faith in real life
He gazes at me, steel blue eyes searching. He gazes. And gazes. Sometimes so intently, for so long, that I have to work to hold my own gaze steady, to meet his eyes with mine.
This is part of the (happy) work of having a newborn. Watching them. Watching them change in front of your eyes. Cheeks rounding, lashes lengthening, hair thickening, thighs plumping, fingers uncurling.
Wondering what they will become. Wondering who this person might be, whose life I hold in my hands.
My grandma used to call this stage “the baby’s face unfolding,” waking to the world. My mom tells me this each time she visits to help and hold our newborns.
It is the same story all parents watch, over and over again. A first chapter opening in a brand-new book.
But you have to look to see it. Behold.
. . .
He’s an old soul, my friend declares, handing the baby back to me. You can always tell by their eyes.
Later I think about her words and wonder if we’ve gotten them backwards. Even setting aside reincarnation, as we Christians do, the saying suggests that contemplative, quiet babies are wise beyond their years. That they hold some distant, ancient knowing behind their eyes.
But babies are able to hold our gaze so intently precisely because they are brand-new. They have no filter yet to smudge up their view of the world, no hurt, no grudge, no knowledge of evil. Their innocence is what permits them to disarm us by their unrelenting gaze. They will not avert their eyes out of shame or drop their glance from embarrassment, not yet. They have not learned that lesson.
What we see blinking back at us in their eyes is not the wisdom of the aged – as clear as their vision of the world can be. Instead, babies bring utter openness. Unclouded vision. Eyes not yet dimmed by the cruelty or sorrow they will inevitably see. Not worried or weathered or wearied by years.
He is a young soul, in fact. Behold.
. . .
What does it mean to behold?
In Scripture it’s the greeting of the angels. Behold, for I bring you tidings of great joy.
In church it’s the reminder that recaptures our attention every time we gather round the table. Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sins of the world.
In literature it’s an air of importance. Lo and behold… There’s a weight to beholding, beyond watching or seeing. You are witnessing an impressive sight.
Even the parsing of the word – to be and to hold – signals a notable duality: you must take a certain stance and accept what it offers.
And when you contemplate in the way that beholding invites, something will happen. You will appreciate or perceive or understand or discern differently than you did before.
You will be changed.
. . .
The one who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”
Then he said, “Write these words down, for they are trustworthy and true.”
This summer I’m beholding my own life, too.
For the first time in a long time, I’m looking around at everything I have and finding it so good. Yes, there is the exhaustion of the newborn days. And yet I have felt profoundly happy ever since this baby arrived. For a while I joked about it to friends as “really good hormones.” But now I start to see how much deeper this joy and gratitude runs.
I found new motherhood hard, really hard. I remember in the early days reading about the shift that happens when your first child turns five. All of a sudden you glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel – that your life will not always revolve around dirty diapers and 2 am wakings. That your child is growing up, and quickly. Becoming a person before your eyes, a walking, talking, someday-even-rational human being with all the fullness and wonder of what it means to be human.
And I feel that now, with Sam heading off to kindergarten in the fall. Perhaps for the first time, I feel myself settling into motherhood with deep-seated joy, less tinged with the anxiety that accompanied his birth.
I look around me at our growing family, this beautiful bunch of boys, a husband I adore, work that I love, writing that sets my heart on fire. And I feel so blessed, so deeply wrapped in the presence of God. It has been a hard summer already, physically and emotionally, and yet I have not lost sight of the deeper joy here, the stream of goodness running through it all, clear and fast and strong. I can behold my life in bright sunlight, eyes open and willing to hold the gaze.
And I am able to be what I hold.
. . .
The babe is at that lovely stage where smiles start, now only small bursts of wide-cheeked delight, fleeting rewards for the monkey faces I ape at him, over and over, hoping to catch a grin. I have to watch him for a long time to see them. He is teaching me the practice of beholding: the discipline of deciding to stop and see what is right before my eyes.
Perhaps that’s the lesson in beholding: that you have to be here and hold on if you want to witness the joy, to catch the goodness that rushes behind, beyond, underneath the surface.
These things are trustworthy and true, these moments of joy we know to be of God.
Watch the beauty unfolding before you. Watch your own life blossoming. Watch it bring you joy.
Write these words down. Behold.
. . .
For a new twist: today look your child or loved one in the eyes. Behold them. How does it feel to hold their gaze without words? Where do you see the good – the God – within the life you love?
