If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad. If it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so sad?
I have this little prayer card that came from I don’t know where, but I keep it propped up in the window above my kitchen sink so that sometimes my wandering, dish scrubbing eye might land on it, and I would remember to pray it. It’s a memento mori kind of prayer, one meant to invoke a consciousness of one’s mortality and the need to ask God for the graces for this moment, right now, and for that ultimate Moment when I’ll meet Him face to face.
As I was working my way through a sink full of dishes this afternoon, the card caught my eye and I began to silently recite the prayers. It starts out like this: “Lord Jesus, born in a stable, who lived a life of poverty and hardship…”
That’s as far as I got before my wheels started turning. I was fresh off a nap time face off with the resident four year old, and I’d promised her the sun, the moon, the stars, and Elsa if she would just Samuel L Jackson her little self for an hour or so mom can bust a move on the housework.
I was tired, and I needed a break from her even though I knew I was robbing bedtime Peter to buy off daytime Paul.
But as I meditated on the reality of Jesus’ life of poverty and suffering, and, by extension, the selfsame life Mary must have lived alongside Him, I got to thinking.
Lately I’ve been pondering the meaning of vocation and suffering and how they intertwine. I’m sure that has nothing to do with coming off a month of back to back illnesses including RSV, norovirus, and as a rotted out cherry on top, THE illness, which took our whole family down for the entirety of Christmas break. Ahem, where was I? Oh yes, suffering.
When I was a younger mom and a more bright eyed and enthusiastic mommy blogger in the business of faithfully and reliably harvesting nuggets of Inspiration and Relatability from my daily grind, I wrestled mightily and regularly with the tension between the work I felt called to do – my mission! My personal stamp on this world! – and, frankly, the work that shrieked loudly and insistently in my ears at all hours of the day.
There was a psychic tug of war that occurred daily, hourly, as I went about the very necessary business of crucifying my own wants and even needs for the greater good of the primary community I was called to lead, to love, and to suffer for: my family.
I struggled a LOT to understand why God had put this seemingly genuine mission to write and to teach on my heart while also blessing us (and I can say this now with an ironic, somewhat haggard 39 year old grin turning up the corners of my mouth) with robust and indeed, at times, seemingly irrepressible fertility.
Surely the thing God was calling me to was important enough that He could make my kids behave/sleep through the night/let me have 2 or 3 hours a day to work?
After all, I felt deeply fulfilled by writing and embraced the sensation of being seen and heard by an audience and a devoted readership. I got regular emails and messages on social media about how I had helped someone understand NFP a little better, how I’d led someone to reconsider Catholicism and return to the Sacraments. People told me I’d helped their marriages – this was big stuff!
And it is. And it was.
And yet, it wasn’t, and it isn’t, the primary thrust of my mission here on earth.
Yes, God has used me over the years in a mysterious and internet-connected kind of way to work in people’s hearts and to enlighten people’s minds, and that is a profoundly humbling gift.
But it’s not the most important work He has entrusted me with. By far. Like so, so much further than I could have imagined 5 or 6 years ago when becoming a famous Catholic author (L to the O L) was the burning dream in my heart, which I assumed God had put there).
There were seasons where I can now clearly see I was pushing ahead on my own steam and very likely stepping far outside the charted course of His will for me, although He brought great fruit out of those seasons nonetheless.
What a miracle! That we can step outside of God’s will, so to speak, and He can and does bless and sanctify our missteps and mistakes, if in our fumblings and detours, we are sincerely seeking Him and pursuing His truth. I don’t mean here that God blesses our sin, of course, but that when we settle for a lesser good (not an evil, mind you) and insist on having it our own way, He can and sometimes does bless our choice. He is, after all, in the business of conversion and resurrection.
But. The point I am painstakingly and meanderingly trying to arrive at here (a bit out of practice at ye olde keyboard) is that in our present cultural milieu, there are two persistent fallacies: First, if it doesn’t make you happy, it must not be worth doing. And second, (and this one is more important for Christians to understand, in my opinion) that your highest calling is, duh, obviously the work that makes you happiest. That if you’re feeling fulfilled and like you’re Making A Difference, you must surely be in God’s will, provided that you’re, you know, doing something that is objectively a good thing. (Not talking about hacking or robbing banks here.)
The problem with this set of beliefs is that they are almost entirely absent from the lives of the saints.
Mother Teresa may have occasionally achieved a state of flow whilst scraping human excrement off of fetid cement floors and hand washing blood stained saris in cold, brackish water, but, thank God, she doesn’t appear to have relied on feelings of job satisfaction and personal fulfillment as her litmus for whether or not she was doing the Lord’s work.
Her biographies tell a very different story from the typical millennial memoir. We know that her perseverance was rooted in a certainty of the knowledge of God’s goodness and presence that she literally did not feel for years. Decades. She discerned His will, she entered into it fully, and she refused to turn back in the face of suffering and even silence from heaven.
Was she happy serving the poorest of the poor? I’m sure she was. But I don’t think it was the kind of happiness that I spent the bulk of my early days of motherhood in search of. Her happiness was a resurrection born from death to self. My happiness, for years, was – and truthfully, often still is – contingent upon how much sleep I got, how good I felt about what I’d managed to accomplish in a day, and whether or not my house was clean. And most importantly of all, though it pains me to admit it? My happiness was utterly self centered.
Which meant (freaking drumroll please and a clap on the back to you if you’ve stuck with me this far) that motherhood, overall, did not make me happy.
Nor did marriage.
I loved Dave and I loved our kids but they were – and are – constantly getting in the way of me and my agendas. And so I found myself in constant escape mode, just trying to claw my way to a little relief, a brief respite from the demanding, all consuming price tag which comes attached to a vocation.
I wanted the fun parts and the sweet parts and the enjoyable parts but I did not want to “do the work” so to speak, to get there. So pregnancy and postpartum were hard, toddlers were (are) hard, Tuesdays were hard. Night feedings were hard. Pretty soon it felt like all of it was hard…and there was this constant tension because what I was clearly meant to do – my actual life, my work in our family- was burning me the freak out.
It only stopped burning, dear reader, when I stopped fighting it.
The moment I stopped looking for happiness, happiness found me.
It found me in the quieter and more hidden life spent offline, away from social media.
It found me in simple and unremarkable days spent ministering to my own family and the people in my immediate sphere of influence: my actual, literal neighbors, my family, my community.
It found me in a radical reorientation of my energy and efforts toward not what promised to make me happy, but to what I thought would probably make me holy.
And funnily enough, because that’s sometimes and so often how He works, I’m getting lots of the happy part thrown in for free. It only costs my whole life, which I have to grit my teeth and release anew from cramped, whitened knuckles day after day.
Imagine that. I know that I couldn’t have. But here we are.
And his yoke is easy. And the burden is sweet. (Most of the time.)