What my ‘yes’ meant

I just recently attended my eldest child’s middle-school choir concert.

As I watched her sing her heart out up on the stage–this daughter of mine who prefers music and theater over any sort of organized athletic competition and who, at twelve years old, still exudes a youthful innocence and relentless joy–I had a most terrifying (and, regrettably cliché) thought: my little girl is growing up.  Time is slipping by.  My family is entering a new era, marked by teenagers.

Motherhood, I confess, was not something I spent much time dreaming about and wishing for during my formative years.  I am an only child (yes, only children can go on to have eight or more kids of their own, and live to tell the tale!), I was not raised in the Catholic Church, and I was nearly thirty years old before ever really encountering the concept of openness to life in marriage.  I had even–quite unfortunately–used the birth control pill upon getting married, before I knew better.

And yet here I am today, owner of a 15-passenger-van and an abnormally large (and full!) dining room table.  Something in my heart dramatically changed all those years ago, when I learned my husband and I–just 21 and 22 years old at the time, respectively–were expecting our first child, and even more so once she was born.  Pregnancy, childbirth, and parenthood somehow all felt very right for our marriage, this natural result of conjugal love that mysteriously brought us closer to one another and, also, closer to God.  Motherhood compelled and changed me in profoundly unexpected ways.

That is of course not to say that motherhood is, or has ever been, easy.  Even beyond the lack of quality sleep and Everest-sized mountains of diapers and laundry, there is an inevitably heavy weight we mothers carry.  And I don’t so much mean a cloud of gloom or sadness that follows you and your passel of crumb-spewing kids around–truth be told I do more laughing than crying in my life, quite possibly as a coping mechanism, although I prefer to think of it as a grace from God.  No, more than anything, I suspect it is the weight of our yes, the knowledge that in embracing an openness to life we must also necessarily embrace an openness to not only joy, but also to sorrow.  I am presently thrilled to be pregnant with my fifth biological child, but I have suffered through three miscarriages, too.  I am blessed to be a mother to four adopted children, and yet each of their stories includes loss and brokenness as well.  Half the time I’m not certain of what exactly I’m doing or supposed to be doing, but I keep showing up, and laughing, and I figure at least that’s something.

It is humbling, this vocation.  When I talk with other moms, I sense both a strong and determined desire to do the right things (particularly when it comes to discipline, education, and character formation), and a fear that perhaps even in doing our best, it is just not enough.  I confess that I find myself worrying the same thing, in between shuttling my people to soccer practice and signing field trip permission slips so they can attend the symphony.  Then when a child messes up or makes a mistake, I become convinced that things have Officially Gone Awry and I’m in way over my head.  Of course, I probably am in way over my head.

But maybe there’s a little bit of freedom there, too.

Perhaps it is this very acknowledgement of (and strange ability to laugh at) my own weaknesses and limitations as a mother that enables me to press on, to keep loving, and to find the simple joys in the most mundane of things.  Maybe this is what steels my resolve to advocate for my two daughters with Down syndrome, to find help for a son who is struggling at school, or to shrug when my day doesn’t go quite as planned.  (That last one never happens to you, I’m sure.)

Even after having made peace with being a mother and all it entails, I still daily long for the courage to not only live my vocation, but to boldly embrace it with Jesus’ love.  Pope Pius XII once said of mothers that, “Undoubtedly nature’s voice speaks in her and places in her heart the desire, joy, courage, love and will to care for the child; but to overcome the suggestions of fearfulness in all its forms, that voice must be strengthened and take on, so to say, a supernatural accent”.

Some of us called to the vocation of marriage may have several children, and others but a few. Still others carry the cross of longing and hoping for a baby that may never come.  What we tend to all share in common, though, is this struggle with fearfulness–we feel the weight of our yes, we want to do all the right things, and we want to know our lives are meaningful and fruitful.  Yet we need look no further than to our Blessed Mother and her beautiful fiat to see that even amidst the deepest pain and most horrible suffering?  There was peace, fulfillment, and joy in merely living out God’s will.

