faith in real life
Every week I’ll share a few favorite images around one of the seven Catholic sacraments, to celebrate my new book: Everyday Sacrament: The Messy Grace of Parenting.
Follow me on Instagram at @thismessygrace or tag your photos with #everydaysacrament.
Let’s start seeing sacraments together…
. . .
Maybe more so than reconciliation, anointing of the sick is the hardest sacrament to capture in image.
Because it is blessedly removed from my life right now.
Every day I think about the gift of three healthy children. They get runny noses, spike teething fevers, toss and turn the rare restless night with a stomach bug. But thus far their well-check visits to the pediatrician have been routine and uneventful.
So many parents I know do not take this for granted. Babies tangled in IVs in the NICU, toddlers stretched out on the surgeon’s table, kids struggling through school hallways in wheelchairs, teenagers wrapped in heaps of quilts on their deathbed. There is no promise that childhood is free from suffering.
But for me today, the everydayness of this sacrament lies in its absence. At this stage in my life – and this will not last for always, I know – I honor its sacredness only by the smallest reminders.
A stash of Tylenol and bandaids bought to share with our sister parish in Haiti, where parents are pleading for the most basic medications to help their children sick with fever. (Or worse.)
A coffee-stained Starbucks table that welcomes those with physical handicaps and nudges me to question if my life today does the same.
A kiss on the oven-burned finger from two big boys who came running when they heard me yelp. Mama, let me make it better. Teaching me how the power of physical touch is a blessing we grasp from our earliest days.
. . .
Anointing of the sick is not last rites. It’s a common misunderstanding in popular culture, lingering in Catholic circles, too. But this blessing with sacred chrism oil and prayer is not reserved for our last gasps of breath.
It’s a gift of God’s healing grace to be shared whenever we are suffering deeply – in body, mind, or spirit.
When I first started writing the chapter on anointing of the sick in Everyday Sacrament, I stalled over the fact that I’d never received this sacrament myself. If I’d only seen it celebrated from a safe and healthy distance, what could I possibly have to say about its power?
But then I realized that there are echoes of anointing’s graces in the everyday ways we help each other to heal. Every parent who has comforted a screaming child, bandaged a bleeding wound, or rushed a sick baby to the emergency room understands some traces of this sacrament.
Perhaps we practice these “first rites” at home because deep down we know that some day our children will be wounded beyond our power to heal. And we want them to remember what it first meant to be held and comforted in love.
Today I celebrate my children’s health. And I pray that they will always know how God’s grace waits to anoint their aches and soothe their scars, even when health is no longer the safe measure of their days.
When have you seen the anointing of the sick celebrated?
What have you learned about healing at home?
A baby in my arms, round-cheeked and solemn-eyed, stretching out his chubby hand towards an ice-cold window, swirls of first snow gusting just beyond the glass.
Three times I have watched.
Pudgy fingers smudging up against the pane, leaving a breath of fogged fingerprints behind. Brow furrowing, steady eyes silently wondering what is this? Cold and hard are not the usual domain of babies, the newest ones whose softest skin we wrap in fleece blankets and cuddle with feathery kisses.
Three times I have felt this sacred hush.
What it means to introduce a child to the world outside, a world which can be hard and cold and harsh and cruel. A fleeting foretaste while still safe in mother’s arms of what it will mean for them to brave the beyond.
Three times I have welcomed this same invitation.
To remember that what is hard can also be holy.
The book is here. The hard part should be over. The dreaming and the writing and the editing and the re-editing and the waiting are behind me. This new baby is in my hands, and it is rushing headlong into the world, too. Now all should be calm; all should be bright.
Except this is never the way it works, is it? In writing, in parenting, in life.
Right when I thought I had hit that sweet spot – of work and family and home all humming along so much better than I dared dream when I pictured life with three kids – right then was the instant something started to unravel.
The child care set-up that was steady and smooth? Now yanked out from under us. We’re scrambling to re-calibrate, and everything is up in the whirling air.
How to juggle all these callings. How to handle all the good work we’ve been given to do. How to be the partners and the parents we’ve promised to be.
All will be well, Julian of Norwich reminds me, in that nagging, knowing truth of the long view. And I believe this. But in the short term? All ain’t great.
