“The saints were those who sank themselves in their work, and so sanctified both themselves and it.”– Hubert van Zeller, Holiness for Housewives (and Other Working Women)
The “Unholy” Years
I spent a solid four years immersed in postpartum, pregnancy, anxiety, and depression. One of the worst parts of those years was my sense of spiritual failure.
I was constantly at home with babies who seemed to be tearing me away from my spiritual life instead of making my life holier. I struggled with the guilt of not attending daily Mass, not quiet time, neglecting to say my morning offering, or going months without visiting the adoration chapel.
I knew motherhood was supposed to be good and holy, but it didn’t feel that way to me. I wasn’t doing all the external practices that used to make me feel like a good Catholic, so I kept my distance from God.
God was trying to teach me something new in this season of life: that it’s not all about me. I was, in fact, praying more often than I thought, only it didn’t look the way it did when I was a youth minister. St. Thérèse wrote, “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.” I was looking toward heaven with a cry — that’s for sure! And I was never more aware of my weaknesses and trials than during that time.
What I couldn’t see back then was that those longings to change, even if it felt as if nothing was happening, were indeed changing me over a period of years. In those days of glaring inadequacies, all I could bring to God were my deficiencies. What I didn’t know was that those “nothings” were all that God wanted me to bring.
St. Faustina’s spiritual director once told her, “Comport yourself before God like the widow in the Gospel; although the coin she dropped into the box was of little value, it counted far more before God than all the big offerings of others.”
The poor widow, the blind man, the beggar, the prostitute, the good thief: we were all coming to God totally inadequate with nothing grand to give. But that’s precisely when God fills in those empty spaces with His grace and life. It’s in our deficiencies that we give God room to work.
On the other hand, the rich man and the Pharisees: they thought they had it together because they followed the laws and had impressive accomplishments. Only, Jesus couldn’t care less about those accomplishments on their own; He wanted the gift of their whole being in love. He wanted the good and the bad, their successes and failures.
When we are filled with self, and think we’ve got this mothering thing down on our own, there is no room for God. When we are emptied of self, then God can fill us with His divine life. It’s in these times of postpartum motherhood that we experience this self-emptying so poignantly, yet too often we despair and conclude that we must be failing.
But what if that’s just where God wants us to be? What if He wants it to seem as if we are failing at this mothering thing, just so we can realize how much we need Him, in the same way our babies rely on us to meet their needs?
One night, as I was journaling, I wrote that my faith is so weak. God spoke to me through Scripture and reminded me: “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9).
When I am weak, then He is strong. A postpartum spirituality is the recognition that we are nothing without God. We must bring to God our nothingness and let Him fill the spaces with Himself; His divine life, His grace.
It took me years to figure it out, but He was asking me to find His presence in the ordinary tasks of motherhood.
In my seventh year of motherhood, with four children at
home, my new spiritual director recommended that I read the book The Reed of God by Caryll Houselander. I had shared with this priest that I struggled to
relate to Mary in my motherhood. She seemed aloof to me, too perfect to
imitate. All my life I had wanted to love her as others around me did, but it
didn’t come easy. Then I read this book, and a whole new way of looking at Mary
was opened to me.
Mary’s life was actually very ordinary, much like mine. We don’t know the details of her life, but we can imagine they were similar to ours — nursing in the middle of the night, teaching the baby Jesus to walk, talk, and obey Joseph. She was a homemaker, shopping in the village and preparing meals for her family. She supported Joseph in his work as a carpenter. Nazareth was a small, lowly town. Nothing good or fancy would come from there, others had said (see John 1:46). Caryll Houselander wrote:
Yes, it certainly seemed that God wanted to give the world the impression that it is ordinary for Him to be born of a human creature.
Well, that is a fact. God did mean it to be the ordinary thing, for it is His will that Christ shall be born in every human being’s life and not, as a rule, through extraordinary things, but through the ordinary daily life and the human love that people give to one another.Caryll Houselander, The Reed of God
Even though, while caring for an infant, there are times when Christ seems far from you and quiet time seems hard to come by, Christ is actually very near. Christ is as close to you as He was to Mary when she was caring for Him — changing His diapers and shushing His crying.
To be like Christ is to grow in love, and other than the marital embrace, there is no human love like a mother’s love for her child. She gives of herself over and over again, without asking anything in return. So that yes to God in caring for your children imitates Mary in her yes to God in caring for Jesus.
Finding God at Home
As my frame of mind shifted from praying in church to praying at home, I had to figure out what that would look like. I now know that if God wanted motherhood to be filled with holy hours and church events, He wouldn’t have created babies to be so needy. But your baby needs you the way you need God, meaning all the time! Then I came upon the book Holiness for Housewives, written by Hubert van Zeller, a priest who was a spiritual director to many housewives. His simple guidance helped me to see the holiness in my everyday chores.
The only thing that really matters in life is doing the will of God. . . . Your whole business is still to look for God in the midst of all this [housework, daily tasks, and so forth]. You will not find Him anywhere else. If you leave your dishes, your housekeeping, your telephone calls, your children’s everlasting questions, your ironing, and your invitations to take care of themselves while you go off and search for our Lord’s presence in prayer, you will discover nothing but self. . . .
So it is idle for you to complain about the drawbacks to spirituality that you find in your particular vocation. There is nothing that you are up against that God has not given you the grace to surmount. You can, if you want, turn the monotony and the drudgery and the distraction into an expression of love.
In her diary, St. Faustina recounts her struggle, while on kitchen duty, to drain the pot of boiled potatoes. The pot was too heavy for her, and often the potatoes spilled out. So she began to avoid the potatoes at all cost, and the sisters noticed. What they didn’t notice was that St. Faustina was willing and wanted to drain the potatoes but lacked the strength. She prayed to God about her weakness, and He told her He would give her the strength starting tomorrow. The next day, St. Faustina volunteered to drain the potatoes and accomplished it with ease. When she lifted the lid, she discovered the pot was filled with roses, and she heard a voice within her say, “I change such hard work of yours into bouquets of most beautiful flowers, and their perfume rises up to my throne.”
Motherhood offers us the same opportunity: to turn our scrubbing toilets and changing diapers into bouquets of flowers. I was reminded of this once when I was steam cleaning the floors and Timothy, a five-year-old at the time, saw the steam rising off the mop head. He told me that if I put prayers on the steam, they would rise to heaven like incense. How wonderful a thought — my prayers rising to heaven on steam while I clean the floor!
“Your whole purpose, then, is to work out a way of praying that directs every effort towards God — and to work out a way of directing effort so that everything becomes a prayer.”Van Zeller, Holiness for Housewives
And even though the quiet times seem few and far between, I have surprisingly discovered over the years that there is a lot of time to be contemplative in raising children, as my thoughts rise to heaven while I do my ordinary, everyday chores.
This article is adapted from a chapter in Allison Auth’s latest book, Baby and Beyond: Overcoming Those Post-Childbirth Woes. It is available as a paperback or ebook from your favorite bookstore or online through Sophia Institute Press.
You can read an excerpt of Dom Van Zeller’s Holiness for Housewives here on CE, in the article “Let God Enrich Your Free Time.”