My sweet 17
This is a story of my suitcase heart. (No, not my 17th birthday.)
I just spent a week in Rome. A week in Rome. It sounds so flippant, like, Oh, I did laundry this morning. It doesn’t detail the abundant graces, the moments of tasting eternity, the silent miles of walking each day as the sun greeted the city, the meals that illuminated the joy to come at the eternal wedding banquet. And it doesn’t capture the way my heart grew to fit 16 more, students and missionaries and a priest, new friends that, by the close of the week, felt old. A somewhat disparate group that became a family. Who felt like my own.
God moved me to contemplate motherhood the whole week through. I delighted in leading the men and women who had been entrusted to my care. As we stepped out in a crosswalk into busy traffic, I’d stare down the oncoming driver as if to say, Don’t you dare come near them. I carried a hefty stash of Band-Aids with me to soothe raw blisters brought on by our hours of walking. I answered questions and planned meals and consoled the worried, all with the wonderful help of our chaplain and four other missionaries. And, never ashamed of a little neuroticism, I counted. I counted and counted and counted, as if my life depended on it. When we turned a corner. When we got on the metro. Off the metro. When we sat down to a meal. After a bathroom break. On the plane. In Mass. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17. I’d count in groups, by men and women, or by missionaries and students. I’d count the Wisconsinites and Connecticotians (Really, Google?) and Auburn girls. So often I’d come to 16 and panic would start to sneak in, but then I’d realize I’d forgotten to count myself.
On Wednesday, we visited Sant’Agostino, where St. Monica is buried. As we gathered in the back on our way out, Fr. Jonathan said something that stopped me in my tracks: The love between a mother and her child, even in the womb, is the closest thing we see on earth to the love between God and His people. Wow. This struck my heart and has stuck with me ever since. I felt the way my heart was moved to compassion and joy and tenderness and the sight of my group, and I felt all the more God’s love for me, just as much a child in His eyes. As we sat at our last dinner in Rome, over five courses and ample wine and three hours of laughter and stories, Fr. Jonathan dropped more pearls of wisdom. He said to the women in rapt attention around him, If you become mothers, do not grasp at your children. Do not try to form them in your own image. Give them to the Lord. Give them to the Lord. These words of his echoed in my head the next morning, after we’d celebrated a private Mass in the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica, as we ambled around the magnificence in the quiet of the early morning. I came to the Pieta, and Mary drew me in. I looked at how she cradled her beloved Son with one arm, having just watched Him suffer and die a most gruesome death, having every reason to clutch and cling onto Him in her motherly sorrow. But instead, she held Him with such gentleness, as if He were again a baby in her arms. And her other hand rested open, palm turned to heaven, as if to say, Father, He is Yours. I give Him back to you. I resign myself totally to Your will. I was caught up in her beauty, her femininity, her receptivity, her generosity.
And it was in that moment, at the close of our time, that God brought to me great peace and freedom. I thought sheepishly of the countless times I counted to 17, wanting my group to be safe and accounted for, yes, but also driven by a desire to grasp, to control, to consider them my own. But, no. They are Yours, Lord. I give them to You. I trust You to keep them—and me—safe. And again my motherly heart was moved with love for these people He had given me to journey with, to guide, and ultimately to learn from. I stopped counting them, and started, ever so slowly, to count on the goodness and faithfulness and gentleness of the Father.