I reached the heights of youthful self-absorption in the autumn of my nineteenth year. I’m tempted to plead it slipped my mind. But truthfully, it never even crossed my mind in the first place. I only realized it when, scanning my email, my eyes fell on a one-liner from my aunt: Your mother’s birthday was yesterday, you know.
“A foolish son is a grief to his mother” (Prov 10:1). So too is a forgetful one. I mean, who forgets his own mother’s birthday? What’s worse, I wasn’t even halfway through my well-rehearsed telephone apology when she assured me, simply but genuinely, “It’s okay. I love you.” This swift issuance of forgiveness made me feel even more uncomfortable. It didn’t seem like I deserved her love just then, that’s for sure.
The philosopher Josef Pieper has wrestled with this tension between deserving and actually receiving love. Deep down, he observes, we sort of think that we have to earn the affection that comes our way. We don’t just want love; we want to be loved—for our cleverness, our usefulness, our charm, or whatever it may be (170, 180). At the same time, we know our shortcomings, even when we haven’t forgotten a birthday. We all take something like quick side-glances in the mirror and spot what seems unlovable about who we are. This disconnect inspires fear. We balk at what we receive from those who love us simply because we are—because we exist, and that existence is deemed “very good” (Gen 1:31). “At bottom,” Pieper writes, “all love is undeserved” (179). And love begins with God. He “first loved us,” attests St. John (1 Jn 4:19). The very fact of our existence “testifies to nothing less than our being loved by the Creator” (178). We are creatures. Always creatures. We are fruits of the Creator’s love, bestowed with the capacity to love back.
Forgetting to show love to my mother, I received it. And receiving love, I wanted to become more myself—that is, a better, more selfless version of myself. It woke me up. In time, it moved me to act more like the person that my mother saw in me. Such is the power that love can exert. On this the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary—yes, that’s right, the Church celebrates Our Lady’s birthday today—the maternal affirmation Mary gives us, undeserving spiritual children that we are, can motivate us in a similar way. She knows how to accept God’s love, and share it. She looks on us with love, and prays for us, that she may see more and more of her Son in us.
Image: Toa Heftiba