I photographed Jeff in his t-shirt emblazoned with the words of Blessed Henry Suso (1299-1366), a Rhineland mystic. Why is Jeff wearing these words around?
He explains it this way:
“It’s a scary quote. My friend gave me this t-shirt at a difficult time – a point at which I had my life planned out: my wife, my kids, my career – I thought I knew how everything would work. And it all get tossed in the air five years ago when my father died.
“The message on this t-shirt helped me sort things out. I really had only two choices: either my faith would be damaged or I had to embrace the idea of utterly surrendering myself to God and saying, ‘OK, God, I don’t know why this is happening, I don’t know what you want me to do, but whatever it is, I’m willing to do it because thinking that I had control over what was going to happen was not realistic.’ My uncle Mark said it like this: ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.’
“Blessed Henry’s and uncle Mark’s words helped me say, ‘This isn’t what I planned, but somehow it must be God’s plan and I’m willing to accept whatever His plan is.’
“I always thought that with building my career in academia and raising two small boys, I didn’t have time to surrender to God. When I reached this crisis when nothing went right, I found the strength to say, ‘I’m not going to wait. I feel like God is calling me to do this now. To get closer to him now.’
“My twin brother is angry at God, which I never understood – how can you be angry at God? But so many bad things happened when my father died that for the first time, I did think, ‘God, how could you do this to me?’ I had wanted to be a history professor since I was seven, and after my dad died all that ended. And I really thought, ‘I try to be a good Catholic; why did this happen?’ I either had to surrender to that anger or say, ‘OK, I have to surrender to your will.’
“The first part of the Suso quotation is scary – utterly abandoning myself to God. But the flip side is important: only then will you be truly happy. One of the Rhineland mystics’ main themes is that we can best serve God and meet Christ by living a Christian life ‘in the now.’ I’ve been happier since I embraced the idea of surrendering. I always loved the time with my boys, but there was always a small part of my brain saying, ‘Once they’re in bed, I gotta do this and I gotta do that….’
“Since I embraced this abandonment to God, I have moments of pure joy because I say, ‘OK, now I’m with my kids, this is a blessed moment, and I’m going to enjoy it.’ I’ve never known that happiness before — just living in the now, abandoning my plans to God.
“I’m still in a precarious position financially, still haven’t sorted out my career, but my priorities are clear: my kids and my God. Those are my priorities and if everything’s all right with them, I’m all right. I don’t necessarily know what I’ll be doing for a living next year or next month, but I’m more content than before. Everything in my life is more doubtful and chaotic than it was five years ago, but I’m more at peace because I’ve seen the worst and my faith got me through it.”