Family life is called to be holy life. Married, husband and wife answer the call to holiness differently than priests and religious. While there is well over 2,000 years of wisdom and teaching the path to holiness for priests and religious, very little exists for married folks.
Yet family life is inherently different than celibate life — as it should be. Still, married men and women hunger for holiness just as much, while simultaneously have little guidance and teaching in how to “run toward Christ,” as Saint Benedict put it, amidst diapers, dishes, wage earning, and teenage angst.
Our Holy Conception’s call is to help husbands and wives run hand in hand toward Jesus our Christ. At the heart of this new way of understanding, living, and loving our Catholic Faith, is a simple short story. This story has been given the blessing of Bishop Michael Sheridan of the Diocese of Colorado Springs.
The Story of Our Holy Conception
This is at once the most and the least fantastic story you will ever read.
It is the most fantastic because Catholicism lifts the veil of discord between us and all creation and truth. You will come to realize the world we live in, containing the air you breathe even now and the people you know and love, is more regal and treacherous and redemptive than any fantasy ever written. The world you are about to enter is the world you entered at your birth.
Simultaneously, it is the least fantastic for two reasons: it is about the world you already know, or think you do, and thus everything contained herein has happened in some form to others much like you since Jesus our Christ walked the dusty roads of the now holy land; and I am your far-from-perfect-in-God’s-eyes guide and though I strive ardently to capture the brilliant, fantastic wonder of this world which God has breathed into existence for us, my capacity as wordsmythe falls dismally short of God’s eternal wonder. Still, I pray, these humble paving stones may put you on a path of wild abandon and holy wonder. In these ways this story, and all that follow, is much like you and I: we are each at once the most and the least fantastic creation of God. The breath of God in you gives you value and worth beyond reckoning; yet without relinquishing everything you’ve been given back to God and serving Jesus our Christ, none of us can possibly fulfill our vast inner potential, come to know God’s breath within us, and breathe it into the world. Now, to the beginning of our fantastic and ordinary tale.
Towering, pine-forested hills cradled a small mountain town, which in turn cradled a rustic log cabin snuggled at the base of a mountain the family who lived there called the Skirts of Mary. Martha Maria sat before her harp and gazed out upon the surrounding pine heights. “Martha!” her Papa called, halting her fingers mid-pluck on her harp. She tore herself from the view and the harp. “Coming!” she hollered, then dashed out the music room, down the wood paneled hallway and slid to a stop in the family room where Papa enveloped her in his arms.
“Martha,” said Papa with a gleam of excitement in his eye that kindled anticipation and joy, “would you please gather in the clan? We have some news.”
“Yes, Papa!” exclaimed Martha. Bubbling over with Papa’s infectious excitement, she dashed off to collect her four sisters and four brothers. Mama and Papa waited together in the family room, a bit unnerved by the rare silence that settled into the room.
Bernard scooted over to Catharine, caressed her cheek in his hand and gazed lovingly into his Beloved’s eyes. “This news will boggle our parents’ minds when they learn we’ve a decade of children!”
Catharine smiled lovingly at him. “Families trusting God to provide for whatever abundance God gives them has been lost in recent generations. That wisdom of sacrifice and struggle and abundance hasn’t been passed on through many families — because they succumbed to the Blight in so many ways,” she lamented.
“Indeed! How many marriages and families have we seen torn asunder because of the Blight of sin?” Bernard wondered sorrowfully.
“You’re right,” Catharine responded. “Most of our family and friends do not understand that the rich joy of life is found in being open to life. Our parents think our home too small,” she chuckled as she said, “they focus on convenience over embracing the gift of life.”
“Och! Shake this melancholy!” laughed Bernard. “Being open to life is the key. And just look what it has wrought!” he patted her tummy with the warm glow of jubilant elation as their glimmering eyes met.
“We are stupidly, insanely, wondrously trusting God and He is blessing us with more blessing!” she said, snuggling into her Lover’s arms. They sat in gentle joy awaiting their children.