It’s far from the end of the world, but it’s the complicating of our small world as it spins today. Stress sneaks back in; what’s nicely knit unravels; we run on fumes and we run down. I know we will be fine; we’ve been here before and we’ve come through. But still.
This is still hard.
And this is still holy.
The lesson each baby teaches me, dimpled knuckles banging at snow-streaked window, is that life is always juxtaposed in tensions: soft meets hard, warm meets cold, safe meets scary.
These edges press up against each other all the time, but we lull ourselves into thinking we are confidently on the safe side of calm and control. Instead there is hard, and God is here, too.
So there is holy.
I cannot – will not – say that all that is difficult is divine. There is evil, injustice, abuse, and deceit that cannot be baptized by any best perspective.
But among the few stones of hard truth I have collected about God in the few decades I have been seeking, I know this: God is present.
When it seems it cannot be so, when we ourselves cannot see it, when the whole maddening crowd screams otherwise. God is present.
So whenever there is that too-familiar twisting crunch – of time, of nerves, of expectation, of budget, of hope, of health, of heart – I try to breathe some peace into the space between. To remember how the hard and the holy meet.
To turn over and over in my mind this silent memory of first snow: of each quiet, curious baby perched in my arms, peering out into a world of white, a stark new landscape that covers in strange drifts what was once known.
To see what their fresh eyes see, to feel what their smooth fingers feel, and to trust what their calm wonder trusts. That they are still held.
That we are, too.
It’s not all about my kids.
I know I’m breaking a cardinal rule of mommy blogging with that one. But this truth runs deep in my tired mama bones:
It’s not about me and mine.
I can’t shake the stubborn, squirming fact that this call to motherhood – this gift I took into two shaking hands when the two lines on the test blurred clear to pregnant and I flung open the bathroom door to tell a father (because he was finally a father!) that everything had changed – this beautiful, exhausting vocation is not simply to the three children whose scuffed shoes are tumbled across our front hall rug.
It’s a call to stretch my heart into a mother’s love for all children.
To burst beyond the limits of what I want to cling to as mine, safe and small. To peer into the pain of how the world’s brokenness crushes millions of hearts like mine – mothers who carried babies and nursed babies and soothed babies and loved babies. To remember how small but mighty shifts can happen once we start seeing each other.
My three wee ones may be the lens through which I view this parenting story, but they are not the whole story. The story is about all of us.
And your children have shaped me, too.
Your kids are starting new schools, clutching those tiny cartooned backpacks or hiding nervous eyes behind teenage bangs. Your kids are braving bullies on the playground or tackling learning disabilities with this year’s IEP.
Your kids are teaching me that God fills us with courage from our earliest days.
Your kids are widening what they know of love, welcoming a new baby or foster sibling into their home. They’re fumbling into tender new friendships after a cross-country move. They’re learning what it means to mourn a grandparent who has gone beyond.
Your kids are teaching me that God’s love is inexhaustible.
Your kids are grown (if any of us can place that verb in past tense). They’re off to college with extra-long twin sheets for the dorm bed or they’re waving goodbye from the International Departures gate. They’re finally starting their first real job and going off your phone plan, or they’re having sweet, small babies of their own.
Your kids are teaching me that God longs for each of us to grow.
Your kids are still not here. They are desperately wanted dreams, slipping just out of reach again this month. They are hopes and glimmers and the mystery of not-yet, but you still love them wildly.
Your kids are teaching me that God is the Source of Life Itself.
Your kids are teaching me because their lives are bound up with mine. And it haunts me, this Body of Christ, this woven-togetherness.
Because what happens when we re-member each other back together is that all the rigid boundaries quiver and crumble. My family. My house. My kids. My life. No. Ours.
One shared stream, and it is one holy blood that pulses in our veins.
If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.
She never bore a baby herself, but how many pausing photos have we seen of her, wrinkled eyes smiling, sickly scrawny newborn pressed to her cheek, love touching love in the filth of Calcutta’s gutters?
Teresa understood this truth in flesh and bone, and they called her mother for it.
