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: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.