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“Try Harder.” – A Mother Reacts to Counterintuitive Spiritual Advice

By a Homeschooling Mother of Eight

“Try harder.”  These were the words spoken by my spiritual director as I tried to explain my difficulty in reacting with cheerfulness to the everyday demands of life with a large family.  I was struggling to adopt a placid tone rather than an abrupt one toward my children when I was interrupted or when the children talked back.  I could not seem to muster a gentle response in those situations.

I was certainly taken aback by the words of my priest.  I do not know what I was expecting, but it was not, “try harder.”  In his defense, he had asked me many questions to try to get me to explain the situation more clearly, but I just did not know how to articulate that my lack of gentle words was only the tip of the iceberg.  The real problems were the chaos that was my everyday life and the habit of escaping into my phone that I just couldn’t kick.

“Try harder.”

I was broken.  Tired.  Burned out.  And now I felt defeated on top of that.

The world clearly needs holiness.  It’s so easy to look “out there” and frown at the corruption and deception that seem to be running rampant.  It is with often-detached distraction that we see that the world needs Our Lord.  While we have neither the power nor the authority to repair the world, we can work to repair ourselves and grow in holiness.  I knew I needed to do something to change myself, but I did not even know where to begin.

“Try harder.”  I turned these words over and over in my mind as I drove home.  How in the world could I try harder?  Like everyone else, I was spread too thin.  I was going to bed late after helping my older students, only to get up before dawn to work with the middle schooler.  The middle of the day was taken up with meals, laundry, schooling the younger children, keeping house, making time for my husband…the list never ended.

I was trying to pour myself out for those around me, convinced that this was my path to sanctification. So often, my spiritual reading advocated detachment from worldly comforts and luxuries.  I assumed this meant that I was to focus all my energy on meeting the needs of everyone else in my family.  Little by little, those things I used to do to keep my sanity had fallen by the wayside, replaced with the tyranny of the urgent.  I figured I would take care of myself when everyone else’s needs were met, but with 10 people to look after, it turns out that someone always needs something.  I thought I had given everything, had become detached, and was on a path to holiness.  But alas, I was not holier.

I was exhausted.

And was I really pouring myself out?  In my worst moments, I retreated into my phone.  For just a moment I could tune out the joyful (or not-so-joyful) noise that surrounded me; however, doing this was not a real break, nor did it leave me refreshed.  A quick look at Instagram or Twitter could turn into a much longer escape than I intended.  And yet I frequently felt drawn to this momentary distraction.

“Try harder.”  I could not put more hours into the day, and I did not know how I could muster the energy to address the problems before me.  It seemed impossible.

But God is God, I am not, and my instructions were to try harder.  I resolved to do just that.

On my way home, I prayed intensely as I wracked my brain, trying to figure out what to do.

The Lord kept putting the idea of a “Rule of Life” on my heart.  I vaguely recalled a book on my bookshelf entitled A Mother’s Rule of Life.  I had read it before, probably 6 kids ago.  I remembered that the author, Holly Pierlot, discussed the priorities a mother should have to effectively live her vocation.  I remembered that “P for Prayer” was the most important.  Then came “Partner,” I thought, and after that, the rest of the P words that I could not remember.

I decided to look for the book when I got home.

When I was able to flip through it later that night, I realized that I had forgotten the P between Prayer and Partner.  It was “Person.”  As in me.

I was hit with the realization that only Our Lord could change things in our home, but that I had to bring something to the table.  I had to act rather than react, plan ahead instead of falling behind.  As Pierlot writes on page 6, “It wasn’t the Apostles’ meager five loaves and two fish that fed the crowds, but their offering combined with the blessing of Jesus.  And Jesus was telling me to give him my five loaves and two fish, my insignificant efforts, and he would bless them, and the needs of my family would be met.” But I needed to redirect some of my efforts because my loaves and fish were being swallowed by the Apple device in my hand.  I also realized that I needed to resurrect some of those old habits that kept me from losing my peace.  In this way, maybe I could offer something with which Our Lord could work.

I prayerfully considered what was necessary to take care of myself in such a way that I had more to give to my family and was not constantly picking up my phone.  I realized that it was reasonable to make time for a shower.  Probably making the bed was not a bad thought.  And maybe preparing meals for myself rather than picking at the dregs on the children’s lunchtime plates would help.  As I made these small changes, I began to feel a bit more composed.

From these small changes, Our Lord gave me the resolve to adjust my prayer rule to fixed times during the day, rather than doing morning prayer, night prayer, and everything in between just before I fell asleep at night.

I was amazed that with each modification in my daily habits, I had both the energy and resolve to make more necessary changes.

I realized that I needed to set homeschooling boundaries and a more realistic schedule to go along with them.  No school after the evening Rosary.  No school on Sundays.  No staying up past 10:30pm.  These rules allowed me to spend time having fun with my middle and older kids after the younger ones went to bed.  We could play games and watch movies and enjoy each other’s company, rather than languish over Algebra and Latin.  Clearly, we needed to figure out a way to better budget our time, and we did.

At the same time, it was necessary to increase my expectations of the children around the house.  In discussing St. John of the Cross in the book Fire Within, Father Thomas Dubay pointed out that St. John took on the most menial tasks in the monastery.  But I noticed that the book did not say that St. John took on all the tasks of the monastery.  Neither is it my job to do everything.  In fact, it’s impossible.  And when I do try to do it all, it does not make the people in my charge more virtuous; it just makes them lazy.

Being overwhelmed, lack of self-discipline, and sheer habit had kept me returning to my phone over and over.  But once I began to set more boundaries, I did not feel stretched so thin.  Over time, by God’s grace, the phone lost its appeal.  Those breaks-that-were-not-breaks?  I did not need them anymore.

My phone is no longer the temptation it once was. I had no idea that there was a relationship between sin and fatigue.  I kept thinking that I needed to give more, sacrifice more, and sleep less to be strengthened to give up sinful habits, but it seems that I had it all backwards.  Instead, when I set boundaries, I was able to be more patient, harder-working, and had some resolve to put up a fight against temptations to sin in every area of my life.

As Lent approaches, the disciplines and sacrifices I have chosen look different from what I had imagined a few months ago.  I did not give up coffee or add an extra weekday Mass.  Instead, I am fasting from the illusion of order on Instagram and the pithy sarcasm of Twitter. And I am taking real care of myself so that I can better care for the people I love.

Speculating on how to best fix the world out there is an interesting thought experiment, but ultimately futile.  Instead, I needed to be docile to Our Lord as he called me to try harder to bring more order to my home.  I certainly did not expect taking the time to take a shower and make my own bed would lead me to take better care of my family and put down my phone.

“Try harder.”  Those words that so devastated me in the moment, inspired me reorder my priorities in such a way that I think I may possibly, maybe, begin to grow in holiness.

At least, I am trying.

Author’s Postscript: Some people have expressed concern about my priest’s advice. I want to make clear that he offered a great deal of helpful and practical guidance both at that meeting, and at prior meetings.  “Try harder” was what stood out in my mind on that day; however, there was much more to our conversation. He’s really the very best of priests.

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