The children who don’t have enough rice to scrape together for a meal, whose dry tongues crack for clean water to drink, who toss and turn to sleep terrified of gunshots outside or abuse from down the hall – they tug on my heart, too. They have to.
Otherwise I have not changed. I have not let my children change me – these wriggling babies whose bodies were once held within my skin, whose hearts beat beneath mine, whose life was sustained by my own.
And they have changed me mightily.
So I have to keep probing this uncomfortable truth. It’s not about me and mine. It’s about yours, and theirs, and all the ones I will never know face-to-face.
It has to be ours.
Our sweetest, smallest, newest. (Dare I say gentlest, too?) A mere four months this side of birth, and already it seems his quiet wisdom has been with us always.
This Joseph gift, this “rainbow baby” promise after loss – he is pure light. Already teaching me all sorts of truths I thought I knew.
1) Joseph taught me that God is Hope.
By his very existence, this child astounds. Only six weeks after we lost our baby last summer, we found out he was on his way. Did we dare to dream he could be, so soon? And yet he was.
The hope of new life that he brought by his first spark – it did not deny the pain of what preceded, or dismiss the death of another, but it was still profoundly healing.
As he grew and pushed softly against the limits of my skin, he pushed my faith into new places, too. Places that had to stretch to make space for what it meant to lose a baby and gain a baby, all in a short span of time. Layering upon learning how life and death are always twinned.
People use the phrase “rainbow baby” to signal a child conceived after miscarriage or stillbirth. Now I see the shimmer in that truth, the bright sign that stretches over the months of hoping, drawing out of darkness into light.
Joseph will always be for me this resurrection sign of God-as-Hope, of joy flooding our lives.
2) Joseph taught me that God is Mercy.
As I fling this sentence into the interwebs, I rest fully aware that it may all change in an instant. But this baby? He is the precious easy kind of child a parent secretly wishes for.
He sleeps, he eats, he smiles, he grows. Rare are the crying jags, abundant are the gummy grins. He has slid into our lives with such simple grace that I find it hard to believe there was a time when he was not.
The transition to three has proved so much easier than we expected, even in a summer with too much unexpected challenge around us. Joseph has been the calm center of the storm, quiet and steady and growing on his own.
I joke and call him “the gentle giant” because he is our biggest baby, bursting out of tiny clothes and filling our arms with unexpected weight. But perhaps we needed this bigger presence of peace in our lives right now.
Perhaps God’s Mercy gifted this sweet soul for such a time as this.
His big brothers smother him with love each new morning. They never tire of squealing at his very presence, covering him with kisses. It still astounds me – their pure delight, their unconditional joy. When Thomas was new? Sam had no time for the intruder. But both boys love their baby in the truest sense of the word.
I see now what lavish Mercy looks like, how God loves. And it is so Good.
3) Joseph taught me that God is Dreamer.
By his name, this child echoes truth to me.
We chose Joseph for all those dreamers in Scripture – the one whose visions shaped his destiny and the one whose angel voices softened his heart. Both these men had to trust their God and their own inner compass to lead. Even when called into the mess of uncertainty around them, they fixed their gaze on God and headed straight in.
And both of them changed the story of their families and their people for generations to come, by trusting in strange dreams.
Joseph reminds me that God is a Dreamer, too. Dreaming of justice and mercy and peace. Dreaming of healing and reconciliation. Dreaming of a love that will reshape the very fabric of our lives if we dare to let it in.
I look into his gentle, dreaming eyes and I hear whispers to keep dreaming, too. To remember how new life springs in strange ways from death. To be unafraid of what others think as I head straight into the messes where I am called. To imagine what might come if I dare to follow wildest dreams.
To trust my life to the One who created and claimed it for goodness.
. . .
What have you learned about God from those closest to you –
your spouse, children, parents, siblings, or friends?
Dark-haired. Dark-eyed. Stubborn and spunky. Middle child. All things I am, too.
But this sweet Thomas boy – he is full of surprises. Every day he keeps me on my toes, reminding me that he knows his way. And his way in this world will be bright, blazed all on his own.
1) Thomas taught me how God is Creator.
Thomas came into the world fast and furious. The way he’s done everything since.
