This past week, I spoke at the National Council of Catholic Women convention in Jacksonville, Florida. Over 900 women, representing a host of parishes from across the country, attended the three day gathering. It was a time set apart to share faith, friendship and fellowship.
On the last day of the convention, I spoke at the NCCW author breakfast which took place in the ballroom of Hyatt Riverfront Hotel. Some of the attendees at the convention have asked if I would post my presentation on the Catholicmom.com website. Here’s the speech, in its entirety:
Good morning and Thank you.
I was born and raised in Minnesota. Where I’m from, we pride ourselves in surviving the long, cold winters that often last from Thanksgiving to Easter. We are used to blizzards, ice storms and wind chills that dip well below zero.
But a couple of weeks ago, as I was preparing for this trip, a friend called and said: “Nanc…did you know that late September is peak hurricane season in Florida?”
I must admit, it was the first time in a long time that I can remember getting nervous about the weather.
But today, it’s a beautiful morning in Florida.
And as we gather together on this day that the Lord hath made, I find myself thinking of another sun-lit morning that occurred 2000 years ago.
It was the first day of the week. Mary, along with some of her women friends, were approaching a tomb sealed with a large stone. They were heavy-hearted, grappling with grief. Three days earlier, Jesus had been crucified.
Here’s what the apostle Matthew tells us about that morning:
(As they approached the tomb) there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, approached, rolled back the stone and sat upon it. His appearance was like lighting and his clothing was white as snow. Then the angel said to the women: “Do not be afraid, Jesus has been raised from the dead.” And the women went away quickly from the tomb, fearful yet overjoyed…” Matthew 28
Let me read that last line again: “The women went away quickly from the tomb, fearful yet overjoyed…”
Let’s take a moment to ponder this passage.
As the pre-dawn darkness shrouds their grieving hearts, a bright light from heaven shines upon the women.
At a tomb of death, they hear a message of hope.
Right in the middle of their fear, sadness and confusion, the mysterious, glorious, inexplicable joy of the Lord settles upon them.
This morning, I’m going to be sharing some stories about someone who has taught me a lot about this very special kind of joy; Sarah my Downs Syndrome daughter.
Though it’s been 24 years since Sarah’s birth, I remember that day like it was yesterday.
It was early morning and my hospital room was filled with darkness, all except for a few streams of light that filtered in from the hallway. Right next to my bed, newborn Sarah slept peacefully in an incubator.
Just a few hours earlier, the doctors had delivered their ominous report. “We’ve noticed some symptoms; some tendencies…our preliminary findings indicate that your child has Downs Syndrome…”
I turned my glance toward my new baby. It was hard to believe that her handicap was completely non-negotiable. She looked so fresh from heaven, her tiny face glowing with the newness of life.
Questions, all of them unanswerable, filled my thoughts. Why this baby? Why our family? What does the future hold?
I was scared and confused. And, I was angry at God. I had prayed for a child much different than the one I received. As I looked at my new baby, I found it hard to imagine how I could be a good mother to a child with so many limitations. “Why have you allowed this?” I asked God.
But during the first few weeks of Sarah’s life, something amazing happened. I began to fall in love with this amazing, little girl.
As a baby, Sarah always smiled. Always.
She never went through her terrible twos or threes or fours. She was too busy defying her disability, grinning widely as she slowly learned to walk and talk and sing and dance.
I remember when she took her first steps. My entire extended family came over for a party. We decorated the house with balloons and ate cake and blew kazoos. It was a celebration of joy that I will never forget.
When Sarah was about 8 years old, I got into the routine of reading to her every afternoon, along with her two younger sisters. As the kids and I cuddled together on the couch, we would page through fairy tales about kings and castles and crowns.
Sarah would listen as I read the stories, her eyes shimmering through her thick framed glasses. One afternoon, she pointed to an illustration of a beautiful princess clad in all her regal glory, “That’s me…,” Sarah said emphatically.
