November 10, 2022
Yesterday my 8-year-old son, Cirocco, celebrated his First Reconciliation, an important step on the way to receiving his First Communion this spring. Our church put together a very nice little ceremony, with candles, and prayers, and kid-friendly songs. All of the children looked adorable, parading into the sanctuary in their Sunday best. I fully hoped that the event would go smoothly, that it would be a picture-perfect day I could remember proudly and fondly.
But the day did not go smoothly, and the truth is that things seldom do with Cirocco. He was nervous and agitated, climbing all over the pew, refusing to follow along with the liturgy, and just about to get in a fist fight with his sister when my husband finally had to drag him out the back of the church. As Matty tried to calm Cirocco down in the vestibule, I stared at the young girl sitting in the pew in front of me, listening to the priest with her hair in a neat little bow and her hands folded quietly in her lap. And the terrible, horrible thought that has plagued my entire motherhood rose into my mind: “Why can’t Cirocco just be normal?”
Because whether I like it or not, Cirocco is not normal. I will spare you the list of his diagnoses (labels which are ambiguous and limited in their usefulness anyway) and just tell you that my son is neurodivergent, which is a fancy way of saying that his brain does not process things the way most people’s brains do. This has created in Cirocco a stunning intelligence, as well as a sensitive and keen-eyed spirit that allows him to notice and understand things with profound clarity. But it also makes it difficult for him to do things that most people can do easily: get dressed properly, deal with unpleasant sounds, get his hair cut or nails clipped, sit through a 15-minute liturgy without getting in a fist fight.
While I am fiercely proud of Cirocco and wildly in love with him, I admit that there is a seed of shame in me, where I tell myself I have failed because my son is not obedient or well-mannered and doesn’t meet benchmarks in the same way other kids do. I often feel guilty because I have not “fixed” my child, have not figured out how to make him “normal”.
But I take comfort when I remember that Mary, the Mother of God, also knew what it was like to have a child who was not normal, a child that was beyond her powers to tame. Because nothing about Jesus was normal. The way he spoke and behaved, the people he hung out with, the miracles he performed, all of that was just as radically abnormal in first-century Palestine as it would be now. And I wonder if Mary ever felt overwhelmed like I do, if the other mothers looked at her out of the corners of their eyes and shook their heads like they do to me, or if she worried about Jesus’ heart and his whole future, like I worry about Cirocco’s.
However much shaming Mary experienced because of her oddball son (and I feel sure it must have been a lot), she had the wisdom not to try to change Jesus, to love him and let him be exactly who he was, whether he fit in with other people or not. For never has God ever asked us to be “normal”, never commanded that we contort ourselves to be more like other people. In fact, in 2 Corinthians 10:12, we are warned against just that:
We do not dare to rank ourselves or to compare ourselves with any of those who commend themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they only demonstrate their ignorance.2 Corinthians 10:12, NCB
No, we are not asked to be “normal” like other people, because preoccupying ourselves with meeting this subjective and ever-changing standard would divert our attention away from being the person we actually are. Instead of being normal, God commands that we be holy:
For it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”1 Peter 1:16, NRSV
Holiness, as God intends it, is not a homogenous, one-size-fits-all way of being; it is incredibly diverse, and there as many different ways to be holy as there are people in the world. Being holy means not imitating each other or even imitating the saints but imitating God, within the actual context and circumstances of our own real life. What it means for me to be holy, as a spiritual director and mother of three living in suburban Oregon, is different than what it meant for Jesus to be holy, and different than what holiness looks like for you. So holiness is something about being brave enough to be who God actually created us to be.
And when I look at my beautiful son, Cirocco, with all his quirks and his amazing brain that does things its own way and always has, I remember that this is what holiness looks like: an 8-year-old-boy with the courage to be exactly who God made him to be, even when it embarrasses his mom in church.