Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
I’m not a saint or a mystic, but I had a striking encounter with God not long ago that altered the way I see myself, both as a woman and as a child of God. In one sudden and luminous moment, everything inside me shifted so that I could live with more freedom and more joy. And do you want to know something funny? It all started with a pair of pajamas.
My Breakthrough Moment
One spring evening in 2014, I was settling in for the night at a hotel outside of St. Louis, Missouri. Flown in by my publisher to give some workshops for catechists the next day, I was reading over my presentation notes, which were a rumpled mess like me, after a long day of travel. I’d already brushed my teeth and slipped into pajamas that are great for air travel because they weigh next to nothing and take up very little space in my carry-on bag. They’re also somewhat clingy, which makes them pretty unflattering, since they hide very little. Every time I wear them, I dream of getting in better shape and looking like the young, digitally-enhanced model on the original packaging. (Weren’t these pajamas supposed to make me look like her?)
I was overtired from the stress of getting my house and family in New York squared away before I left, the last-minute craziness of preparing my talks, and a hectic day of schedules and connecting flights. Running parallel and close to the hotel bed was a large closet with mirrored doors in which, bathed in the bright glow of a large side-table lamp, I could see my image very clearly. There was nothing in my reflection that I hadn’t already noted and catalogued in detail over the previous weeks leading up to my trip, so it shouldn’t have shocked me the way it did.
However, the declining state of my appearance had recently been a source of irritation—ironically while I was intensively interviewing women for this book on authentic beauty. We talked over the many ways the best qualities of prayerful women are enhanced as they age, and I was coming to the conclusion that the second half of life is our best time of all. Yet, from the way my skin had lost its elasticity around my eyes and chin to those annoying extra pounds rolling around my middle, the sagging, middle-aged woman reflected in the hotel mirror brought me up short—and I started to cry.
It’s over, I thought. I’m not young anymore. I look awful, and it’s only going to get worse.
Because a well of grief had been rising for many days, the tears were a gushing relief, and as I prayed and yielded this flood of emotion to God, I sensed him drawing near. In the intimate and surprising way that he sometimes communicates, he showed me something I hadn’t understood before. As I gazed into my own eyes in the mirror, vivid and inviting images filled my mind. I saw the most important relationships in my life for what they have become—through daily acts of love, prayer and sacrifice, sacramental life, and the extraordinary mercy of God. Through a sort of interior vision, I saw how my family life had been flooded with grace and healing: the sweetness of our words to one another, the many small acts of kindness and forgiveness that make our life together immeasurably precious.
Against the stark background of my past, this interior vision was like arriving without warning in a cool, sunlit clearing after a long, hot climb up a rugged, but beautiful, mountain. Traumatic experiences as a young woman had ensured that my early married life was burdened with unresolved pain that stressed my home life almost to the breaking point. Finally, depressed and hopeless, I tumbled headlong into conversion at the age of thirty-three, through a newfound friendship with the Blessed Virgin Mary. My life began to bloom as I learned to cling to sacramental life and to the person of Jesus Christ. Many years and countless healings later, I found myself in that hotel room in St. Louis, feeling reborn once again.
The experience of looking into my own eyes and seeing what God saw in me was brief, but suffused with grace. He showed me that I was, at that moment, the most loving person I had ever been and that he was pleased with me. He didn’t remind me of my habitual sins or show me the horrendous failures of my past. He highlighted the changes in me and showered me with an affection that was profoundly reassuring. So in the glow from the lamplight, I no longer saw an aging woman whose looks were crumbling to dust; I saw a woman growing in beauty, even becoming beauty.
A profound peace swept over me, and I felt drenched in gratitude and love. What had seemed like a monstrous pile of work scattered across the hotel bedspread suddenly coalesced into the simple talking points I needed for the next day, and I easily dispatched the remaining tasks before turning out the lights. My thoughts were luminous and childlike, filled with delight at a newfound sense of trust. I woke the next day brimming with enthusiasm, and I presented both workshops in a liberated, natural spirit of love and confidence that surpassed every other experience I had ever had, either as a presenter in recent years or as an actress, long ago. I love public speaking, but this was the most fun with it that I’d ever had.
It was surely no coincidence that the previous Christmas I asked God for just one gift: the grace of a radical trust in him. I love the stories of saints and biblical heroes. Their courage inspires me to take risks and live with more passion. It is both tragic and thrilling to know that Christians in our own times, in the Middle East and other parts of the world, have accepted martyrdom rather than deny their love for Jesus Christ. Even young children have stood firm in the face of the cruelest and most violent threats, giving their lives rather than wavering in their commitment. Heroism of that magnitude simply does not happen without a radical, ironclad trust in God.
I long to be what St. Hildegard of Bingen called “a feather on the breath of God,” a soul completely yielded to his perfect will. Ever since my pajama-clad encounter with God, this new-and-improved sense of trust has been a great grace and an answered prayer. I am far from being in a perfect state of confidence and communion with God, but lately, when I encounter obstacles and challenges, I remember the night in that Missouri hotel and try to think of jumping into God’s arms and expecting him to catch me.
God keeps reassuring me that I am not alone, that he hears my cries for help, and that he makes my little efforts to trust him bear beautiful fruit. He tells me that my value as his daughter and as a woman is increasing, not fading away.
Excerpted from True Radiance: Finding Grace in the Second Half of Life, by Lisa Mladnich.