“And he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.’” Mark 9:36-37
Several years ago, I arrived at Mass one day to find the seats filled, so I stood in the back. Nearby, a mother sat with her daughter, whom I guessed was about ten years old. I did not know what the child’s diagnosis was, but it was clear that she had special needs. Later, I learned that she was autistic.
It was hard not to notice this pair. They were like angels from heaven, sent to show the world the meaning of love.
The young girl almost continuously moved and made noise. Repeatedly, she pushed herself into her mother’s lap, tried to get up and walk away, and plunged back down again.
I was deeply grateful that the mother had brought this beautiful child to Mass so that I could see their love in action. What I noticed most of all—what I have remembered to this day—was the way this mother reacted to every push, pull, and groan.
Each time her daughter moved or made noise in a way that many people would have found frustrating, this mother responded with a gesture of love. If her daughter leaned hard against her, her mother pulled her even closer and kissed her head. If her daughter loudly moaned, her mother held her close, smiled, and whispered words of love into her ear.
Later, I kept thinking about the love I saw between this mother and daughter. I continued to reflect on this idea of choosing to respond to a child’s difficult behavior with gestures of love. It struck me as more than just a nice thing to watch. To me, it was a guiding light.
A Prayer for All Children Who Need Love
Becoming a mother was one of the greatest gifts of my life. At the same time, I agonized over all the children in the world who had no one to love them. My heart broke when I thought about the little ones who were starving for love in the world—abused, neglected, unwanted. I longed to help them.
Now, an idea dawned on me. What if I took every difficult moment of mothering, and turned it into a prayer for all of those children—just as that mother at Mass had taken each difficult moment and turned it into a gesture of love? What if, every time a child acted in a way that interrupted my peace, I deliberately chose to respond with love instead of frustration? And what if I offered this gesture of love in reparation for all the times when babies and children are not loved?
If there are children starving for love in the world, then somewhere in the divine economy there is an imbalance that needs to be righted. If someone does not respond with love to babies, to children—or to their parents, who are most often hurting from trauma and a lack of love in their own lives—then there is a gap to fill. A hole that can only be filled in with love and more love. And even though it sometimes feels like prayer is not a concrete way to supply a practical need, in truth there is no better way to fill the emptiness that comes from a void of love, than to beg the Author of Love to fill that void with Himself. I cannot reach all those children, but He can.
Even the times when I fail to love as I want to (since imperfection is inevitable) can become prayers, for His strength is made perfect in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). In humility, I must remember St. Francis de Sales’ advice to be as patient and loving with myself as I hope to be with others. This humility in striving to love can be offered in reparation, too.
“Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you receive it, and you will,” Jesus tells his disciples in Mark 11:24. If I ask Him to use the love that I choose to give in the most challenging moments of mothering, to help those who most need love in the world, I must believe that He will grant my request.
The Heavenly Mirror of Love
Earlier this week, one of my dear children did something that left me in tears. (I don’t cry easily, so this was a big incident.) Then I remembered my resolution to respond to difficult situations with gestures of love. I took my little one onto my lap. I told him how sad his actions had made me, and he apologized. As I held him, and loved him, I understood why Jesus had taken a child into His arms and told us to receive children in His name. Holding this child in my arms and receiving him with love in Jesus’ name soothed the ache in my own heart as well as his.
Deep down, I knew that all the times I had let God down were far worse, deeper, and more damaging than these small childish offenses. In the heavenly mirror of this scene, I am the offending child, and God is the one holding me. I am inconvenient, interrupting, thoughtless, and frustrating in my behavior, and yet God still receives me with infinite gestures of love.
It sounds like a small thing—responding in love and patience to each difficult moment. Yet, as Mother Teresa said, “We can do no great things—only small things with great love.”
These small gestures of great love, scattered like flowers through the gardens of our homes and families, will grow more love. They will grow the love of our children, and our children’s children. And they will grow the love of the souls we may never meet on earth but hope to meet in heaven. With God’s grace, every hug, kind look, and gentle word we offer can help to fill the gaping holes of love, not only in our own families but in the whole world.
“It is easy to love the people far away. It is not always easy to love those close to us. It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. Bring love into your home, for this is where our love for each other must start.” –Saint Teresa of Calcutta