Here we go again! Settling into Newborn Land…
It’s a strange place to live. Everyone keeps odd hours. Crying is common. Spit-up and strange smells are expected. Nothing is ever clean.
But it’s a sweet place to stay, too. Newborn neck nuzzles and curled froggy legs. Milky breath and fuzzy fine hair. Sleepy smiles and softest skin.
The newborn time turns brains to mush. Hearts, too. It reverses routines and casts aside comfort. It makes you crave quiet and sleep so desperately you can taste it.
But it also reminds you how simple life can be. Sleep, eat, repeat. No lofty demands, no stressful schedules.
Just the babymoon cocoon of those dearest and nearest, wrapped up in the needs of the littlest.
. . .
On our third sojourn into Newborn Country, I’ve noticed how quickly the days are spinning by. Mostly thanks to Joseph’s two big brothers who never got the memo on “sleep when the baby sleeps,” choosing instead to play/yell/laugh/eat/whine/run/tantrum while the baby rests.
So the only long, lazy stretches of gazing at my sweet babe are reserved for the wee morning before anyone else stirs.
In those hazy hours before dawn, I think about the practices of caring for a baby. How simple, yet how laborious they can be. How feeding, diapering, and comforting a newborn fill every hour of every day.
If you’ve spent more than five minutes surfing round this blog, you know how my thoughts wind God-ward. So lately, as I nurse and change diapers and rock and swaddle and soothe, I’ve been thinking about how these simple acts can be spiritual practices.
How everyday care for babies teaches us about God and who God created us to be.
Over the next few weeks, as I’m adjusting to life as a mother of three (and a writer with fewer brain cells), I’ll be wandering through Newborn Land, eyes open to the spiritual practices that come with caring for baby.
Feeding, cleaning, rocking, singing, holding, soothing, and resting – to name a few.
Clichés about babies pile up faster than dirty laundry, and advice for new parents abounds. But would you believe Scripture has something to say about these spiritual practices, too?
For those of you in the trenches of Newborn Land (or Toddler Territory, or Preschool-Ville), I hope this new spin on well-worn activities might breathe fresh air into your tired bones.
And for those of you whose days of diapering and nights of rocking babies are now far behind you, I hope you’ll share your wisdom with those of us who still have far to go!
So stay tuned for some spiritual enlightenment on spit-up and soggy crib sheets.
Till then, sweet dreams (ha)…
As soon as you announce that a new baby has arrived and it’s a boy/girl, one question immediately follows:
What’s the name?
We ask the question even before we ask about baby’s stats (height/weight/length?) or current status (mom & baby doing well?) or arrival details (how did labor go?). We like to react to the choice of a name, and we love to hear stories behind their selection.
We know names matter.
So when it came time to share our new baby’s name with family and friends, I thought back to a chapter in my book where I write about names and calling. How the gift of a child’s name can call them forth into a hope, a faith, a dream of what they might become.
Whether named after a beloved relative or a famous leader or a biblical figure, a child who is blessed with a story behind their name can carry their story with them as they grow.
Since I started blogging 4 years (!) ago, I’ve always held back on sharing my children’s names here. For all the usual internet concerns about privacy and protection, sure. And also my heightened awareness of the tension between writing from the perspective of a mother and knowing my children’s stories are rightfully their own.
Keeping their names to myself seemed like the safer way to go.
But as I’ve been finishing final edits on the book (!!) – in which I not only used their real names, but shared the stories of their naming – I realized that it was time to loosen my clutch. Their wonderful names will soon be out into the world in a new way, and this chance to tell the stories of the early years as their mother is a gift I’ve been given to share.
So without further ado, today I introduce to you not just one, but three boys…
When we were expecting after infertility, our heads and hearts were still full of the longing and pain of that waiting. Hannah’s story meant much to us then: her stubborn cry for the child of her heart, her refusal to keep quiet when she knew that God would listen, her song of joy that rang out when her prayer was answered. So we settled on our boy’s name pretty quickly, knowing “for this child we had prayed.”
(Plus, I still swear I’ve never met a Sam I didn’t like.)
Samuel. A name of hope.
. . .
After the first blurry year of new parenthood had miraculously passed, we started daring to wonder if we might be able to try for #2. Infertility strips you bare of any illusions about ease and control when it comes to family planning, but we knew we’d been graced with a gift before, so we felt brave enough to try again. Lo and behold, we were one of the lucky ones for whom it was much easier the second time around.
