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
August 15th is the Feast of the Assumption. The Catholic Church teaches that at the end of Mary’s life, she was assumed into heaven, body and soul.
You might assume, if you knew I was an Associate Missionary of the Assumption, that I had something to say about today’s feast.
But here’s the truth about how I started my AMA year in France.
I came to Compiegne, jet-lagged and jumpy to start this post-graduate service stint, with just a wee bit of cradle Catholic baggage stuffed inside my giant backpack.
Fresh from college graduation, ink barely dry on the diploma, I felt shaky-sure about faith but full of questions about church. What was the role of women? What was Catholicism’s hang-up with sexuality? Where was my place in the whirling middle of it all?
When I showed up in the pebbled courtyard of 3 Square Eglise Saint-Germain, I wasn’t even sure what I was seeking. Clarity? Conviction? Christ-in-others? Maybe all of the above.
But what I found the moment that big front door swung open was one single certain truth: these Sisters of the Assumption knew how to welcome. They were all wide smiles and warm embraces and let-us-take-your-bags and can-we-make-you-a-cup-of-tea and we-are-so-delighted-you-are-here!
Until that moment I had known few French people and even fewer religious sisters. But suddenly these five women buzzing around me in long burgundy skirts and pale violet veils were bursting apart all of my stereotypes.
They were loving and laughter and compassion and generosity. They were a Mary-and-Elizabeth welcome every time I stepped over their old stone doorstep, before Mass or after work or any time they invited us volunteers over for dinner, which was so often I still hear Sr. Anne’s wise words echo every time I set an extra plate at my table for an unexpected guest: if there’s food enough for five, there’s food enough for six. And if there’s food enough for six, there’s food enough for seven. You see?
Every year I think of the sisters on this feast day. The women I knew who gave their lives to the Assumption. They taught me a different way of being in relationship with others: the women praying and working beside them in their community, the children running around the pews in the parish, the adults with disabilities whom they served in L’Arche homes. They taught me how truth and love are embodied – in laughter, in dancing, in dessert, in daily prayer.
And they helped me change my mind about Assumption. They helped me come to see that embodied love is what today is about.
I think back to a time when I tripped on Marian feasts like today, when I stumbled on my own assumptions of what dogma and doctrine meant. Then a year spent in community with women whose love for Christ and the church hummed in their every breath, who gave the length of their years and the strength of their bodies in quiet service to all who needed welcome – that year changed everything.
Did I know then that the sisters’ faces – wizened and youthful and pale and dark – might be the closest I could glimpse to Mary’s own? Over time my assumptions shifted, slowly like the soft rub on stone over a well-worn step. I weigh what I believe now – about women and sexuality and Christ and the church – with what I thought I understood then. And I realize that I see a feast like today in different light: shades of mystery and possibility.
And above all love and relationship, which is the essence of who God is and what we are called to be.
Assumptions. Do we grip tight to them? Or are we willing to let ourselves be lifted above them?
Beyond the way we think things should be, beyond what we think bodies are capable of, beyond what our beliefs think possible?
What do we assume today? About the world, relationships, religion, church, God, each other? How might God’s embrace of us – our whole lives, body and soul – begin to soften our hard edges?
Today’s feast is about welcoming the unexpected and celebrating the goodness of love, in flesh and faith. What Mary did all her life.
May it be for us today as well.
Continuing with the practical side of spiritual practices with newborns, here is the 2nd in this series of simple ways to pray while caring for a baby: all day long, up all night, in fussy moments, and in peaceful moments.
. . .
I rise before dawn and cry for help;
I put my hope in your words.
My eyes are awake before each watch of the night,
that I may meditate on your promise.
Psalm 119: 147-148
Next time you are up with baby at 2:00 am (or 3:00 am, or 4:00 am – or all 3!), think of all those who are also awake at this late hour: employees working the third shift, tired parents tending to sick children, monks and nuns praying the hours.
Pray in solidarity with those who work while others sleep. Pray in thanksgiving to God who is always present, watchful and waiting.
. . .
… I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
As you rock back and forth with your baby, let the rhythm set the pace for your prayer.
Meditate on a two-part prayer that matches your movement forward and back.
A-men. Je-sus. Yah-weh.
Or choose the four-part cadence of the ancient Jesus Prayer:
Jesus Christ / Son of God / Have mercy on me / A sinner.
As you connect with your rhythm and breath and baby, let yourself be lulled and comforted as you quiet your own soul within you.
. . .
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Whenever you wrap your baby in soft blankets to keep her warm or tight swaddlers to help him sleep, think of Mary wrapping her newborn child in love and warmth. Ask for Mary’s guidance to love, protect, and care for your child.
. . .
But I will sing of your might;
I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning.
For you have been a fortress for me
and a refuge on the day of my distress.
O my strength, I will sing praises to you,
for you, O God, are my fortress,
the God who shows me steadfast love.
Psalm 59: 16-17
When you sing to your baby, think of someone who sang favorite lullabies to you as a child: a parent, grandparent, older sibling or baby sitter.
Hold their love in mind as you repeat verse after verse. Give thanks to God for the small, simple ways we share love with each other.
