I had a dream that I was cleaning a sanctuary, and there was a beam that needed dusting high in the rafters. In order to clean it, I had to put on a special suit and scoot my whole body across the beam like a human swiffer sweeper.
From my elevated perspective, I could see people down below in the Church, and I couldn’t help thinking, “None of them would have bothered to clean this beam. They can’t even see what’s up here. But I see it, and I have to do it right, even if it means I die in the process.” The whole time I cleaned, there was a threat that I could lose my balance and fall down below.
The evening before this dream, I’d had a conversation with a dear friend who, like me, has six children. She’d just had another pregnancy scare. And yes, I use the word “scare” intentionally, since even though babies are always good, meeting the news of another pregnancy with a bit of fear is not unheard of. Particularly, a seventh child moves you into a whole new realm of spiritual and material investment. The eight passenger vehicle is no longer an option. Most homes are not made to accommodate the larger family. My friend’s husband had concerns about the stability of his job, and their oldest kids are in high school.
They had been shifting into another stage of life with older children, and my friend said, “I just can’t do it anymore. I cannot have another baby, even if it means I sever my relationship with the Church.”
She already felt challenged to give all of her existing children the attention she wanted to give them. “It’s true what they say about middle children always getting the shaft,” she said, “and I’ve got a whole house full of middle children. … I realize this vocation of Catholic motherhood is about love. Who am I capable of loving? Can I love the irritating neighbor? Can I love the unknown potential child? I don’t know if I can. I am stretched out of love. I can’t go any further right now.”
I know what it’s like to feel that there’s no place left in the world in which to grow. My own six kids have filled every corner our house with people and noise and shoes. The washing machine is exhausted. Our grocery budget is tired of being trampled on. The beds are sagging with the weight of us. The table is holding out its elbows to keep its place. When emotional flexibility is also at a premium, it feels like everything in our lives is about to snap.
“But you don’t need to sever your relationship with the Church,” I said. “There’s a lot of distance between I’m out of steam and I’m outta here. There must be a place in between where you can rest for awhile.”
It’s not surprising that such a place seems difficult to find. Over the weekend, I read an article on heroic parenting: “Has the Church Succumbed to an Anti-family Culture?” by Francis Phillips. Phillips writes:
“The Church tells Catholics to follow the path of natural family planning (NFP) or natural family fertility awareness – but without stressing that it should only be followed for grave reasons…
“Few Catholics understand the Church’s proper teaching on marriage and openness to life; even fewer follow it; and the result is that Catholic families tend to look and behave just like their secular counterparts. With rare exceptions, they are not the sign of contradiction that they ought to be.”
Phillips quotes an article titled “Heroic Parenthood” written by Christopher Gawley from the publication, Christian Order. Gawley’s piece is so full of straw men about his fellow Catholics’ reasons for using NFP, it’s almost not worth addressing. He accuses them of wanting to keep up with the Joneses and of “conjugal bulimia,” among other things. Finally, he issues a sort of fantasy marriage preparation program, expunged of the “vulgarity” of discussing bodily functions pertaining to the practice of NFP:
“For you young Catholic people who are marrying in your twenties, you can expect, God willing and absent a physical impairment or grave reason, to have a home filled with many children. You should mentally, physically and spiritually prepare for seven, eight, nine or more children given your ages. You should be prepared to accept the hardships that come with having a large family for two important reasons: children please our Lord and your cooperation with the Lord in bringing forth new souls will in turn please our God, which will bring you many graces. Second, having a large family will help you be saved, it will re-focus your attention from the material attachments that are both rampant today and hazardous to your eternal destination. Your many children will help you to become better and holier people and will stand as a contradiction to a world that has forgot how live the abundant life. You, and your large faithful families, will turn the tide against the scoffers and misanthropes who would revile God’s creation and man’s place in it. We cannot promise you it will be easy because it won’t, but if you persevere in prayer and virtue, you will overcome with God’s grace. And should you live to see your children’s children, you will praise God all the more that he saw fit to give you the gift of faith.”
Phillips agrees with Gawley’s charge:
“I find its message unassailable. It reminds me that we Catholics are not called to be ordinary, Mr and Mrs Average, heads-below-the-parapet types. We are called to be saints.”
A few things in both articles strike me as very true:
1. The Church loves large families.
2. Large families are a sign of contradiction in the secular world.
3. Having a large family can be a path to holiness and abundant life.
4. We are called to be saints.
The tone of the articles, however, misses the mark in my opinion.
Aside from having chosen the wrong pronoun with which to make a difficult point (“You” should expect to have seven or more children; “You” should accept hardships; “You” should be a hero and a saint.), by diminishing the promotion of Natural Family Planning to Catholic couples, Gawley’s vision allows only two options for married people: Be a hero or leave the Church.
These are difficult burdens to ask others to carry, and the result of laying such responsibilities on people who are too weak to carry them is that people leave the Church without ever even trying. If you had told me as a newlywed that I would have six children after 13 years of Catholic marriage, I would have turned around and joined the Presbyterians. There’s no room for graduality, conversion and growth in Gawley’s vision, no allowance for the work of grace on a soul as one child prepares a family, heart and soul, to welcome the next.
Not to mention, by saying, “I’m going to be a hero and I’m going to do it by having lots of kids,” I would be usurping God’s design for my life, dictating to him the terms by which I would achieve sainthood, rather than the other way around.
Fortunately, Mother Church is a bit gentler than these articles. She allows that when one feels arrested by life’s options–caught in a false bind between a heroism one doesn’t feel up for and being Mr. or Mrs. Average (Ew!)–it is OK to do nothing, to just…rest. Every good steward knows that fallow times are essential to the continued good health of the land.
Parental heroism is not limited to having a large brood. Sometimes the most heroic thing we can do is be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10). Listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit, remaining in assiduous union with Christ and his will at all times–this is what all Saints have in common.
Unfortunately, in order to hear that voice, sometimes we have to come down from our lofty position and sit with the rest of the rabble in the Church. We may be surprised at the humility and holiness Mr. and Mrs. Average bring to their vocations.