When we chose a boy’s name, we wanted a name that resonated with the deep faith we felt had brought us to this moment of welcoming another child into our lives. So we gave him a name with echoes of scholars and saints, and the strongest apostle in the bunch (in my opinion) – the one who dared to voice his doubt as proof of his belief.
Thomas. A name of faith.
. . .
This time we knew he was a boy, so we had fun playing with boys’ names from the beginning. But we’d also named ourselves into a corner, so to speak, having started a trend of Strong Catholic Saints’ Names That Are Easily Nicknamed And Also Sound Like Linebackers To Be Feared When Paired With A Strong Italian Last Name. Thus somewhat limiting our field of options for sweet baby boy.
In the end, there was one name that we kept coming back to throughout the year we waited for him to arrive.
The weeks I spent rewriting this curriculum, searching for Scripture stories of calling and pausing every time I read about the two Josephs called by dreams, in Genesis and the Gospels.
The months when his older brother were obsessed with the Technicolor Dreamcoat soundtrack and we listened to GO-GO-GO-JOSEPH! for hours on end on the old stereo in the living room.
The Advent season at our parish (whose namesake of the saintly worker inspired us, too) when one of our pastors preached about how Joseph always headed straight into whatever mess to which God called him.
It was the perfect name for the baby whose coming felt all the more like gift after loss. Whose arrival I dreamed of whenever fears grew too strong.
Joseph. A name of dreams.
So there you have it – three sons, three stories, three names. It’s a joy to share them here. How about you and yours?
How has the story of your naming shaped you?
How did you choose your children’s names?
And he’s beautiful.
And we knew it was him all along.
For 20 long weeks we kept the secret. From family. From friends. From every perfect stranger who would stop us in the grocery store and ask if we knew what we were having.
No matter who inquired whether this baby was a boy or a girl, my response was always the same.
We’re keeping it a surprise, I’d say.
My hunch is it’s a boy, I’d offer.
And if you listened carefully to my phrasing, I never told a lie.
I always swallowed back the smile when people would assure me it was a girl. I can tell by how you’re carrying. I knew from the moment you told me you were pregnant. It’s got to be a girl this time.
I’d nod and chat about how it would be fun to have a daughter – because I always entertained a healthy dose of doubt, even with ultrasound techs and crystal clear pictures that claim to be “99% accurate.”
I wouldn’t know for sure until I held that baby in my arms.
But still we knew. And it was the loveliest secret we’ve ever kept, just the two of us calling him by name, delighting in the prospect of three boys, imagining what new personality might be added to the bunch.
We’d always loved the surprise before. Turned our heads away with resolve at the ultrasound tech’s instructions. Marveled at the discovery in the delivery room. Loved sharing the news with each family member and friend we called in the hours after delivery.
But after our miscarriage last year, my perspective changed. The loss of the unknown and the possibility was the hardest grief to bear. I wanted to know as much as I could about our baby.
So I wore him down, my dear husband who can be as stubborn as I. After a few months of convincing, he agreed to find out – as long as we kept the surprise to share with friends and family once baby arrived.
(And of course we never whispered a word of our secret to the two biggest blabber-mouths we know: Brothers #1 and #2, who openly had their hearts set on a little sister. “Mama, we already have a little brother!” our oldest would remind us exasperatedly.)
So on that freezing cold Epiphany day, we found out. And we both loved it. I will never forget the grin we shared in that dimly lit ultrasound room. Three boys!
Knowing made the waiting that much sweeter, that much more eager, that much more impatient. And now he’s here in our arms.
So it’s a story of revelation – of secret and surprise. And a story of change and conversion. The choices we made for one child don’t have to be the choices we make for another.
But what a joy to share the news we’ve known for so long. Our boy.
Not simply a third variation on a theme. Far from any disappointed attempt to “try for a girl.” Nothing but a beautiful boy and brother and son and child of God all his own.
Sometimes I wondered, in that abstracted telescopic view we sometimes try to sneak on our own lives, whether I wished this baby had been a girl. After all, everyone around me was sure I wanted a daughter. Some of the bold ones went so far as to declare that they hoped I’d “get my girl” this time. Once or twice I felt that twinge of ohhhh when I saw an adorable dress in the baby department.
But when I wrote that I was smitten with this baby the second I saw him, it was no exaggeration.
Every time I thought of him – him - a goofy grin snuck across my face that I can only compare to that feeling of falling in love for the first time. He is exactly the baby I dreamed of.
So there you have it, world. From the girl who can’t keep a poker face, who always bursts to let loose the secret, who can barely hide a joke’s punch line.
