Allow me to backtrack just a little in this Lenten season. Not too long ago, on March 25, we celebrated The Annunciation of the Theotokos, and more recently we celebrated Akathistos Saturday this last weekend, praying the Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos. (You can download a PDF copy of the Ruthenian version of this hymn here.)
I find it such a beautiful benefit of this year’s Great Lent that, in the middle of this time especially dedicated to returning to humility, we are reminded of Mary’s example of humility, inspired and reinvigorated for our own Lenten journey. I am especially fascinated by Mary’s humility toward her conception of Christ.
In the icon of the Annunciation, Mary’s head is bowed, her knitting dropped as though she is shocked to be visited by an angel or perhaps so intent on listening to him that she sets aside her current task.
In the Akathist, while all others cry “Rejoice!” to Mary and sing her praises during that annunciation, Mary’s only response, reflecting Scripture, is, “Your surprising words seem hard for my mind to accept. How can you speak of a birth that is to come from a conception without seed, and why do you cry ‘Alleluia’?”
We even hear the angel Gabriel sing to her, “Rejoice, O you who told no one how it was done!”, alluding to Mary’s humble discretion toward this incredible miracle, which probably merited more bragging rights than any other event in the world.
Do we approach our own conceptions with such humility?
Sometimes I think we, as Catholics, approach conception as a right or as if we are more deserving than others to have a child. After all, we are the ones not contracepting and using advanced methods of Natural Family Planning (NFP), so it can be provoking when we fail to conceive at will while another couple on birth control conceives by surprise.
I think we sometimes also approach conception with ulterior motives. Rather than wanting a child purely for the reason of intimately loving and nourishing someone created by God, we may see conceiving a child as the key to entry into the exclusive club of pregnancy and parenthood, fulfillment of our need to “keep up with the Joneses,” as a means to get attention, the way to end marriage boredom or strife, or the way to prove to the rest of the world and ourselves that we are good Catholics and good women, because, deep down, we believe Hagar’s theology (Genesis 16) more than Christ’s (Luke 11:27-28). These motives might ride alongside a real desire to humbly love and nourish another human being, or they may exist front and center.
None of these approaches to having a child, other than that of intimately loving and nourishing God’s creation, fulfills our call to humility and thus to complete love. While disappointment or confusion at having not conceived is normal and not sinful, to see conception as a right or to believe that we should have conceived instead of another couple is pride. To ask that a child be anything more than a person for us to love is self-serving. Of course, these attitudes are completely understandable! But we can’t deny how they reveal a certain lack of humility in ourselves.
I wouldn’t know about any of these problems with approaching parenthood if I didn’t struggle with them myself. An entire story of that struggle can be found here, but the short version is that I really wanted to get pregnant about six months into marriage for all the wrong reasons, namely the ones I listed above.
Thankfully, we didn’t conceive until nine months later, which was enough time for me to at least realize my poor motives and to begin working with the Lord to heal those sinful tendencies. (That pregnancy was a bit of a surprise for us, and so I am even more grateful for the extra time to work on my issues.) Those tendencies still exist and manifest themselves with new particulars now that my daughter is out in the world.
I see how the humility that Mary cultivated from the beginning aided her love of Jesus later in life when she was content to be treated as any other woman in a crowd because that's what Christ asked of her (Mark 3:31-35). Then I see how the pride with which I approached conception long ago now makes me sometimes see my child as simply a means to elevate my popularity status, a way to set me apart and above others, and Heaven forbid she fails to fulfill my needs as her mother! It's clear to me that Mary's humility enabled her to put her son first, whereas my pride prevents me from putting anyone but myself first.
It bothers me to think what that current pride would be like had grace not intervened and helped me to notice it earlier. Either way, I feel reminded of how incredibly difficult it can be to let this vocation of marriage and parenting do what it does best: teach me to love on terms other than my own.
After several conversations with various friends, I know that I'm not alone in having thought of children as a right or as a means to get ahead, although the struggle may be more prevalent among us newer parents. Still, it seems that Catholics practicing NFP rightfully spend a lot of time and energy considering whether our motives to avoid conception are right, but we don't always consider all of our motives for wanting to have a child.
And what more important task in the universe to consider all of our motives and attitudes than for the gift and miracle that is raising a child?
Fortunately, we have a God who is merciful and loving and always willing to teach us how to love like He does, giving us such a wonderful Mother to be our guide. Plus, as one friend reminded me, parenting is a very effective form of sanctification!
We have also been given this beautiful Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem:
O Lord and Master of my life!
Take from me the spirit of indifference, despair, lust for power, and idle chatter.
Instead, bestow on me your servant, the spirit of integrity, humility, patience, and love.
Yes, O Lord and King!
Let me see my own sins and not judge my brothers and sisters;
for you are blessed forever and ever. Amen.
On a final and somewhat different note, I would be remiss in not remembering the most important aspect of the Feast of the Annunciation: Christ's incarnation. A brilliant reflection on this can be found at the blog Glory to God for All Things. An Orthodox Christian friend of mine introduced me to this blog, written by Orthodox priest Father Stephen, and I have found so much healing, growth, and help in his writings ever since. The post I am recommending is called "Our Conciliar Salvation" and deals with the beauty and difficulty in God continually choosing to use His creation (us) to accomplish His will.
Do you struggle with ulterior motives in conception and parenting? How do you help or allow the Lord to cultivate humility and love in your heart?
Copyright 2014, Brittany Balke
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