Alumni Reflection: Growing in Awareness of God's Love
By Barbara Wheeler, Catholic Volunteer Network
One of my favorite childhood stories is The Velveteen Rabbit. I love the Skin Horse’s answer to the Velveteen Rabbit’s question, “What is Real? Does it happen all at once or bit by bit?” The Skin Horse responds:
It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.
I love this response. What the Rabbit is asking, on behalf of all of us, is what it means to be truly human and fully alive. It’s one of those “ultimate questions,” the kind of question that we often run from in our day to day shuffle, stifling the answer in noise and distractions.
Every time I read it, the Skin Horse’s answer takes me a little bit by surprise, because it suggests that being fully human is exactly the opposite of the images that I am bombarded with every day – the things that our culture and our media seems to suggest make us human. Appearance. Fame. Money. Technology.
Is it any wonder that we find ourselves in a world of people who are in need of healing, or, to use the language of the Velveteen Rabbit, people who have been broken or who have developed sharp edges?
As a contrast to this, the Skin Horse suggests instead that perhaps becoming truly alive is a process that starts with being loved.
In the past year, this is how I have come to begin to see prayer -- a process that starts with an awareness of God’s particular love for each of us.
Since my year of service, I have tried to find ways to continue my commitment to the four pillars of community, service, social justice, and spirituality. I still want to do great things, to continue to listen to that voice that called me to serve in the first place. I have been truly blessed in having found several different ways to continue to grow in these ways, from my job at Catholic Volunteer Network, to my experience with a lay Catholic community called the Community of Sant’Egidio, to my nieces and family in Virginia. All of these commitments are beautiful and life-giving, but it is true that at times, we all stretch ourselves a little too thin, convinced that the world turns on our efforts alone.
And so, it was important to me, as the year winds down, to take a retreat. I spent four days at San Damiano Retreat Center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The weather was beautiful, so I was able to walk outside, breathing in some fresh air and taking in some lovely sights.
I wish I could say that I had some amazing insight, or saw a flash of lightning or heard a dramatic voice. The truth is that it was quiet and peaceful and ordinary. I brought a Bible and a journal. There was a library at the retreat center where I found Fr. James Martin’s My Life with the Saints, so I did a little bit of reading, a lot of journaling, and a lot of walking.
At times, the retreat allowed me the space to reflect, to see where God’s presence has been at work during this year. At other times, it was a little boring, which also allowed me to reflect on how many people I have been blessed to know, and how much I am blessed by their presence.
On the last day, I went out for one final walk. I found that the silence had begun to cultivate a certain sensitivity, so that I was noticing things that I had not noticed before. I noticed a huge, fuzzy caterpillar and was struck at how strange the creature was. I started laughing (okay, maybe I had spent too much time alone at that point). I saw the mountain landscape in front of me and was struck at how vast the mountains were. I became aware that this love that holds these things in existence is very different from me – I felt growing in me a sense of the “Other-ness” of God’s love, a love that can hold a caterpillar and a mountain and myself in existence all at the same time. I thought – Oh. This is why I came here. To become aware of this love.
I have become increasingly convinced over the past year that this is the awareness that we have to make time to cultivate in ourselves, because it is this love – and not fame or wealth – that ultimately makes us fully human. Most importantly, I think that this retreat gave me the freedom to simply be aware of God’s love.
Which is perhaps why I came back to my family, and to my work, and to the world, feeling a little bit more Real.