My mother was 43 and a-half years old when I was born. I was told that her pregnancy was very difficult. Without proper medical care, she, as well as I, might not have made it.
Obviously, God had other ideas because both my mother and I did indeed make it through just fine. But as I grew up, my mother often shared with me something that I would guess few children ever get to hear, let alone understand. She said that when the pregnancy was becoming very difficult and she was becoming afraid that something tragic might happen, she would pray to the Lord. She would pray, “Lord, if it comes down to me or the baby, let the baby come first.”
Growing up I paid little attention to those words of my mother and simply took it for granted that I was supposed to be here, and so was my mom, and that is that. I was well cared for and protected and never had to worry about much of anything. I felt safe, secure, and took for granted that I somehow deserved all of blessings and comforts I’d been given. But as I grew into a young adult, this kind of thinking proved to be somewhat costly. Sometimes, taking things for granted, as if we are entitled to them, can be foolish.
I was aware that my mother had a very hard life as a young girl. My grandmother died when my mother was only three years old and my mother recalled how she would cry on every Mother’s Day. “I never knew what it was like to say ‘Mom’,” my mother told me. My mother also grew up during the Great Depression, and she found out the hard way what poverty was all about. But even though I knew all this, I didn’t really understand what it entailed.
Growing up without growing
Simply put, I was spoiled. I wasn’t spoiled in the style of a rich kid, but in the manner of a child who never really had to do anything for himself. Mom was always there to take care of me. She did all of the housework, cooking, made the beds and never asked for or demanded any help doing anything. While other kids in the neighborhood had to do household chores, I never had to.
When I graduated high school and joined the U.S. Air Force, I probably should not have been surprised when after 25 months I received a general discharge under honorable conditions and was sent home due to unsatisfactory performance. I hadn’t committed treason or done anything terrible. I was told that I simply was not cut out for military life; that I lacked discipline. In other words, I was an immature ‘mama’s boy’ – and all too happy to remain one.
Perhaps not surprisingly my spiritual life was immature as well.
As I look back, I can see how self-centered I was. It’s not that I was ‘stingy.’ I was actually kind and generous. But deep down inside I lived as though the world revolved around me, my needs, and my wants. The concept of giving of myself for the sake of others was not something I could easily grasp.
I didn’t know what I didn’t know
As an adolescent and even as a teenager, I was pretty attached to the church. My mother was very strict when it came to practicing her Catholic faith and was determined that her son would do the same. My mother and her sisters, my aunts, constantly reminded me about sin, immorality, and that hell was a reality.
After my discharge from the Air Force, I got even more interested in church activities, to the point of wanting to be involved in them. I discovered that I had some talent for writing and sought out opportunities to write about all kinds of different spiritual topics. Some people at church were quite impressed with my writing style and presentation, and I was all too happy to have my ego inflated.
But one day, my sister-in-law, shared something with me that both surprised me and hurt my pride at the same time. She had read something that I had written on the spiritual life, something that I thought was really very well written. I was looking for praise and congratulations. Instead I received a kind but honest rebuke. She said that although my writing showed intelligence, it lacked heart. She said one cannot grow in Christ until they understand the part of Christ that serves others.
Wanting to grow and not just know
Those words of hers led me to think about two areas in my life: How I had been served and what ways I might find to serve. For the first time I began to pray for opportunities to be of service instead of expecting to be served. I signed up to be a lector, and, as I progressed, I was often told how well I read and that people enjoyed listening to me. I was even told that I made the scriptures seem to come alive.
But Instead of feeling important because I was someone special, I gradually began to learn how to be thankful that I was someone useful. That difference proved to be the path that would lead to true spiritual growth and maturity.
I started volunteering my time at a local Christian radio station. During the station’s Catholic Radio hour, I would give talks on various aspects of the Catholic faith. After a while people at church began coming up to me telling me how much they enjoyed listening to my radio program. It also led to me being thankful that God was beginning to use me to be a blessing to others. I started to see myself less and less as someone entitled and, instead, as someone blessed. I was becoming excited to think that my God given talents could be used to bless others.
Remembering my mother’s lesson
As for my mothers’ words about self-sacrifice, I must admit that I had pretty much forgotten them. But God reminded me, not only of those words, but of their true meaning. For although I was finding ways to engage in church ministry, there was still a part of my life that was not under the Lordship of Christ – my love for alcohol. I have written a little about this before, so for now suffice it to say that the Lord was not my Lord; alcohol was.
My own ‘Good Friday’ came in a local hospital’s detox unit and a meeting with a priest from Zaire, Africa. He asked me something nobody had ever asked me before. He pointed to all my empty bottles of booze, so to speak, and asked me, “Do you love Jesus more than these?” And with the grace of the Holy Spirit, I told God the truth. I said no, I did not love Jesus more. And for the first time in my life I confessed the sin of idolatry. Since then I have not had a desire to drink. I learned what it was like to die to myself out of love for someone else. I began to learn not only what it was like to have a savior but what it was like to be loved by Him.
Coming full circle
Today my mother has passed on, having left us in June of 1994. I am firmly grounded in Alcoholics Anonymous and helping others to recover just as I was helped. When I receive Holy Communion I offer it up for the guys I see who are still suffering and struggling. I have masses said frequently for those who I have known about who have overdosed and died. I pray to God that my love for Him will in some way be used to save souls as His will permits.
Not a day goes by without my thanking Jesus Christ for salvation in all of its fullness. I pray that I may come to be worthy of Him and that others might see Him in my life and desire Him in their own lives.
And as I see who I have become I can finally see the true value of my mothers’ words so very long ago – “Lord, if it comes down to me or the baby, let the baby come first.” This is what my mother would choose, and it was a choice based on love; total self-sacrificing love. God gave me the chance to make the same choice. I reached a point where I was able to sacrifice my will for His will, out of love for Him. My plans and God’s plans turned out to be two different things, but God’s way eventually won, thanks in part to His all-powerful love.
Possibly not many children can say that they have had mothers who were willing to make a sacrifice like that for them. And I am so thankful for the mother God blessed me with, for in giving her to me, He not only gave me Himself, but made it possible for me to give all of myself to Him.
As John 15:13 says “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”