A Mother's Faith: Better Off Broken
I’m sorry I dropped the ball on the regular post, it will be back tomorrow. This is another talk I gave this morning. The beginning tells JP’s story again so if you already know it, skip the first half.
Today I’d like to share with you some reflections on a critical tool in a mother’s mission of bringing her entire family, her children, her husband and herself closer to Jesus and ultimately to be with Him in heaven. That tool is faith. With you, I hope to explore what faith is, why it is important for us as mothers, and how we can grow in faith.
The gift of faith frequently comes disguised. I’d like to share with you my own encounter with the gift of faith that came to me in the form of my 5th child. While all children are gifts, my John Paul was more specifically a gift of faith. After a very challenging labor, John Paul was born, barely moving and in immediate need of respiratory support. He was immediately whisked away to the NICU and within 3 days he was transferred to Children’s Hospital. When John Paul was 5 weeks old, he was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy. SMA is a genetic, progressive neuromuscular disorder. At the time it was the number 1 cause of death for children under the age of 2. My husband and I learned that slowly, every muscle in John Paul’s body would weaken and ultimately waste away. The leading cause of death is complications from a common cold. You can imagine how I felt being told that my son would die from a cold, knowing that I had a 6 year old, 4 year old, 3 year old and an 18 month old waiting for me at home. We also learned that every time we conceived, we had a 1 in 4 chance of having another child with SMA.
We gleaned some hope from some families that we were put in touch with who were caring for their children with SMA at home, many of whom were living far past the doctor’s dim projections. We desperately wanted that for JP. When he was 3 months old, we brought him home with a g-tube, tracheostomy, a ventilator, and a host of other machines and equipment to help us manage his round the clock care.
Long story short, little by little we settled into our new normal. John Paul was constantly surrounded by his siblings who would practice reading to him, put on dance recitals, practice performing his physical therapy and start his g-tube feedings. He came to his brother’s soccer games and to his grandparents house for Sunday dinner.
I consider John Paul a gift of faith because while we never would have chosen to have a child with such severe disabilities, with his life came so many occasions of Our Father in heaven showering down his care and love on our family. I learned through John Paul that I was very much in God’s hands. I also learned that I was happiest when I was totally consumed in the needs of my family. John Paul taught me that we are so much stronger when we finally have the courage to accept our weakness and vulnerability and learn to rely on God.
Sometimes, the gift of faith also comes disguised as a cross. On February 20, 2013, when John Paul was almost 15 months old, he joined the saints in heaven. John Paul’s death was both an opportunity to grow in my faith as well as a critical time to be supported by the faith I already had. John Paul died during Lent and I was comforted in such a strong way by the joy of Easter, knowing that when I celebrated the Resurrection, I was celebrating the reason I could hope to see my son again some day in heaven. I also understood that the pain of my grief could be offered as a sacrifice which, united to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, could win graces that would help me grow in holiness. His death took on value because Jesus linked His own death to our access to grace. We actually need to suffer and die to get to heaven.
I quickly learned however, that I had a lot to learn as I started on my path of grief. Honestly, the idea of healing was not very appealing to me. You see, the pain of missing John Paul, was my new way of relating to him. I didn’t want to lose that. I imagined the healing of my grief was like the healing of a physical wound: You were “healed” when there was no longer evidence of the injury--that sounded too much like losing John Paul all over again.
Over the course of several years, I slowly was able to let go of that fear as I realised 2 things. First, I experienced the truth that my life was permanently impacted by my son’s life and death. I knew that I would always have evidence of John Paul since he was intrinsically a part of who I was now.
Secondly, I realized that I had control over how my experience with John Paul would affect the rest of my life. I didn’t have to be limited to a relationship that was merely missing him--if I had the courage to embrace the fact that I had a son in heaven, instead of wishing he was here, I could develop a living, active, dynamic relationship with him. He has become my go to guy for help with almost any intention.
I especially love weather help. (My sister got married on the anniversary of John Paul’s death-February 20th and at first, to be honest, I struggled a little with sharing that day with her but eventually I decided that I would go to JP and pray that there wasn’t a blizzard or snow storm that would complicate their wedding celebration. It was sunny and 70 degrees that day and I was one proud mamma.).
Every December on JP’s birthday we hang his stocking with all of the other kids and between then and Christmas-we fill his stocking with prayer requests--because what does a saint want for Christmas? To be put to work!
A fear of healing wasn’t the only fear I had to confront after John Paul’s death. My husband and I both come from large families and we went into marriage wanting that for ourselves. But now I knew that each time I got pregnant, we had a pretty decent chance of having a child with severe disabilities and terminal prognosis. Despite the joy that John Paul brought to our lives, I wasn’t sure if I could handle more of that roller coaster of intense care and then subsequent loss. I was afraid to have more children.