Far too little time passed before their children bustled in. Joseph Jonathan, a precocious three-year-old, who continuously startled them with his generosity. Maria Rose, age four, whose red, freckled cheeks matched her hair and the fiery joy that exuded from her. Agnes Joan, age six, bubbled in with her long, dark hair straggling out from under her head covering. Augustine James, age seven, looked to be Maria’s older twin, his green eyes sparkling mischievously and without a care. Matthew Thomas, age nine, glided in silently, the antithesis of Augustine in his demure demeanor, yet having a quiet confidence that emanated solid courage. Martha Maria, age twelve, with her long, dark braids flowing out under her headscarf, watching everything but hardly drawing anyone’s attention for the din from everyone else. Luke Bartholomew, age fourteen, stumbled in awkwardly upon his gangly, over-sized feet. And finally, Anna Catharine came in, like a shepherdess of seventeen at home on the hills, having just rounded the cadre at Martha’s behest.
Once everyone was in the family room and the littles were happy playing in their bigger siblings’ laps, everything settled into an anticipatory hush, as if at a theater with thousands of people when the lights go dim and everything settles quietly to the floor in a softening fall of snow. Only the wind blowing inquiringly through the trees outside could be heard.
“We have tidings of great joy!” announced Papa, gently breaking the silence with his deep, melodious voice. The children instantly recognized the soft-theology-monk tone in his voice and prepared for a joyous parable of faith entwined with life.
“Why do we tell the same stories again and again?” Papa asked.
“Because we hear them differently each time!” replied Martha and Augustine together. Papa smiled. They knew the right words from repetition. Now to find out if they understood. “Why?” he wondered aloud, “Why do we hear a story differently each time?”
“Because we’ve changed. We have seen things and thought things and lived things we had not when last we heard the story,” responded Anna, quicker than she usually did. Being oldest, she tended to wait to see if anyone else knew the answers before chiming in.
“Excellent, Anna!” replied Papa. “This story, which you have heard any number of times, will announce to you our good news.”
Papa paused, looking at each of them sitting in rapt attention on the floor, smiling deeply into their beautiful, eager faces.
“We each begin the same way. Like the Book of Genesis tells us, as the world was created, so too is each of us created. God lovingly scooped clay from your Mama in one hand, and clay from me in the other hand and gazed lovingly at each, a bit like you gaze at me now.” Papa’s hands gestured as he spoke, his hands scooping up unseen clay. He paused in telling his story, gazing with wonder and awe at the unseen clay cradled in his hands.
Papa’s hands continued to reveal the story as he talked: “Then God brought his hands, and the clay from me and the clay from your Mama, together. The very moment they came together, joining into one flesh, God breathed his breath into the clay, infusing that unique breath throughout your clay forever more. At that moment, the clay was given a soul and became human! At that moment, the clay received value, meaning, and purpose beyond price. At that moment, the clay became each of you,” Here Papa paused before adding with deep wonder, ”and now your new brother or sister!” He waited, expecting the announcement to take time, but almost immediately gasps of delight came from all the children.
“Really?” several asked at once, eyes wide. “Are we really going to have a brother or sister?” Their excitement grew and grew. The stillness built into wiggles, expanded into leaps, and burst out in dancing and singing.
Papa and Mama watched the wave of jubilance grow, crescendo, and slowly settle down, a knowing smile on their faces. Papa waited for the excitement to settle down. Suddenly his face became grave and stern.
“But God’s breath breathing a new person into existence is not the only thing that happened at that moment of the joining of the flesh. Who can tell me what else happened then?”
They had settled into a quiet and sorrowful lot, sitting sullen where moments before they had danced with wild and joyous abandon.
“Satan,” piped up six-year-old Agnes.
“Yes,” said Papa. “What about Satan?”
“Original Sin,” replied Luke. As the second eldest, he knew he was expected to continue on in his explanation, confirmed by the anticipation on Papa’s face. “Because of Adam and Eve’s choice to disobey God, we each get coated with the filth and slime of Original Sin.”
