The Wisdom of Children and Hope in Suffering

My daughter is my greatest teacher. This seems strange in a world where children are reduced to a means to an end or even viewed primarily as accessories. In the West, children are something we have on our own terms. They do not exist for their own sake; they only exist if we will it. This is of course bunk. Any mother or father who has truly embraced parenthood knows that the entire meaning of our lives is to love and be loved in return. We love imperfectly, but it is why we are here.

Children teach us to love. They remind us of how selfish we are, which is the main reason so many in the West have abandoned parenthood. Parenthood comes with sacrifice and hard work. We don’t like having to look in the mirror, and children have a penchant for lifting up the mirror to our faces each day in order to reveal our failings. Parenthood is also the intermingling of joy and sorrow.

Our children take on our worst traits first, and then some of the good. It is one of the great struggles of parenthood. It is something that takes most of us by surprise and causes great disappointment within us. The last thing we want is for them to take on our bad traits. Our child will mutter some expression or respond in a manner that reveals our worst selves and how these little ones have absorbed exactly what we wish them to avoid. It should leave us stunned and humbled; pushing us to do better. Parenthood is to go on a journey. It is to walk along with a person who can reveal the good and the evil inside of our own hearts. The hope is in the end we will both have attained holiness, by God’s grace, and our perseverance.

Lately I have been contemplating the nature of suffering. I myself have entered a period of intense suffering. It has been a month since my fourth miscarriage. The original grief started with frenetic energy, an attempt to avoid the inevitable spiritual and emotional pain, and it has now lulled into the numbness that inevitably surfaces after a loss. I am also not one of those women who bounces back quickly physically. My body is a complete mess right now and all I can do is wait for it to reset. It took a year with my third miscarriage. Hormone deficiencies are exacerbated through miscarriage and the intensity of grief adds great emotional and spiritual weight.

My daughter has responded as well as a 5-year-old can be expected to respond in the face of my recent miscarriage. She only knows what it is to be an only child and she does not have the ability to comprehend the depths of grief at this point. I am thankful for this because no 5-year-old is mentally prepared for such gulfs. That does not mean she does not suffer. In fact, she suffers deeply through loneliness.

If ever there was a child who should not be an only child it is my daughter. Since a very early age, she has demonstrated a deep and open love towards other people. She is social, kind, and greets everyone she meets. She is an extrovert to the core, which she gets from her daddy. She accepts every child she comes across as a new friend and she is deeply hurt when that friendship is not reciprocated. She engages adults and children in conversation wherever we go and she is wholly unaware of her place as a child in society. She functions as a human person among other human persons.

She greatly desires a sibling. Yes, much of it has to do with the desire for a playmate, but she also wants a sibling to love, take care of, and lead. Mommy can only fill that void to a very limited extent. She reveals the ontological reality that all people are made for communion with God and with other people. We are social creatures by nature. She intuitively knows that she doesn’t belong alone. She knows that she is made to commune, to be in deep relationship with other people. She feels her status as an only child at a profound level. As her mother, I share in this Cross with her. The Crosses I face on my own are nothing compared the level of pain I endure in watching my daughter suffer. I would take all of her Crosses on if I could, but I know that is impossible and not even what is best for her.

It is a mother’s greatest desire to relieve their child’s suffering. One of the great battles I wage right now is in realizing that my daughter’s suffering comes from the fact that I cannot seem to have any more children. I cannot will my body to carry a pregnancy to term. I could not keep the four babies I have lost alive. My grief is exacerbated by my daughter’s loneliness. I can’t take her loneliness away. For reasons that are largely mysterious to me, God has willed only one child for us. No matter how much I yell at Him or my own body, I cannot change that fact.

My daughter is very good friends with our neighbors who have four children. She plays with them frequently, but she does not understand why she can’t play there whenever she is available. She doesn’t understand their need for family time. There are many times I have stood watching her, shoulders drooped, tears streaming down her face, and wails coming from her throat, because she is not welcome to participate in whatever is happening next door. She wants to commune and come to the party. She sees that community is a part of her deepest self and that Heaven is the realization of this reality as we enter into communion with the Most Holy Trinity.

No my daughter does not understand this at a theological level. She understands it at the deepest level of experience and I see it every single day. I walk it with her as I watch her struggle with loneliness. I long to take her loneliness from her. She isn’t a play-by-herself kind of person. She doesn’t cut herself off from her neighbor. Instead, she invites others in and she wants others to invite her into relationship. She waits for others to play and then she embraces everyone she meets.

My only hope is to trust that God will use her loneliness for some good. I must trust that He gave her the heart that he did because of the mission He will give her later in life and so she can touch lives now in true charity. I have to find some comfort, no matter how difficult right now, that all of this intense grief and suffering will come to some glorious end in God’s infinite wisdom and plan. Right now, I can’t see it, and chances are, I will never understand why my body is the way it is or why my husband and I have lost four children. It is as Bishop Barron points out in his Catholicism series: I am staring at a pointillist painting from an inch away and all I can see are dots. All I see is my pain and my daughter’s suffering. I am unable to stand back to see the whole masterpiece until I stand before the Glory of God, and based on past writings of the saints, the answers probably won’t even matter. Pax Christi.

 

I Have No Desire to Be an “Expert”

Our society is filled with “experts”. There are experts in politics, medicine, theology, philosophy, science, sociology, psychology, business, and the list goes on and on. An expert is someone who seems to know everything that needs to be known about a particular discipline. This should immediately put us on guard. Anyone who thinks they know everything that needs to be known about a subject, clearly knows very little. Humilitas is the hallmark of the wise. This is how we have been given the Socratic method.