Nearly half a year spent waiting to spill the beans.
He’s the best secret I’ve ever kept.
In college I had two French professors whose advice I sought out during senior year.
That angsty season of trying to figure out what on earth one could do with a liberal arts degree, thanks to four delightful years of studying the humanities. And what on earth one should do with a heart that was getting ruined for Christ, thanks to four discomforting years of learning about service and theology and ministry.
The first professor had been a favorite since freshman year, first semester. I landed by luck in her Freshman Seminar and took every course she offered after that. She was brilliant, engaging, encouraging, funny and charming. (It didn’t hurt that she was gorgeous and lived all over the world and had a beautiful home where she hosted dinners at the end of every semester.) She mentored me through choosing a major, finding a study abroad program, and starting graduate level work in the department.
The second professor was a medieval scholar with whom I had several classes during junior and senior year. She was calm and quiet, patient and thoughtful, dedicated and hard-working. (Plus she had the most amazing curly hair that she could pin up in gorgeous buns a la the Renaissance damsels she studied.) She understood my passion for languages and let me explore creative approaches to her assignments.
So faced with the college senior’s perennial dilemma of what to do next, I thought of both of them. And in the span of one short month, tulips miraculously springing along every footpath on campus, I stopped by both of their office hours to pick their brains about how I might spend the next year of my life.
The first listened to me babble (in French! those were the days) about how I wanted to do something with my French degree but wasn’t sure anymore if the academic track was right for me. I’d found a few programs that would let me volunteer abroad in Francophone countries, and I wondered if I should try that while I figured out whether I wanted to be a professor.
She listened, nodded, asked good questions. I don’t remember anything concrete she said during the span of that conversation, but I left feeling affirmed – like this mentor of mine understood why I might not want to follow in her footsteps, yet encouraged me anyway.
The second listened to me just as attentively. But my concerns and questions didn’t seem to resonate in the same way. Sensing that she might not be seeing the crux of the question at the heart of my wrestling, I stopped and posed her a question. How did she integrate her faith and her work? This was really the weighty load I was carrying around for senior year – what did this nagging sense of God’s call for my life mean for the clear path I thought I’d set out on?
She looked me straight in the eye and said, You just have to learn to compartmentalize your life. I’m a Christian, and I do that.
She went on to talk about working during the week, dedicating herself to her students and scholarship, and then going to church on Sunday. And as she spoke, I realized with perfect clarity that she had helped me make up my mind. This kind of segregation was not the life I wanted.
At the end of our conversation, I thanked her for her time and stepped back into the corridor, closing her office door behind me.
To this day, I’m sure she has no idea that our conversation changed the course of my life.
. . .
Who are the midwives of our dreams? The ones who believe in our power, encourage our laboring, promise us that the end result will be worth all the blood, sweat, and tears?
For my first two babies, I saw a nurse-practitioner in my regular OB clinic. She was smart and sharp, witty and understanding, clear and confident. I liked her style.
But towards the end of my second pregnancy, I started noticing that perhaps she wasn’t as supportive of my questions as I’d hoped.
I asked whether it would be ok for our doula to be with us during the whole labor again, and she shrugged. Sure, I suppose. As long as she’s not in the way.
I asked whether I could deliver without drugs, free from pressure from the nursing staff, and she smirked a little. If you’re a glutton for pain, I guess. But you’ll probably end up wanting an epidural again.
I asked if baby could room in with us if everything went smoothly with the birth, unlike last time when our son had to stay in the level 2 nursery for the week. If you really want that. But you should give yourself a break and get some rest, too.
I started to leave my appointments with more confusion than clarity. And after a birth that went beyond my wildest expectations – so fast the doula couldn’t get there, so strong that my own power could match it, so smooth that we got to leave the hospital early with our healthy baby – I realized that I wanted something different from a future health care provider.
I wanted someone who understood.
. . .
Only a few months into this pregnancy, I realized why I love my current practice of midwives so much. It’s not because they encourage natural birth or talk about the emotional side of pregnancy or keep prenatal care as non-invasive as possible, although they do all these things beautifully.
It’s because they remind me of the other midwives in my life.
Friends who walked with me through the biggest decisions of college and grad school. Family members who coached me through challenges big and small. Teachers and mentors who guided by example and instruction. Even the 85 year-old Benedictine sister who has graced me with her wisdom as my spiritual director.
I see glimmers of all of them in these midwives. A spirit of gentle encouragement. A strength of loving support. A source of powerful wisdom.
