On a beautiful family retreat we were recently blessed to attend, seven families sat in chairs arranged around the perimeter of an extremely peaceful, nearly silent chapel. The theme of the evening was forgiveness, and following a very soul-stretching day of confession, conscience examining, and authentic apologies, we participated in a powerful feet washing experience, where each family member was supposed to have his feet washed by his loved ones. I watched with a wriggling toddler on my lap (and then on the floor, and then on my lap again) as the families before us had very moving experiences. It was as if you could see the healing of deep, often unintended, but no less painful, wounds actually taking place with each handful of water that was poured over their bare feet. Then, it was our turn. “I don’t want to tubby my feet! I need to pee!” yelled my three-year-old as she rolled her small body across the open floor of the chapel. “Why does he get to go first?? I’m older,” shout-whispered my ten-year-old. “I HATE you!” cried a very angry eight-year-old, whose feelings were very justly hurt by an older brother who had used the opportunity to write a note of kindness and apology to instead write a very mean-spirited and hurtful letter. Ahhhh, the loving sounds of holiness that resounded from my family at this most appropriate time. I turned to my husband and said, “Let’s just get this over with. How many feet can we fit in the bowl at once??” As the much more patient spouse, he reassured me that it would be okay, lovingly washed my foot, helped me wash each child’s foot (at times against their will), and then was promptly forgotten. His foot remained unwashed without a complaint. I realized it with emphatic apologies the next day, but he assured me that in the chaos, he didn’t even notice. And that’s how this weeklong retreat continued. A child vomiting one day, then petting a cactus (why????) to the tune of 30-something spines needing to be pulled out of his small hands, a baby who didn’t sleep at all (and therefore neither did I), and a very unhappy, tantrum-prone, sleep-deprived three-year-old attempting to cope with a completely different routine, all trying to focus on growing closer to Jesus in the midst of everything feeling miserable.
That’s just what growing in holiness is sometimes. When we read the stories of the lives of the saints, we see 80 or so years boiled down to 300 pages, and it really just offers us a bird’s eye view of their life. We do not really feel their day-to-day struggles and their hardships, nor do we fully immerse ourselves in the minute-by-minute breakdown of the challenges they faced during their time on this earth. Difficulties in the rearview mirror of our lives have the advantage of the full perspective of time only visible to us when seen in reverse, but suffering, in the moment, is not so cleaned up, focused, or understandable. At times, it can feel like forging ahead on this path to holiness is more like an uncertain hike through untamed wilderness than a stroll on a paved road with clear signs and directions, and learning the art of discernment is paramount but a challenge in itself. Placing Christ at the center of our lives during these ugly, frightening, or confusing moments is exactly what makes them beautiful times of growth in holiness that can only be fully appreciated in retrospect. Continuing to pray when our crosses that began as sprints turn into marathons, and there is no end in sight, is when we learn what holiness truly consists of: perseverance in pursuit of Jesus.
This is how our family is trying to grow in holiness. It’s not pretty, and it’s definitely not painless, but God calls us to holiness wherever we are and in a very personal way. I have many times sat behind families at Mass with seemingly perfect children. The ones who sit completely quietly in beautiful dresses that DON’T have blueberries smeared across them, and seem to sweetly offer their precious hearts to Jesus in prayer the entire time. It is a beautiful and very inspiring sight to behold. This has not been my experience of parenting, and one (or more) of my many faults as a mother certainly could be the cause of our challenges in child rearing. Those parents of perfect children absolutely have some incredible advice to help me be a more effective and loving parent. But the truth is that, even with all of my shortcomings, God gave me to my children, and He is going to use all of me - my gifts and talents as well as my weaknesses - to call them to holiness. God gave our very messy family to the other families on that retreat. Perhaps it was to help them grow in the virtue of patience or understanding, or perhaps as an opportunity to reduce their time in purgatory later on. Who’s to say?
When God gave my husband and I our children, He did not give us little robots to program them into drones who do life the way we would (like we’ve always done it perfectly??). He gave us people, with wills (often very strong ones), thoughts, and opinions all their own - people who He loves more than anything - to accompany through life. It is our most important job to form them in the faith and to teach them right from wrong, but eventually, their decisions will be in their hands. This means that we are going to have to watch them make mistakes, and help them turn to God in their darkest hours. We need to have the patience, and above all, the humility to accept that, just as we are imperfect, so too are our children. Our path to holiness as a family is bumpy and difficult. The line from the Litany of Humility (a very powerful and sometimes dangerous prayer) that always stood out to me is “that others may become holier than I, provided that I become as holy as I should, Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.” It’s a difficult request to make because, if our priorities are in order, there is no greater goal in this life than to become holy, and so we should try to become as holy as humanly possible. But it’s a bit of a Catch-22 because, while we are called to become as holy as humanly possible, it is possible that our holiest is not as holy as others’, and we cannot begrudge them that. The same is true for our families. Yes, my pride would LOVE for someone to say “wow, your family just exudes holiness! How do you do it?” But in reality, our family’s antics at Mass have invited wonderful fellow parishioners to answer God’s call to offer us kind words of encouragement or even reach out to help at times. The desire to become holy is always good; however, the desire to be perceived as holy can in itself become a significant barrier to our own growth in holiness. What we need to strive for, I think, is growth in holiness exactly as God desires.
I think that it all comes down to our need to recognize God’s ability to use all of it - every last bit of good and bad - to serve His will if we allow Him to do so. I hate when I lose my patience with my children, which I unfortunately often do. While I continue to pray for the grace to be a better, more intentional and patient, less distracted mother, I also pray that God can use my shortcomings to help my children. I try to see those moments of bad parenting as opportunities to seek forgiveness from my children, and, in doing so, I hope they are opportunities for my children to learn how to apologize by seeing me apologize to them. It would be nice to never need forgiveness, but we all need God’s forgiveness all the time. Oftentimes, it is in recognizing our need for His mercy that we realize just how great His love for us is. It is in seeking His forgiveness that we discover our own humility as well as His greatness. Only a God as great as ours could use our successes as well as our failures to accomplish His holy will - not that we strive for failure - but that we give our failures to God when they happen (and oh they will happen!), so that He can do great things with them.