This is the story of a year, but I must begin with this quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It will make sense later.
A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions…. (Virtues) make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life.
Generally when we think of our spiritual life we think of the great triumphs or the great failures. This definition of virtue though, reminds us that virtues are good habits. The more habitual an act, the less we notice ourselves performing it. Since I think I possess very few virtues in any sort of fullness, I am glad to get credit for that one time I didn’t gossip, and that week I was never irritable. However, one possesses the virtue more thoroughly when it is something we do without thinking, not when it is something we pull off once with great effort. Now just keep that in mind while I tell the story of the year between two Good Fridays.
Good Friday 2012 could be used to mark the beginning of a very difficult time. My husband had just left for training out of state. A week after he left I found out we were expecting. This was a joy, but facing the first trimester all alone with three other children was overwhelming. As daunting as that was, there followed a scary few days where it looked like we might lose this newest baby. The cause turned out to be a cyst that would need monitoring throughout the pregnancy. Meanwhile, two of my children caught a charming little virus called hand, foot and mouth disease. This little character causes ugly lesions on the face and extremities, fever, and vomiting. Best of all, it is contagious for about a month. So where were we last Good Friday? Thoroughly, thoroughly homebound.
I should say that Good Friday is perhaps my favourite day of the liturgical year. It is the day I most fully “feel” my religion. The imagery is powerful, the readings and music moving. So it was with a heavy heart that I decided I could not go to church that day and share our germs. We missed the Easter Vigil, the other highlight of my year, and even Easter Sunday. We celebrated quietly. I did not have the heart, or the energy, for a big Easter feast that only I would eat.
That was to be the beginning of a full year’s worth of struggle. Did you know your children’s fingernails peel a few weeks after hand foot and mouth disease? Did you know there are childhood medical conditions that cause potty training regression? Or that abdominal migraines are a thing? My grandfather died and I could not go to the funeral, one of those times where Canada might as well be on the other side of the world. When my husband finally came home we had a few months of semi-normalcy and then moved the family from Oklahoma to Louisiana. The move was exciting. We found a great house and everything was green! I still stare out drinking in all the green with a stupid happy Pacific Northwesterner in exile smile on my face. With room to spread out we all looked healthier. Even the doggie lost weight and the kids were outside exploring every day. Still, we left good friends behind in Enid, and it was lonely starting out again in a place we knew no one. Seven months into pregnancy is not the easiest time to make friends. Still easier than when the baby shows up and you’re learning to be a busy Mom of four though.
By January, we had settled in well to our new place. The baby, Dulcie Anna, was aptly named. She was sweetness itself. My husband was home more than he had been in years. He made dinner almost every night and I almost never had to clean the kitchen. The kiddos were all in perfect health, behaving very well, and amazing me every day with their blossoming personalities. We belonged to a great parish where I could feel my spiritual life reviving as I was fed with inspiring sermons, reverent liturgy, beautiful art and music, and vibrant community. So why could I feel myself sinking into a deep sadness all the time? Every time something would make me laugh or smile (which happened often! Life was good!) I could almost physically feel a weight lift for a moment only to fall heavily back down. I also wanted to sleep all the time. I would wake up and calculate what time we could do naptime. Then after naptime I would count up the hours until bed. I dragged myself through the day in a fog of exhaustion and stress. Luckily, with kids around I had to get up and get going and do it with a smile on my face. Still I felt like I had a certain amount I could give and at the end of each day it was used up to the very last drop. When my poor husband came home I would wonder where to find the energy to care for him too. It was like trying to operate on a budget that just can’t quite cover everything, like slowly going into emotional debt. At the time I did not recognize the cause as treatable postpartum depression. I knew the cause. The cause was me. I was a lousy mom, a lousy wife, a lousy Catholic. Of course I was sad. Anybody that lousy would be!
Proof positive of my lousiness came with the arrival of Lent. Honestly, by this time it felt pretty penitential just to get up every day. School was going well, kids were getting fed and loved, chores were being done, but underneath it all was this vast weight, this feeling of being all used up. Instead of any serious Lenten sacrifices I did some vague work on my personal foibles and kept planning to give up candy– tomorrow. The only thing that salvaged the season was the drama in Rome. I decided to read some of Pope Benedict’s writings, and then enjoyed getting to know Pope Francis through his words as well. I was most struck by how tangible his language is, or, because I can’t think of quite the right word, how incarnational. We are a sacramental religion, a religion where the physical world—already a great gift from God—is made sacred by His entrance into history, His union of divinity and humanity. Pope Francis’ preaching is full of imagery and adjectives that appeal to all our senses. After reading his words I would see everything through this prism.