And I wonder if I can be this for my own children one day, too. A midwife for their dreams.
The Psalms speak of God as midwife, guiding us from the first moments of our journey, caring for us from our mother’s womb.
Maybe we are all called to be midwives for each other, no matter our age, stage or situation. Maybe we are called to mirror God who companions us in our most vulnerable, painful moments and assures us that we are strong beyond our fears.
And maybe sometimes we are called to let others serve as midwives for us, too.
To accept their care and support. To surrender to their wisdom, even when we are so wrapped up in our worries that we cannot see clearly what lies ahead. To place our trust in their skilled hands and know that we will emerge safely on the other side.
“Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me
you have been my God.”
Who has helped midwife your dreams?
They are buddies, our two boys.
Far from best friends from birth, but now constant companions. Since full-time school doesn’t separate them yet, they still spend most of their waking hours together. And even though they’re lunging at each other’s throats as much as they’re hugging sweetly – after all, they’re siblings, not saints – they are still an inseparable duo.
A duo that’s about to gain a third.
I listen to them play together before nap. They read books to each other, jump around the room to their favorite music, laugh at jokes that only they understand. Secret words, secret games – they have a world all their own, and it is good that I am not part of it. But I still savor the listening.
Watching them hold hands when they walk through a parking lot, glancing in the rearview mirror to see them singing in matching car seats, I catch myself wondering how their dynamic will change when another is added to their mix.
Three is an odd number. Pair up and someone’s always left out. Instead of the straight line between two points, they will become a triangle of personalities, with all the pointy edges that can come with it. More energy in a trinity, to be sure, but also more complexity.
It will take time to sort out and settle. Reconfigure and renegotiate. As all life changes do, for all involved.
Even the smallest ones.
. . .
One of my professors in grad school used to interpret the Good Friday story from John’s Gospel like this: Jesus rearranges the family unit at the foot of the cross.
To Mary: Woman, here is your son. To John: Here is your mother.
A new family configuration. A small gain in the face of huge loss.
We talked about this Scripture in the context of ministry to families dealing with divorce and remarriage. But I think her wisdom applies to plenty of changes that families face, both good and bad.
Even in the happiest moments of a family’s life – like an engagement or a birth – there is loss. What was the original unit will be no more. Everything is rearranged. Relationships changed, dynamics shifted. We will never be the same.
Because human nature pulls us toward the positive, we tend to gush about what is gained. The best gift you can give your child is a sibling. Isn’t it great when a family grows? But the flip side of every good gain is real loss. And acknowledging this truth does not lessen the joy. It merely sets the change in honest context.
What has been was good (and hard and real). What will be can become the same.
So the image of Jesus rearranging the family at the foot of the cross is a comforting one for me. In times of birth as well as loss, marriage as well as divorce, joy as well as sorrow, we can find blessing in what is broken open.
. . .
What is lost?
The ease of the present time: everyone sleeping (mostly) through the night, no one wearing diapers, each child speaking his needs.
The convenience of being the perfect family size by society’s standards: 2 parents + 2 kids that fit easily into a sedan or a museum pass.
The dynamics we’ve long established, the habits we’ve come to enjoy, the schedule we’ve taken for granted.
What is gained?
The wonder of welcoming a new relationship into our lives.
The love that increases when we stretch out of our comfort zone.
The mystery of a new personality that will bring us joy and growth.
We decided long ago it was worth it, the costs and sacrifices and inconveniences of having another baby. This is the dream we have for our family. But even when we conclude that the gains outweigh the losses, change still brings challenges.
Is there still Christ among us, rearranging our family unit? I think so. In all kinds of situations. Reminding us that God intended family to be a growing, expanding, embracing love.
So whenever our newest member arrives and the sibling squabbles start afresh, I hope I can remember this truth. That the beauty of what we have right now as a family was born of blood, sweat, and tears at its beginning, too.
And so can be again.
A journey of four days, each unique.
With only a few short weeks to go before baby’s birth, I see these feasts through a new slant. Each like its own stage of labor, particular and progressing. Anticipated but still unexpected.
The gentle beginning.
The increased pain.
The powerful transition.
The final push.
The question is how to journey through all four, patient and present, without wanting to skip over all that comes between.
. . .
When you know you’re in labor, call me, she says, a steady confidence behind her steely grey eyes that have seen thousands of babies birthed into the world. We’ll meet you outside the hospital so we can walk and talk and decide when you want to go in.
And we’ll go get you some food first, she adds, turning to pick up the Doppler to check my baby’s heartbeat. You’ll need to keep up your strength for what comes next.
