Mary and the meaning of Mother’s Day

I have celebrated eight Mother’s Days so far, being on the receiving end of not quite a decade of handmade cards and hinted-at gift suggestions from “the kids” (but perhaps purchased by daddy). I struggled early on with the fact that Mother’s Day, of all days and for all its charms, was not actually a day off for mother. That I was still needed for nursing, for disciplinary action, for snuggles and for diaper changes. I expect the first couple decades of motherhood to hold to a similar pattern. “Mommy, we made this for you. And we trashed the kitchen in so doing.”

The moment I started to enjoy my motherhood more deeply was the same moment I began to realize that it wasn’t actually about me. And it is a lesson I learn anew, over and over again. There is a battle that rages in my heart from the moment I wake up to someone’s early morning cries until the final stretch of bedtime chaos. I can loosely plan for little respites of relaxation and prayer with a cup of coffee or 20 minutes of stillness if all the nap times line up accordingly, but I cannot rely on it. In short: my days are not my own, and my time belongs to others.

In giving life, I have given my own life away.

Mary had a radically different experience of motherhood from the rest of us, at least on the surface. Only one baby, and what an exemplar model at that! A saintly husband who silently supported her decisions (she was perfect, after all), a child who never so much as rolled his eyes at her in sass, and God’s assurance that her domestic toils would merit an unfathomable heavenly reward.

Mary didn’t have to worry “am I doing this right?” or “will I mess him up?” And I bet she never felt like fleeing the house at Nazareth when Joseph came back from the wood shop at night.

And yet. I look at Mary’s history-altering fiat at the Annunciation and I see that her surrender was not death by a thousand diapers. Her consent to surrender immediate, it was immense, and it was ongoing. That fervent and fruitful yes at the very outset of her motherhood would encompass the remainder of her life on earth and chart the course for her role in eternity.

And in her surrender, she opened up the course of human events to a divine interruption such as the universe had never seen.

Mary’s heart was sufficiently open to receive the full power of the Holy Spirit’s love, a force so powerful that from her virgin womb, God the child would come forth nine months later. That’s the kind of love the world’s greatest mom is made of.

And her life with Jesus, however steeped in divinity, was not without heartache and toil. I think of the anxiety of the three days she and Joseph searched for tween Jesus, having lost sight of Him on a family road trip to Jerusalem; of the radical trust and courage it took to launch Him into His ministry at Cana, knowing full well the road to Jerusalem would dead end at Calvary. And of course, it is impossible to think of Mary without calling to mind an image of Michelangelo’s Pieta, a crushed and grieving mother holding the battered, lifeless body of her beloved Son.

In short, Mary saw it all. And that makes her the perfect model for us all, no matter how few or how numerous our children, and no matter how great or how hidden our crosses.

This Mother’s Day, let’s ask Mary to show us the radical power of surrender, and the beauty of a heart fully available to live one’s vocation.

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.