And when you run out of ideas for songs to keep you awake while you help baby fall asleep, try a church hymn – an old classic from growing up or a new favorite from today.
Add your voice to the church’s song of praise to God, who is faithful in the morning, all day, and at night.
. . .
Tune in next time: how to pray with baby – in fussy moments!
Babysitter’s been off this week, so free time/writing time has been nonexistent. But I have been slowly working on the next posts in the spiritual practices with newborns series to start back up next week! (Note to self: setting the bar low for postpartum expectations should be a spiritual practice all itself.)
And this week I had the chance to be elsewhere on the Interwebs:
First, an “interview” with the lovely Nell of Whole Parenting Family in her spotlight on three bloggers of faith. She asked us great questions, and I loved the chance to reflect again on what this space and practice of blogging have meant to me.
Second, Practicing Families re-ran a post I wrote after Thomas arrived on 10 Spiritual Lessons from Newborns. Turns out this post still rang true the third time around! And it was what first got me thinking about the new series on spiritual practices and babies.
Third, Catholic Mom has a bit of levity for your weekend church-going. Inspired by the Honest Toddler’s Bunmi Laditan and her latest viral post, I offer you 5 Minutes in a Mom’s Head At Mass. In which you will discover that despite writing a blog about spirituality, I pay full attention about 5% of the time our rowdy crew is at church. #lifewithlittles
Next Sunday I swear I’m getting everything ready the night before. And waking the kids up early. And making them eat breakfast at a normal – not snail – pace. And no potty tantrums before we leave. But then we won’t even need to come to church because IT WOULD TAKE THE SECOND COMING OF CHRIST TO MAKE ALL THAT HAPPEN.
Read the rest at CatholicMom.com…
And last – but certainly not least! – I discovered this week that you can check out the cover of Everyday Sacrament here!
Apparently the book is already available for pre-order, so I am officially geeking out about seeing my name on Amazon for the first time, too!
Happy weekend to you & yours…
First, gather the flowers.
At Mass a few weeks ago, my oldest boy leaned into my side while we stood to say the creed together. I recited the words on the projector screen, still prompting us with the new translation of the prayer after decades of The Version We Used To Say.
Absent-mindedly, I stumbled as happens so often, tripping over clumsy words that once were clear:
“…he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was born – dah! was incarnate! – of the Virgin Mary and became man.”
Without thinking, I rubbed the basketball of my belly in that unconscious instinct of expectant mothers. I thought about birth and babies and started to grumble about why we didn’t say “born” anymore, why the abstract theological was deemed better than the concrete physical.
Then I felt baby’s quick jab to my right side, sharp enough to make me wince. And I felt my son’s tired lean into my left side, heavy enough to make me shift my footing.
And I realized. Maybe incarnate was a truer truth.
. . .
Second, arrange the stems.
Here’s the fact I forgot about incarnation: it was not a one-shot, abracadabra magical minute. Not the mysterious instant of the Spirit making a virgin Mary pregnant. Not the painful moment of pushing the baby into the world of cold and air.
If incarnation means God becoming fully human, that process took time.
Days and days of dark growth in the womb. Weeks and weeks of babyhood in his parents’ arms. Months and months of toddling steps and babbling words and bubbling emotions. Years and years of learning childhood’s lessons, adolescence’s growth, and adulthood’s maturity.
And she was helping to incarnate him through all of that.
Of course I understand theologically what we’re claiming in the creed. That the second Mary said yes and the divine light that was Jesus sparked within her, his life was fully human. I remember learning all the councils and heresies and theologians that fought to argue passionately for Christ’s full humanity and full divinity. I know why it’s essential Christian doctrine.
Yet I can’t help but think we lose sight of incarnation’s depth if we confine it to an angelic visitation or a virgin birth. I believe it was longer and messier and more exhausting. The lifelong journey that a mother’s love sticks around to see through to the end.
All the way to the cross.
. . .
Third, set in sunshine and water.
How long does it take to raise our babies?
Is it the nine months we carry them within us, or the years we spend waiting for the phone call that will bring them to our door?
Is it the eighteen years of childhood that society (and sarcastic jokes) dictate we’re in charge of their upbringing?
I think of all the parents I know with adult children, how they still lose sleep worrying at night. How they still hope they’ll check in after a long trip. How they still pray for their safety and dream of their success.
If it takes us a lifetime to become fully human – to try and grasp the beauty and the pain of this mysterious, fragile existence – then maybe bringing our babies to the fullness of life takes years, too.
Maybe “incarnate” is a better word than “born” to wrestle our arms around what it meant for Mary to give her daring yes to a life that she never imagined. To a life that would change our own.
. . .
Fourth, drink in the blooms.
If my boys ever offer me the chance to pick the book for naptime or bedtime (which rarely happens), I always reach for the same favorite.
Mama says be kind,
Mama says the rain will come,
But still the sun will shine.
I found the book in our college bookstore when my first baby was brand-new, and of course I cried as I flipped through the pages. Mothers from cultures around the world teaching their sons life’s essential lessons.
Mama says be loving,
Mama says be caring,
Mama says you’ve done God’s will
every time you’re sharing.
