An Evolving Faith Life
Updated: Oct 20
October 18, 2023 – Marisa Guerin, PhD
Sometimes you end up with a new angle of vision because you feel blocked by an old one. That happened to me recently, when I was honored by the invitation to offer a reflection at our annual parish Women’s Day luncheon.
At first, I was a bit flummoxed because my parish is grounded in the tradition of the Black Catholic experience. My husband and I, both white people, have been welcomed as parishioners for the last 12 years. We try to be properly respectful of our place in this parish, and also committed to it. The invitation to speak surprised me, and I wasn’t sure what I might have to offer that would resonate. I was encouraged to let go of that worry – I was assured that I am a woman, and a Catholic, and recently co-authored a book about St. Therese, and my thoughts would be welcome. So, I did let go of that concern.
But the next stumper for me was that the theme for the event was “Demonstrating Faith Through Action.” What could I possibly contribute on that topic? We wouldn’t exist as a parish if it weren’t for the fact that just about everybody contributes through service and action! Talk about preaching to the choir.
This wasn’t the first time I felt blocked on how to think about a topic, but I gave it my best effort. I wrote multiple drafts, trying one angle after another, knowing I wanted to be personal, and also wanted to reference St. Therese, and also wanted to connect with life experiences that all of us go through. Nothing seemed quite right. Eventually (and just in time, whew!) I came upon a framework that immediately seemed clear to me. I would speak about how the call to service and faith in action has changed and evolved for me, in response to the realities of my life. I felt relieved, grounded, and unblocked. And it went very well, for which I am grateful.
Here are some excerpts from that talk.
Scripture tells us that there are many gifts, but it is the same Spirit that animates all of them, and that to each of us is given a gift for the good of the whole. That means that there are as many ways to live our faith in action as there are people in our Church, and this diversity of talents is wonderful.
But what we may not always think about is that the Spirit is dynamic, always breathing in our hearts, and that the gifts we are given to share with others can change over time. We are always being called to faithfulness to the gospel, but we are also being called to faithfulness to the way the Spirit is leading us in each phase of our lives. It requires us to prayerfully listen to our lives, because that is how the Spirit speaks to us.
In my early life, I learned about active faith as hospitality and care for the least, and my first teachers were my parents. My mother, Conchita Guibert, was a Spaniard, and my father, Joseph Guerin, was an American from South Philadelphia. My parents met when my dad was on a religious pilgrimage in Spain, and they had a long and loving marriage anchored in their devotion to their Catholic faith. They had eight children, and I am the oldest.
When I was young, my parents were deeply influenced by attending Catholic “Cursillo” retreats during the ‘60’s, the years of Vatican II and the civil rights movement. Until then, they were traditionally devout Catholics, prayerful and observant but pretty much local and private in their understanding of the faith. In those years of so much change in Church and in society, my parents, like so many others, experienced significant transformation in their understanding of faith. They came to see that the gospel is a compelling invitation to serve the least among us, both in justice and in charity.
But my parents’ talents and capacities were different, and they had to search out their best ways to demonstrate faith in action.
My father was an economics professor at St. Joseph’s University (Philadelphia); because of his education, he could serve in many ways – such as being a tutor, a catechist, a committee member. And he was ingenious in applying his economics mindset to social justice – I was fascinated as a child to observe that during the United Farmworkers strike, my dad, who did the family grocery shopping, switched to a store that sold union grapes. Then every week he folded up that LOOOONG receipt (remember, very big family!) and mailed it to our normal store, promising them that if they carried union grapes, he’d spend that money with them.
My mother would have loved to do similar things, but she didn’t feel she had the proper skills. She grew up during the traumatic Civil War in Spain, which disrupted her education – she never finished high school and she didn’t speak English as well as she would like. So, how did she join with my father in living her faith? She did it through the near-to-home gifts of generous hospitality.
For example, when I was a teenager, my parents sponsored a young married couple who were refugees from Vietnam and helped them get settled as a family in the US. Other refugees followed, along with various people and relatives who for whatever reason needed a safe and loving place to live. We didn’t have a lot of extra money, but our house was big enough for all.
Using her kitchen as home base, my mother cooked dinners for homeless shelters and she always made an extra plate at Thanksgiving or Christmas to bring to the lonely neighbor down the street. We kids used to call this neighbor “the French lady” because we didn’t know how to pronounce her name. I will never figure out how my mother, with her strong Spanish accent, and the French lady, with her strong French accent, managed to converse, but they did!
Both of my parents always found time for acts of kindness to others and standing up for justice and for peace. They lived their faith from the center of their actual life in our family. They taught me that generous hospitality is a universal way to demonstrate faith in action. It is a value at the heart of so many of our cultures, and it invites us to open ourselves to the needs of the Other with warmth and with kindness.
In between being a young person and being a retired person, I was someone with a career -- actually, a few careers. First Catholic youth ministry, then corporate Human Resources work, then consulting with religious institutes. For many years, my focus for demonstrating my faith in action was on how to use my professional skills and gifts in ways that would be helpful to our world.
But it took me a while to figure out what path was best for the person I am, the person that God made. I doubt I’m the only one. I think it can be particularly difficult for women, or perhaps for oldest children, to untangle the difference between what other people expect of us, and what our inner truth is. It certainly was hard for me. There were a couple times when I think I got detoured from my true spiritual path because I responded to what others called me to, not what God was calling me to.
I learned a lot from all of my work experiences and I am grateful for them. But what is also true is that I came to the brink of depression and exhaustion before I realized that God doesn’t call us to go against the grain of our true selves. If we constantly feel like we are swimming upriver, maybe something is wrong. I learned that the Spirit of God speaks to us when we are distressed, and we need to listen. I did listen, and I am grateful that it was possible for me to make the job changes that were important for my health and growth. Not everyone can do so.