Thursday is washing and feeding. Prepare your body: eat and drink. Let your feet be washed. Bend your own knees to serve others. Try to steel yourself for what comes next, the sacrifice and the suffering.
Except you can never ready yourself for what Friday will bring. It will catapult you back into the arms of God.
. . .
An empty due date comes and goes. I am the only one who notices.
Alone that night, I light a small candle. Another baby kicks and squirms inside me. Is it worth mourning when my body is rounded and ripe again? Of course. The heart once wounded never heals the same.
I remember how it broke me open, the birth-that-was-not-birth. When I walked into the hospital a month ago for routine tests, my whole body tensed at the memory.
I worry that contractions will trigger the fear and grief again. I worry that we could lose, again.
Friday is suffering and sacrifice. Step into a bare church, stripped stark of its presence. Listen to stories of hearts and bodies breaking. Remember the physical pain of love.
But do not forget that Saturday still waits. Dawn’s first hints that despair and loss will be overshadowed by strange new hope.
. . .
Baptism has many symbols, he explains, ticking them off on his fingers while the couple in front of me fuss over their newborn in the car seat carrier.
Water. Light. Oil. A white garment. And one more in our church that you won’t find anywhere else. Can you guess what it is?
My head snaps back to attention, lulled into laziness by baptism classes before and graduate studies before that. I wonder what our deacon means.
The tomb. Next time you walk by our baptismal font, take a look at its shape. It looks like a tomb. Or a coffin. Because we are baptized into Christ’s death before we rise with him to new life.
And we want our wriggling newborn to be plunged into precisely that, I think. Could anything sound crazier? Starkest darkness before the light.
Saturday is waiting and transition. Pause for a moment between death and life. Sit in the tension between agony and delight. Hold a candle to welcome the newest Christians, the ones who shape their lives to a tomb filled in sorrow and opened in surprise.
So do not give up when you fear you cannot make it through. Transition means the joy is almost within your grasp.
. . .
Do you know what you’re having?
Again and again, perfect strangers pose the question. I have to bite back the sarcastic reply before it slips past my tongue – I think it’s a baby - and respond with a kinder smile. We’re keeping it a surprise.
After Easter Mass the gathering space swells with people swarming into pews or spilling out into the parking lot. The grandmother of the family who often sit behind our motley crew reaches out to grab my elbow as I pass.
Remind me, are your boys getting a brother or a sister?
We’ll have to wait and see, I tell her. Not much longer!
She nods, satisfied. And turning to go, she adds, It will be a blessing for your family no matter what.
Sunday is rising and revelation. The miracle bursting forth. What seemed impossible is now before our eyes in flesh and blood. Letting loose an Alleluia we have waited long to hear.
But still we hold traces of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in our Sunday grasp.
To remind us how the journey that brought joy was a winding road through mystery and death. This year, as in every other year. This birth, as in every other birth.
Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday. How easily we pass over them, eyes set eagerly on Easter Sunday. Or anticipating Thursday’s opening of the Triduum.
Our first half of Holy Week probably looks a lot like yours. Work. School. Kids. Meetings. Chores. Bills. The lackluster pregame show before the big kickoff. The forgettable prelude before the fanfare. The ordinary before the extraordinary.
But the church’s calendar claims these three are holy, too.
The earliest days of the holiest week are in-between: not quite Lent, not quite Easter. It is a time of anticipating what is right around the corner, practically within reach. We are almost there.
The Main Event looms large on the horizon. All signs point toward its arrival, but the journey here has been so long – can it really be coming?
Ahead of us lies both pain and joy, suffering and peace. How can we possibly prepare for all that? How can we hold all this tension at once?
These are the last days. They matter.
Soon we will remember how everything changes.
. . .
The end of the third trimester is a strange part of pregnancy. The eagerness of almost, the frustration of not-yet.
Like Holy Week’s emotional extremes, this time swings wildly: something to celebrate, something to endure, something to savor, something to push through. Both quiet and flurry, both calm and storm. Each day adding to our anticipation.
My mental countdown clicks steadily. Five more midwife appointments. Five more prenatal yoga classes. Five more weeks to finish all those pressing work projects.
Each Saturday the nesting instinct kicks in with greater intensity. Scribbled To Do Before Baby! list in hand, I clean out closets and drawers, watch the boys build the crib with their father, wash baby blankets and fold diapers in neat stacks.
Ready and waiting.
