In commemoration of the canonization of Mother Teresa, our younger children's school chose her quote, "Do small things with great love" as their theme this year. This simple sentence is hanging in every classroom, on students' lockers, and throughout the hallways. What a beautiful reminder to each of us every day to go about our daily tasks, but to do them mindfully and with a heart of love. It has caused me to pause and reflect on my own life as a mother and how acts of kindness and love change with the different seasons of our lives.
Our youngest five children were born in eight years, and most nights I collapsed into bed feeling like I was just barely keeping my head above water. I yearned to volunteer in our church and the community, but I was lucky if I got time away from my children just to keep a doctor or dentist appointment a couple of times a year. I remember telling a spiritual advisor that I felt guilty for not doing more charitable works, and he reminded me that in that particular season of life, my whole day was an act of charity. Every diaper I changed, every hug I gave, every book I read and song I sang to my small children were acts of love. I can assure you that during the many moments of exhaustion, exasperation, and sleep deprivation, I often didn't feel very loving. I offered up prayers throughout the day just to get me through the next few hours with a patient, kind, and loving heart. In that season, most of my acts of mercy and charity were directed toward my children, but we did occasionally find ways to reach out to others.
We homeschooled during those early years, and the children and I did participate in some group volunteering through Cub Scouts, our local homeschool group, and our church. We visited nursing homes and brought homemade cards and cookies to the residents. Some of my children sang and played the piano there. Others helped the elderly open their song books to the pages we were on so they could sing along. Our toddlers often just talked with them and gave them smiles. Sometimes I felt that the innocence and exuberance that emanated from our youngest ones brightened the residents' days far more than any gifts we brought or any organized performance we had prepared. We also participated in numerous food drives, toy collections at Christmas, cleaning trash from roadways, and ringing the Salvation Army bell at local retail stores. But I think most of our memories of acts of kindness remain the ones of us in the nursing homes.
As the children have gotten older, and most of them have started school, many of their volunteer activities occur with classmates or fellow youth group members. Sometimes I tag along, but much of the time they do it on their own. In groups, they clean up the grounds around the church and school and put together boxes of donated items for hospitals, pregnancy centers, and our troops overseas. Our more musical children still perform at nursing homes, but now they do that with fellow band or strings members or with their choir. Our older children have baked hundreds of pies and cookies with other teenagers to raise money for good causes. Our teen daughter and some friends took it upon themselves one year to bake their own cookies, cupcakes, and brownies to raise money for a little girl with cancer. They have also gone with me to help prepare and serve monthly free meals for the less fortunate of our community through St. Vincent de Paul. More recently, our middle-schooler took care of a neighbor's cat and got her mail while she was away on vacation. I'd like to say that they did all these things out of the goodness of their hearts, but the truth is that some of them did so because they needed mandatory service hours for school or confirmation.
The other week the children's entire school spent the morning in various charitable deeds. One class cleaned the church; another planted bulbs in all the flower beds around the school; yet another made items to send to those in less fortunate countries. All through the school, you could find students, teachers, and parents participating in small things with great love. Mother Teresa said, "We are all but His instruments who do our little bit and pass by. I believe that the way in which an act of kindness is done is as important as the action itself." I hope that these experiences foster hearts of service and attitudes of gratitude that will carry into my children's adult lives as well.
All of these service projects are beneficial, and I'm glad my children have these opportunities to serve. But I am reminded daily that charity starts at home. Why is it that doing these small things with great love is often the most challenging at home with our own family members? The little annoyances that occur throughout the day under our own roof seem to make it so difficult sometimes to demonstrate mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. Washing the dishes, cleaning up someone else's mess, helping a younger sibling with a homework assignment bring the biggest complaints from my children. I, too, sometimes find it difficult to be cheerful while doing the small things in my own home. Every time I fold another basket of laundry, prepare yet another meal, call out this week's spelling words, or act as mediator in sibling squabbles, I am given the opportunity to do so with love, even though I don't feel like it.
Saint Mother Teresa said, "It is easy to smile at people outside your own home. It is so easy to take care of the people that you don't know well. It is difficult to be thoughtful and kind and to smile and be loving to your own in the house day after day, especially when we are tired and in a bad temper or bad mood. We all have these moments and that is the time that Christ comes to us in a distressing disguise."
My goal this school year is to live and love in the example of Mother Teresa and to remember that "We are all but His instruments who do our little bit and pass by."