I was very fulfilled in the last 20 years of my work-life as a consultant to faith-based organizations. I think that when we can live our faith in harmony with our truest self, Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden light.
I am no longer in the workplace -- I am a happily retired person in my early 70’s. Not only that, but I am also now a cancer patient. My blood cancer is in remission for now and hopefully can be treated for a long time, but it is not curable. I have physical limits that I didn’t used to have, and some days it is hard to graciously accept my realities. But, at the same time, the Spirit keeps animating each of us, myself included. In these elder years, I have had to find new ways to demonstrate faith in action.
It may seem odd, but the best liberator and mentor for my aging soul has turned out to be a young saint -- Therese of Lisieux, who entered the convent at age 15 and died of tuberculosis at the age of 24.
For some of us, Therese’s image needs a bit of rehabilitation. She is often viewed as sort of a pious wimp, maybe even a doormat, who was kind to everybody no matter what. Yet it was also Therese who said “we must never allow kindness to degenerate into weakness.”
Therese was young, but she was a powerhouse of emotional and spiritual maturity. Therese teaches us how to live a loving life, as Jesus did, and how to do so from the simplicity of our ordinary lives – managing our feelings, setting our ego gently aside, taking time to reflect prayerfully on our experiences, being patient, kind, and compassionate, understanding that if we had the same limitations as those who really irritate us, we would do no better.
Most of all, Therese was patient and compassionate towards herself. She knew how easy it was to beat herself up when she failed to be perfect. But Therese knew that, contrary to what many people believe, God is not cruel, not harsh, not violent in any way and that God loves us as we are, in our human imperfection. God saves us, God doesn’t expect us to save ourselves…just to do our best to love God and our neighbor. In fact, the reason Therese was declared a Doctor of the Church is because she rescued the gospel message of love from the errors of fire-and-brimstone messages about the wrathful and punitive nature of God.
Her wisdom is especially liberating to the perfectionist within us. Therese taught that God is pleased with us when we can “bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to (ourselves).”
I can’t tell you how often I repeat that line to myself. To bear my imperfections serenely. Not grudgingly and irritably, as if with a little more attention, I would certainly be perfect! but rather, with the humbling knowledge that I unfortunately mess up all the time. Yet I know that God loves me as I am, and that if I ask, God will help me to do better next time. I try to let go of my frustrated, annoyed mood, forgive myself for being human, and return to my daily life with peace and patience.
Compassion and patience and trust in God’s grace are also vitally important in this world of so much social and political division, so much racial hate, so much failure to care for the ones who suffer and are in need. I am prone to getting angry and unfortunately very quick to condemn “them.”
Therese’s example helps me to recognize that even those who may be causing harm are children of God, many of them misguided or damaged people. Therese didn’t recommend that any of us accept abuse – she set boundaries to protect herself or others from harm. But she also gave me the example of not holding hate in my heart for those who may seem like my enemies, even while I am doing everything I can to put protective legal, political, or other kinds of boundaries around them to stop their violence. Following Therese, I try really, really hard to remember that those I deeply disagree with are people that God loves. When we try to see others as God sees them, our hearts can be softened.
Therese's example of faith in action was especially poignant during the last year and a half of her life, as she was dying of tuberculosis. To her dismay, her once confident faith became clouded by a deep, dark night of the soul. She felt like a huge wall separated her from her images of heaven, the saints, and angels. She honestly empathized with atheists. But, with great courage, like Job in the bible, Therese held steadfastly to her trust in God’s love -- even when all other aspects of her childhood faith felt stripped away, even when she couldn’t feel the consolation of faith in her heart. She bore her spiritual anguish and her physical pain bravely, sharing her true feelings only with a few of her closest confidantes. To the other sisters in the convent, Therese lived her dying as she lived her life – with gentle humor, loving affection, and grace. All the way to her last breath, Therese trusted that God was with her in every moment of her life, whether it was sad or joyful. As I live into the evening of my own life, I hope God will keep me close if I ever feel lost, like Therese.
What I’m trying to show by my story is that I have been called to live my faith in changing ways as I have grown.
Once upon a time, I lived my faith by training youth ministers, or chairing Board meetings, or writing strategic plans, and keeping a busy calendar of volunteer activities. Nowadays, I still go to the occasional parish meeting or lead a retreat or discussion group, but I am more likely to be living my faith by giving Mike a ride to the dentist on a rainy afternoon, or by cooking for the people I love, or by calling my family and friends to let them know that I am remembering them. So many of our dear ones cope bravely every day with really difficult life situations – a terminally-ill spouse or parent, an incarcerated son, a child with serious mental illness. No matter how much I wish I could, I can’t do anything to solve these heartaches, I can only be present with love and support.
I have come to the realization that my personal core vocation today is in my relational self as a wife to Mike, and also as a sister, an aunt, friend, neighbor, and member of my parish family. I’m not at all saying that should be the case for everyone – it’s just how I have been led in my own faith journey. It is a wonderful thing that the Spirit guides each one of us, energizing us differently, fulfilling our particular personalities and life situations!
My hope is that we will always search our hearts for how God might be inviting us to live our faith in action at each different chapter in our lives. Over the years, it might mean saying “no” to some things, and saying “yes” to other things. We can trust that God’s Spirit is moving in our hearts as we prayerfully listen.
We will never be able to do or be everything that our world needs -- but luckily, God only asks of us that we be ourselves, the special people God made, and that we make our own unique and valuable contribution to building the kingdom of God in the company of our brothers and sisters in faith.