We had an extended visit with my in-laws this year for Christmas. On our last night there I was sitting outside of the bathroom door packing up my suitcase and simultaneously listening to my older daughters playing in the bathtub. As I sat there, I was met with a stream of questions that will be familiar to any parent:
“Can we turn off that light so that we can just have the other light on?”
“Can you fill up the tub more?”
“But can you please turn off that other light, so we can just have the one light on?”
“Why? Why not?”
Because I said so.
It was the end of our stay and I was worn out by the endless questions of small children who are not in their usual daily routine. “What are we doing tomorrow?” “When are we eating dinner?” “Are we going to Mass again tomorrow?” (So many Masses in that Christmas octave!) I was sure that I wasn’t answering as patiently as I should be. But at the end of this barrage of questions, my father-in-law peeked his head out of his room down the hall (having overheard the whole exchange), and told me, “Michele…God bless you.” He chuckled softly.
My father-in-law is one of my biggest cheerleaders in life, and I can’t begin to describe how much those words meant to me.
I love being a mother. I love my children and I love spending my days with them and getting to know them. But so much of what I do is hidden. There are the internal struggles: trying to be as healthy, kind, and gentle as possible. There are the external struggles: the exhaustion from a toddler that still wakes up to be nursed during the night, the kindergartner who wakes up with nightmares, the constant buzz of activity and movement that comes with trying to keep a pack of little ones alive and educated and cared for every day.
Sometimes, it can feel crushingly lonely. I love the time with these little ones, but I miss being surrounded by other adults – friends, family, and colleagues. I miss report cards and feedback and affirmation for the work that I’m doing. Little ones don’t give that kind of feedback. (It isn’t their job to!) In fact, sometimes, when you are doing exactly what you should do as a parent, you’re met with negative feedback in the form of a tantrum or a child yelling, “You’re a bad mommy!”
But the reality is that most of what any of us do is hidden. Even people that aren’t stay-at-home parents often do a lot of good work that is hidden from the eyes of the world. Even people who work for the Church – like my husband and myself – typically aren’t being made saints by that work as much as they are by the work of changing a dirty diaper when they first wake up in the morning (God bless my sainted husband) or soothing a fretful child in the middle of the night. Sanctity is often found in the hidden moments of daily sacrifice.
For the past few years, I’ve been participating in a local chapter of the Well Read Mom book club. The book for this Advent and Christmas season was the beautiful The Reed of God by Caryll Houselander. If you’ve never read this slim volume, I highly recommend it. It is a lovely book to take to prayer.
The book is about Mary, who is the “reed of God,” in that she willingly allowed herself to be an instrument through which God’s Will so beautifully played out. One of the themes is how God chose to work through Mary’s humility and littleness. In the chapter “The Way,” Houselander writes,
“And yet, when the years move on and we look back, we find that it is not the social reformer or the economist or even the church leader who has done tremendous things for the human race, but the silly saints in their rags and tatters…”
I was reflecting on this theme recently, realizing that the work that God called me to is mostly hidden and is unlikely to lead to my canonization. Hopefully, though, it is making me into a saint. Canonization isn’t the goal. Sainthood is. Sometimes, God sees fit to display an individual’s holiness to all the world through canonization, but it isn’t necessary in order to be admitted into heaven. Most saints are hidden.
In fact, most of what Mary did was hidden. In the Scriptures, we encounter a handful of stories from different points in her life. But there is so much that we don’t see and can’t know. Yes, Mary is a saint because she is the Mother of God. But she is also a saint because of the ways that God revealed his goodness through her in countless little ways.
Being that she was a mother, I’m guessing that one of the ways that he revealed his goodness in her was through her patient answering of a barrage of questions from her small Son (who, although possessing perfect knowledge in his Divine nature would still ask questions in his naturally inquisitive human nature). And, I’m guessing, most people didn’t see those little moments. We’ll likely never know anything about those little moments this side of heaven. But, undoubtedly, they existed.
It is because of this that Mary, our Mother, is uniquely positioned to be our cheerleader on our way to heaven. Elsewhere in the same chapter, Houselander reflects, “While we are seeking in one another for the lost child, Our Lady still seeks and finds Him in us.”
Mary looks at us and sees her Son in us. She loves us as her child. She beckons us to allow ourselves to be the reed on which God plays.
And like my father-in-law, she is there in our hardest moments, recognizing our struggle and affirming us with an affectionate smile and encouraging words, “God bless you, dear child.”