By the world’s measuring stick, Leah Darrow’s star was not just rising, it was soaring, bearing all the external markers of success and adulation.
As a Manhattan-based model and former contestant on “America’s Top Model,” Darrow was commanding daily modeling fees topping $16,000 and experiencing the thrill of seeing her face splashed on advertisements in Times Square, on taxis and inside subway tunnels.
But instead of feeling on top of the world, Darrow felt like an empty shell, just plodding along.
“I thought (modeling) was the path to greatness,” said Darrow, recounting her life story to about 5,000 teens and youth ministers gathered on the grounds of St. Joseph Abbey and Seminary College for Abbey Youth Fest March 22. “Sure, I wanted to do some good things and I wanted to be ‘holy,’ but later – when I’m old,” she said.
A major turning point came during a fashion shoot, as Darrow reluctantly posed for a magazine photo spread clad in a skimpy outfit. A random flash of the camera produced a startling image on Darrow’s retina: a profile of a man gazing down in disappointment at the immodestly dressed Darrow as she cupped her hands toward him.
“Inside my hands (was) nothing; they were totally empty; I had nothing to give, nothing to offer,” Darrow said. “It was as though God was saying, ‘Leah, I have given you so many gifts and talents and you’ve wasted every single one on you. I’ve called you to greatness, but greatness through me, not greatness through you; greatness through me, not greatness through the world.’”
Only authentic love fills heart
Although not everyone receives as dramatic a wake-up call as the one Darrow experienced that day, the battle between choosing the glittery instant gratification of “imitation love” over the perfect and eternal love of God is a very human battle – a struggle so universal it inspired Abbey Youth Fest’s 2014 theme: “Made for Greatness.”
Imitation love – the kind of love that presents itself under the seductive guises of things like sex, fame and fortune – is full of empty promises, Darrow said.
“It says, ‘Don’t worry! If you’ve got a problem, we’ll give you a pill, we’ll give you a doctor, and I’m sure some long-term counseling will take care of it,’” Darrow said. “We all get wrapped up in the Disney/Taylor Swift idea of love,” she said. “But the reality is, whatever fantasy you can conjure up about the love that you want in your life is no match for the reality of God’s plan of love for you! But we have to desire it!”
Darrow, who went on to quit modeling, reclaim her Catholic faith, marry and have a daughter, said the long road back to desiring only God’s authentic love began with her father’s loving insistence that she go to confession.
“For so many years I had accepted imitation greatness, imitation love, imitation success, imitation relationships, an imitation view of who I am,” Darrow said. “So to go to that confessional and give that all to Christ was scary. But in return he gave me peace, mercy, forgiveness and a true look at who I am called to be, which is a faithful daughter of God,” she said, urging young Catholics to “be proud” whenever they partake in the sacrament of reconciliation and “the new beginning” it invites them to.
Reminding attendees that greatness is a process – and not a one-time-and-you’re- done event – Darrow gave her audience three assignments: understand the true definition of love, which is “desiring the greatest good” for another; have the courage to act on your call to greatness, even if it means parting ways with a long-time avocation, such as Darrow’s departure from the modeling industry; and have a “relationship with love itself” – God.
“The bottom line is, what you want, God’s got it; what you need, God’s got it,” Darrow said. “You were made for greatness – made for it! It’s in your ‘God DNA.’ The world wants to give you something else, but it’s usually the imitation (variety of love). What Christ gives you will always be authentic. It will never be a lie. It will never lead you to unhappiness. It will never lead you to despair. He wants something great for you!”
Earlier in the day, Dom Quaglia, a Catholic youth minister based in Atlanta, told attendees that God’s plans for his children’s greatness exceeds even their most thrilling earthly experiences – which in Quaglia’s case was going skydiving.
“You and I were made for greatness, not just the Michael Jordan or Drew Brees kind of greatness,” Quaglia said. “You and I were called to a heavenlygreatness, to a greatness that reflects sainthood!”
To help the young people picture that journey, Quaglia offered three tips: define your unique journey by discerning your vocation; identify the roadblocks that are impeding you in that journey; and conquer those roadblocks.
“For me (the roadblocks are) typically fear; fear gets in my way,” Quaglia said, pointing to those nagging “spiritual fears” that stop people from doing what God desires them to do.
“What about the fear of not being good enough for the call to greatness? What about the fear of saying yes to Jesus, and then failing and letting him down?” Quaglia said. “We don’t conquer those fears by conquering them ourselves; we conquer fears by letting Godconquer them,” he said, naming fear’s sole antidote: the “perfect love” of God described in 1 John 4:18.
“In God’s perfect love, he gives us everything we need,” Quaglia said. “He gives us companionship – he promises he will never leave us; he promises us that if we follow him, we will not just settle for mediocrity, we will have greatness; we will have sainthoodif we give our lives to him.”
Still, fears continually resurface, Quaglia said, noting that the festival crowd reminded him of how initially skeptical Jesus’ apostles were before Jesus fed the crowd of 5,000 through the multiplication of bread and fish.
“Jesus says, whatever you have, even though it seems little, bring it here to me,” Quaglia said. “Jesus was enough for all the 5,000-plus people in that field that day, 2,000 years ago, and Jesus is more than enough for the people in this field today! Jesus is more than enough for every void in our hearts,” he said, noting that all we need to do is trust in that.
“The apostles didn’t have what it took, but they had faith and God was able to do something miraculous!” Quaglia said. “He was able to take what they had and turn it into greatness!”
The all-day event, which included a vigil Mass celebrated by Archbishop Gregory Aymond, offered live music, a pop-up adoration chapel, continuous access to the sacrament of confession and booths manned by communities of religious. More than 300 young people gathered in the front of the altar when the archbishop asked those who were feeling the tug of the priestly or religious life to come forward.
First-time festival attendee Brady Stiller, a Jesuit High sophomore and a parishioner of Mary Queen of Peace, said he was most looking forward to the festival’s concluding adoration and benediction time because he craved the opportunity to be in Christ’s presence “as a huge community, and not just by myself.”
“Hearing all the talks and all the music and seeing all the Catholics around us is really life-changing,” Stiller said. “I know that fear is a big problem when it comes to my faith – that’s really everybody’sproblem when it comes to faith,” he noted. “ But I definitely have the courage now to go to confession and Mass more often so I can take my faith to the next level.”
Abbey Youth Fest was coordinated by St. Joseph seminarians and Dumb Ox Productions.
Beth Donze can be reached at email@example.com.