I write in my book about how much he taught me by his birth – which was natural and powerful and even easy. The utter opposite of the overwhelming induction that brought Sam into the world.
While we were racing to the hospital, I freaked out that the baby would be born in the car en route, so intense was the speed at which everything was flying.
But suddenly I looked straight at the clock on the dashboard and knew that I would be fine. Because he would be born at 3:21 am. I have never known anything with such perfect clarity before or since.
Sure enough, he ended up arriving exactly on time – as soon as we flew into the birth center, as soon as the doctor rushed in to catch the baby, and as soon as that clock ticked to 3:21 am. Crazy but true. Now that I know our boy who always makes up his mind in a split second, I’m not surprised. Thomas has always been a boy on his own time.
His birth taught me that I was stronger than I realized. That my body and mind were created to do hard and worthy work. His birth taught me that so much of a child’s personality is revealed in the earliest moments. And these innate qualities are not of our own crafting.
Thomas reminds me that each of us was called into being by a Creator who knew our lives before we took our first breaths. The mystery and wonder of that truth is captured in his birth story that still surprises me every time I tell it.
Just like the boy himself.
2) Thomas taught me how God is Reconciler.
Another truth I write about in my book (can you tell I have it on the brain since I finished final edits this weekend?!) is that Thomas’ temperament is not far from mine. Which is a nice way of saying that he and I regularly practice reconciliation and forgiveness.
The stubborn Irish temper I share with my second-born? It teaches me time and time again how God is slow to anger, rich in mercy. I wish I could be like that, too. But until my edges (and his) soften over time, this is a lesson that both Thomas and I will have to keep learning over and over. Good things we’re in it together.
Quick to laugh, quick to snap. My prayer is that we will both be quick to love and forgive, too. Like the God who is always waiting to welcome and reconcile, running down the road to meet us with a father’s wild, prodigal joy.
3) Thomas taught me how God is Trust.
Since the day we chose our boy’s name, the expression “Doubting Thomas” rubs me the wrong way. Sure, I get the Scripture reference. But every time I return to the story with fresh eyes, it strikes me that Thomas was far from cynical or snarky about struggling with the idea of the resurrection. Quite the contrary.
His faith already dug so deep that he demanded to know. He wouldn’t hide behind false fronts or go along with the bewildered crowd. He wanted to see with his own eyes and touch with his own hands.
Maybe he was the apostle who believed the deepest.
The story of Thomas’s name reminds me of doubt’s important role in the spiritual life. It is the stubborn twin brother of faith that keeps wrestling and probing. It is the hunger for understanding that refuses to give up and go quietly. It is the heart’s desire, strong enough to stay and search for truth.
So when I call Thomas’s name, I hear that invitation to Trust all over again. To keep wondering and wanting toward wisdom, asking to come close enough to press my fingers into the love of God.
What have you learned about God from those closest to you –
your spouse, children, parents, siblings, or friends?
Blond-haired. Blue-eyed. Math-brained. First-born. All things I am not.
And yet this boy, this so-longed-for Samuel – he teaches me about the inner fabric of my own heart and the walls of my soul. By his pushes, by his pulls. Most of all by his tender heart.
1) Sam taught me that God is a faithful companion.
Waiting for Sam taught me about the mystery of prayer – that it is not about the answer, but about the asking.
Waiting for Sam taught me about growth through pain – that it is the paschal mystery of dying and rising to a changed way of being.
Waiting for Sam taught me about God’s stubborn companionship – that it is closest to our heart when it feels furthest from our lives.
Yes, we “got” a baby after our years of waiting. But that fact is not what taught me God’s companionship. It was the long Advent before parenthood when I felt God sitting with me, silent and steady in the dark.
I have never forgotten those days, and every time I look at my children – especially sweet Sam – I remember infertility and I remember God’s companionship.
By our waiting, he teaches me.
2) Sam taught me that God is a caller.
When it came time to choose our first boy’s name, we loved Samuel right away. Hannah’s story was one we held close to our hearts while we were waiting: her tears and her hope. And her child’s name – because I asked the Lord for him - fit our own gratitude perfectly.