Which is, ultimately, what we mothers are doing when we comfort sweet little ones and sit through torturous IEP meetings.  This is our mission as we listen to the long and tedious litanies of the day’s fifth grade happenings (oh, the drama!), and when we find ourselves scouring the metro area for VERY NECESSARY (and last minute) science project supplies.  It’s our aim when we face the devastating loss of a baby through miscarriage after miscarriage, or the death of an older child.

It is what I have done in waiting rooms and ICUs, during a fragile child’s open heart surgery.

And as I reflect on sitting in the audience with my husband, seven other children, and my big pregnant belly, watching my daughter sing with a huge smile on her face–right on the precipice of entering her (gulp) teen years–I know deep in my heart that God will continue working, shaping, and molding.  He will be faithful to my family, as He always has been.

As for me, I’ll do my best, come what may, to continue giving my humble, clumsy, and fear-tinged yes to God’s call on my life as a mother.

COMING UP: Healing hatred and anger after Charlottesville

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The confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the nationwide reaction to it are clear signs of the tensions simmering just below the surface of our society. But we know as people of faith that these wounds can be healed if we follow Christ’s example, rather than the path of revenge.

It was with a heavy heart that I learned about the Aug. 12 clashes between white supremacists and counter protesters in Charlottesville that resulted in the injury of around 34 people and the death of Heather Heyer. It was an “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” melee.

These events remind me of Pope Francis’ 2017 World Day of Peace message, in which he pointed out that “Jesus himself lived in violent times. Yet he taught that the true battlefield, where violence and peace meet, is the human heart: for ‘it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come’ (Mk. 7:21).”

What we witnessed in Charlottesville was an outward expression of hundreds of hearts, and as a shepherd of souls, I cannot stand by silently while people allow hatred toward others rule their hearts. Particularly reprehensible were the derogatory words the neo-Nazis and their white supremacist allies shouted toward African Americans, Jews and Latinos. This is not how God sees his children!

Every human being is bestowed from the moment of conception with the dignity of being made in the image and likeness of God, and we are all loved by him, even amid our sin and brokenness. Satan seeks every opportunity to twist these fundamental truths in the hearts of human beings and we can see the devastation it brings throughout history.

It can be tempting to respond to these attacks on our fellow man with violence, just as the members of the Anti-fascist movement (known as “Antifa”) did in Charlottesville. But this is not what Christ taught, since it allows hatred to gain a foothold through a different avenue. It is worth repeating: the human heart is the true battlefield.

Jesus’ response to violence and persecution stands in contrast with the way of hatred and anger. Instead, he taught his disciples to love their enemies (Mt. 5:44) and to turn the other cheek (Mt. 5:39). Christ’s radical answer is only possible because God unconditionally loves every person and is ready to forgive us when we repent. God’s love is the only thing that can cut through the hatred that is bringing people to blows, heal the human heart and form it after his own. As people of faith, we are called to bring the truth of love to these festering wounds so that hearts may be healed by Christ.

Joseph Pearce, the Catholic convert and former white supremacist, is a perfect example of this. In a recent article for the National Catholic Register, he recalls how it was his encounter with the objective truths of the faith that demolished his race-centered identity and seeing his enemies love him when he confronted them with hatred that changed his heart. We must pray for the grace to love as Jesus loves, to love as the Father loves.

“The way out of this deadly spiral,” Pearce says, “is to go beyond the love of neighbor, as necessary as that is, and to begin to love our enemies. This is not simply good for us, freeing us from the bondage of hatred; it is good for our enemies also.”

May all of us follow the great example of Mark Heyer, the father of the woman who was killed after the white supremacist rally. His daughter’s death, Heyer told USA Today, made him think “about what the Lord said on the cross, ‘Forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.’”

Jesus desires that every person have a heart that is whole and free from hatred, anger and pride. He desires to form our hearts, and that only comes about when we are receptive to his unconditional love, for only in receiving his unconditional love will we be able to give it to others. I pray that all the faithful will be instruments of healing for our country by bringing Christ’s forgiveness to their neighbors and their enemies.