I distinctly remember the prayer; I prayed it often. “Lord make me holy. Make our marriage and family holy. Do whatever you have to do in our lives to make us truly holy.”
The prayer was inspired by a sense of complacency. My husband and I were in full-time ministry, raising a family with Gospel values, yet something was missing. We seemed to have our fill of God; we served Him and His people, lived simply and raised our kids with a knowledge and experience of faith in the context of community. Yet the cry of my heart, indeed my deepest desire was for holiness.
Scripture says that the Lord fills our deepest desires and answers the delights of our hearts. It just doesnʼt tell us how.
Johanna was born one month after our 10th year wedding anniversary. She was our celebration baby. The two older kids were 9, 6 and the youngest was almost 3. The pregnancy was uneventful and we were all very excited. The midwife I was seeing taught me more about the pregnancy and how to recognize the babyʼs body from the womb. She taught us how to feel Johannaʼs head. I would place my hand on my belly and in time, Johanna responded by moving her head to tuck in under my hand. I could actually feel her rounded head protruding from my belly. I taught my husband and children to do the same. It was a really cool bonding experience, one that I would never forget.
When Johanna was born, I closed my eyes and ran my hands across her head, reminding me of that special time we shared as she grew in my womb.
I became so familiar with this tiny head, that when a slight bulge of fluid emerged in the soft spot, I noticed right away and took her to the doctor. A long day turned into a long night as we were told that our three-month-old infant had a large tumor in her brain.
It was such a confusing time — so much information to process and a whole new language to understand. As Steve and I ran between the hospital and home, we worked very hard to try to assure our three young children that everything was going to be all right. They missed their new baby sister and begged us to let them visit.
I remember the day we took them for a long walk outside Stony Brook Hospital. It was unseasonably warm for the middle of November. We explained what they would see: their baby sister hooked up to machines, with lines coming out of her body and her head. I told them that Johanna was scheduled for a very big brain surgery the next day, to remove the tumor that was deep in her brain. I asked them if they were ready to see her and they all responded with brave smiles, eager to see Johanna.
Each one of them snuggled up to the crib, and we put the railings down so they could get close to Johanna. Then, as our time came to close to an end, we gathered the children to pray over Johanna and kiss her goodbye. We asked our friend to take a few pictures, not knowing if this was the last time our children would see Johanna alive.
The next day, in the early hours before dawn, as I sat up in a rocking chair stroking my babyʼs head, I heard God ask me if I was ready to let her go home. It was as if God was giving me a choice; He could take her home and her pain would end or she could stay with us, but it would be a hard road ahead. Inspired by the Spirit, my voice resounded, “I choose the path of miracles.”
Over the past 18 years, we have ventured long and hard through this path of miracles. Through it all, I often hear the Lord remind me that He is answering the deepest longing of my heart, holiness. I am reminded of the prayer that I was inspired to pray not long before Johanna was conceived. Then, I look at our life in view of what I thought holiness looked like.
When Johanna was about three and we had gone through numerous hospitalizations and surgeries, we went on a family retreat. During one of the family discussion times, we had a question to answer: “What are some of the gifts God gives you to grow in holiness as a family?” My pre-teen son did not hesitate to answer for all of us. He touched Johannaʼs shoulder as she rested in my arms, smiled and said, “Well thatʼs pretty obvious. God gave us Johanna so we could learn to be holy.”
His words brought me to tears and have remained in my heart all these years. There was a time in my life that I thought holiness was characterized by a quiet and prayerful life filled with a healthy balance of work, rest and enjoying the gifts God has given us. While holiness is nurtured and grounded in a prayerful life, it is fleshed out in the loving relationships, the joys and suffering of our lives.
Holiness implies being consecrated, set apart for God. We often think that being set apart for God precludes removal from the world and thus makes holiness an unattainable goal for most people. Jesus changed all that when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14) In Him, our daily lives can be made holy.
I have come to realize that the Lord is answering the deepest desire of my heart for holiness. I can see now, as my son saw years ago, that God is using Johanna and the trials of life to make us holy. We have become more compassionate, loving and sensitive to the needs of others, especially those who are disabled. Just this weekend, I saw how God was using Johanna and her special needs to help some teens grow in holiness. These kids came to a retreat to learn more about God. I am witnessing holiness as I watch them reach out to include my daughter in games and activities, as they steady her steps on the stairs and hold her hand at night prayer. I see holiness in my 19-year-old daughter, who drove from Ohio to surprise Johanna and take care of her for the weekend. Her patience and care for her sister is a sign of holiness. I see holiness all around.
I could not personally make sense of this life without intimate time for prayer and reflection, but thatʼs not where holiness happens. Holiness, like precious gold and sparkling diamonds, is created in fire. Real holiness happens in real life lived out with faith, in hope and for love.
If you are struggling to find significance in your life and thinking that you can never be holy because life gets in the way, then think again. Life happens and as we surrender our lives to God, holiness happens.
Eileen Benthal has a B.A. in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer, speaker and wellness coach at 40DaysToFocus.com and NOFO Wellness Center. She works with clients locally and around the U.S. who are excited about balancing their health in body, mind and spirit.
Eileen and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Their youngest, 16-year-old Johanna, is a teenager with special needs. Eileen can be reached at email@example.com andfacebook.com/40DaysToFocus.