But it was the rest of Samuel’s story that has taught me more about God. That God is still speaking. That the tugs on our heart or the voices in the night may just be nudges from the divine.
When I hear or speak Sam’s name, I hear echoes of the story of Samuel and Eli: Here I am, Lord. I’m reminded to keep listening, to lean on the wisdom of mentors and elders, to trust that I will be led if I respond. And not to be afraid of where I am called.
By his name, he teaches me.
3) Sam taught me that God is ancient and ever-new.
What a blessing and a burden to be the first. (Writes a third-born.) Sam gets to try everything before the others and boast of his size and age, but he also has to break us into parenting every step along the way. I imagine he will delight and struggle with being the first, much like every other first-born I know.
But here’s the thing he teaches me by going first: God is always already there.
Each time Sam reaches a new milestone – and we too, as his parents – I find God in the newness. In this season of school, I am finding God in the widened circle of people who will care for him. I am finding God in Sam’s delight in what he is learning. I am finding God in the freedom of letting him take small steps into the world without me.
There is nothing tired or musty about God. That wild whirl of Spirit energy, born of life and love itself – it brings constant change and surprise.
Of course it can be painful to learn and grow. Of course I’ve stumbled plenty of times along the way, worrying about Sam when I should have been marveling in wonder, wrestling to control what was never mine to wrangle. But I am better for the stretching.
I keep finding God in the surprise of what Sam brings as our trailblazer.
By being the first, he teaches me.
What have you learned about God from those closest to you –
your spouse, children, parents, siblings, or friends?
My husband and I went to college together. But we didn’t go to college together, you see. In retrospect we figured out that we met during freshman orientation. A failed, forced scavenger hunt mixer between our respective dorms, in which all I remember is lounging on the lawn with one of my budding best friends, laughing snarkily about how those guys over there were so weird but at least they didn’t care about the stupid scavenger hunt either.
But we didn’t start dating until senior year. And only halfway through that.
So whenever we wax nostalgic about college days, we each have our own memories, our own stories, our own epic escapades with our own groups of friends.
Last week we stood outside in the settling dark of a warm summer night. We’d let the dog out before turning to head to bed, all three boys already lost in slumber upstairs.
And as we stood there, barefoot on the edge of another lawn, August grass already curling into early autumn’s brown, I turned to him and asked -
Do you remember when every night was full of possibility?
When every weekend beckoned with the prospect of an unforgettable night out and unbelievable stories to share with our roommates the next morning. When promise hummed in the late-night air as our group headed for the bar or the party or the dance. When there was always the prospect that tonight might be a night we never forgot – that we’d meet someone, that we’d run into fun just around the next corner, that we’d end up with one of those classic college stories only hilarious to those who were there, who never forgot the mayhem or the nickname that ensued from the night’s events.
When the air was electric with anything possible.
When I think about what changes once college recedes in the rear-view mirror, it is this sense of wide-open prospect that seems farthest gone.
Not only that any evening could turn epic, that even a late-night run to the grocery store could prove entertaining, but that the next class or professor could be the one that changed an interest into a major. That the semester abroad could lead to a career. That the retreat or the alternative spring break or the service project could open up a whole new calling.
Our eyes were open wider than they had ever been before.
And we almost knew it while it was happening. We had a hunch that the alumni who reappeared faithfully for fall football weekends weren’t simply missing friends or classes or campus clubs. They were missing a way of life. The promise of possibility that opens briefly for those of us lucky enough to call a college education our own. The widening of four years in which the world becomes our proverbial oyster and we get giddy off the aphrodisiac.
But of course it cannot last forever.
The choices we all began to make – graduate school and cross-country moves and first jobs and engagements and marriages and babies and houses – they were good and necessary choices. The rest of our life was waiting to happen, beckoning to begin when we stood outside the convocation center, clutching our graduation caps while wild May wind whipped through our hair.
Is every night full of promise and possibility now? At first my instinct says no. These are our tired thirties, after all.
Now nights are full of dirty dishes and diaper changes and wrangling wiggling children into bath and bed, then turning to the disheveled house and the day’s to-dos left unfinished at work, and then how is it 11:30 again? We’re going to be wiped out when the baby wakes us at 5. Let’s get to bed – wait, did you take the dog out and is the dishwasher running and did anyone switch the laundry into the dryer and where did that stack of bills go?