To be blessed with one, then two boys to pull onto my lap and share this story – of course it feels like pure gift. There is so much suffering in the world, so many couples crying for a child, so many children who know too much pain. That I can sit in a sunlit corner and rock these small, safe boys in my arms means all my jumbled heart can pray is thanks.
Because motherhood is the work of incarnation. Of daring to partner with God in helping these children become fully human.
A truth which one short line of our creed speaks each Sunday, easy to skip over if you miss it:
“…he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.”
And a truth which one children’s book states clear as a bell at its end:
Mama says help others,
And be the best you can.
I listened to what Mama said,
And now I am a man.
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.
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…
“Mommy, I don’t want to die.”
His big blue eyes stare up at me, full of – what? Worry? Seriousness? Wonder?
We’ve been revisiting this conversation for months, variations on a theme: Mommy, I don’t want to go to be with God. Mommy, I want to live to be 100. Mommy, I don’t want you to die.
He hasn’t yet brushed with death, not in the aching loss of one he loves. But he’s a curious child, and his love of numbers and wonder about God swirl together to stir up questions of how old God is and how old people can be.
All of which added up in his head to a budding realization of finitude in the face of the infinite.
What do I say? Blunder through the typical lines about how I hope he’ll have a long life, and then when his life is done, he’ll get to go be with God in a new way, and God loves him even more than any person ever could, so wouldn’t that be amazing?
Except, of course, it’s all strange and skeptical enough to make wise adults anxious.
So why would any precocious preschooler accept it at face value either?
. . .
Every year on my birthday, I find myself genuinely astonished to still be here.
I only realized in the past few years that most people don’t share this stark sense of mortality, not at the tender age of thirty-something anyway. And while I wouldn’t say that I wake each morning eager to stare my own death in the face, whenever I think about the length of my life I only see so far ahead of me.
So each March I honestly marvel at how I’ve been blessed to have these many years to my name.
You can analyze it easily as any armchair therapist. My older brother died of cancer when I was 10, so I grew up living with death and loss and grief in a way that many children do not. All of that made me who I am, shaped my faith and my worldview in unmistakable ways, here endeth the college admissions essay.
But now as a mother to young ones waking up to the strange and sad ways the world works, I wonder what I should pass on to them from my own sense of mortality and what I might need to set aside.
Keeping death daily before our eyes is St. Benedict’s healthy advice to his brothers, but how helpful is this for preschoolers?
Mystery is good. Morbidity is not.
So we talk about not being afraid of death, because it is part of life. We talk about the love that is waiting for us in whatever comes next, because it is full of God who is love.
We talk about how some people might live to be almost 100 like Great-Grandpa, and how some people might only live to be 21 like Uncle Jay. We talk about how we can’t know everything that God knows or make everything happen in the way we would like. But we can trust that God will take care of us.
Is that enough? For now, perhaps. If my wee ones continue to be blessed with a childhood free from trauma or loss, unlike so many children in the world.
But if they are not – if death or sickness or suffering enter into this home as an unwelcome guest, the darkest thoughts that only the thin, lonely hours before dawn tempt me to imagine – will any of that make sense? Or sustain them?
Motherhood is supposed to be about life: its nurturing and nourishing. But is there a place for death in this daily work and love, too?
. . .
Lent is a grateful time to practice all this death-talk, all this suffering-preparation, of course.
In small ways we choose to die to our own whims and wants, setting our sights on the deeper growth that comes from drawing further from our fears and nearer to God.
As with our own short lives, we know that death lies at the end of this liturgical journey, too. There it is on the calendar, Good Friday in all its starkness: church stripped bare, silence echoing in an empty tabernacle.
But beyond this loss lies a truth equally baffling to comprehend: an Easter reversal of everything we thought we knew, a game-changer of existential expectation, a flip-side resurrection of death itself.
Every day we are walking towards Friday’s death-as-we-fear-it. But we also edge towards Sunday’s life-as-we-dare-to-dream-it.
And children are a part of this journey, too.
This is my favorite part of Ash Wednesday. That for once we don’t banish babies to the nursery or preschoolers to the Sunday School classroom. We all walk up together, regardless of age or status, and someone smears dark grey ash on every forehead and tells us that from dust we have come and to dust we will return.
Every tiny curl of a newborn, every wide-eyed toddler, every curious kindergartner – their mortality stares us smack in the face, too. Tiny crosses of truth on softest skin.
Maybe this is part of Lent’s gift. Reminding us that these beautiful beginnings of youth are part of our shared journey toward death.
Be not afraid.
. . .
I started this post several weeks ago and haven’t known how to finish it.
Because there isn’t an easy ending, of course. There are no pat answers when it comes to talking about death. So many of the rote responses and tired clichés we use to wrestle our arms around such a vast and thorny subject are just that – rote and tired.
Theologically unsound, pastorally maddening.
As in so many dark corners of this strange land called motherhood, I find myself flinging wide my arms and releasing my fears, partly in hope, partly in despair.
I do not have the answers, and the questions will only become more complicated.
All I am learning to do is letting my babies go, day by day, into the arms of God who is love.