As Good Friday approached again my mind was a soup of thoughts all boiling along together: The regular joys and sorrows of life, the burden of my unrecognized depression, the spiritual awakening from the events in my church both local and global. For Holy Week I was determined that after a mediocre Lent I would finish strong. I arranged to meet my husband for Holy Thursday mass. Preparing to load up the kids, I set them in a row on our kitchen stools so I could tie all the little pairs of church shoe laces. They had been playing outside all day and their feet were filthy. I thought it an appropriate moment on a Holy Thursday. How full every day as a mother is with little acts of service similar to Christ’s washing of the apostle’s feet. How often we kneel before our children and serve them. I think it was this thought that led to the realization I had the next day.
Remembering my sadness the year before when I couldn’t go, I decided to brave the Good Friday service although I my husband would be unable to join us. As anyone who has tried it knows, church with kids is a full body workout. It began before we even entered the building; lugging an infant in her car seat, holding a cranky, freshly awoken toddler by the hand, and trying to marshal the boys safely through the parking lot. Inside, my two year old performed her usual hair-raising gymnastic routine. She is very quiet in church. She quietly stands on the pew, quietly flings her upper body forward to create a bridge with the pew in front, and then quietly inches her toes forward until her legs swing out into space to land neatly on the kneeler. Meanwhile the baby needed to be nursed and the nursing shawl would snag on my chapel veil. Then came the veneration of the cross. Baby in one arm, toddler’s hand in mine, that hand on my eldest’s shoulder as he held his brother’s, I headed up to kiss the cross. Suddenly I thought of something I hadn’t before.
On Good Friday we put ourselves into the Passion narrative. We speak as the crowd. We relate to Peter’s bitter tears after he denies Our Lord. What I have never done, out of a sense that it would be presumptuous, is to put myself in Christ’s place. After all, who am I to compare my sufferings to his? We have enough money, a loving family, and are all healthy and happy. Yet at that moment in the aisle of the cathedral, chapel veil askew over tangled hair, arms aching, head full of worries, it felt like the road to Calvary to me. And it occurred to me that motherhood is a shortcut to the Way of the Cross
Patient reader, remember when I quoted the Catechism on virtue? Here is where it comes in. Suddenly I noticed not all the big triumphs and failures of my life but all the day to day habitual things. Kids were fed, clothed and educated. Husband was cared for. House was cleaned. Laundry got done. I got out of bed every day and did something for the people I love. I did it without thinking because we are hard wired to care for our children. Look at Jesus’ Passion. It wasn’t pretty. He begged His Father to spare him. He stumbled and needed the help of Simon of Cyrene. Yet we know that “greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” The catechism goes on to say that virtues “are acquired by human effort. They are the fruit and seed of morally good acts.” If we say yes to motherhood, the virtue of love is a gift that comes with it. Without even a thought we are naturally disposed to lay down our life for our children. It sure isn’t pretty.
We’re tired. We’re cranky. We need help and we cry out for relief, but it never occurs to us to stop. In fact, this cross is a joy to bear. From the moment of conception your baby demands that you lay down your life, yes even your body. Yet you love this new little person so much that you smile at the ultrasound even while you struggle with morning sickness. The thought of losing your little crosses is unbearable. We cling to those tiny, lovely, unique crosses entrusted to us with fierce love. Nothing would separate us from them. It would not be easier to lay them down, it would be impossible. Those kids kept me going when nothing else would. They put a smile on my face with their funny sayings, with their interesting thoughts, with their beautiful faces. Of course I took care of them. I was happy to. Not happy to be tired, not happy to be lonely, but happy to be their Mom? Yes, every day.
So on those days where every moment seems a desperate struggle to stay afloat, be encouraged. You are close to Jesus in those times. You may be struggling with the virtue of patience, or trust, or generosity, but even then you are habitually, unthinkingly, practicing the virtue of charity. Your love for your children will help them to know God’s love for them. You may not have every virtue, but you’ve got one and you’re doing a good job.