Catholic Spirituality,  Parenting,  Suffering

Pelican Mother

Yesterday I was absolutely fried by 5 pm. When Dave got home from work I flung the kids and the keys at him and begged that he take them to the gym – and the waiting kid’s club. He was more than obliging and as he loaded them into the minivan I wondered why oh why they are always (okay, usually) so very agreeable for him when they’ve been testing and trying and sometimes tormenting me all day long. Maybe his enthusiasm levels are sufficiently high to mask his weakness from them, and maybe, like hungry jungle predators, they’re less interested in pursuing a healthy, challenging piece of prey?
Maybe I’m over thinking this analogy.
At any rate, I threw some stir fry together, texted my beloved that dinner was waiting on the stove, and fled the house in search of some much-needed solitude. I ended up at Panera, seated across from a table filled with video game design students. Which, from an ambient noise level perspective is somewhere on the list in between Dungeons and Dragons aficionados and frat boys. I ordered a turkey sandwich, which was assembled sans turkey, a reality which escaped my notice for at least 4 bites. From a first world perspective, this night off was going downhill, and fast.
Hastily tucking my impulse-purchased holiday edition of “Real Simple” under my flappy upper arm, I dumped my sad sandwich and made for the door. As I drove aimlessly through the streets of suburban Denver, I found myself turning into the parking lot of a nearby parish.
“Alright, Lord. I’ll stop for Adoration. But like, 5 minutes. Because I’m sooooo tired. And also, Hobby Lobby is still open. You know, arts and crafts.” (I have a mystical union with Christ. Don’t hate.)
I parked in the pleasantly packed lot and lumbered my way to the chapel, picking a pew toward the front right and collapsing into a mass of exhausted mama. I’m sure the lady behind me thought I’d either just gotten dumped or lost my best friend, but the heavy breathing was 100% pregnancy induced, and the pathetic slump forward onto the kneeler was purely a function of my back giving out.
I raised my weary eyes to the monstrance and waited for … something. Mystical union aside, I’m not super adept at mental prayer, and I’m certainly not in the habit of receiving discernible messages from the Lord. But last night, He showed up. Surprisingly quickly.
As I contemplated Him, there physically present before me in a tidy circle of bread, my eyes wandered to the image embossed on the marble beneath the altar: a mother pelican with three baby birds in her nest, tearing at the flesh surrounding her heart to feed them. (This sounds more gruesome than it is, but trust me, in white marble, it’s tasteful.) I bounced my eyes from the scene of avian carnage to the clean, gleaming monstrance and back again.
That’s You. I thought in wonder. That’s you and that’s also…me? 
As I sat in quiet contemplation, a warm sense of camaraderie and comprehension filled my aching brain. The correlation between the early Church’s imagery of Christ’s love for His children and a mother physically suffering – even to the point of self destruction – for her chicks was not lost on me. Indeed, for the first time I found myself profoundly moved by this imagery which so aptly summed up the hours of my day.
See, He seemed to whisper, this is how I love you. This is how I designed you to love, too. You are more than capable of this, but not apart from Me. And days like today? The hard days? That’s you trying to go it alone, without Me.
I squinted at pelican-mommy’s tattered flesh, wincing at the analogy. They’ll kill her, I mentally grumbled.
Yes. That’s the point. She’ll give and give until there’s nothing left to sustain her but Me. But if she asks, I will provide the grace. I will not allow her to be overcome. But she has to ask.
This back and forth continued for the better part of half an hour, (and lest anyone get the wrong impression, I’m not legit hearing voices from Heaven or anything of that nature, it’s just sort of … impressions, an interior knowledge that God is speaking my way.) He is kind of frank with me, truth be told, so I’m not sure a differing temperament from my own would be terribly comforted by our conversations. He knows what I need though, and that looks more like drill sergeant-meets-father than guidance-counselor-meets-life-coach for this stubborn choleric. But I digress. The point is, I showed up last night, somewhat begrudgingly, and He more than met me there.
As I contemplated mama bird and her carnivorous offspring, I realized how much I’ve been trying to do on my own. How little I’ve asked for His grace. How quickly I’ve arrived at the daily conclusion: I’ve got this only to meet Dave at the door 9 hours later, a quivering mess of nerves and anger and exhaustion, informing him that I most definitely do not got this, or much of anything else I’m attempting to accomplish at this moment in my life. I’m a mess. This life? This life is a mess. And that mother bird tearing at her own flesh, literally emptying her heart to feed her children? That’s a hot mess. A hot, bloody, brutal mess…and yet, this is His model to us. This kind of love. That level of sacrifice. Those needy, searching, desperate little mouths.
How can I love like that? The short answer is simply, I can’t.
But He can. And through Him, I can, too. But not without asking for it. Not without inviting Him in to step over the messiness and the disaster of my own failed attempts and to make a grand, clean, pride-shattering sweep of the whole thing.
Come in, Lord. I begged him, my not-turkey sandwich still resting heavily in my ribcage. I can’t do this. Feed my babies. Show me how to love them like You do.
I believe that He will. As I swept breakfast from under the table this morning I pictured their neediness literally tearing my flesh apart, exposing the selfishness, the pride, the inability to love … and I was glad. I am still disturbed by the prevalence of gluten free waffle crumbs on my kitchen chairs, and I will still wince when I get poop underneath my fingernails at some point today, but I am still glad. They’re my living, breathing invitations to love like Him. It’s up to me to RSVP.


  • Kris

    That was totally awesome, and just what I also needed to hear. I did chuckle at the choleric reference, since I am guilty of that personality, too! I don’t have babies and toddlers anymore, but the neediness just transforms itself to a different level as they get older. I can’t tell you how many times a day I want to shout “I’m not just sitting here waiting to serve you!” or “I am not the servant!”. And sometimes I actually DO say it out loud. But the reality is, I AM the servant, or at least, I should have a servant’s heart because that’s where God calls me in this mothering vocation, a million times a day. And this post is what I really needed this morning – a reminder that I need to put aside my choleric pride and ask God to help me.

  • Mary

    Oh man, thank you for this. Sometimes adoration or even Mass/Holy Eucharist feels like one of those “*whack!* Shoulda had a V8” commercials. Drove to the the Dollar Store for yet more milk duds? Whack! Coulda gone to adoration, confession, pick a sacrament… I receive so much when I chose to focus on the Lord and come to grips with my own shortcomings, yet I chose to do it so infrequently. So, thank you again. Also, avian carnage. Fabulous. 🙂

  • Carrie

    i so needed to hear this today! I am 34 weeks along with baby #6. All my other kids are big – 18, 15, 12, 10, and 7, so you would think I have it easy, and I do, but I am so stressed and exhausted, and just. done. I just want to run away somewhere quiet and sleep for amonth. But I can’t. I am needed. And it hurts, but in a good way.
    But at least now I can picture my kids tearing my flesh off and revealing the inner me to myself, so I can remember that I desperately need Jesus to make it all work. 🙂


    This came at a perfect moment! i just escaped (my family room) where three children insisted all of the new furniture arrangement NEEDS to be rearranged to make room for the dinosaur jungle. My husband said go play on the internet and i read this first! thanks:) fantastic writing as always.

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