“And that makes us stupid!” hollered little Maria.
Papa and Mama sighed and laughed at the same time.
“Yes, yes Maria, sin does make us stupid.”
“Deaf, blind, dumb, and stupid!” several chimed in together, with a little too much enthusiasm given the topic.
“Sin indeed makes us deaf, blind, dumb, and stupid. You are right,” continued Papa. “Sin is the Blight that can swallow us all. Original Sin cuts us off from God and we, now being deaf, blind, dumb, and stupid, easily begin to think our breath of God in us means we are our own god and can do whatever we want. We begin to think we don’t need God, if there ever was a God in the first place. And we become even more deaf, blind, dumb, and stupid.”
Again Papa paused. He looked at them each, an exasperated sigh of despair heaving from his heavy, bowed shoulders, eyes sullen with hopeless defeat.
“It looks pretty hopeless for each of us, and for Baby Peanut in here,” he said, placing his hand lovingly on his wife’s belly, which after the gift of so many pregnancies knew so well what to do, her clay already leaping into action and beginning to show. “Is there anything we can do to change things?”
“Yes!” shouted several voices.
“No.” mumbled several voices.
Papa laughed. “You’re both right! Augustine, why did you say there is nothing we can do?”
Augustine paused thoughtfully, which took a lot of effort. He thought back to that morning when he couldn’t help but grab hold of his older sister Martha’s pig tails as though they were the reins of a horse and steer her about by yanking first one, then the other. Oh! How she’d screamed and hollered and tried to grab him. He smiled, both at the memory and because he knew the answer. “Because we fail on our own.”
“Ahhhhhh! Excellent answer! Yes, we fail on our own, no matter how good we think we are. So you are right, there is nothing we can do … on our own. We will be stupid and we will succumb to sin.” Papa turned to little Agnes. “Agnes, why did you say ‘Yes!’ there is something we can do to stop sin?”
“Jesus! Jesus wants to help us. We just have to say ‘Yes!’”
“Exactly! How does Jesus help us?” asked Papa.
“Baptism!” replied all the children who were old enough to still be following along. Even 4-year-old Maria chimed in with the word once she heard enough of it to shout it out quickly.
“What does Baptism do?” Papa wondered.
Silence filled the room as brains chugged away.
Luke finally said hesitantly “It’s a bath in Jesus’ death and resurrection and it washes away all the filth and grime of Original Sin?”
“Was that an answer or a question?” asked Papa, not giving away if Luke was right or not.
Luke sat up straight, gained confidence, and boldly said, “Jesus gives us Baptism to wash us clean of Original Sin.”
“Yes, Luke!” said Papa. “But what happens when we fall hard in the mud of sin and cut ourselves?”
“Joey cries!” grinned Augustine, as he mimicked a pathetic Joseph rubbing tears out of his eyes.
Papa again laughed. “Yes, all of us cry if we fall hard enough. Including you, Augustine, just last week when you slipped on the ice.”
Augustine looked back at Papa, chagrined, having realized he had just been prideful in his mocking of Joey. He made a note that he would need to make things right with Joey, then decided it shouldn’t wait and went over to him and said “I’m sorry I mocked you, Joey. It was rude of me and I only did it because I was embarrassed that I had cried when I fell on the ice.”
Joseph smiled at Augustine and said, “I forgive you.”
“Augustine,” asked Mama, “Is there anything else you need to do?”
“I don’t know,” replied Augustine sullenly.
Mama continued, "You let your Sinner take control and did nothing to stop it. That’s how our Sinner gets bigger and bigger, and our Saint smaller and smaller, and how the Blight spreads in us even though we believe in Jesus and go to Mass and want to do the right things. How, by God’s grace, are you going to use your will to make it clear you choose your Saint instead of your Sinner?”
Augustine paused thoughtfully. “I’ll be silent from now until lunch tomorrow.”
