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.
I sat on a blanket beside my friend on a warm summer morning as we watched our children participate in a soccer camp. We were reflecting on motherhood and how it had changed us over the long, but short, years that we had been mothers. My tenure as a mother is just shy of a decade, so really, not that long.
I explained to her how I had been reading the Institutes of St. John Cassian as part of my research for a (very, very) long term project, and that I have found his instructions to monks about growth in virtue very applicable to my life as a laywoman. Not that I am called to the austerity that the desert fathers lived, but that the austerity that they are called to is parallel to that which a mother and wife is called.
I brought him up to my friend, because, Cassian, when talking about covetousness made a point that rang so true to my experience of seeking to grow in holiness in my vocation: “[T]here is no one who has not something to give up.” (Book VI, Ch. 27). He was talking about a monk’s attachments to material things. But for me it spoke of my attachment to my self, my preferences and my own way.
My growth in my vocation has been a giving up of myself to my husband, my children, my work. Little by little my time and energy has been portioned out between all the things that God is calling me to, and on the days that I give myself up to it, I find great joy and fulfillment. On the days that I snatch at what I am called to give away for indulging in my favorite distractions, I am unhappy, cranky and unfulfilled. On those days, I turn more and more to things outside my life to fill me up. But on the days that I embrace the grace of my vocation, I find little moments of joy in the home life my husband and I have established.
Last week my husband and I received a letter from a dear friend who entered a monastery last year. He had responded to my comparison of what he had given up to become a monk to what I told him I had given up to live my vocation well. He’s given up the majority of his possessions, living near his family, most of his friendships, but also his own will as he lives under holy obedience to his superior. I have not given up possessions (though we do survive on the one income of a philosophy professor). I have given up my hometown and even choosing the city I live in since job possibilities are so limited for my husband. Many of my friendships have changed because of distance. But the hardest thing to give up has been my own will in order to live my vocation as I should.
If we want to be holy, we have to give up our will. I realized after reading my friend’s letter that all of our paths to holiness lead us to this end, to this surrender of our pride and our absorption with our own wills. We must ultimately give over of all that we desire to God. When we acknowledge that His will is what brings us happiness, then we are stripped of our pride, and able to image more fully our eternally giving God.
“[H]umility cannot possibly be acquired without giving up everything: and as long as a man is a stranger to this, he cannot possibly attain the virtue of obedience, or the strength of patience, or the serenity of kindness, or the perfection of love; without which things our hearts cannot possibly be a habitation for the Holy Spirit.” (St. John Cassian, Institutes, Book XII, 31)
What we are called to give up differs greatly from parent to parent, from career to career, from calling to calling. I give up much of my will and independence to spend each morning homeschooling my children, and my afternoon is given over to my work of writing. The rest of my time is allotted between managing my home and staying close to my husband. Yet, now more than ever, my life has a peaceful fullness to it.
I came to this serenity through much angst and prayer. With each change in my schedule due to the increasing demands of my vocation, I would come before God in my prayer time, and ask him, Must I give up even more of my time and energy? And his response was always, Yes, but I am enough. He also showed me that he would make a way for the things that give me joy (such as writing).
I have to be continually reminded that his way is always better than mine, and I know that I will spend the rest of my life being stripped of the things I have not yet given up. There is always something more to give up, to the God whose own Son gave all for us.
Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:3-11)