After a few months though, I quickly sensed a real emptiness in my life. I hated the feeling of making decisions based on fear and I couldn’t ignore a little voice in my head that spoke to me whenever the issue came up. It was a quiet, but clear voice that said, “But didn’t I take care of you?” and “Weren’t you happy?” The voice didn’t guilt or shame me, but it spoke the truth. It’s important to note also that it didn’t say---”don’t worry, you won’t have to deal with that again.” Ultimately, my husband and I decided to surrender any future children that we might have to God’s plan. We lost 5 more children to miscarriage during the following 4 years, at least 2 of them we discovered to have the same illness as John Paul. On the 4th anniversary of John Paul’s death though, our second daughter, Annalise was born, then 18 months later, Max came along, and 16 months later, Flynn. They are 4, 3 and almost 2 and doing great!
When we first think of faith, a few things may immediately come to mind: we might think of the phrase “taking a leap of faith”, or perhaps we think of a “profession of faith” where we declare our beliefs. But actually, these things, while related to faith, are more the result of faith than what it is. As usual, a very helpful place to look if we really want to grasp what faith is, is to look to Mary. A very well known spiritual writer, Caryll Houselander, describes Our Lady as a hollow reed or even more clearly, as a nest, formed with a perfectly formed space to receive an egg. With that image we can understand her ability to say “yes”, to welcome our Lord into her life and into her very body. Mary is a model of receptivity because she was not “full” of sin, or pride, or any attachments to her own agenda or desires. She was receptive because, like a hollow reed, she had room for Jesus in her heart. Ultimately, faith, our ability to let Jesus fill our hearts and our lives, is a gift. In order to accept that gift of faith, we have to prepare our hearts by regularly making space--getting rid of our pride, our attachments to our “picture perfect family”, letting go of our fears and our past and present wounds.
As mothers, we need our faith as we navigate the many crosses both big and small that we encounter on a daily basis--sometimes we can be bogged down more by 100 little contradictions--sleep deprivation, a tantruming toddler, a packed schedule of soccer games and DC traffic- than we can by one larger cross. It all requires a lot of supernatural perspective to keep us optimistic and cheerful. We also want to equip our children with faith because we know that if faith is critical for us to survive life’s ups and downs, so too for them.
So, how do we grow in faith ourselves and how do we give the gift of faith to our children? These are two questions that are really inseparable because I think the number one way our children are going to mature into faith filled adults is by observing us. If they see us seeking Jesus in the sacrament of the Eucharist and seeking his mercy in confession when we fall--they will remember that. If they see us making time in our day to talk to Our Lord in prayer and reading the scripture--they will know where we draw our strength when we struggle.
A famous spiritual writer Fr. Jaques Philippe, in his book Fire and Light, identifies 8 attitudes which help us prepare for the gift of faith:
Perseverance in prayer,
practice of interior peace,
live in the present moment,
I want to highlight to you a major difference between the attitudes that Fr. Philippe describes, and what mainstream society promotes as our goal. Many of these dispositions of our heart require an acceptance of the reality of who we are in relation to God and others. Society, on the other hand, pushes a goal of independence. In itself this is fine, but it is frequently taken to an extreme that fails to recognize that we not only need other people, but also that everything we have comes from our loving Father in heaven. Ultimately, this can be a source of great peace for us. Acknowledging our weakness really takes the pressure off!
In our families, mothers especially are creators of culture that tells our children where they are anchored. It is up to us to teach our children by what happens in the home that while they are obliged to use their God given gifts well and to work hard, ultimately we have a loving Father who sent his Son to die on the cross for us--and he is totally invested in helping us to be happy both on earth and some day, in heaven.
So how do we communicate this culture to our families? As I said earlier, the number one thing we can do is to be an example of having a life of faith ourselves. Do they see us pray at home, worship at mass and entrust our worries to His care?
Another thing that is immensely helpful in passing on faith in the home is traditions: children (and adults) love traditions and they can be great communicators of what the meaning of liturgical seasons are and also firm up their sense of catholic identity. Some examples we do in my family include:
- having an empty manger as a part of our advent wreath on the dining room table that the children can add straw to when they do a good deed--as a way of preparing Jesus’ bed for him when he comes at Christmas.
-Finding a creche scene that speaks to you that you might display somewhere the family can see at Christmas time. There are so many varieties of beautiful nativity scenes.
-We also have a tradition of saying a rosary at a Marian shrine as a family in May (frequently on Mother’s Day).
-Other well known ones are putting out the empty shoe the night before the feast of Saint Nicholas,
-doing a family Stations of the cross on Good Friday.
-Doing acts of service for the needy is another that is a wonderful thing to do as a family.
-Telling stories of people who live virtues in big and little ways.
There are so many other little ways to pass down faith--like ways to express gratitude for what we have been given by God (grace before meals and prayers of thanksgiving at the end of the day.)
Whatever you choose to do, it should be things that you find enjoyable and beautiful expressions of faith that you would want to pass down.
The Japanese have a technique that they use for repairing broken ceramics called kintsugi. They take the broken pieces and glue them back together using a very strong tacky glue but they also mix fine gold powder into the glue so that the repaired piece is streaked with gold veins wherever it had been cracked. Ultimately, the piece is not only stronger but more beautiful than before it was damaged. In fact, the more breaks in a particular piece, the more valued it is.
We all have chips and cracks and sometimes we are just sitting in pieces on the floor. But if we seek the help of our Lady and the graces that Jesus offers us through His church, we can also be stronger, more beautiful vessels, ready to receive and pass on that gift of faith.