Everyone gasped. Augustine be silent? That would take two miracles!
“That’s a wise and hard choice, Augustine,” Mama said, giving him a steady, pleased smile. “Why don’t you go kneel before Jesus on the Cross and ask him to forgive you and give you the humility to fulfill your vow of silence?”
Augustine silently got up, went to the kitchen and knelt before the crucifix. He felt horribly alone. Desolate. Then he looked up and saw Jesus hanging on the cross. Augustine’s heart melted. At that moment, he felt his Mama’s arms on his shoulders and looked around to see Mama, Papa, and everyone else kneeling with him. Tears began to flow down his cheeks. He thought back to that surge of pride that welled up in him and that he’d done nothing to stop. He hadn’t looked at how deceitful and hurtful it was to Joseph. He was just making a joke, but now he realized he was trying to put Joseph down so he could feel better about himself. Suddenly he was glad he had chosen a vow of silence, and he felt warm and loving inside. He made the Sign of the Cross, and his family joined him, then they got up and went back to the family room.
Mama looked at them, still smiling. “Just like in Genesis 50, God can take evil and use it for good. Augustine sinned. But he’s been baptized. How is that possible if Baptism washed away all the Original Sin?”
Anna said, “Papa was just getting to that. He had asked what happens when we fall into the mud of sin and cut ourselves. Well, like with Baptism, we wash away the filth and muck with Reconciliation, but there is still a bleeding wound. That eventually heals but leaves a scar. We are all scarred from Original Sin and subsequent personal sin, and that makes it easy for us to want to be our own god and that makes us stupid again.”
“Well answered, Anna,” said Papa. “That’s where all of us are in the story of Our Holy Conception. We’ve been Baptized, brought into the Body of Christ, but we are still sorely tempted: by pride, or sloth, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, or greed. All of those are deadly sins and if we fall for them we succumb to the Blight and destroy Right Relationship with those around us, without even realizing what we are doing because our sin makes us … “ he paused and looked at them expectantly.
“Deaf, blind, dumb, and stupid!” everyone shouted in unison.
“Indeed! So what are we to do about this epic battle happening within each of us between our Saint, our inner Breath of God, and our Sinner, the scar from Original and personal Sin?”
“Grow our Saint bigger!” shouted Augustine, even as he realized he had just broken his vow of silence, cupping his hand to his mouth as he spoke the last word, making “bigger” sound very small.
Papa smiled lovingly at him, put his finger to his lips as an unnecessary reminder to keep his vow, and continued waiting for an answer as if Augustine had not said anything.
Quick to catch on, Maria repeated Augustine’s answer with glee: “Grow our Saint bigger!”
“Yes, Maria, and how do we do that?”
Oops. She had taken an answer that wasn’t hers and she did not know what it meant, yet. “I don’t know,” she said humbly.
“That’s OK, Maria, that’s how we learn. Now you’ll pay attention to the answer even more.”
Anna said, “By practicing the Salvation Arts that Jesus gives us.” She, too, knew to keep going with the full answer and continued, “The Sacraments, like the reconciliation that just happened here between Augustine and Joey; the virtues, which are always stronger than the deadly sins if we choose them; and being mindful, using logic and reason.”
“Exactly, Anna. And with Baby Peanut here, and with each other, we fight these battles together, helping each other grow our Saint. Which virtues conquer which temptations?"
“Chastity conquers lust!” exclaimed Anna.
“Temperance conquers gluttony!” cried Luke.
Anna and Luke looked at each other, entering into a contest to see who could name them the fastest. They both shouted in unison,
“Charity conquers greed!”
“Diligence conquers sloth!”
“Forgiveness conquers wrath!”
“Kindness conquers envy!”
“Humility conquers pride!”
As the two older ones belted out the virtue chant, the younger ones joined in: jumping, dancing, and hollering. It ended and everyone tumbled into a squirming, giggling, laughing pile on the floor, Mama, Papa, and Baby Peanut swallowed into the joyous tumult of new life.