By the time this column goes to print, I quite possibly will have met the baby who is the fulfillment of all my best hopes — the answer to prayers begun almost 16 years ago at a diocesan Cana conference held in the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Douglaston.
On that snowy Valentine’s weekend in 1993, my fiancé and I spent two days listening to talks by married couples, asking very few questions, praying, and completing exercises meant to ensure we were ready for the sacrament of matrimony. How well I remember comparing our answers in two black and white composition books. One question in particular stands out from all the others: “How many children do you hope to have?”
“At least eight,” I wrote without hesitation, although, as an only child, such a large family seemed almost unfathomable. It was like hoping to live in the White House or Buckingham Palace — a best-case scenario, though perhaps a bit unlikely. For my young future husband, the seventh of 11 children, his own response of “about half a dozen” probably seemed a conservative estimate. At any rate, we were both on the same page, united in a hope for many children. In a way, our answers were the perfect Valentine’s gift to one another. One year later, on February 4, 1994, our first child, a daughter, was born between blizzards — the perfect Valentine’s gift from God.
Fifteen years have come and gone since that first birthday, and here we are in 2009 — once again surrounded by the snows of February — this time awaiting the birth of our eighth child. In the blink of an eye, the words “at least eight” leaped off the page and became reality. Friends (or even people I meet on the street) sometimes ask if it is a lot of trouble raising so many children, but experience has shown us the truth of the teaching found in the Catechism: “‘The supreme gift of marriage’ is a human person.” (CCC 2378.)
Long before we discovered this for ourselves, two other couples lived out this teaching right before our eyes. My husband’s parents, who generously welcomed eleven children, and my own parents, who suffered the disappointment of infertility, were like two sides of the same coin, wordlessly impressing on us the value of children. Sometimes, when I think about their example, I remember the story told in the old hymn, “Good King Wenceslaus.” The king and his page are bringing food and drink to a poor family when the page finds himself unable to go on any longer in the wind and snow. King Wenceslaus instructs the page to mark his footsteps, giving the youth guidance and strength:
In his master’s steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the saint had printed.
The older I get, the more clearly I recognize the path forged by our parents and the better I understand that “heat was in the very sod” right at the outset, making our way easy and clear.
This sums up a central duty in our vocation as mothers and fathers. We cannot leave the souls entrusted to us to grope in the wind, their faces unshielded, and their feet unsure of the way. As parents, we are called to “heat the sod” for them through prayer, thorough catechesis, and example, never ceasing to witness to our faith for as long as we are able — whether our “children” are six months old or sixty.
St. Wenceslaus, by the way, is more than a legendary or sentimental figure. He was a Christian ruler of Bohemia (part of the modern day Czech Republic), martyred on the steps of the church by a group of knights unhappy with the faith he brought to bear on politics. Raised by his Christian grandmother, St. Ludmilla, Wenceslaus’s true story has more to teach us even than the romantic hymn. Then, as now, our faith cannot be lived in silence or half heartedly. “The duty of Christians to take part in the life of the Church impels them to act as witnesses of the Gospel and the obligations that flow from it. This witness is a transmission of the faith in words and deeds.” (CCC 2472.) St. Ludmilla set her grandson on the path of truth, and St. Wenceslaus never wavered from it.
As we prepare to greet our eighth “Valentine” from heaven, please keep my husband and me in your prayers — not only for a safe labor and delivery, but also for the strength to “heat the sod” for our children, just as our parents did before us.
[Long Island Catholic, 2-4-09]