I think Sarah’s fascination with fairy tales had something to do with her innate sense that she was part of these stories. Like Cinderella, Sarah had such a pure and innocent heart. I think she identified with the poor young maidens, who, by the power of love, were transformed into royalty. Love was very important to Sarah.
As a pre-teen, Sarah began collecting crowns and second hand prom dresses from the Goodwill store. And, she started writing her own fairy tales.
Often, she would sit at the kitchen table, dressed in one of her jazzy gowns, jotting down her thoughts on a pad of paper. One afternoon, as I passed by the table, holding a basket of wash, I took a peek at her work. Though her words were backwards and misspelled, she had written, “My name is Princess Sarah and I’m going to live forever….” “That’s a nice story….” I told her. I was too busy with the mundane tasks of motherhood to really pay attention to what she was saying.
As Sarah grew into a young woman, she remained, in so many ways, a little girl. And even though she never progressed, academically, further than a second grader, she grew into a profound understanding of who she was in Christ. Over time, I came to understand that God had bestowed upon her a wisdom that came straight from heaven.
I realized the power of this wisdom one ordinary afternoon when Sarah was in her early twenties, about a year before she passed always. As I prepared dinner in the kitchen, she drew near and tapped me on the shoulder. “Mom…” she said. “I’m wearing a crown….you just can’t see it….”
I continued stirring the mashed potatoes. It was a busy night, my other daughter had a hockey game and I needed to pick up some of her friends before the game. “How do you know your wearing a crown?” I asked. I was preoccupied with the tasks at hand.
“Because I’m the daughter of a great king…”
I stopped stirring. I looked at her freckled face. She was beaming.
“Mom…” she said. “You’re wearing a crown too…”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Because you’re the daughter of a great king too…”
As I stood there, a great joy welled up inside of me. The God who created the universe, the king of heaven, loved me. It was such a simple lesson, one that I had, over the years, heard time and time again as I had read the Scriptures and listened to the Gospel readings at church. Now, though, it all made so much more sense. Sarah had given me new image of my loving heavenly father, one that I continue to cherish even though she is now in heaven, safe and sound with her king.
I think Sarah’s simple teaching about God’s love should give us all pause for great joy.
We are all sons and daughters of a great king. At this very moment, we are all wearing crowns, invisible crowns that affirm that God is deeply in love with us.
Imagine how we might live if each day, if we woke up and believed, truly believed that we were royalty, beloved by a King.
Perhaps we wouldn’t be as fearful as we walked along the dark roads of doubt and uncertainty. Maybe as we stood before the tombs of our dashed dreams, we might remember that angels watch over us and that a “happily ever after” awaits us, if not in this life, certainly in the next. Maybe amid our greatest hurts, and our deepest sorrows, we might close our eyes to take a deep breath and imagine the jewels that bedeck our invisible crowns.
Sarah taught me that God’s joy is not reserved for sunlit mornings when all is well with our lives. No, the true joy of the Lord shines brightest on those dark, pre-dawn mornings when all hope seems lost. Mornings when we wake up in a hospital room after an unexpected diagnosis and wonder what the future holds. Mornings when we realize there is no longer a job to get dressed for, a spouse to talk to or a paycheck to provide for us. Mornings when a friend disappoints, a child chooses a wayward path, or a new stage of life overwhelms us.
On those mornings, we, like the women at the tomb, and like Sarah, need to remember that we are beloved children of a great King and that we are never, ever, alone.
In Romans 8 we read:
“For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
On this beautiful morning, with the prayer of Saint Francis in my heart, I’m wishing each of you light in your darkness, faith in your doubt, and divine joy in your times of sadness.
But most all, I’m praying that tomorrow, when you wake up, far from this convention in Florida, that you will take a moment to look at yourself in the mirror and imagine the crown that God has placed upon your head. And as you see yourself, in all your regal glory, let the mysterious, glorious, inexplicable joy of the Lord settle over you.
After all, we are ALL children of a great King.
All Rights reserved, Copyright 2009, Nancy Jo Sullivan