Kitty Cleveland once dreamed of Broadway, singing and dancing around her childhood home in New Orleans, a place rich with musical history.
Yet, the summer before her senior year in high school, Cleveland went on a retreat and came back ready to give her talents to the Lord.
Cleveland is currently working on a jazz standards CD, a project that she hopes will reach both secular and Catholic audiences (KittyCleveland.com). She will also record a CD of Marian hymns early in 2014. She spoke at the Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women (Endow) Gala this past spring.
Cleveland shared with the Register her defining moments of faith and glorifying God through music.
You had a profound conversion experience in high school. How did that affect what you wanted to do with your music?
My conversion began when, from the depths of my heart, I cried out to God and said to him, "If you’re real, I want to know." In that moment, I was flooded with intense joy, to the point that I wept for hours from the profound awareness that God was not only real, but he loved me and was living inside of me. I was 16 years old, and it remains the most intense experience of the presence of God I have ever felt.
After that, my dream changed from singing on Broadway to singing music for and about the Lord. I wanted to share with people the incredible joy I had discovered. God wasn’t just something our parents were trying to force on us to make us behave, but he was real, and he loved us more than we could imagine. I wanted to make music that would convey those kinds of truths.
Where do your song ideas come from?
Most of my original songs have come out of painful experiences. Writing seems to have a way of helping me process them in a way that helps me (and I hope others) to embrace the crosses of life with faith, hope and love rather than despair.
Can you describe an experience in which you really felt the Lord’s presence while writing or recording a song?
The night John Paul II died, I was feeling truly orphaned. I had been in Rome only a few months earlier and was told I might be able to sing the Ave Maria for him — a long-standing dream of mine — but he became ill during the audience and had to leave. The night he died, I went to our parish adoration chapel to pray, when a woman I had never seen before turned around and asked if I wanted to know the Holy Father’s last words. I said, "Sure!" and she responded, "I have looked for you all my life, and now you come to me."
As I pondered those words, gazing upon Our Lord in the monstrance, I decided that it was Jesus himself whom JPII was addressing. What a beautiful, consoling thought that was! Within 30 minutes — very unusual for me — I finished writing Now You Come to Me, the lyrics having been inspired by his last words and by what I imagined he was saying to me as his spiritual daughter.
Can you describe any other pivotal moments in your faith life?
One of the biggest crises for me was when I had to choose between obedience to the moral teaching of the Church and my desperate desire for motherhood. When my husband and I could not conceive, well-meaning people started suggesting in vitro fertilization as an option. A nun then told me that it was immoral, and I was totally devastated. "How could there be anything wrong with children?" I thought. I just couldn’t understand and was really angry.
After working through the stages of grief, I finally said, "Lord Jesus, if you are asking me to surrender my unborn children, okay. Okay. But you’re breaking my heart!" Up until that point, I was pretty much a renegade "cafeteria" Catholic. It was at that moment, when I surrendered my will out of love for the Lord — trusting him while still not fully understanding — that it felt like my heart tripled in size with love for him and for the Church.
It’s been said that a river without levees is a flood — i.e., when we disregard the guidance the Church gives us in matters of faith and morals, destruction and chaos often result. The understanding came for me, with time, that there’s a lot of freedom within that "river," but the rules are there to protect us, not to keep us from being happy. That was a defining moment for me that eventually led to the adoption of our daughter from China. I can’t imagine my life without her.
Why is it important for lay Catholics to evangelize?
We Catholics have all been commissioned to evangelize by virtue of our baptism, and the Church needs us. If we don’t accept that responsibility, how many souls will be lost because of our apathy? The only way we can do it is to put Christ at the center of our lives. The more we are called to do and the busier we are, the more important it is to make that time to pray and foster that relationship with the Lord, even to "waste time" with him. I finally realized that I’m going to die with a to-do list — it will never all get done. So I have to schedule in my prayer time each day as my first priority, not as an afterthought if I have the time.
How should women in particular evangelize?
First and foremost, we should begin at home as we nurture and encourage the souls entrusted to our care. Where goes the family, so goes the world — and we are the heart of the family. We have a tremendous capacity to love, and God desires to love through us.
Our contemporary culture has a disdain for the traditionally feminine gifts, and many women have bought into the lie that they need to become like men in order to be "free." But we women have a humanizing influence to contribute to the world and to the Church.
Outside of our families, we can evangelize in secular environments by simply being authentic Catholic Christians, e.g., by not "hiding our light under a bushel basket" for fear that people will be judging us as "holier than thou"; by looking for opportunities to serve others with gentleness, kindness and compassion, especially those most in need of God’s mercy; by sharing in love, when the time is appropriate, the gifts and wisdom of the Church.
You have a beautiful story about your relationship with Mary. Can you share that with our readers?
For much of my life, I unconsciously felt that Mary was distant and aloof, up on a pedestal and not at all interested in me. This changed last fall, as I was pondering in adoration the title of Mary, Mediatrix of All Graces. When I asked the Lord what this meant, I saw a stone cottage with a fire burning in the hearth, which I understood to be my soul and the blessed Trinity dwelling within me. Then I saw myself open the front door to find presents on the doorstep, which I then took in. The next day was the same thing: I opened the door, found the presents and took them inside. Only this time I saw Mary standing outside, and I realized that she had placed all of the gifts there, i.e., every grace and blessing I had ever received my entire life had come from God through her intercession, just like she did for the bride and groom at the wedding at Cana. I realized her closeness to me, her loving care for me my entire life and the painful fact that I had never said "thank you" or invited her in. And the whole time Mary was just waiting on me.
writes from Denver.