Socrates is told by his friend Chaerephon that the oracle at Delphi told him that Socrates is the wisest man in the world. Socrates’ first question is: How can this be? How could he be the wisest man in the world? He is even more perplexed because the oracle cannot lie. So he goes on the mission of engaging with other philosophers and “experts” to discover the truth of the oracle. He quickly learns that most philosophers or sages of wisdom held themselves up in high esteem. They do not see their own limitations in knowledge or practice of what they teach. Socrates acknowledges his own limitations, and so, the necessity of humility in attaining wisdom is born. In this humility, Socrates proves to be wisest, precisely because he does not consider himself to be so. He recognizes that truth and wisdom are never fully exhausted. We must first come to know our limitations and then we can proceed on the journey towards wisdom and truth.

The expert is the exact opposite of Socrates. The expert holds up their knowledge as superior and ultimate. We watch news programs and are inundated with experts. The primary goal of all of these experts is to tell us how to think. How often does a self-purported expert tell people to study the matter in question for themselves? True, I am not going to delve into quantum physics at this point in time, but the opportunity is open to me should I decide to learn at least the basics.

G.K. Chesterton lamented the dawn of the age of experts. He saw immediately that it creates a power struggle and make us intellectually lazy. The expert removes our own responsibility in learning. We no longer consider whether or not what is presented comports with reality, which is truth. We are all called to be philosophers, or seekers of truth (Fides et Ratio). In fact, we are all naturally philosophers, that is what Pope Saint John Paul II meant. Every single person asks the question “Why?” on a regular basis. Why am I here? Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the meaning of my life? Does life have a purpose? Is there an after life? And the list continues on.

When we abdicate our own natural inclination to search for truth and wisdom, we leave ourselves trapped in a type of adolescence where we wait for other people to tell us how to live, act, vote, or understand a certain discipline. As Catholics, we submit to Holy Mother Church, but that is because we have learned through faith and reason, that Christ established the Church, it is the Holy Spirit who gives her form (life),  and that the Church will guide us ultimately to truth. Our job is to swim into the depths and plunge deep into the truth of the Most Holy Trinity through the Church.

I do not write because I am an expert. Theological study has revealed to me just how little I know. If that is not how a person responds to graduate level work in the expansive mysteries of our faith, then they are doing it wrong and they missed Socrates’ lesson. In fact, every good theology program requires the reading of Plato’s, The Trial and Death of Socrates. Humility is a requirement of any good student of truth. That doesn’t mean we do not battle intellectual pride. That is a great temptation for any student, including the student who labors at home in the autodidact fashion, rather than through formal study at a university.

There is a very real and tempting danger in academia to desire the position of expert. I know that I have fallen into this trap at times. There is great power in knowledge, but it must be harnessed and ordered to the good, the true, and the beautiful. My desire for self-gratification is not a properly ordered understanding of the knowledge God has given me, nor the intellect He gave to me. I did not create this intellect. I did not create the truths I study. I did not create the universe. I merely share in a limited fashion what belongs to Him.

My purpose as a writer is to open up the world to my readers. We are sojourners. We are on a journey towards truth together. Teachers, writers, artists, etc. are not meant to be “experts” we are meant, first to be students ourselves, and second, to point the way in whatever limited way God allows us to do so. When I write, I want to point towards the ultimate Source. I want my readers to jump into the deep. I want you to open up great works of theology, literature, philosophy, Church documents, Church history, art, etc. Sure everyone’s intellect is different, but that does not mean we cannot learn something, even if we walk away somewhat baffled. We should all walk away feeling small and unworthy in the face of great mystery.

There is nothing more complex or humbling than studying the very limited theology we have on the Trinity. Upon reading treatises–what few there are–on the Trinity our brain should hurt, and yet, our souls should soar. Terms such as procession, filiation, circumincession, spiration, paternity, relations of opposition, and tota simul are enough to make a person’s head spin. They only scratch the surface of the great mystery of the Most Holy Trinity.

When we read an article or a book, we should look to the author as a guide and fellow traveler. We do not hold them up in some supreme place and presently halt our own thinking and philosophizing. Instead, we should mull around what the author is saying and truly come to understand within ourselves what is being said. In the case of Church documents, there may be times we are quite literally wrestling with God, as Jacob did. We all wrestle with God and we all lose, but we become closer to our true selves as we allow God to deepen our understanding of Him, even in the struggles.

When you read my work, no matter where it is found, never think of me as an “expert”. I want you to go read the resources I provide. I want you to learn more than me. I want you to swim deep into the truth. There are so many great teachers in world history and I only play at it. I am formed by my teachers: Aquinas, Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, Justin Martyr, Benedict XVI, John Paul II. These are only a few in a very long and ever expanding list. Take my 1500 words and allow them to point you towards your destination: truth. That’s it. I want you to pick up the books I have read. The documents I study. That’s where I want you to go. The last thing I want is for you to think my 1500 words are good enough or the end of the story.

We live in a culture of instant gratification. We think 1500 words is good enough. It’s only good enough if we do not desire truth. It is only good enough if we want to remain trapped in mediocrity or to never try to understand why we are here.  If you read one of my articles and do not desire to plunge into the depths, then I am failing you as a writer. God bless you on the journey….

A Very Brief Reflection on Motherhood

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There are moments, and they are fleeting, when my daughter places her hand on my face and looks into my eyes with her deep, beautiful eyes and asks me if I am ok, or she tells me she loves me, or she looks at me knowingly with a slight smile across her lips and says nothing. It is those moments when I am struck with awe. It is then that she appears, and is, wiser than I am. She reaches deep into the moment and pulls me into it with her. My hurried, busy, angst ridden self and then I am swimming deep in a pool that is deeper than her. I see the love of the Blessed Trinity in her eyes. And so it is, the little children who have it figured out, while I flounder and fall. Constantly trying to get back up again. She knows. I see it in her eyes.