A Small Cross Proves a Lovely Crown
Letter from Corinne Gannotti
(Click on the letters to enlarge)
In high school, I had a Louisa May Alcott quote taped to a shelf above my desk. It read, “sometimes when we least expect it, a small cross proves a lovely crown.”
I think I understand Louisa’s words much more after this past year. The fact that Jesus invites us through the things we suffer to experience an immense closeness to his heart has been a consoling lesson to learn. By his power and through his desire for us, if we bend down to receive it, he will fashion the wood of our daily cross into a crown that radiates his goodness. Jesus can surprise us in our suffering.
I haven’t shared much of this story with anyone beyond family and close friends. Because it isn’t only my story – it also belongs to my son. It’s his life too, intertwined with mine, and I have the privilege of guarding him and his privacy. But I feel compelled to share a small bit of this chapter with you. I hope it might testify to God’s goodness and give you hope.
Last September, my husband and I walked down the hall of the labor and delivery unit into the hazy cool of a rainy fall day with our greatest treasure – our baby son. I look at myself after this first year of motherhood and see the immensity of the gift I had only just been offered that day we rode home together as a family for the first time.
You might already know that after the first 24 hours of a baby’s life outside the womb, it’s routine for the pediatrician whom you’ve chosen to come see your little one – to make sure everything looks healthy. I remember the moment when our doctor reentered our room after his medical check and shared with us that Michael had been born with a cleft palate. He said that he was sorry – for the situation and that no one had found it sooner and shared that it would mean a reconstructive surgery later in the year, maybe speech therapy, perhaps more serious implications related to this diagnosis. He delivered the news in an oddly nonchalant tone. I can still remember feeling unsure of how to respond beyond an awkward smile and “thank you”. He left, and Sam and I looked at each other wordlessly. I left the hospital with the number of the local Children’s Hospital on a post-it that a kind nurse gave to me as a place to begin.
The months to come unfolded in a beautiful whirlwind. We started to learn and love the dance of new parenthood. Our hearts widened and deepened. Michael’s cleft changed none of that, of course. But it did bring unique challenges and heavy emotions. This was the beginning of God’s transformative work. Crosses, especially when we don’t necessarily see them coming, can do an incredible job of bringing everything in your life into immediate focus. Have you ever experienced that? It’s like all the sudden your heart is placed in a crucible and everything that doesn’t really matter melts away. You’re left with the most important things right there, clearly in front of you. Your next steps become more obvious. That doesn’t assume they’ll be easy, or it’ll feel any less like your life is on fire at times - but that clear vision is itself a gift. And so, it was for me. I was brought face to face very quickly with the expectations I had about what this early stage of motherhood would look and feel and be like for me. Having to let go of certain things I just assumed would be part of my experience of new motherhood and take on things I hadn’t (and didn’t necessarily want to be) was hard. But it began to show me that joy is not dependent on things going “according to plan”, and that would be important.
I remember sitting with eleven-day-old Michael in my lap and my husband beside me in the craniofacial plastic surgery waiting room of the Children’s Hospital for the first time. I was nervous and tired. I was sweating through my shirt. I took a breath and asked Jesus to help me find him in what felt like an unfair mess. I scanned the room and saw families with children just like mine, many with much more serious conditions, all with faces full of joy. I can only describe what I felt as a sudden awareness of all the life around me, and all the goodness in it. Like a divine gift of perspective. I started to cry. I grasped deeply what probably should have been obvious – that we can do nothing to “earn” a healthy child or deserve for things to be the way we imagine is best. But also, that it’s all still a gift. Even illnesses, even genetic disorders, even cleft palates. Because Jesus is there in all of it.
We became frequent fliers at the Children’s Hospital, and our seemingly interminable visits refashioned everything for me. It was like the Lord was taking my anxious grip on life and loosening it in a way I couldn’t resist. Through the needs of my perfect, tender little baby, I began to see how I had miscalculated things. I thought this experience would be nothing but an unwanted burden that I would need to dig up the strength to carry without complaining too much. There were moments where it did feel that way. But more often, I found myself praising God for it.
This mistake, a “defect” as far as medical terminology goes, became an invitation. And when I accepted it well, it unfolded into a profound avenue of grace. A doorway for God.
He walked through it easily and I found Him. In the unrelenting love and support from family and friends. In the newly awakened part of my heart willing to pray boldly for healing like never before. In the gift of seeing clearly how little I was in control and how that knowledge liberated me from the need to fix things myself and gifted me the freedom of abandon to God, honestly trusting in His providence for maybe the first time ever. In how it became a powerful force welding my husband and I together, leaning into each other in love, in a way we had never yet experienced. In the gift of being able to witness to our faith to the countless doctors who worked with us.
Michael had his reconstructive surgery when he was ten months old. Sitting in the waiting room with my hand in my husband’s as those hours passed was a kind of agony. Hearing Michael’s cry as we walked towards his recovery room sounding slightly different than before was one of the hardest moments. Cradling him in my arms as hot tears ran down my face and he finally calmed down to rest, I still can’t really put words to the feeling. I would never have chosen any of that. But praise the Lord for it. It chipped away at calloused parts of my heart I didn’t know needed healing. It widened expanses within me that God strengthened and made capable and gentle.
