3 Avenues for Joy: The Birthday Spiritual Progress Report

confetti falling near the birthday cake
Birthdays are a great opportunity to reflect on spiritual growth over the past year. This past year I’ve cultivated a more joyful heart thanks to 3 specific things that catapulted my spiritual growth, and for that I am grateful.

2 years ago I wrote a post just before my birthday titled “Happy (?) Birthday: Experiencing Gratitude in the Midst of Grief,” and it became one of my more popular posts. I think most of us have experienced the dread of getting older. Really, who wants to be older than 29? Regardless of a number, it’s so easy to long for times in the past, and it’s equally as easy to cling to expectations of the present and the future, with joy hanging in the balance of those outcomes.

For me, birthdays can pack an extra punch in the gut because of the reminder that another year has gone by without me regaining my health or checking off any of the things on my “life list.” From a secular perspective, my life is not situated the way it’s “supposed to be” by this point. 2 years ago I wrote about how I was trying to measure each year in terms of my spiritual progress instead of worldly success, and that’s been a very helpful habit I want to continue. It’s much more pleasant to look at birthdays that way than numerically!

Rolling into this birthday, I’m feeling crummier than usual following 2 major oral surgeries. I still have quite a road ahead of me, and it’s hard to add pain and discomfort from surgery on top of all my “usual” pain and limitations.

In every sense of the word, joy isn’t something I’d expect to feel right now, yet this past year, my heart has opened to a spiritual joy that isn’t dependent on circumstances. I’m more joyful this birthday than last, even though I’m more physically worn now than I was a year ago, and even though I didn’t get “what I wanted” this year either. At my last meeting with my spiritual director a few weeks ago, he said to me, “You are different!” That was a compliment, haha. When I asked him if he thought I would ever get to this point, he responded semi-jokingly with, “I really wasn’t sure.” Laughs all the way around, but what a testament to God’s grace at work in my life and in my heart.

This past year was a year of immense spiritual growth for me, precisely because my surgery a year and a half ago didn’t give me much progress. I was left grappling even more than I had in the past, which is saying a lot. I was caught in an in-between of discerning what God was telling me but not seeing evidence of that in the physical world, and I didn’t know how to process that. It was hard to even explain to another person, so it left me running to Him alone.

I’ve grown spiritually in previous years, but not quite like I did this past year. So what was it that made this past year more spiritually fruitful for me and allowed me to experience more joy?

  1. I learned more about the nature of God. I learned a lot about this from the Catechism of the Catholic Church- in particular from Fr. Mike Schmitz’s “Catechism in a Year” podcast, which has been so informative for me. I’m learning so many facts of the faith, such as God’s nature, and I can hold fast to these truths since they are not subjective opinion. CCC 385 states, “God is infintely good and all his works are good.” The more I learn about who God is, the more I learn about who God is not. So often I hear spiritual advice and sayings that are as well-intended as they are inaccurate! Learning the facts about who God is allows me to process everything I hear, feel, or think through a filter of truth. Both our own feelings and the words of others can play tricks on us, so knowing what just can’t be because that is not who God is has been extremely helpful, especially in working through my feeling slighted by God. I also learned a lot about God’s permissive will (which will be a post all by itself!), and that has helped me to reframe so much.
  2. I was able to spend much more time in the presence of the Eucharist, both at daily Mass and adoration. Spending a bigger chunk of time physically with Jesus each week has been a game-changer for me. I realized that Mass once per week on the weekend is the bare minimum, not the goal. I’m amazed at how much more fruitful my prayer life is in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament compared to when I’m praying the same prayers at home. Praying at home is also good for sure, but nothing replaces His true presence, and I didn’t understand how much more of His presence I needed until this past year. A few times I’d started going to regular adoration but then got out of the habit (like with the Covid shutdown, for example). Honestly, sometimes in the past I didn’t really miss it when I got out of the habit of going- I think that was in part due to my lack of understanding of who Jesus really is and how much He loves me and actually desires me to be there with Him. This year I stuck with additional Mass and adoration habits long enough to cultivate a deeper love and desire for Jesus’ physical presence, and now I can’t wait to go.
  3. I brought my desires and burdens to the foot of Jesus’ cross, often multiple times per day, and I was able to surrender to a greater degree by doing so. Multiple times per day was key here. It wasn’t enough for me to give them to God now and then, and it had to be done in conjunction with laying them at the foot of the cross where Jesus was suffering for me. I say this from personal experience, not from any theological ideal. This is what actually worked. I learned that I can’t just give up desires and dreams without replacing them with something else… that something else being Jesus’ physical presence in Mass and adoration. It sounds great to say, “Ok, I’ll just not desire ‘x’ anymore,” but that never worked for me. I had to give my desires to Him at the same time I asked Him to replace them with a greater love for and relationship with Him. One of many examples is that while I still want a husband and children (if that is in God’s plan for me), I will be okay even if I never have that. I was finally able to surrender those desires to Him in a more complete way this year. My new way to live is to be on the lookout for how He wants me to do today instead of just missing the past or hoping for the future, and there is much freedom in that.

God’s grace shone through those 3 avenues to produce some much-needed spiritual change and growth in myself. That growth then allowed me to experience more joy that is not dependent on circumstances or on dreams coming true. I’m not talking about surface happiness as in a mood, but about an inner joy that nothing can rob because it is derived from knowing Him, the only constant. God will always be there for us, and He will always be the same, no matter what else changes in life. His presence and love are solid and transcend circumstances.

Of course I wish I was feeling better and didn’t have so many physical limitations, and we are still fervently praying for that. I’m definitely not saying that I’m always happy- suffering is real. While I’d definitely be happier if I wasn’t in so much pain, I can still experience joy from my relationship with God and the reassurance that He is good, He loves me, and He can work in my life no matter what is happening that is out of my control. I’m joyful about the ways He’s worked on my heart and on my understanding of Him this past year, and that’s something to celebrate! I can’t wait to see what He does in my life this next year and how much further I will grow.

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4 thoughts on “3 Avenues for Joy: The Birthday Spiritual Progress Report

    1. Yes, I’m more than happy to chat about this any time! I’ve learned so much about it this year, and that has helped me be more at peace with my relationship with God. I’m planning to write a post specifically about this soon, but we can definitely talk in the meantime! Just let me know when.

    2. Hi Alexa!
      First, HAPPY BIRTHDAY! What a Beautiful and soulful read! You tickled my inner faith and helped me to remember and understand that knowing God is our fuel for life. Knowing God keeps me humbled to his presence. Faith is very personal. We get to choose our path, actions and reactions. My question is: Does God help us make choices in his agreement? Does he speak thru our “gut” or heart when we are making decisions?

      Thank you for having the desire to write & be present in the faith community. You are extremely talented and prolific! Your (Very Sad) journey is captured and your energy to push forward in your healing process speaks volumes! May God help you continue to bear the pain involved with this process and may he guide the right physicians to your door. You & your mom are heroes in my opinion. May God’s grace and plan comfort you. You are SO Loved!
      Ms. Deb

      1. Thank you so much! Wow, what kind remarks. You are so right that knowing God is our fuel for life- I can personally attest to that after the past 20 years especially. Excellent question you pose! It’s a question I grappled with for many years during this ordeal, which led me on a quest to seek the truth about that, not just a response from someone that would appease me in the moment. It’s taken years for me to learn more about that, and God is continuing to humble and teach me. I do plan to write about that question/topic, as it is one very personal to me. In the meantime though, I’m happy to chat with you anytime about it. Please feel free to reach out so we can discuss and share! God bless!

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