(Everyday Bravery, Day 13)
Last year when I hosted a small conference for Catholic women bloggers living in the Mid-Atlantic, one of the women who came was named Abigail Benjamin. I had not previously been acquainted with her blog or her online persona and I had very little personal interaction with her that day. But it didn’t take me long afterwards to figure out what a gem we’d had among us.
Shortly after our conference, Abigail became our group’s greatest cheerleader. Each month she’d ask us what we were working on and what we were excited about. She’d rejoice with us, empathize with us, encourage us. In that group and on her own, she revealed herself to be bright, enthusiastic, compassionate, interested, and motivated. She had big ideas and a bigger heart.
I shouldn’t be putting all this in the past tense, because Abigail is very much here and well and still inspiring me via social media. But in the past several months, I’ve been seeing Abigail as so much more than a kind-hearted cheerleader (though that’s a great thing to be) – I’ve been seeing her as an example of great bravery.
Abigail, who is a wife, a mother to six children, and a home educator to five of them, is also a lawyer. Until recently, however, she was not qualified to practice law in her home state of West Virginia.
Then came the summer of 2016. That summer (this summer), Abigail took the majority of her family’s small retirement savings and signed up to take the Bar Exam. She studied for eight to ten hours every weekday while being the primary parent for six kids aged 13 years to 18 months. She took the 12 hour test in 16 different legal subjects more than a decade after “retiring” at age 30 to become a stay-at-home mother. She passed the West Virginia Bar and was sworn in with little kids in tow.
Abigail did all of this without any certainty that she could practice law well once she resumed homeschooling her five children in the fall. Yet she persevered, for the sake of her family and herself, and for her rekindled passions for the environment, her community, and for justice.
I’m about 98% sure I could not pull off such a feat. (I can’t even pull off a write-every-day-for-31-days feat.) What bravery, what dedication, what tenacity, what hard work such a move requires. I’ve loved watching Abigail move towards her goal and I’m so excited to see what fruits this back-into-lawyering thing bears in her life.
(1) What in your upbringing – in your family and/or your faith – encouraged you to be brave?
I’m not sure that I felt brave while I took the test. Instead, I felt pretty stupid and terrified. My encouragement came from Pope Francis, specifically his encyclical on the environment called Laudato Si, published in 2015. After I saw the Pope briefly at a free Papal Parade event with my family in Washington DC in 2015, I decided to read Laudato Si with my parish priest. I spent three hours on two Wednesdays reading the Pope’s encyclical inside my parish hall. At the end of our study session, my parish priest said “I bless your mission.”
At that time, I thought my mission was about film promotion for environmental documentaries. Six months later, my mission expanded enough that I took the West Virginia Bar Exam to become an environmental lawyer in a State that I felt needed me. Nine months later, I opened a solo practice. Ten days after I opened my law firm, I was asked to represent a small environmental group pro bono in the middle of a 30 million dollar natural gas pipeline case.
Whenever I start to become intimidated by going against huge law firms with more than 15 years’ experience in this complex field, I tell myself mentally “I’m working for the Pope here.” Pope Francis might never know my name, but as a faithful Catholic, I feel that I get to claim Pope Francis as “my boss” in my work as well as in my Faith. The Pope’s words in Laudato Si guide me. The Pope’s energy for prayer and his love of people inspire me.
(2) What does bravery feel like to you?
To me, bravery is persistence. It’s doing the hard internal work of listening to God in the stillness of my heart and then working hard to reach God’s goal for me despite all obstacles.
(3) What most threatens your bravery?
I’m a perfectionist. I’m terrified of failure. Taking the bar in the summer of 2016 was a public commitment with a public result. I was afraid that people who knew me only as a mom of a lot of kids would think that I was dumb if I failed the Bar Exam.
(4) Do you think you’re brave enough?
I think our final act of bravery is dying with our hope in Christ. I have no idea if I can make that final challenge. I like to think of all the little acts of bravery like childbirth, or taking this Bar Exam, that will help add up to increase my bravery at the big final moment.
(5) Is there anything else you’d like to offer on the subject?
One thing that helped me was taking the example of specific saints, and tying them to the specific task at hand. I didn’t just pray abstractly to St. Francis of Assisi for help with my law practice. Instead, I might think “Saint Francis of Assisi would love to come help me write the addresses of thirteen lawyers involved in this natural gas pipeline case and then mail my packages at the Post Office with three grumpy children in tow.” That kind of prayer helped me view holiness as not something removed from my life, but very much connected to the daily irritations and hidden sacrifices of my life.
I also want to say that I found the decade that I spent as a housewife really grounded me during this transition. Now when I get a complex case with 144 documents from 13 lawyers I tell myself “this is just like doing the dishes.” I take that same pattern of not being overwhelmed, of matching like and like, and getting down to the nitty gritty without panic. Peaceful work is peaceful work. I’m really grateful to see work as a healthy companion to my prayer life. I’m finding the combination of Catholic, Wife, Mother, Lawyer, Teacher, and Writer to be a pretty nourishing mixture.
This post is the thirteenth in a series called Everyday Bravery: A Write 31 Days Challenge. Every day this month I’m publishing a blog post on Everyday bravery – not the heroic kind, not the kind that involves running into a burning building or overcoming some incredible hardship. Rather, the kinds of bravery that you and I can undertake in our real, regular lives. To see the full list of posts in the series, please check out its introduction.
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