Every friend and stranger I meet asks how much longer I have left. Around us bubble joy and anticipation. A growing readiness to be done. An impatience to discover what (and who!) comes next.
I wonder. Have I done enough? Yes. And no. Like Lent, this journey of expectation is always bigger than me, beyond my personal penances, my tries and fails, my awareness of my own limits. I am carried by forces greater than my own.
And a calendar that presses ever onward, oblivious to the emotions with which I fill the hours.
. . .
I wonder how to honor this time rather than race too fast towards the end goal. How to see the holiness of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in turn.
These neglected early days of Holy Week are a different kind of preparation from the Lent that preceded. More immediate. Here and not-here. Upon us, yet still beyond our grasp. The mystery of the middle time, when we think we know what awaits us (all the Easters have we been through before), when we remember that we can always be surprised (each year bringing its own gifts).
Do I remember to reverence these almost-days, these overlooked ordinaries?
The Celts spoke of thin places, spaces and moments when heaven and earth seem to touch, only the slightest trace separating their realities. Perhaps Holy Week is a small hole through which we peer into the deepest mysteries of the life of God. We could never understand all that it contains. But each year we might nudge a little closer, if we try, to imagine what its truth might mean for our lives.
I watch and wait in this almost-time. It could be long weeks till everything changes; it could be mere days. But God is here, too.
And it is not only Easter morning which makes it so. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. All the ordinary days matter, too.
Here are watercolors, she said. Paint.
Here are pastels, she said. Draw.
Here is clay, she said. Create.
A gathering of mothers. A time and space set apart. A whole afternoon to ourselves, to pause and pray and ponder what it means to approach pregnancy and childbirth as something spiritual.
At Peg’s retreat, I thought about birth and babies and becoming a mother all over again. But weaving between these weighty meditations were simpler sensations: the chalky smear of pastels on my fingers, the ghost-white trace of clay under my nails, the wavy curl of paper as watercolors dried.
When was the last time I let myself make art for an entire afternoon?
Sometimes I sit down with the kids at their small table in front of the sunny window and I doodle while they draw. Or I dip a brush and make soft strokes while they paint. Or I roll playdough into long coils while they squish and smash their creations.
But I never make art. Not on my own.
Why? Because I’m too busy. Because it’s not what grown-ups do. Because I’m not good at it.
. . .
All the way home from the birth retreat, I turned one question over and over in my mind: when did we decide that we were bad at art?
Many adults I know, who colored and drew and painted and pasted their way through childhood, no longer make time for artistic expression. It’s considered child’s play. Delightfully entertaining or developmentally enriching for little ones, but not a serious way to spend time as mature, productive members of society.
But when did this shift start? When did art cease to be an essential way we explored the world? When did it become reserved for the talented, the elite, the lucky few?
I used to love making art – at school, at home, in classes at our local art institute. I especially loved the pottery classes: the whirl of the wheel between my knees, the slippery slide of the glossy clay between my fingers, the surprising emergence of something new and warm between my hands.
But then I stopped. I can’t quite remember why – maybe sports seemed more important, maybe art seemed less cool, maybe the insecurity of adolescence whispered that I should shy away from somewhere I didn’t excel.
So now it seems daunting to start making art again – how? where? when? Why am I afraid of what used to seem so simple? Is it still the worry of looking like a fool? The intimidation of not knowing where to begin?
Or the primal, pulsing fear of failure?
. . .
Only six weeks left till the due date. Of course my thoughts wind birth-ward every day.
Heavy with baby, I watch my boys scrawl with sidewalk chalk, paint pages with watery doodles, color their latest crayoned masterpiece. I see how they trust themselves to create, how un-intimidated they are by the blank page, how much energy they pour into their work and how much delight they take in showing it to others.
At night when I dip into the childbirth books on my nightstand, I find myself turning over and over one question: when did I decide that I was intimidated by birth? When did this biological capacity become something to fear, medicate, suppress, or evade? Why do I have to psych myself up with the mental focus of a marathoner for a natural process that my body was created to do?
It’s a gross oversimplification of a complicated question, I know. The process of labor and delivery can be complex and dangerous, to say nothing of long and painful. Even if I had seen a hundred births in my lifetime, as other women my age would have in other cultures or eras, I might still be as terrified of the known as of the unknown.
But I can’t help but wonder what difference it might make to laboring women if we thought of ourselves as powerful co-creators.
If birth had remained at the center of our culture rather than being shoved to the side.
If we understood more about our bodies and their potential.
