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: Strong temptations? Defeat them like the Desert Fathers

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The fact that we don’t do what we want but instead do what we hate is a problem as old as our first parents. Yet, we can interpret temptation either as that which is always keeping us away from God or as the very vehicle to grow closer to him.

The Desert Fathers believed it to be a necessary vehicle: “Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” St. Anthony of the Desert used to say. They saw the fight against these evil enticements as a step to love God in a deeper way.

Here’s how these radical followers of Christ – who fled to the Egyptian desert during the 3rd to 5th centuries to live a form of daily martyrdom in a land where being a Christian was no longer a risk – survived the strongest enticements of the flesh and the devil, as they sought to live out the Gospel and grow in perfection.

The sayings, teachings, maxims and stories they left behind, compiled and known as the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, show that a combination of three things: self-awareness, prayer and practicality, are key to battling the strongest disordered passions.

Alertness and action

“The early monks understood that temptations often come in the form of thoughts. We become attracted and have fantasies, whether that be in petty things, bodily appetites or social interactions,” explained Father Columba Stewart, O.S.B., expert on early monasticism, scholar and director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.

The first disposition they considered to be key, was self-awareness, “knowing what happens in our minds and hearts… how to recognize [bad thoughts] before we actually do a sinful action,” he said.

After this base, which requires continuous self-examination and attention to the inner impulses of the heart, the importance of prayer and practicality follow.

A hermit of the desert said to a young monk suffering from strong temptations, “This is the way to be strong: when temptations start to speak in your mind do not answer them but get up, pray, do penance, and say, ‘Son of God, have mercy upon me.’”

Prayer is not isolated from action. The hermit tells him to “get up,” “do penance” and “pray.”

Practicality can take on different forms, such as going in the opposite direction of the temptation or seeking help from another, Father Stewart pointed out.

“For example, when you’re angry with someone… thoughts of anger start emerging, and you replay in your imagination what made you angry. Then that turns into a mental video of how you’re going to get revenge. This is when self-awareness comes in and you realize that the thoughts you’re having are inappropriate,” Father Stewart said.

A first practical action would be to step away instead of going to find that person, he continued. “Then to use your mind and imagination to instead remember the times when your relationship [with that person] was better or think about the future and how great it will be when this passes.”

Light overcomes darkness

Also, this “get up” practicality consists in bringing to light one’s sins or temptations to someone else and not fighting alone.

“A common exhortation, attributed to many different monks, was that the Enemy, the devil, rejoices in nothing so much as unmanifested thoughts… A sin which is hidden begins to multiply,” Father Stewart wrote in an article.

He then explained that “If the devil was delighted by a monk’s self-imposed isolation, surely this was because the opposite of isolation, encounter with another, was the way to salvation.”

According to Father Stewart, this understanding led the Fathers to break from “the illusion of self-sufficiency, a pose which encourages self-absorption,” and find spiritual fathers.

“The desert tradition is universally insistent upon the young monk’s need for a discerning elder,” he explained. “The basic insight of the desert… was that one cannot grow towards perfection through isolated, solitary effort: grace is mediated through one’s neighbor, especially one’s abba [spiritual father].”

The way these early hermits fought temptations is one of many treasures that Father Stewart says they left behind. In fact, he encourages readers to look at the Sayings of the Desert Fathers as a source that is still “amazingly relevant.”

“[The Sayings of the Desert Fathers] have been very popular sources of wisdom and inspiration throughout history,” he said. “What sets [them] apart… is that they speak from and to experience rather than text or theory.”

“The tradition of Christian wisdom is great,” he concluded. “People only need to know where to find it.”