Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Trying to write or do anything in a house full of children, as any parent knows, sometimes feels next to impossible. Take, for example, this afternoon, when the only time I am actually getting words on the screen is when my cranky toddler is up from his nap and is sitting on my lap sticking a pen in my mouth. It might be the second time all day that he has been content, being the victim of a cold and of erupting molars. I would have preferred to do my writing during our afternoon “little silence,” but the other children did not make it very silent and are playing together while I amuse the baby. Like all parents eventually learn, I fit the non-childcare-related activities in the gaps between attending to what my children need.
Even if we in our selfish state would prefer to put our desires first, children will demand that their needs be met. As Christians our parenthood is part of the path to our sanctity, especially if we accept the call to a deeper love. Christ explains in Luke, “If you then who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Luke 11:13). We know how to give our children what is good, and God even more so will give us the grace that we ask of him. The grace to become holier is greater than any gift we could give our children. When we ask God for grace and receiving it well, we also bring grace into our children’s lives.
Lately, at the inspiration of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, I have been attempting, and often failing, to respond to my children happily when they interrupt me. When reading through her autobiography, Story of a Soul, one can find many instances where she chooses to overcome her impulse to make herself a victim in a situation, and chooses instead to respond with a smile and with love. She makes it sound so easy to sit by as the dirty water splashes her face while she does laundry with another sister, or to smile cheerfully at the elderly sister who complains about the help St. Therese gives. But she says again and again how it costs her so much to let these annoyances become mortifications instead of a chance to be self-righteous.
I relate to this lesson in my life as a parent. Choosing not to be indignant when my flighty child, who knows better, does that annoying thing again is a mortification that can purge me of my self-serving inclinations. It can be an avenue of grace for us both. Yet, it is also something that I cannot manage on my own, but can only achieve through much grace and through the intercession of saints who have accepted mortifications like these.
I laughed when I read this passage from St. Thérèse:
Dear Mother, I would amuse you, I believe, when telling you about all my adventures in the groves of Carmel; I don’t know if I have been able to write ten lines without being disturbed; this should not make me laugh nor amuse me; however, for the love of God and my Sisters (so charitable toward me) I take care to appear happy and especially to be so. (Manuscript C 17v)
Switch out “groves of Carmel” for “inner suburbs of Saint Paul”, and I relate entirely, except for that last part. What a joy it would be to be able to appear happy and to be so, even when disturbed! And isn’t the joy I give and receive in my vocation more important than the words I put on the screen or the amount of learning my home-schoolers actually attain on a given day? The root of responding with joy is love itself. And it seems that for St. Therese, the more she chose to respond with joy, the more joy she actually had.
Last week in anticipation of her canonization, I read a very sweet children’s book about Saint (Mother) Teresa of Calcutta to the children, and the part about the joy she always had despite the dark night she was experiencing, stuck out to me. Here is another saint for those of us who have trouble being joyful: when the baby is teething, the children won’t do their schoolwork, the chores all need to be done, the projects are overdue, and the work hours are long. Mother Teresa is an example for us when we in our own aptitude for sin are tempted to respond harshly to the human failings of others. She said in the constitution of the Missionaries of Charity: “The best way to show gratitude to God and people is to accept everything with joy. A joyful heart is the normal result of a heart burning with love.” Accepting everything with joy is not an easy task, but these two saints showed with their very lives that it is possible through grace.
Mother Teresa and St. Thérèse both touched many souls and became holy by focusing on doing little things with love. We all have the opportunity to do little things with love, and while the days get long, and caring for others is always a little messy, these things done in love are the things that will make us holy. And it is only by the aid of love, that is God, that we are able to do anything in love.
It strikes me as strange yet wonderful that my vocation as a wife and mother can be sanctified through a similar means to these two women called to the consecrated life. Their lives gave them more time for focus on prayer, but they were still human, and their sanctification was achieved by the very grace that is being offered to us all. The fruits of the Holy Spirit, to love and to have joy, are what our children need most from their parents. It just has to start with the smallest of acts of love: responding cheerfully and choosing to be thankful for every opportunity to be mortified of our selfishness. It is not easy, but our Father will not refuse his gift of the Holy Spirit.
We are all called to a vocation that is love no matter what our walk of life: “I saw that all vocations are summed up in love and that love is all in all, embracing every time and place because it is eternal. In a transport of ecstatic joy I cried: "Jesus, my Love, I have at last found my vocation; it is love!” (St. Thérèse, Story of a Soul, Ch 11)
For example, this never could have been written had my husband not come home and taken the kids outside for an hour so that I could write these reflections. These little acts of love can make saints of us all.