The air around us starts to feel old and tired. The furthest thing from electric.
But sometimes when I try to look with wider eyes, eyes that used to spark at any possibility, eyes that still sense the shadows of what’s most important, even on a dark night under a cloudy sky, I see that maybe the promise of our nights is still there.
Muted tones, softened edges. But still so present.
Every night I get to slip into bed next to that boy I fell in love with when we were 21. Every night one of our children wakes needing something from us – milk or water or simply a snuggle back to sleep. Every night our house stands strong and safe around us. Every night we rest to ready ourselves for another day’s good work.
There’s so much promise brimming there.
Sure, the prospect of possibility looks different at 33 than it did at 22. I’m sure it will shift to change again at 44 and 55 and on and on. Our lives become limited by the choices we make, but these aren’t all harsh constraints. Simply sharper definitions. We become ourselves. Partly the selves we have chosen, partly the selves we have shaped in response to what life has given us.
So perhaps the better question is not where does promise lie but how sharply can our eyes see it?
Back then, footloose and fancy free, we never could have imagined what lay before us. Life’s never this way. Even those easy, eager conversations of oh, I definitely want kids, too that we must have had while first dating – we never dreamed that those breezy hopes would stumble over infertility or miscarriage.
But neither could we have grasped the depths of how all that was tough and hardened would bind us together, closer than we could have glimpsed when we were laughing on that loud dance floor, the night it all began.
. . .
Lately I’ve been mulling over that line from the end of John’s Gospel. Jesus sitting on the shore in the gray light of dawn, staring at the water and telling Peter that when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished.
But - and there is always a but, isn’t there? and you feel Peter cringe because he knows it, too – when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.
And even though our end will never be as dramatic as Peter’s tale will twist, we still sense this truth about adulthood. The truth you cannot grasp when you are on its giddy brink.
You will be taken where you do not wish to go. Your heart will want things it cannot have, and your soul will struggle with truths it does not want. You will be pulled towards people and places you never imagined.
But there can still be promise there, enough possibility to keep you looking skyward even on the dragging days and the darker nights.
As long as your eyes can keep blinking open. Wide enough to see it.
My mother sang while hanging clothes
The notes weren’t perfect, heaven knows
Yeah, but heaven opened anyway
This I knew was true
It was a year ago that I spent hours listening to her music in the kitchen. Swirling my hands through streams of soapy water as I washed bowl after bowl, pot after pot.
Putting up the summer harvest was part of my healing after losing the baby. Doing something concrete for my family. Saving something good from the soured summer. Looking ahead to a time when it all might not hurt so much.
I blanched brimming bowls of beans. I cut corn from piles of cobs. I stirred so many pots of soup and sauce, all of it spooned into bags and stacked into the basement freezer. With love, I suppose, but also longing. For what was and what wasn’t and how I had no control over any of it.
So for weeks I listened to Carrie’s albums on repeat: gentle, soothing, pulling me away from myself. There was so much light and darkness in her songs that they made me weep, let me break open to all that needed to rush flooding out.
And every season brings a change
A tree is what a seed contains
To die and live is life’s refrain
This past week I found myself pulling out the same albums again. Popping the Sesame Street Classics! out of the stereo and setting the soft, sweet music to spin. Her voice filled the kitchen again, and suddenly I was right back to a summer ago.
Only now I was thinking of the baby we lost and the baby we gained. Of the summer that was and the fall that will be. Of all the impossible opposites clinging together around me.
God speaks in rhyme and paradox
This I know is true
It was a summer of new life and new loss. Our family welcomed a baby and lost an uncle. A quick arrival and a too-quick departure. Their names twin together, Joseph and Jim. One waking to his first summer and one who had his last.
It was a summer of healing and hurting. A birth that was nearly perfect and an emergency surgery that was anything but. A natural process that healed with no complications and a painful procedure that left permanent scars. Three intense hours that brought new life into the world and three dramatic hours that may have saved my own life.
It was a summer of no work and lots of work. Maternity leave and full-time mothering. Leaving one kind of labor and taking up another. The freedom of pausing some responsibilities and the weight of taking on even more.
