faith

these are the waning days

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Dear God, I cannot love thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon.

- from the prayer journal of Flannery O’Connor

Right now the days are waning.

There is a thickness in the morning air, the cling of August humidity, beaded in droplets on the windows. The reluctant slide of late summer into early fall, the slow turn of seasons. The steady tick of each almost-school day on the calendar, edges furled by an almost-kindergartner equal parts itching to start and dragging his feet to stay in summer’s ease.

Each day we lose a little light. Browned grass crunches beneath our bare feet, and the tips of leaves start to curl under, steeling themselves against fall’s first chill.

These days are waning.

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Thomas’ third birthday is tomorrow. When we carried staggering armfuls of moving boxes into this house, he was a barely crawling baby. Now when he chases his brother around the kitchen, he’s prone to smack his forehead against the same counter-top that caught Sam’s height when we were first adjusting to our new space.

Another pile of 2T clothes are stuffed back into plastic bins, awaiting a third toddler-to-come. And the pale yellow room that was Thomas’ nursery has been vacated for another, the baby who starts to stir in his crib when we creep into our bedroom at night. Soon Joseph’s wide, unblinking blue eyes will gaze round at strange new surroundings that will one day become as familiar as the back of his own hand. The cycle starts again.

We are always changing. Life with growing children – carne che crese, my Italian father-in-law reminds me – simply sets this truth in high relief.

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But to wane is to leave behind. Thomas’ years of at-home all-day are drawing to their end. One more week and his size-7 velcro shoes will slip off at the preschool doorstep. He might cry a little, and I know I will, and in that way is it any different from the day I birthed him into being? I will always be surprised by my twinned joy and sorrow at the long string of goodbyes that my children’s childhoods ask me to practice en route to adulthood.

These days are waning.

. . .

My maternity leave is waning, too.

These three long months in which I learned to love a new soul, with all the bodily love that babies bring. In which I was wrapped into the enfolding embrace (sometimes smother) of life at home with littles, full-time.

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It has been sweet and hard and almost everything I hoped it would be. I looked around – even in the chaos and the crazy and the children climbing on couches despite twelve stern warnings of doom and impending emergency room visits if they did not stop – and I saw that it was good.

Which makes me reluctant to close this chapter and start a new one, even eager as I am for all that lies ahead, too. This is the promise of the moon. Even as things wane, there is the promise of waxing days to come. Light increasing, brightness building day by day.

This summer has taught me that we are always changing. I need the constant change of children and the unchangingness of God – and Sunday Mass and ancient ritual and dependable moon – to help me see this truth pressing up against my face each day.

It is the quiet, steady presence of the divine Light that peers into the darkness of our nights with a small sliver of silver hope. Even when the moon seems gone, we know it is never gone.

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Tonight the moon is a pale sliver. Like the tiny curve of a baby fingernail, snipped quick before he can scratch his smooth face when startled from deepest sleep. It casts a thin shadow of its glowing fullness, once luminous and round, an expectant silhouette.

Tonight I am watching my children slumber. Two twin bed frames stretching out in the grainy darkness of a newly shared room. Embroidered “Samuel” and “Thomas” pillowcases draped at the foot of each bed, staking their claim like homesteaders’ flags. School will separate these playmates in two short weeks. Their worlds will widen, then settle back in together each afternoon. They are on the cusp of change, as always.

Tonight I am glancing at a faded summer to-do list. Penned with vigor when the baby was still bouncing within. House projects, writing projects, endless organizational aspirations. Most of them undone. Which is good and fine. Which is peace.

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Tonight I am wondering what I leave behind in this summer and what I take with me.

On the phone with a friend this afternoon, I heard myself saying words I haven’t spoken in so long. Words like spaciousness and silence and stillness and so much less stressed. And I know this is not simply because professional work has been on pause (because if you know me, you know I always stretch to fill all the hours and moments anyway).

But because I feel like I am finally learning how to live my life.

Isn’t that a strange thing to say, 33 years into such an endeavor? But baby number three is teaching me something deep and unexpected. How to let go of all false sense of control and fall into the goodness already around me.

Even with the hard edges that this summer brought – and there were some awful, dark times – I feel such a sense of joy wrapped around me. Gratitude so thick I can weave my fingers through it.

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This is what is waxing in my life. What will keep rising and glowing and rounding into fullness even after we leave these long August nights behind.

The embrace of who and what I am called to be.

How it will cycle through seasons and changes, but promise to remain.

How it was Here all along.

where is home?

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I am holding half an acre
Torn from a map of Michigan
And folded in this scrap of paper
Is the land I grew in.

Half An Acre” by Hem – 

Right now I am home.

Sitting in the house that we own. Where we are raising our children. Where mail arrives daily bearing my name. Where we welcome family and entertain friends. Where I pull weeds and paint walls. Where my car pulls into the driveway and my shoes slip off in the doorway.

And I am writing about going home. Which is not here.

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The gate agent accepts my folded slip of paper and scans it with a beep.

