First Things First

All right friends, time to come clean and get real whichy’all. (Also be warned, this is a pretty long post — go grab a snack)

The purpose of this blog wasn’t to put up a front and write cutesy-artsy, pinterest worthy posts. It was to speak truth from my heart in hopes that someone out there could connect with that truth and identify with it. To realize that they are not alone in their struggles, trials, doubts or fears.

So lets start from the top shall we?

I think I’ve always been a spiritual person in the sense that it’s comes pretty easily to me. I’ve never not believed in God, Jesus or religion but that doesn’t mean my faith has always been solid. Growing up in the South, I’ve always been surrounded by it. You see it everywhere: signs that say “Jesus Saves“, a church  just about every 2 mins, and one of my favorites, the “bless your heart” saying. I actually grew up going to a Baptist school which, looking back, totally God’s plan for me because I was able to get a solid foundation for diving into scripture. I had to memorize chunks at a time which back then I didn’t particularly love but now boy am I thankful for that!

There are pros and cons to everything in life, and with all the good stuff also came some not so great things. I became really confused at a young age with what I believed in. I was actually pretty anti-catholic for a lot of my teen years. Some things just did not add up, they didn’t make any sense. So I got “saved” just to be on the safe side. And it was great! I made awesome friends, some of which I am still close to today. They loved Jesus and I could totally see it. But somehow I did not have true peace with this. I kept coming back to the Catholic faith because it was just so different. There were so many things I didn’t understand and instead of trying to learn more, I just kind of shrugged my shoulders and thought: “it’s what my family believes in so it’s what I believe in too”. I was “Catholic” without really being Catholic, ya feel?

Fast forward to freshman year of college. Something in me really wanted to get more involved with Catholicism in college (weird I know; that’s usually the last thing on a freshman’s mind). I started going to student mass and the dinners afterward and I ended up meeting a FOCUS missionary (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) who was serving at our campus. I got involved in it, I wouldn’t say suuuuuper involved but I started going to bible studies and discipleship and even signed up to go on a mission trip!

Okay so the mission trip thing was totally out of selfish reasons. I had always been drawn to Italy, and of course when I found out the mission trip would be in Rome, I signed up in heartbeat. I actually had a lot of anxiety about it though because I’d be going with pretty much complete strangers. I had never been to Europe before, and I wasn’t super catholic, — in fact I was pretty in the dark about a lot of teachings. How was I supposed to go and do mission work?? “Eh, that doesn’t matter so much,” I thought. The goal is getting to Italy.

Spring break rolls around — mission trip time! Oh my gosh, guys. I was a nervous wreck. I suffer from anxiety and panic attacks (though I haven’t had a full-blown one in a loooong time praise Jesus, but for those of you who have them, you know they are super scary & basically the worst thing in the world). I kept thinking of ways to chicken out and not go, but so many people had donated and I couldn’t come up with a legit sounding excuse, so I was stuck. The girls I was flying with were super sweet though (and now I love them all so much) but I didn’t know them at the time, and I had never done anything like this. So of course I couldn’t sleep the night before. When we got to the airport, I hurled. Nervous stomachs, they are the worst man. I kept telling myself I could do this!

Our team was meeting in Boston at HARVARD (yeah I felt pretty cool). Once I got to talking to people, I felt a lot more relaxed. We had our orientation, and this was when the IdidntknowCatholicsdidthis moments started. First it was adoration. “What the heck is this” I thought. And then the prayers. All the recited prayers on the pamphlets. Never seen them in my life. “What did I just get myself into….” I thought. I think I would have hopped on the next plane back home had it not been for the people. THESE PEOPLE. Wow. I had never been around anyone like them. They spoke with such certainty about their faith. The way they prayed, the fellowship they had with each other. My heart was hooked. I thought, “I don’t know what this is, but I want this”. 

We finished up orientation stuff and then it was time for bed. Geek out moment #2, I got to stay in a a Harvard dorm, AAANDDDD we passed by the dorm that had been Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (spoiler, I love history) so this made my heart leap. My life had reached its peak of coolness. I could die happy (okay maybe that’s an exaggeration but you get the point). I am pretty bad with names so it took me a while to remember everyone’s, but I just remember thinking about how awesome this group was. We had it all: shy people, talkative people, hilarious people. I could tell this was going to be great and all the anxiety and regret I had been feeling started melting away.