It was a summer of chaos and calmness. The busy buzz of two big boys and the quiet moments with the tiniest. How much louder the house vibrates when all three are yelling at the same time and how much sweeter the house settles when all three are sleeping soundly upstairs.
And then at the end of this summer of paradox, more people started reading this blog than ever have before. Thousands more. And shouldn’t I be delighting in this? Isn’t this exactly what a writer wants?
Yet, ironically, the reason my words struck such a clear chord is because so many people are hurting and isolated. I can’t bring myself to rejoice in that.
I can only hope that what I write might help us try to open our eyes wider and see each other, together. In the messy midst of all our paradoxes.
Leaves don’t drop, they just let go
And make a space for a seed to grow
I had that post on infertility and invisibility sitting in my drafts for a long time. I only pulled it out to finish after my heart broke again at the news of a loving couple – you know the kind, the ones who want kids so badly it hurts, the ones who should have a babbling brood jumping all over them like wriggling puppies – whose last round of infertility treatment failed.
I was saddened and frustrated and angry when I heard their news, wanting to shake that furious fist at the universe and demand why.
Instead I sat down one early morning in the dark and finished writing the world this letter.
And for the past week I’ve been sitting back, somewhat stunned, watching so many people read it, watching these crazy numbers climb, watching everything spin out of my small control after how many years of thinking this blogging business depended on me. It doesn’t. It depends on you.
So when I look back on all I will carry with me from this summer, I see how I am leaving with a widened heart and a longer list of prayers to pray. In a season of pain and paradox, these are unequivocally good things.
A summer ago I was mourning a miscarriage, and now I have a bouncing baby boy on my lap. I can’t help but find God in paradoxes thick around me. That Joseph would not be here if that baby had lived.
Now knowing him in all his perfect particularity, I cannot imagine a world without him. Which does not reconcile any death, but does make more space for mystery in the shades of grey that smudge together to make this life.
A portrait of paradox.
. . .
In a fitting end to my maternity leave, my thoughtful co-workers put together this post on our Collegeville Institute blog about my summer series on spiritual practices with newborns. I’m touched by their words and hope you will enjoy it, too!
I never expected this.
Since those words swam in my head every single month that we were waiting for a baby, I should not be surprised that infertility continues to shape my life in unexpected ways.
But this post? More people have read it – and are continuing to share it – than have read anything on my blog in the four years since I started writing it.
The comments on that post are only a sliver of the stories shared with me through email, on Facebook, and in person. I’m floored by how many people are yearning to hear that they are seen.
So many couples are suffering the invisibility of infertility. And so many of them wish their churches would speak a word of peace to them in their pain.
What can each of us do, whether we’ve struggled with infertility or not, to support the couples suffering around us?
Watch your assumptions. That young couple you see? Don’t assume they’re wrapped up in their careers and are choosing to delay parenthood. That older couple you see? Don’t assume they never wanted kids. Those neighbors with an only child? Don’t assume they didn’t want more. Those co-workers with one boy and one girl? Don’t assume they stopped simply because they got their “matched set.”
Plenty of people have complicated situations when it comes to the question of conceiving and raising children. The less we jump to conclusions about someone based on what we know about them, the more we open our hearts to the more likely truth that we do not know their deepest struggles. We offer people such refreshing freedom when we refrain from slapping on labels or squeezing them into boxes by the judgments we pass from a distance.
Watch your words. Sitting with people in pain is uncomfortable. Our natural tendency is to try and fix the situation. But the words we use to show our concern can wound when we want to skip over someone’s suffering and start to offer advice.
My one pastoral suggestion in almost every situation of suffering is to avoid “at least” statements. At least you’re still young. At least there’s always adoption. At least you have other children. The grief and anger surrounding infertility, whether primary or secondary or after miscarriage, are complex emotions. They cannot be easily smoothed over by statements suggesting that the situation is not as awful as it could be.
Honoring the particularity of someone’s pain by simply sitting with them, listening, and letting them know you care for them is a rare gift. You cannot fix their circumstances, so you do not have to try.
