a worldly sense. Of course, learning these things intellectually and practicing them are very different tasks. I stumble every day trying to live them, but the fact is, I’m now attempting to live them. And that alone, for me, is proof of the power of His mercy.
CONFESSION BRINGS HEALING
After starting the next day with Day 2 of the novena, I worked my Saturday shift in a bit of a haze and then got on Facebook again. There, a Catholic group I follow posted a status that said, “Today’s a good day to go to Confession.” Well, I was planning to go to Vigil Mass, and my parish offered Confession beforehand. I hadn’t been in a couple of months, and considering what had happened the day before….
I went to Confession. Before giving penance, the priest asked me to name my favorite Bible passage. My answer was immediate, but I could tell it surprised him: The Vine and the Branches, from John 15. Still, he told me to read the passage and reflect on it.
In John 15 Christ says, “I am the Vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I am in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.” That’s why I love the passage. The promise of bearing fruit if we remain in Him comforts me when my life feels like a fruitless disaster, and that’s often. Christ doesn’t tell us we’ll see the fruit, or that the fruit will be of the kind we expect or would choose. But He promises we’ll bear fruit, and God, He keeps every promise that He makes. That particular promise comes early in John 15, but again, being a perfectionist, I decided to read and reflect on the entire chapter. I wasn’t sure what else it contained.
Interestingly, the chapter contains John’s version of “Ask and you shall receive,” not once but twice. Verse 7: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.” Verse 16: “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name He may give you.”
What left me weeping again, though, was how the chapter ends: “When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth that proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me. And you also testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.”
To say I was stunned would be a severe understatement. How beautiful for Christ, through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, to reinforce the reality of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit that He had promised me only the night before. How appropriate for a newfound devotion to the Holy Spirit to follow my return to Christ, considering Christ promised to send the Holy Spirit to His disciples. How fitting for Christ to call me, in terms of the liturgical year, at Pentecost, when we celebrate His original fulfillment of that promise: the day when the Holy Spirit descended, set the hearts of the apostles aflame, and sent Peter out to preach Christ in Jerusalem.
Now I look back on those two days and consider them the turning point of my life. Remember how my boss was on vacation when all this happened? He came back and told me, “You’re more confident than when I left.” I could easily have told him, “I’m a different person than when you left.” Why? What exactly happened? I’ve come to recognize that what I experienced was a sudden, profound, gracious outpouring of the Gift of Knowledge.
I had no idea what I was praying for all those years ago when I left grad school and asked the Good Shepherd to lead me where He wanted. I was expecting a new city or a new career path. He’s withheld worldly progress, leading me into the “desert” instead, but He gave me something better, something more lasting and important than a reputable career, something essential to my true well-being: He led me straight to Himself.
The desert by its nature is dry and difficult, full of questions. Christ led me from a solid and workable plan for my life into a place where I have no idea what’s coming or where my life is heading in a wordly sense, and for someone with my perfectionism and personality type, that is terrifying. Yet the fact that I am in the desert now is, without a doubt, one of the most merciful things He has ever done for me.
I know myself, and I recognize that without the desert I never would have come to understand in my heart that Christ is truly who He said He was. I always believed in Him in my head, but in the desert I’ve come to know Him and His love. If He’s truly risen from the dead—and I know He is risen from the dead in the most literal, shocking, real, and controversial sense imaginable—then He is God, and that is what matters in life. He is what matters. My relationship with Him is what matters, and that relationship should always be growing more and more toward my total submission and surrender out of love, toward the total gift of self that is love.
Our culture encourages us to domesticate Christ, to compartmentalize Christ, and I have been as guilty of that as anyone. The fact is—as Bishop Robert Barron regularly emphasizes—Christ is a towering, disconcerting, threatening, attractive, and haunting figure, offering a freedom that demands the gravest responsibility imaginable, giving everything, demanding everything in return, all in love, all for our greatest good. He is more, infinitely more, than a great teacher. He was far more than a meek and mild figure, or they wouldn’t have killed Him. Certainly He is no mere guru encouraging us to “coexist.” Oh, wouldn’t the world love to reduce Him to only that? We can ignore that. We can overcome and overpower that at will. But the true Christ? God Incarnate who proposes not license to do whatever we want, not worldly prosperity, but spiritual marriage (with all the changes and sacrifices involved in marriage)?
I don’t do as well as I’d like living the freedom the true Christ offers, I admit. I don’t think any Christian does. There are times I fall back into the habit of viewing life with worldly eyes and get discouraged and annoyed. But that’s the old me coming out, not the true me. The true me knows I have no right to resent the desert, and recognizes that if He brought me here, then being here is for my true good and deepest joy. The true me knows He has a plan for me, and He will lead me to fulfill my purpose, whatever that may be, in His time: which means the right and best time. The true me knows this desert time has been incredibly humbling, and incredibly needed. He is tearing my self-reliance and old pride to shreds, teaching me to hope and trust in Him alone. He is crushing my desire to feel settled, comfortable, secure, and in control: things I never was and never can be on this earth.
The poems that follow have played a key role in that battle for trust. They are deeply personal, and part of me balks at the idea of sharing them. The more I read them, in fact, the more I realize how deeply personal they are, and I cringe at the thought of other people learning, through them, what I have come to know about myself. They expose the peaks and troughs of my spiritual life and exhibit my deepest weaknesses. I worry that readers will compare the peaks with the troughs and judge me insincere or confused. So, why am I sharing them?
The short answer: I’ve recognized a calling and a duty to. For it is the duty of every Christian to testify to the reality of the love of Jesus Christ. These poems are my testimony, and personal though they be, exposing my weaknesses, I recognize the wisdom of St. Paul when he wrote, “I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.” (1 Cor 12:9)
After experiencing my personal equivalent of a “conversion,” I developed a keen interest in conversion stories and in the spiritual life. I have found that, far from being an aberration, the peaks and troughs I have experienced since Christ called me are typical of and even unavoidable for anyone who makes a sincere effort to live as a Christian. I am not the only person God has led into the desert, so maybe these poems can help a fellow desert-dweller recognize that he is not alone.
Most of all, it is my hope that these poems might serve someone as an invitation to open his or her heart and go deeper in forming a relationship with Christ. As an invitation to go to Adoration, to make a sincere Confession, to aim to pray more and pray better. We rarely try such things without being invited to them. If nothing else, I needed an invitation, and I owe St. Augustine more than I can say for the invitation he offered me.
It bears repeating that this poetry is my testimony of what I have found in Christ and continue to find anew, again and again. I am far from a perfect Christian—these poems will leave you in no doubt of that—but I have found Him, and He is perfect. He is merciful. If He would take in me, with my (admittedly comic, but also pathetic) mix of intellectual pride and utter lack of confidence, and be as patient with me as He has proven, I can promise He won’t reject you. No matter how weak you are or what you may have done. “Knock, and the door will be opened to you.”
A small number of these poems were first composed about other topics, before Christ claimed me, and adapted afterward to reflect the new outlook I have gained on life. I almost did not include those particular sonnets, but decided to use them as evidence for myself that God wastes nothing of our previous life after we turn to Him. He, as He himself claimed, makes all things new.