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: 500 years later, who was Luther?

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Hero, villain, heretic, saint, reformer, corrupter, man of integrity, bombastic glutton. Which image of Luther should we believe? Because Luther primarily sought not to reform abuses in the Church but to reform the Church’s beliefs, Catholics cannot recognize him as a true reformer or a holy man. Nonetheless, it is widely agreed that Luther played a major role in shaping the modern world. With the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant movement he initiated approaching on October 31st, we have been given a number of new books to assess his legacy.

Paul Hacker, Luther’s Faith: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion, preface by Pope Benedict XVI (Emmaus, 2017).

Hacker’s book provides an in-depth, theological analysis of the issue that stands at the heart of the Reformation: Luther’s teaching on salvation by faith alone. Pope Benedict’s preface tells us that the Reformation dispute fundamentally concerned Luther’s “turning away from the center of the Gospel” (xxii). Emmaus released a new edition of Hacker’s book for the anniversary this year. It was published originally in 1970 (in English translation), the fruit of Hacker’s own intense study of Luther’s teaching on faith that led him into the Catholic Church from German Lutheranism.

Catholics agree with Protestants that salvation comes only through faith. The key issue of dispute, which Hacker reveals, is Luther’s subjective emphasis of absolute, personal certainty, which cannot be undermined even by serious sin. Hacker describes Luther’s faith as reflexive, that is turned back on oneself, by emphasizing subjective experience and personal surety more than anything else. He describes how Luther differs from the Catholic position: “Faith is the way to, or the perquisite of, salvation, but Luther makes it coincide with salvation itself. This becomes possible because he has first identified salvation with the consciousness of being saved or the certitude of salvation, and then he equates this consciousness with faith” (71). Hacker shows us how this view of faith negated the Church’s authority, the sacraments, and even the need to love God.

Brad Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World (HarperOne, 2017).

For those looking for a more general and accessible book, Brad Gregory gives us a broader narrative of how Luther’s troubled conscience exploded into the crisis that tore Christendom in two. The first section looks at Luther’s own story, tracing step by step his conflict with Church authority. The second section explains how Luther’s teaching spawned a multitude of new sects and divisions, all interpreting the Bible in their own fashion. Greggory explains: “What the early Reformation shows so clearly is that scripture and the Spirt can be interpreted and applied in radically divergent ways. Once the papacy and the Catholic Church are thrown off, there are no shared authorities to adjudicate disagreements” (137). The final section looks at how the Reformation set the tone for the development of a secular culture. Though not intending these consequences, Gregory argues that the Protestant Reformers “led indirectly to a profound diminishing of Christianity’s public influence in Western societies. The religious disagreements and conflicts that followed the Reformation set the stage for religion’s eventual separation from the rest of life” (2).

Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (Viking, 2017).

Metaxas, who wrote a monumental biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, provides us with a different perspective on Luther. His book seems poised to capture the largest audience for the anniversary this year. While I can’t agree with his view of Luther as a hero of faith, I can appreciate his presentation of a more sympathetic and thorough look at a man who has inspired many Protestant Christians. It is helpful to recognize why Luther is such an important figure for so many people. This book definitely provides many more details on the life of Luther (with over 450 pages). However, I would exercise caution, because it unfortunately also contains many gross misrepresentations of the state of the Church at the time of the Reformation.

For instance, even though Metaxas shows us many ways that Luther encountered the Bible in his early life, he still claims that the Bible and Church had no connection in the early 1500s and that “the study of the Bible per se was simply unheard of” (52). Luther himself was a theology professor and throughout the Middle Ages the Bible was the primary text for teaching theology. Brad Gregory makes clear in his book on Luther that there were even “twenty-two editions of the complete vernacular Bible . . . published in German . . . by 1518” (29). Metaxas presents a false picture of Catholics as ignorant, afraid to pray to Christ, and thinking they must earn their salvation through works. Good historical research could easily dispel these myths, such as the books of Eamon Duffy, but we see Protestants continue to project Luther’s own scruples (hating God and spending six hours in Confession, 47) onto the Church of his time.

Jerome K. Williams, True Reformers: Saints of the Catholic Reformation (Augustine Institute, 2017).

What could have Luther been if he had chosen faithful reform? The answer is a saint. There is no doubt that the Church was in need of serious reform in the 1500s. We have a number of great saints who show us that fidelity to God does not contradict fidelity to His Church. They stood against corruption and initiated deep and abiding reform. The Augustine Institute has release both a book and video series on true reformers, who boldly spoke out against abuses and led to a deeper realization of the truth found in the Bible, read in harmony with the Church. These figures—Teresa of Avila, Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, and Charles Borromeo, for instance—continue to inspire us to take up the task of genuine reform today.