Having to die to the idyllic vision of motherhood born of my narrow imagining welcomed in a goodness that stretched far beyond my limited view.
Jesus surprised me. I in no way anticipated that this unexpected medical diagnosis would be anything more than a cross I just had to accept and bear. I never imagined I would be utterly grateful for it. The great redemption of my baptism into motherhood has been how God took what I thought would be the tragedy of my first year being a mom and transformed it into the place where I experienced His grace and providential love more than ever before.
And I guess that’s my whole point in sharing this part of my story with you, sister. To encourage you to not be so quick to categorize the crosses in your life as just suffering you’ll need to buckle up and deal with. Allow yourself the space in your spiritual imagination to envision how something really hard in your life could actually be a wildly massive gift.
I hope you cling to hope and know that even when things feel scary, unexpected, even unbearable, God probably has a plan hidden within it all that is very good. Let Him surprise you by the way He transforms your cross into a sign of His love for you and others.
May your crosses be your crowning glories,
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Get to know Corinne
Full name: Corinne Gannotti
State-in-life, Occupation: Wife, Mom, Catholic School Campus Minister
Location: Coatesville, Pennsylvania
Educational background: I graduated from Franciscan University, with bachelors degrees in Theology and Catechetics.
How does your Catholic faith affect the way you live your day-to-day life?
It’s definitely changed shape as I’ve grown - becoming much more integrated into how I live all the “normal” moments. My faith these days feels like the connecting thread that runs through all I do and feel and experience. It’s been a big spiritual journey over the past five or six years from my head to my heart. I’ve felt my Catholic identity shift bit by bit from something that was primarily a way to make myself look good in the eyes of others (to receive their affirmation and love) into a personal relationship with Jesus that I can take refuge in safely and constantly. That’s only happened, truly, because of encountering the authentic joy and freedom of people who I knew were walking in step with Jesus. I wanted what they had so desperately. As I’ve grown closer to Christ, and become more willing to let him into my daily mess and not just live as a concept in a theology book I can try to read and master, I’ve found so much peace.
My day-to-day life has become at once cosmically more meaningful but also less stressful. When I manage to keep all this in the right place in my heart, that is. When I do, it’s that beautiful paradox of knowing everything matters to Jesus but also that it’s not all up to me. I highly recommend it.
Has there been a particular teaching of the Church that has intimately transformed the way you see yourself and others? If so, please describe.
During my senior year of high school, I took Apologetics as an elective course. It was a turning point in my personal faith - mostly because of my kick-butt, joyfully Dominican teacher, Sr. Amelia. The whole class explored various Church teachings and how to best understand, explain, and defend them. I feel like I was transformed by the entire year, to be honest. It was the first time I saw a lot of the “law” of the Church fitting together into a beautiful whole, and as such a gift. But we did spend a good part of the class talking about the feminine genius and reading through Mulieris Dignatatem, Pope John Paul II’s letter on the dignity and vocation of women. It rocked my 17-year-old world, like it has for so many. JPII wrote so artfully and articulately about how the Church understands the role and vocation of woman, her pivotal place in the story of the world. It did a lot to begin healing in my heart and answering questions I had about my worth and value. And that knowledge has helped me to love others a lot more fully because I can recognize them with a new level of reverence.
Tell us about your ideal outfit.
Something neutral colored, probably a navy or dark green v-neck with my favorite grey cardigan (it has perfectly sized pockets). Skinny jeans and moccasins. Or, overalls. Is that too cliche to say since overalls are kind of a “thing” right now? Anyway, it’s still true. I have these really great, super comfy, overalls that are perfect with a long sleeve shirt underneath.
Tell us about a woman who inspires you.
Irena Sendler. I just finished a book about her life, and she’s amazing. She lived in Poland during WWII and because of her unrelenting courage and tactical coordination she helped to save literally thousands of children from the ghettos of Warsaw.
Fill in the blank
My morning routine consists of: waking up in the dark early morning to read a little bit of the Gospels before Michael wakes up, and if there are s few spare minutes left, moving around our apartment as quietly as I can to help Sam get ready and leave for work. And making myself a cup of coffee. That’s really ceremonious at best though, because the coffee will probably be totally cold before I even drink it, but hey. It does smell nice.
I’m currently obsessed with: Vince Guaraldi. His jazz piano albums are my mom’s favorite, and were constantly playing in our home when I was growing up - especially during the holidays. I’ve been playing his music every night lately and it gives me that warm, safe feeling of being home I had when I was little.
I feel most inspired when: things are organized and tidy. When there’s space to breathe.
My favorite part about my life right now is: being able to observe Michael when he’s playing or working on his own, and seeing his personality unfold. It’s the best.
The advice I would give to the millennial Catholic woman is: make time for silence, even just a few moments, each day (even if that means hiding in your bathroom).