The plane ride over the Atlantic was a breeze (also maybe because I had 2 glasses of wine — perks of flying on international flights — their alcohol laws apply to you ayeee). I wont bore you with the details of what we did every single day, but wow this trip was life-changing for sure in so many ways. I was pulled out of my comfort zone completely: I had to do homeless ministry and never thought I’d wind up in the slums of Rome talking about Jesus with a Colombian prostitute (we also pretty much talked about our love for Vicente Fernandez the whole time) or have to try to put on a show for a men’s shelter where a very affectionate Italian man called me Selena (because I said my family was from Mexico) and made me give him a kiss on the cheek (easily the most uncomfortable moment of my life).

The most defining moment however came when we visited a home of the Missionaries of Charity. We were greeted by a sweet nun who invited us into a room where we all sat on the floor. Just to let you in on a little secret, I had a nun-phobia at the time because I was always super terrified that God would make me become a nun (irrational fear I know, don’t lie to yourself we all have them) so being in that room gave me so much anxiety. But as she started talking, that anxiety was replaced by awe and admiration. She told us the story of how she ended up becoming a missionary of charity and the one thing she said that will burn in my memory forever was this, “Sometimes, I don’t even desire to desire You [speaking about Jesus] but there is nothing in life that can compare to the moment when you truly know Him.” First thought that came to mind was , “Wow, a nun feels this way? I thought they were super holy and in tune with faith at all times…” and second thought that came to mind was, “that is what I want. To know Jesus so intimately like this sister knows Him.” Because you could just tell! You could feel it. She knew Him. Her voice was serene and so full of surety. Yeah, that was a pretty BAM moment in my life. Ugh. So good. (ALSO, she met Mother Teresa and we got to visit a room where she stayed! I didn’t know how instrumental she’d be in my reversion back to the faith, which is cool)

So many other wonderful things happened on that trip, too many to tell because then this blog would turn into a book, but my heart, my mind, and my eyes were opened to so many good things. Genuine friendship, true peace and purpose, the reality of the catholic faith and all that it is meant to be. I became so close with those people, and I felt such a connection to them, more of a connection than I felt with friends that I had known my whole life. I know now that it was because those friendships were rooted in Christ, but at the time I still had (and still do have) much to learn.

It was really really difficult to come back home and not be surrounded by people on fire for their faith. My heart felt pretty heavy. I thought, “Jesus if you are who you say you are, and if people really believe what they say they believe, why are they living in the complete opposite way (myself included)?! Me on the inside wanted to run up to people and shake them and scream HEY JESUS IS REAL AND HIS CHURCH IS AWESOME AND HE HAS LEFT US SO MANY GOOD THINGS WHY ARE WE NOT ALL JUMPING FOR JOY?!

And just as a fire that has no fuel burns out, so did the fire lit by my mission trip to Rome. I came back and quickly realized that if I wanted to know Jesus in that way, if I wanted to be serious about my faith, I had to change a lot of things, and quite frankly I did not want to. What do you do when faced with something scary? You run. So I ran.  I stopped being involved with Newman Center, the missionaries, and bible study. “I’m too busy with nursing school” I told myself + every other excuse my mind could come up with. I don’t neeeeeed community to grow in my faith (big mistake). I can just read the Bible on my own, occasionally go to mass on Wednesdays and Sundays and pray on my own. But let me tell you friends. My sophomore year was pretty miserable spiritually speaking. I completely shut out God and then wondered why I was not feeling peace (am I smart or am I smart).

BUT! It’s not all bad news. Fast forward to junior year (we are almost done I promise). Somehow I ended up befriending another new FOCUS mish who pulled me back in. Slowly and painfully at times, but praise the Lord that she was patient and persistent with me. We joke now that I used to hate her (half-joking really lol. Love you Ems), but now she’s one of my closest friends. She has been a constant blessing to me and I am forever grateful to Jesus for placing her in my life (COMMUNITY; Ya can’t grow without it). I decided to do another mission trip again and THIS WAS IT GUYS. The moment that changed my heart for good. 

This trip. Mmmm. Wow. I don’t have the right words to describe it but I will make a feeble attempt. It was a mission trip to Comayagua, Honduras where we would be working with the Missioners of Christ. I didn’t really know much about what we would be doing honestly, so it was a surpise (but such a good surprise). Again, there was THAT FEELING. The feeling of being surrounded by genuine people searching for something more.

