A few weeks ago, I traveled to Antiochian Village to attend the Ancient Faith Women’s Retreat. On the first morning, I went to the first talk with that morning’s Gospel repeating through my heart:
Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”
The gospel had stuck in my craw that morning, stirring up the long weariness I had carried over my feelings of inadequacy in parenting. I sat myself down gingerly in front of the icon of the Theotokos, my failure smarting like a splinter I held out to the Holy Mother.
The icon was screen-printed and matte. There was no gold to catch my eye. Yet, the curve of the Theotokos’ fingers did catch my eye. She was supporting him. There was a quickness to the gesture that called out to me, reaching out to me with my sadness and frustration. I was quiet, waiting. My friend was speaking eloquently about cooking with and without oil. I suppose my mind was opened by the thought of oil and the closeness in Greek between the word for olive oil (elaiolado) and the word for mercy (eleos). Because it was then that I heard it:
One word, spoken in my heart, as though placed there with the gentle gesture of the Theotokos’ hand.
I looked up at the icon and waited.
“Pour eleos out on your children,” I heard, and I saw myself bending over to pick up one of the hundreds of daily messes the children pepper around the house. Only this time, I saw it differently. My hand, when I bent over, was like a spigot of the water of grace, pouring out over my home, over my children. “Clean up after your children without bitterness or complaint. Pour out eleos on them.”
Suddenly I understood that morning’s Gospel reading. “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”
I had tried to be a good parent, but in that area, I had gotten it all wrong. Sacrifice means doing X in order to receive Y. It’s transactional, and like any transaction, sacrifice sets one up for anger, disappointment, and frustration.
Mercy is pure gift. Not only that, but mercy is inexhaustible.
We are taught over and over in articles and well-meaning advice to sacrifice for our children. That’s because sacrifice keeps us in a position of control and subjects us to the judgments of others who believe themselves to be in control. Very few articles will advocate for mercy, because mercy always points to God as God.
Don’t sacrifice your relationship with your children on the altar of public opinion. Don’t sacrifice your relationship with your children in order to try to get them to imitate your behavior. When you have special needs children, cleaning up after them is not a matter of teaching them (because they probably will not follow your example for many years if at all) or living up to the standards of other people (because they aren’t your God) or living up to the life you imagined without your current challenges (because God meets us where we are, not waiting to meet us in a perfectly neat and decluttered dream home).
You will only be offering sacrifice if you try to pick up the toys and the books and the body messes and the food and the drink in order to win favor or approval or respect. You will become bitter and grumpy, and you’ll probably provoke the children to be less engaged and more messy. You will be sacrificing yourself and your sanity and your relationships to prove to God that you don’t need His help. Wait. What? Yes, when you sacrifice yourself, you forget that God isn’t asking you to do so. God asks one thing of us: to be merciful as He is merciful.
Pick up after your children in order to pour mercy on them. Do it because you love them, not to assuage the prickling temptations of comparison and shame.
I came home from the retreat with a heart full of the joy of companionship and plenty to reflect upon. I was surprised to find that the messes didn’t make me angry. I stepped over them or cleaned them, depending on what else I was doing. Each time I bent over to pick up paper shreds or clothing or to wipe up a spill or throw away trash or to sort layers of mess that someone had made in a moment of sensory overload, I thought, “Eleos.”
I began to feel peace in my home – not always freedom from conflict – but peace. Then, after a few days, I noticed the children bending down next to me to pick up. I was amazed. I could count on my fingers the number of times the children helped me clean up before this! But they did it again the next day, and the next.
Then they started coming up with ideas of their own. They asked me if they could have baby wipes to skate around the living room to clean the floor. One child started, then three others joined.
I don’t understand it, the way I don’t understand any joyful surprise. But it’s true: having mercy on my children seems to have spread mercy to them. Now they’re having mercy on me, too.
I share this in hopes of lightening your burdens, not to turn mercy into another type of sacrifice. It wasn’t when the children began to join me in cleaning that my burden lifted, but when I began to treat cleaning as a mercy. I know that some of our children — some of my children — will not start cleaning up just because of a change of heart. Some of them might not have the ability to do so, and some of them might not understand. But even in this small way, in the tending of the ground beneath our feet, there is nothing to stop grace entering their souls.
Lord, have mercy.