You have so much to offer instead: your prayers, your presence, your patience in letting someone give voice to their own story.
Watch yourself change. Don’t make the mistake of holding back from reaching out, simply because you have not experienced their same sorrow. One of the gifts of believing in the Body of Christ is the reminder that we are not confined by the contours of our own life. We are deeply united with each other. We can share our joys and wounds on a deeper level than mere sympathy because our lives are caught up together.
Let your heart be stretched and your prayer life be widened by the experience of allowing others to expand your understanding of the suffering around you.
And once your eyes are opened to a new kind of struggle – like infertility – keep going. Start to see some other silent suffering sitting next to you: on the bus, in the pew, at the coffee shop. Reach out with one kind word.
See what happens.
When we open our eyes, the invisible becomes visible. Pain is no longer ours to bear alone.
And isn’t that what our communities of faith hope to be? Places where we care for each other. Places where we are pulled out of the worries and wants of our own worlds.
Places where we remember that we belong to each other. And to God.
. . .
If you’ve been following for a while, thank you! Here are a few more places I’ve been writing this week: at Practicing Families on raising three white boys after Ferguson and at Small Things With Love on why we owe our babies to NFP.
Dear couple in the pew across from us:
I see the way you grip each other’s hands when you notice us. I see the way you try not to cry while you watch our kids. I see the way you kiss her forehead quietly; I see the way you lean your head on his shoulder, blinking back tears.
I see the way both of you stare straight ahead, willing yourselves not to think about it.
I see you.
While my husband and I are trying to corral the Mass chaos of three small kids, your eyes catch mine and then quickly look away. Turning from the sight of someone who has what you want.
Anything to keep from dwelling on what a young, growing family means to you.
I see you at the grocery store, too. At the park. At the restaurant. At the work party, the neighborhood potluck, the family reunion.
But somehow it feels even more painful when I see you at church. Maybe it’s because I know you’ll have to watch our motley crew for a whole hour, not just one quick turn down the store’s aisle or a sidewalk’s length at the park.
But mostly it’s because I remember sitting right where you are.
Praying with Kleenex balled in my fists, praying with tears at the corners of my eyes, praying for the strength not to envy, praying for this to be the month, praying to a God I clung to and yelled at, all at once.
I know the way you’re thinking, because I used to do the math just the same. Early 30s, I bet. Three kids. They’re so lucky. Our time is running out. It’s never going to happen for us. I hate this.
I wish I could tell you it gets better. I wish I could make the miracle happen for you. But besides my prayers – which you always have, and always will – all I can tell you is this: I see you.
I see your pain and I see your struggle. I don’t ignore it or forget it just because my arms are full of drooling babies and squirmy toddlers.
I remember that is one of the worst side effects of infertility. Not just the crazy hormone swings or the monthly disappointment or the gut-twisting ache when yet another friend calls with yet another excited pregnancy announcement.
It’s the invisibility. The way you feel like the world can’t see your pain.
And the awful truth? The church doesn’t always see your pain either.
Rare are the prayer petitions for couples suffering from infertility or miscarriage or stillbirth. Even rarer is an outreach ministry, a support group, a prayer chain – any resource to tell you that this community cares for you and grieves with you and hopes with you.
But things can start to shift once we start seeing each other. Once we remember that we are seen. Once we remember all the ways that the Body of Christ can be wounded.
Because when I see you, I remember those days, months, and years of infertility. I remember not to take my kids or my chaos for granted. I remember to pray for all those who are in pain or who are longing.
So while you’re sitting there at church on Sunday, feeling alone in your pew and alone in your heart, remember that someone out there sees you.
That there are those of us around you who have lived with that heartache, whether we went on to have children or not.
And we never forget what it feels like to grieve, to cry, to curse, to pray every Sunday, every day, again and again, for the one chance that will change everything. Or for the strength to accept a life that looks different from what we hoped.
We see you. And when we see you, we can start to be part of the change.
Part of the church that can pray for your pain. Part of the community that can support you in your struggles. Part of the Body of Christ that remembers that without each other, we are not whole.
This is how we learn, how we love, how we grow. By seeing what is invisible.
And I see you.
In love and hope,
From the mom in the opposite pew