Catholic Spirituality,  motherhood,  Parenting,  temperaments

My little lepers

Last night one of my husband’s favorite professors from grad school, Dr. Jonathan Reyes, came to give a lecture as part of the Archdiocese of Denver’s 4-part lecture series on the role of mercy and beauty in the new evangelization (or something like that. I’m a little fuzzy, I was wearing a baby and pacing the back of the room.)

His entire talk was so beautiful and so thought-provoking, but two concepts in particular really stuck with me. So much so that I’m still rolling them around in my head 14 hours and a few night wakings later.

The first was a comparison he drew between the importance of effectiveness versus love in winning hearts. He pointed out how very much good Bill and Melinda Gates have done with their charitable giving (immoral causes aside); how many lives they must have saved with immunizations and clean drinking water and mosquito netting. And the world is grateful to them for their philanthropy.

But then there’s Mother Teresa (RIP). The world is both grateful to her and deeply, deeply in love with her. Not because of how many lives she saved (which is relatively few when contrasted with the Gates’ record) but because of how many people she loved. Because of the size of her heart. Because she was willing to accompany people in their misery, not only with financial support but with her bare hands. With her very self.

That’s the kind of love that speaks to a world grown blind to logic and deaf to reason. They might not believe in absolute Truth any more, but they can still perceive its counterpart, absolute Love. And from that encounter of being loved, of being valuable…a conversation can begin.

The second point that stayed with me was just a little offhand comment he made about serving the poorest of the poor in our midst (often the material poor, but increasingly in our affluent western society, the emotionally poor – the lonely). “Sometimes it’s the 4th kid, up all through the night and needing you over and over again. St. Francis, in recounting his own conversion as he neared the end of his life, remembered the turning point for him was when he encountered a leper … and was repulsed by him. And he turned back and embraced the man, overcoming his intense feelings of disgust and choosing to love instead, to see and embrace Christ in him.”

I knew exactly who the current “poorest of the poor” in my family was, the “repulsive” leper. And I was a little bit ashamed to think of how difficult it has been to love him, lately. His little melancholic soul is so different from my own. He is impossible to motivate, and it just seems like the more I admonish and instruct and, okay, raise my voice in increasing frustration and intensity that it’s time to get dressed NOW…the more he collapses into a helpless puddle of preschool overwhelm.

And I am repulsed.

Repulsed by his neediness, by his inefficiency, by his utter otherness from me, from how I operate and see the world. And when he falls to the floor for the umpteenth time in an afternoon and starts flailing and wailing (anyone else have really fun stretches from 4-5 pm on the daily?) I confess that my first reaction is not to scoop him up and comfort him. And I’m his mother. If it’s this hard to love my own kid, how on earth can I love some miserable stranger?

There’s only one possible answer, of course. And it’s Christ. Christ in me and Christ in him, because otherwise our very human neediness is, actually, pretty repulsive on a fundamental level. And if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I, in my maturity, am far more repulsive in my sin and shortcoming than my innocent child could ever be.

And yet He loves me. And if I allow Him to, He can also love through me.

As I lay in bed last night trying to fall asleep, I thought about how better to love my little lepers. I wondered if there were a way to lean into the misery, the way Mother Teresa seemed to, and if there was a point where, truly, the human face of misery was replaced by the likeness of Christ.

I know all the kid wants is me, his mommy. And I know the answer to “solving” his behavior, whatever that means, is more of me, hard as that may be to put into practice.

It seems counterintuitive, but if I get closer, if I pull him tight and pour myself out in loving him, will it come easier? Is that the secret to decoding “the distressing disguise of the poor?”

I’m not sure. But I’m hoping to find out. I’m hoping that I remember the lofty aspirations and quiet realizations inspired by last night, and that I can apply them when it matters. Like around 4 pm this afternoon, for example.



  • Anita

    Your baby looks remarkably like mine. Crazy long bangs and all. 🙂

    I had Father Riley for Scripture classes in College. Best classes ever.

