Our Lady and Smallness

Lately I have been pondering that mysterious quality our Lord called “poverty of spirit.” Perhaps it has been coming to mind more and more because I live in a community where the typical Catholic family has many children and survives on a single income. Ours is an economically depressed region of the woodlands of northern Ontario, where work is hard to find and not always steady when it is found.

Among our people are genuine heroes who live the Gospels daily at great cost. Because they have chosen to build a culture of life in the midst of a society that is earnestly spreading the culture of death, the beatitudes are not abstractions for them.

Day by day they struggle to do good, avoid evil, grow in virtue, overcome their personal faults and sins, and to fulfill the duty of the moment, which is to raise their families in a humble and happy manner. Though family life is generally considered “ordinary,” in fact it has never been more extraordinary than it is now; it is challenging and complex, considering the times we live in and the variety of human personalities that one finds in any given family. Add to this the confusion in the particular churches, government hostility to traditional families, the scattering of the extended family, and we have a recipe for suffering.

The other day after Mass in our parish church, I glanced around at those who had remained to pray. In front of us knelt friends of ours, a mother and father with their six young children, who live in a small rented mobile home down the road from our place. Though they both have degrees in philosophy from a Catholic college, they have chosen to live as laborers. The husband is a carpenter, the mother is . . . well, she is a devoted wife and mother, which says it all. The husband’s income is minimal, the mother has just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Their faith and their hope is edifying, though the pain in their faces is not hard to see (however much they try to hide it). They are now carrying a heavy cross that has been added to their already heavy crosses. Beside them knelt an elderly couple whose son committed suicide years ago. Across the aisle sat a devout widow, whose children have all left the faith and are living in irregular marital situations. She has been praying for their conversions for untold years. Beyond her was an unemployed man whose wife suffers from frequent epileptic seizures.

Behind them was a couple unable to conceive children and longing for a child of their own. A few rows back was a couple with seven living children, grieving over the loss of their eight year old son who died last summer. Looking farther, I saw broken marriages, broken hearts, abandonment, mental illness. There were several widows, and many, many fatherless—fatherlessness spanning three generations. Most of the young fathers do not have the support of their own fathers, nor uncles and grandfathers (because they have died or are absent in other ways), a gap which adds to the burdens of a difficult vocation. I could go on and on about what I saw that day. I’m just scraping the surface. Glancing from pew to pew I realized, with some astonishment, that without exception every individual or family was bearing hard sufferings in one form or other. Yet there we all were, thanking God for what he has given us and asking him for what we need.

Maybe all parishes are like this. Maybe not. But I would wager that in every parish there are many people quietly doing their duties and trying to love as best they can, carrying crushing burdens and facing insurmountable difficulties. Unlike myself, they do not complain. Unlike myself, they are always grateful for small mercies, gifts, help in any form that comes to them. They love Christ and they love Our Lady and they love the Sacraments with deep devotion. They pray. They draw their life and their interior strength from sources that most of the world has either rejected or forgotten.

Many of our young families have moved here to find inexpensive housing, to raise their children closer to nature and at some distance from the corrupt peer pressure that tends to dominate city life. Above all, they have moved here because the area has a reputation for faithful Catholic parishes and the possibility of informal community with other like-minded families. Very few of them have support from their extended families. This lack of support is not merely geographical, for often the older generation considers the younger generation’s complete fidelity to the teachings of the Church to be “unreasonable,” and especially their openness to life, which is thought to be outright foolishness. So here we are, a rag-tag remnant of a once-Christian civilization, trying as much as we can to be a family for each other. It’s not the same as blood ties, blood being thicker than water, as the saying goes. But as one mother pointed out, “the Precious Blood is thicker than blood!” I don’t for a minute want to idealize our community, and I think there must be many like it scattered throughout the world. Are any of us perfect people? Absolutely not. Do we raise perfect children? Sorry, we don’t. Are we trying to love as Christ would have us love?