What does ‘sacrifice’ really mean, anyway?

For one, it means admitting that we can’t do it all.

Chelsea Victoria | Stocksy United

Before I dive in here, I just have to ask: Is anyone else hearing the words from The Princess Bride there? “I do not think it means what you think it means?”

Thought so.

As a child preparing for my First Confirmation, I read an autobiography of St. Therese of The Little Flower, my chosen saint, and I remember being very frustrated and confused by how the author portrayed the saint’s “sacrifices” during her life.

The book listed the many “little ways” St. Therese had sacrificed her earthly self, including frequently eating food that she knew had spoiled, just so others could have the fresh food, and purposefully choosing to sit the furthest from the fire. All the sacrifices she had made, denying her basic needs for nutrition and warmth, the author implied, ultimately led to St. Therese’s untimely demise. Now, I know, of course, that St. Therese died of tuberculosis, and no amount of heat from the hearth probably could have helped her, but at the time, I remember being very confused by what I read—why would God be happy with someone purposefully doing things to hurt themself? Isn’t that wasting the gift of life? How is sacrifice that is self-harm helpful?

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Fortunately, now that I am an adult and a mother of four little souls myself, I can see that the confusing message I read as a child regarding sacrifice back then is definitely not what I thought it was. Although sacrifice is a big theme in Church teachings (hello, Jesus on the cross?) and even one that Pope Francis referenced in his homily on mothers recently, the message of what sacrifice as a woman and a mother means can be a difficult one to navigate: “A society without mothers would be a merciless society, one that has room only for calculation and speculation,” Pope Francis declared. “Because mothers, even at the worst times, are capable of testifying to tenderness, unconditional self-sacrifice and the strength of hope.”

That’s a lot of pressure! If all of society is resting on my sacrificial shoulders, you know? What exactly is wanted from mothers like me, who have been taught that sacrifice is one of the holiest things we can do?

To help me make some sense of this, I talked to James Houbeck, a fourth-year theologian and seminarian at Sacred Heart Major Seminary within the Archdiocese of Detroit. Sacrifice is essential for all Catholics, he explains, but is especially exercised in a very literal way by mothers.

God didn’t design a system in which a mother has to be miserable or unhealthy in order for others to thrive. It doesn’t work like that.

“Mothers pour themselves out for the benefit and good of their children,” he notes. “But, a life of sacrifice is demanding, it is exhausting. Jesus, knowing this, provides a perfect invitation: ‘Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.’ Mothers undoubtedly live demanding lives of service and sacrifice; however, they cannot give what they do not have.”

Houbeck reminds us that cultivating a personal relationship with Jesus should be our #1 priority as mothers, because from that, the ability to care for our families will flow. He recommends carving out time for daily prayer and that going on a spiritual retreat, especially a marriage treat if you are married, can be especially helpful. “This is not selfish or neglecting one’s vocation as mother,” he points out. “ Instead, it gives a mother the chance to spend time with her Lord: sharing joys, sorrows, challenges, frustrations. Jesus is interested in all of these basic facts of life, but, He also wants to fill her with His love and grace. Then, when she goes back to her family, she can share not only her maternal love, but the love of Christ.”

The vocation of motherhood is different than the vocation of a religious life, but Houbeck encourages mothers to practice their own discernment:

1) Is there a good time to pray? As soon as I wake or before I go to sleep? 2) How much time can I give Jesus? 3) What can I share with my Lord? 4) How can I respond to Him and find time to share with Him and receive from Him?

MORE TO READ: Motherhood defined in 34 seconds–LOL!

I think that point is so important and is key to understanding what God is asking of us in sacrifice. We aren’t meant to sacrifice for others to the point of damaging ourselves—we too, as mothers, are loved and cherished by God. But we are asked to recognize the very literal, physical, and emotional sacrifices that motherhood places on us and in turn, recognize when we need to take time to step away to recharge with Jesus. And let’s be honest: as moms, sometimes the biggest sacrifice is admitting that we can’t do it all, that our families will survive even if we sit down for a minute, and that we do need a break. For me, this has meant recognizing my own “triggers” as a mom, those moments when I am exhausted and feel like the “right” thing to do is just push through instead of taking a breather—like the stressful moments before dinner or at bathtime or when all of the kids are needing something from me at once. Sometimes, sacrificing what I think a “good” mother should do for what I need to do—which is usually to say a quick prayer and gather my strength because I’m just a mortal mother!—is the best course of action.

Being a mother certainly doesn’t mean sacrificing our own health or happiness for the “good” of others. God didn’t design a system in which a mother has to be miserable or unhealthy in order for others to thrive. It doesn’t work like that. Just like the saying goes, when Mama is happy, everyone else can be happy, too.

“Daily prayer and building a loving relationship with God may not make sacrifice easier,” Houbeck says finally. “But God provides the grace and strength a mother needs each day. Mothers are called to pour themselves out for their families, but, they do not do so alone: God provides all.”

So the next time I am tempted to pretend that “sacrificing” taking the time to eat a nutritious meal instead of scarfing my kids’ leftovers is helping anyone or “sacrificing” my gym time because I feel like my husband just can’t handle the kids without me or “sacrificing” my free time to fold more laundry, instead I should remember that God will provide all—if only I give Him the chance by admitting that even moms need help sometimes too.


Chaunie Brusie
Chaunie Brusie

Chaunie Brusie is a labor and delivery nurse turned writer. She’s the author of “Tiny Blue Lines: Preparing For Your Baby, Reclaiming Your Life, and Moving Forward in an Unplanned Pregnancy,” and a mom of four who lives in Michigan. Find her at tinybluelines.com.

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