Big Dreams Have Small Beginnings
It’s Mother Angelica’s birthday today, April 20.
She was born 100 years ago—grew up in a broken home, struggled with various painful illnesses, and was desperately poor.
When I read her biography by Raymond Arroyo years ago, I was struck by the resilience of the foundress of EWTN —really, the foundress of a holy media empire, the superior of a thriving community of women religious, and the visionary behind the breathtaking Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
She had some big, big dreams. God-sized dreams. And despite her less-than promising beginnings, He who had given her the dreams gave her the grace to make them come true.
Sometimes I allow myself big writer/communicator dreams, too (well, big for me!)—and by the grace of God, many of those have come true.
Some goals are still lingering in my prayers and hopes, and I don’t know if they’ll ever happen, or at least not in the way or timing I’d wish for. That’s ok. The beauty of a surrendered life is that our lives are not our own, and we give all of them—including our dreams—over to God.
But here’s what essential: That we keep dreaming. Even in the painfully small seasons. Even while inching forward, or sliding backward.
Because one other thing that strikes me is how humble are the beginnings of the big things.
Did you know that when Mother Angelica was raising money for her dream to establish a new monastery in the South, she began by making and selling fishing lures?
When she was struggling to pay off the debt from the building of that monastery, she and her sisters roasted peanuts in the convent’s kitchen to sell for extra income.
That’s right—peanuts and fishing lures.
It’s as if the Lord tests us a little — will you be faithful roasting peanuts? Making lures? Will you be obedient when I ask you to be humble and hidden and maybe even a little ridiculous?
And then if we do, He ‘returns’ and says, “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” (Matt 25:21)
What does that look like for those of us who have dreams of sharing a message or a story? Dreams that we almost feel ashamed sometimes of dreaming?
Maybe it’s blogging when no one seems to be reading. Writing late into the night.
Scrapping together a simple, free website when there are no funds for anything else.
Cheering for somebody else’s book launch when you’ve just gotten another rejection letter.
Posting or publishing that piece we’ve long labored over, only for it to be greeted with silence.
Speaking for free in a parish classroom to ten people.
Starting without a platform, without a network, without much of anything.
It’s up to God what happens next. But we’ve got to give Him something to work with, some small ‘yes’ that He can build on.
On a practical level, a few principles come to mind.
First of all, beware of saying ‘no’ to an invitation when you are just beginning. Take advantage, as much as you can, of every opportunity to make new connections, practice your writing and speaking skills, and develop your message. It may be for free, or for a very small compensation, but the rewards in those other areas may make it well worth it. Be profoundly thankful for every opportunity. And if you can’t fulfill the request, let others know just how grateful—and open to future collaboration—you are.
Later, you’ll probably have to say no more often, and practice a great deal of discernment. But in the beginning, every open door is usually worth exploring.
Second, embrace the opportunity to experiment and learn about yourself and your personal mission in relative obscurity. You can try out different genres and topics and even make mistakes without much risk. It’s kind of liberating, really.
I’ve written on themes before that I later decided weren’t really part of my core message. No harm done. At the time, not many were reading, anyway! I was uncovering my voice and my discovering my message in the safety of my smallness.
Third, do as the Church does and models for us in the principle of subsidiarity. My friend, author, speaker and podcaster MaryRuth Hackett, PhD, pointed that out to me. MaryRuth explains it this way: “If you can do something locally, don’t go elsewhere. The first year after the launch of my book I have tried to stay local. I don’t need to travel across the country for a book signing or a talk when I can do the same thing at a parish down the road. Starting small has given me the time and space to really develop my voice, hone my skills, and strengthen networks and community support. Each engagement seems to lead to something new—another simple step forward.”
Finally, remember who gave you your dream. Give it back to Him. Let it die, if need be, for a season. He’s very good at raising up dead things!
One extraordinary example of this is St. Gianna Molla, who wanted to be a missionary doctor in Brazil and provide healthcare for the poor expectant mothers there. Her own health wouldn’t allow her to leave Italy, and so she surrendered her dream and embraced life as a local doctor and wife and mother.
She never set foot in Brazil during her lifetime.
But God had given her the the desire to be a missionary. And you know what? The two miracles needed for her beatification and canonization occurred to pregnant and postpartum women—in Brazil.
God’s way, God’s timing.
St. Gianna herself said, “What is a vocation? It is a gift from God and therefore comes from God. If then it is a gift from God, we must do all in our power to know God’s will. We must go along that way, if God wills it, not forcing the door; when God wills it, how God wills it.”
And that’s true for the vocation of a writer and a communicator, too.
I’ve seen many exciting startups that fizzle in a few months. And I’ve seen ‘overnight successes’ who spent years doing hard and hidden work. Foundation building is seldom exciting. But it is arguably the most important work we do.
Peanuts and fishing lures, important?
Oh yes, friends, and I think Mother Angelica would agree. Because humility is the best foundation of all. Somebody else said it first, and best:
“But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’” (Luke 14:10)
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