  • Amanda

    Thank you for acknowledging how difficult it can be to love our kids. I feel terrible about it. The baby, I just look at her and I feel the love. It’s emotional. But sometimes, the older kids, I know I love them but I don’t feel it anymore. And it’s hard. And I want a nap. But all the other things I do mean nothing without choosing to love. Even or especially when it’s a choice and doesn’t come naturally.

  • Christy

    So good! Yes, yes, yes. All those thoughts. I find that sometimes I scare myself by how little pity I feel for them when they’re screaming and kicking and calling me names and just being plain miserable. I don’t want to hold them and comfort them when they’re just being plain awful, and yet, really loving them and their little irrational toddler selves means that what they probably need in that moment when they’re freaking out is for me just to hold and comfort them. No lecture is going to work in that moment. There’s no teaching moment that’s worth them not being loved. It’s so hard, and I’ve got one kid who demands this kind of love on an hourly basis and I fail all the time. But it’s thinking like this, how you’re describing this right here, that is what we’re supposed to do.

    • Kaitlin @ More Like Mary

      Christy! This line: “There’s no teaching moment that’s worth them not being loved.” Writing that on my white board in the kitchen in really, really big font right now!!!

  • Aren

    Yep, I totally get that. Except that I’m the melancholic and my ‘repulsive leper’ is my sanguine son who talks/hums/asks questions all day long and has zero concept of personal space, leaving me totally overstimulated. 🙂 Thanks for the beautiful post!

  • Andrea

    This is so on point. I can’t even put into words how wonderful this is Jenny. First, my prayers for you and your babes and the daily struggles. Second, thank you for sharing your honest and vulnerable truth so that we may gain strength in solidarity! I’m so there too. And inspired to grow and love more deeply.

  • Jenna

    Oh Jenny. I needed this right now in this moment where I finally snuck away from my lepers to put Prim down for a nap. I have all those feelings and reading that I’m not alone in them is so, so comforting. I feel like shit so often because I know I need to love more but I look at them crying and just don’t feel this longing to comfort every time. Thanks for this great perspective, solidarity, and reminder.

  • Holly

    There’s a reason that 3-4 year olds are so cute. They all have a lovely gift of pushing the exact buttons that you NEVER want pushed, right? I’m sure we all did it to our own parents. God is making you better.

  • Elizabeth

    Love, love, love Dr. Reyes!! He was my favorite professor in college too. Thanks for this post- it is so hard to love the kids sometimes, and then when more than one melts down and needs you to hug them, but they each want their own mommy time- seems impossible sometimes. I definitely needed this reminder. Thank you!

  • Ashley

    This post was perfection. Thank you for this perspective. I needed it, exactly today, when I’ve been thinking of how to be a better parent to my 6 year old extreme sanguine. Because letting loose and really yelling when she can’t focus to finish getting dressed for school? That just makes *all* my kids cry, and doesn’t get my oldest dressed any faster. But just loving on her? And physically helping her to finish dressing? Now that’s something to work on (and does NOT come naturally to me). Really, I think you have started a little revolution in my head. Thank you.

  • Kaitlin @ More Like Mary

    Truth. What a great reflection and reminder. It seems silly, but every morning I try to visualize the kind of mother I want to be. I imagine myself swooping down to kiss boo-boos on knees, tussling hair, smiling and laughing, and always opening my arms for hugs and warmth and affection. And then my kids wake up. And it all goes to crap. And hours later I realize I don’t think I’ve smiled or kissed or tussled even one stinking time! I hope I can take that story of St. Francis to heart.

  • Jessica

    Sooooooo… Great post, all around. But what I am especially glad you included is the bit about pacing the back of the lecture room wearing a baby. Because I am hoping to go to our Archbishop’s lecture series events next week, but hasn’t figured out what to do with the baby. Thanks for the lightbulb moment. 🙂

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