If we didn’t listen to the voices who told us we weren’t strong enough.
If we hadn’t decided we weren’t good at it.
. . .
I’m trying to practice, a little every day. (Easier said than done.)
Breathe, don’t balk, through the Braxton-Hicks contractions. Focus, don’t flinch, when the pressure of baby gets too intense.
Paint something, don’t write, when my mind wants to muse. Sit with the kids, don’t scurry, when they’re creating.
Step aside from the well-worn grooves of thinking one way. Sit with the possibility that there might be another path.
. . .
Yesterday afternoon my son came to me in tears because the tail of the monkey he was coloring had torn off.
“I can’t do it another way!” he wailed when I gently suggested that he might try coloring the animal before cutting it out, so that he didn’t have to color on such a skinny tail. “I only can do it this way!”
What if we tried it again? I suggested. What if he took a deep breath to calm down? What if we worked together to try a new way?
His bottom lip still puffed out in a quiver, he hesitated. And then he nodded yes as he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, fingers still stained from the morning’s markers.
What if we were all brave enough to try, again?
Five minutes late (aren’t we always these days). Smudged nametags, courtesy of Crayola markers. Pile of coats on the end of the pew (will it ever be spring?).
Loud whispers requesting books as soon as the lector starts to read. Why can’t we sing that psalm again – I like that one.
Puzzle pieces scattered on the floor during the Gospel. Homily about poverty and divorce and addiction and all the wants we bring before God. Tears over who gets to put the envelope in the collection basket (next Sunday remember to bring two).
No, we are not going to the potty like that little boy. Because you went before Mass and you can hold it, that’s why.
Eucharistic prayers for a bishop at the center of the latest sex abuse scandal. Whining about how hard it is to keep standing (I know, sweetie, I get tired, too). Eyes that light up at the Our Father – I know this one.
Shaking hands with every person within lunging range. Can you be gentle for the Sign of Peace? Headlocks between brothers broken up while the priest breaks the bread. A smiling whisper from the grandma behind us: of course they’re fighting but you have a beautiful family.
Wandering up behind us for a blessing at communion time. Why can’t I have the bread yet? Why doesn’t Mama drink the wine while she’s growing the baby? Snuggles while we sing. Watching babies in the communion line (7 more weeks and everyone will stop asking when I’m due).
Yes, we can read the book about the saints again. Use a Kleenex, not your fingers.
Announcements about a new unemployment support group. Careful practice of the Sign of the Cross at the final blessing. If there’s drumming on the last song, you can dance. But sometimes in Lent we sing quieter songs because it’s a solemn time. Solemn means quiet.
Requests to visit the tabernacle and light a candle and I want to pray for the baby and rainbows and everyone and God. Put down the kneeler carefully, please. Squabbling and a shove over who gets to pick the candle to light.
Why can’t we have donuts during Lent and are we going to Trader Joe’s on the way home? High-five from the priest on the way out to the parking lot. Please hold hands.
You boys did a great job at church today. Thank you. Attempts to revisit the homily’s high points over mounting requests for a favorite CD for the drive home. Brainstorming babysitters for Holy Week services (7:30 on Thursday night will be a disaster otherwise).
Closing antiphon from the littlest one, car seat in the back, dirty boots swinging against the driver’s seat, can you please stop kicking, sweetie:
I love going to church.
. . .
Has it always been so small and so huge, all these questions and concerns wrapped under one roof of one church? Maybe.
It’s the juxtaposition of the miniscule and the momentous, the ordinary and the overwhelming – praying for mudslide victims and pulling up trousers that were indeed too big for Mass this morning, hearing stories of healing in the Gospel while rummaging around in the diaper bag. The whiplash back and forth that defines this time in our lives. All of this is church right now.
Some day we may find ourselves just two again, a quiet couple that takes up only part of a pew. But for now church is chaos. And that’s ok, too.
. . .
Today at Practicing Families I answered our oldest son’s question from last Sunday, a response to his tantrum at the back door:
Why do you have to go to church?
I thought I wasn’t going to have to answer that snarly question for a few more years. Maybe even a decade before you started stomping around with teenage eye rolls of disgust when I ask you to get dressed on Sunday morning, and not in those ratty jeans with the holes in the knees, either.
But here we are today, already five minutes late and you’re standing at the back door whining in protest, coat clenched in your fist and your stubborn stocking feet kicking the mud-caked boots you refuse to put on so we can scramble into the car.
Do you want my answer? Ok. This is why you have to go to church.
Read the rest at Practicing Families…