Sr. Helena Burns, FSP

JP2 to the Rescue: Transforming My Treehugger Theology

I didn’t believe in God until I was 15.

I was raised Catholic and got dragged to Mass and religious education and I hated it. I went to public school preK-8. By the time I went to a Catholic high school I was already formed in my beliefs.

What did I believe?

All my life I loved animals and Nature more than anything. I planned on spending my life doing conservation and working to save animals and the environment. I was into Greenpeace, recycling, living in harmony with Nature. I was a card-carrying member of the Audubon Society.

Everyone knew Helena was going to do something with animals when she grew up. Neighbors would bring me injured animals (mostly birds) and I would try to nurse them back to health.

With my brother at the grave of one of my less fortunate patients, a squirrel.

With my brother at the grave of one of my less fortunate patients, a squirrel.

I took a course in ornithology (bird biology) via snail mail from Cornell University (my dream school!) when I was 13 and passed with flying colors (no pun intended). My life was totally on course.

Then one morning I met God.

It was a total lightning bolt experience. I won’t say it was out of the blue, because I was searching. Desperately searching for the meaning of life. And I had uttered the first prayer of my life the night before to a God I wasn’t even sure was there. And He revealed Himself to me. Just. Like. That.

But let me back up.

Why is Everything so Spiritual?

Everything I learned at church/religious education was spiritual. A bunch of spiritual truths that sounded like fairytales with no proof or concreteness, and nothing I could verify.

I didn’t even believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist at my First Communion — even though Fr. Hurley tried very hard to make this doctrine very clear to us. I lied and said I believed because I wanted the pretty white dress (with embedded pearls) and the party and the presents.

Me in my "heathen child" stage.

Me in my “heathen child” stage.

Don’t get me wrong, I believed very much in the spiritual nature of human beings — it seemed obvious that there were parts of us we couldn’t see or touch or perceive with the senses: emotions, thoughts, convictions, etc. I loved to contemplate, I loved to “commune with Nature” (as my mother called it) since I was little, I loved poetry, reflection, insight.

But I also believed in a physical world that mattered. Greatly. Nature was the most beautiful, endless, innocent, precious and worthy thing I had ever experienced, and nobody at church seemed to talk about it or our relationship to it beyond “God created it.” It seemed that Nature was just there for us to use as we pleased.

From saving seals to saving souls!

From saving seals to saving souls!

So I believed in a Creator-force. Not a personal God. Not one who listened to prayers or cared or could help you out. Not the Trinity. Not Jesus.

I believed in the God of the Deists — a God who created the world and then stepped back and had nothing to do with our lives and left it all in our hands. This God is often called the “watchmaker God” who winds up the world and then He’s done.

Why Do I Exist?

Flash forward to high school when I’m grappling with the Big Questions. Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? Is death the end? Why is there so much evil in the world? (It seems most people deal with these questions in their college years, but I’m a philosophical weirdo from Massachusetts, so just work with me here.)

Heathen teen

Heathen teen

I wasn’t getting any answers, so I was becoming more and more depressed. Not your typical teenage depression or clinical/chemical depression: it was an EXISTENTIAL depression and crisis.

So, at the end of my rope, I uttered this prayer one night: “O God, if you exist and you can hear me, I need help. I don’t know why I’m alive, and I’m not really interested in going on without knowing the purpose of life.”

The next morning I woke up with an incredible sense of God’s reality, presence and love. All my pressing questions were answered without words being spoken (what I later learned is called “infused knowledge”). It was like going from darkness to light, night to day. I instantly knew that God was real, and that I didn’t have to be some great success in life by human standards: what mattered was that God loved me and was waiting for me in heaven. He was more excited about my going to heaven than I was.

God could have helped me out or revealed Himself to me without my praying, but I think He was trying to teach me that we must pray. We must talk to Him every day! Life is pretty dull and small if we’re trying to go it on our own without constantly and consciously communicating with God. So thus began my wild, non-stop adventure with God.

JP2 Saves the Day

Flash forward to the convent (yeah, I know that’s a big leap). I chose to enter the Daughters of St. Paul because they evangelized with media, had Eucharistic Adoration as their spirituality, prayed/lived/worked together in community, wore a habit, were striving to live religious life as the Church defines it, loved the Pope, etc.; and I entered with my Nature-is-all-important view of the world.

Postulant Helena!

Postulant Helena!

However, when I started studying philosophy/theology, the Catholic Church did not seem to value Nature as much as I did, or as much as I thought it should. I was taught over and over that there were only TWO sources of God’s Revelation: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Once in a while I would hear that “Nature is a book of God’s Revelation.” But it was never taught in the same breath or with the same emphasis as Scripture and Tradition. I was so disappointed, and almost began to devalue Nature myself.

Enter Pope John Paul II and the Theology of the Body!

When I came across Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body — his beautiful and complete teaching on the human person and his restoration of the dignity of sex — it was another lightning bolt experience. I knew my life was never going to be the same.

A Huge Shift

John Paul II’s genius was this: Instead of starting from spiritual truths to get to physical truths, John Paul II said that from now on we’re gonna start with the physical to get to the spiritual. Why is it so important to start with the physical today? Because today people do not believe in what they can’t see. People no longer look to religion, sacred authorities or sacred texts for wisdom. They only trust what they can see and experience themselves. Our modern mindset is scientific, and we think the only truths that can be known with certainty are those that science can pronounce on. John Paul II said: Fine. We can start there.

Finally! Someone was saying Nature was an indispensable starting point! And it was a pope! (And now he’s a stone cold saint!) Finally! Someone was truly treating Creation like it is sacred, and putting it on the same level as Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition! These three things are very different in kind, but they are all sacred! What makes something sacred? 1. It comes from God. 2. It reveals God 3. It leads us to God. By ONLY focusing on Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition as the sources of Revelation, we were only focusing on two Persons of the Trinity: Jesus and the Holy Spirit. We have been leaving out the Father (and Creation)!

All the celibate ladies with TOB's Dr. Waldstein.

All the celibate ladies with TOB’s Dr. Waldstein.

Here’s the complete picture

Reason and revelation

Beginning to learn and live Theology of the Body (it’s a lifelong journey, people!) slowly began to correct many errors (large and small) that I was believing and acting on. It slowly began to heal my femininity and open my eyes to my deepest identity as a bride of Christ! Theology of the Body taught me to integrate body and soul (the truest meaning of “chastity”).

Theology of the Body has turned my world upside down, or rather right side up! Christopher West (“Mr. Theology of the Body”) recently stated:

“To live the Theology of the Body is nothing less than to heal the universe. The redemption of the [human] body is nothing less than the redemption of the whole physical world.”

Why? Because the human body, the human person, is the only entity in Creation “in the image of God.” Heal the image of God? Heal Creation.

“To stabilize the supernatural life, read the Father’s book: Nature.
Observe Who has written it and give praise to its Author.
What a magnificent hymn is sung to the Author of the universe by the book of Nature.”
Blessed James Alberione, SSP

Sr. Helena Burns, FSP

About the Author

I can wiggle my ears, but nobody can see because I wear a veil. When I was a kid, I would accidentally knock over the family Christmas tree every year. I'm a dual (not "duel") citizen: Americanadian. Being married to Jesus is beyond awesome except every time we fight, guess who's always wrong. You can follow me on Twitter @SrHelenaBurns.