Hold up though — I would be lying if I said it was all rainbows and butterflies up until now, because I was in suuuch a dark place in my life before this trip. I had a heart full of anguish, anxiety and doubt. Major identity crisis. I was doing things I didn’t believe in, partying (sorry mom) and not being true to myself. I had just moved out and gotten an apartment (BIG step for a Mexi-girl; we tend to stay with our parents forever until someone puts a ring on it; what can I say, we as a Mexican people really love each other. A lil’ too much sometimes but its okay).

So now that I was out from under this umbrella of influence from my parents, I had the freedom to choose what was important to me, what I could do, who I wanted to be seen as. I kept shutting God out and only half-committing to discipleship, bible study, prayer etc and then being like God, why do I feel like this?! (promise I’m somewhat intelligent). But God’s timing is perfect and as I get older I am more convinced of that because the series of events that happened in my life set me up for this mission trip.

Back to the trip though: YESSS THIS TRIP. So cleansing for my heart. God broke me open there. He showed me how full of pride my heart was. It was like looking into a mirror and seeing a solid heart in rock form. I thought, “Wow Jesus. You have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of work to do. Let’s start chippin away at this.” I remember this distinct moment during adoration where I was pretty angry at Jesus for what had been happening in my life before Honduras and they were having confession. I have a love-hate relationship with this sacrament (it’s mostly love now though, there is progress being made). I went because I knew I needed it even though I didn’t desire to do it. I remember saying, “Father, I am so angry at God for x,y, and z.” And I’ll never forget what the priest said after (mostly because it kind of made me laugh in the way that the he said it). “Jesus is a big boy. He can handle your anger. But you have to take it to Him. You have to be honest with Jesus.”

And so I did just that in adoration. And the tears. I am naturally a big cry baby so I wasn’t surprised, but what startled me was how I felt my heart get less heavy. And I just kept feeling everything disappear. The pain, the anger, the regret, the feelings of loss. Thank goodness I have a head full of hair that I could hide behind because I was a snotty, sobbing mess. Remembrance is the key to conversion and I won’t ever forget how I felt Jesus look at me in that moment and say, “Oh my child. You have to learn to love my heart first before you can learn to love someone else’s.” And the peace that has come after this experience has been unreal. I finally found the identity I was so desperately looking for: a daughter of God. Everything about that trip touched my heart in such a profound way: the children, the humility of the people, their generosity, the friends I made, my team in the mountains. I was on a Jesus high when I got back to Miami.

This time I wasn’t afraid that the fire would be put out once I got back to Kentucky. Because I knew this was who I really was. I finally identified and embraced my identity as a catholic woman! Everything I had been searching for was right under my nose the whole time. I just had to go to Honduras to find it. A part of me was always kind of afraid that these ecstatic feelings would fade, but every time I asked Jesus for peace, there it was. I could feel its warm radiance in my chest and I knew everything would be okay. Because it is hard to be authentically yourself. Especially in this culture. You want to be relevant and liked. You want to feel accepted and have friends. And those desires in themselves aren’t a bad thing I don’t think. But this is where the tricky priority of putting Jesus first comes in (which is hard my friends but oh so beautiful). And if you do that, He will provide! He has been constantly showering me with the most amazing friendships and I don’t know why I ever doubt Him because He is so faithful. 

So these last few months have been filled with lots of growth, discovery, renewal and more growth! I hope I didn’t bore you toooo much with what I guess you’d call my testimony. And if there’s anything I’d say to you after all this is do something to give God the opportunity to transform your heart. Go on that mission trip (Mission is my life; if you’ve ever had the least bit of a desire to go DO IT DO IT DO IT).  Go on that retreat. Reach out to someone you’ve been wanting to know. Enter into community. DO SOMETHING. Even Jesus had to go off on His own to talk to God. He did that something. And you should too!

Peace & Blessings







2 thoughts on “First Things First

  1. Izel, my heart rejoices for you. It is so wonderful to hear the way God has lead you into full communion with Him and His Church. I read your words and I relate to so much that I went through when I experienced my conversion of heart at 17 and the challenges that I still have even now- embracing my identity in Christ while trying to find my place on the world. But there is so much peace in knowing Him. There is no greater love. Nothing else satisfies. I love and admire your zeal and I pray that God only continues to nourish and strengthen you in this new found faith. So much love for you, sister.

    Liked by 1 person

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