“Heading home?” she asks, smiling down at the baby in my arms and the two boys running ahead down the jetway. I look at her and wonder how to answer.

What makes a home? The people in it? The relationships they share?

The permanency of an address? The bigger sense of time and place wrapped around four walls and a roof?

Home is here and home is there.

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Right now I am home.

Where the school bus picked me up every morning by the tall elm tree out front. Where we dragged sleds through the backyard to the sledding hill. Where I curled up on the sunlit carpet to pour through books. Where we sang grace for dinner. Where my brother died and every childhood dream I had was born.

Where I am writing about going home. Which is not here.

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For the longest time I had my parents’ number listed as home in my cell phone.

The first number I’d memorized, the digits dialed by grade school friends and high school boyfriends, the number I called from college and abroad, the 10-digit combo where I always knew I would find a voice happy to hear mine, even if just a familiar answering machine.

After I was married, I punched in our newlywed number as Our House. Another house was still Home. Whenever I noticed and thought of changing the obvious, I changed my mind. Did I fear I would lose home forever if I claimed another?

One afternoon I made the switch. Idling in some parking lot, killing time, playing on my phone. That oldest familiar number became Mom and Dad. Ours became Home.

After all, if I wanted to list every place that felt like mine, the list would be blessedly long: Michigan houses and Indiana dorm rooms and French apartment buildings and Minnesota backyards.

I began to see how home was a more expansive concept – more accepting and embracing and growing and shifting.

Maybe this was the moment I understood home theologically. Maybe, as with Sabbath, we are made for home.

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“Is this home?”

Thomas’ dark brown eyes blink up at me through the dusky light settling in the bedroom, the last slants of summer sunset stretching through the shutters.

“This is Gramma and Papa’s home,” I tell him. “It used to be my home, too. This is where I was little.”

“I’m little,” he declares firmly, soft jaw jutting out his resolve. “So this is my home, too.”

“But our home is in Minnesota,” I remind him. “We go home on the plane tomorrow.”

“No,” he insists with a shake of his head. “We stay home here. And then we go home, too.”

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Somewhere I read that every great story is about leaving home or trying to come home. Scripture is full of this. Eden exiles and Exodus wanderings and exhortations to shake the dust from your sandals if the place does not welcome your message.

We are always coming and going. Departures and arrivals. Trying to find where we belong.

There is something ultimate in this longing, I know. Our hearts are restless till they rest in thee. But maybe what Augustine missed was that it’s not only our hearts that are restless. It’s our legs and our feet and our ears and our arms. Our whole self.

Toes that tire of work-day heels and ache to slide into slippers at the end of the night. Ears that once buzzed with children’s babble and now hope to hear grandkids’ feet clamoring up the front steps. Arms that wrap round the beloved waist and itch to slip into bed together again.

Longing for home is a whole body restlessness. Yearning to settle in where we are known and loved.

What Christ meant when he dreamed up rooms in my father’s house and what Eliot knew when he wrote to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

What we all know in our bones. From home and to home.

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But I am holding half an acre
Torn from a map of Michigan
I am carrying this scrap of paper
That can crack the darkest sky wide open
Every burden taken from me
Every night my heart unfolding
My home

a different assumption for today

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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.

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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.

how to pray with baby: in peaceful moments

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The last in the series on how to pray with baby: all day long, up all night, in fussy moments, and in peaceful moments:

. . .

holding - fHolding

To pray:

The Lord, your God, who goes before you, is the one who will fight for you, just as he acted with you before your very eyes in Egypt, as well as in the wilderness, where you saw how the Lord, your God, carried you, as one carries his own child, all along your journey until you arrived at this place.

Deuteronomy 1:30-31

To practice:

Notice your habits of holding your baby. Is your back arched? Are your shoulders slumped? Your wrists aching? Each time you pick up baby today, be mindful of the way you carry him or her. Make small adjustments to relieve the tension in your body.

Pray to God for the strength to carry your child throughout their life, not only when they are small enough to carry, but as they grow into adulthood.

Ask for the wisdom to know when and how to shift the way you hold your child, whether in your arms or in your heart.

 . . .

Resting

To pray:

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
   from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
   and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
   serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; 
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
   and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth.

Isaiah 58:13-14

restingTo practice:

When your baby finally closes eyes to sleep today, let yourself lie down and rest for a few minutes.

Even if you have ten thousand other things you should be doing, even if the sink is overflowing with dishes, even if your older kids are running wild downstairs, even if you don’t have time for a real nap, simply let yourself rest and breathe deeply for several good minutes.

Take a Sabbath break in the middle of newborn time which follows no schedule. Allow your thoughts to settle and your love to rise.

Honor your body’s need to rest as a sign of strength, not weakness. Let yourself remember that it is not up to you to do it all. Delight in the truth that God’s ways, not yours, are ultimate.

. . .

Beholding

beholdingTo pray:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
   the moon and the stars that you have established; 
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
   mortals that you care for them? 
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
   and crowned them with glory and honor.

Psalm 8:3-5 

To practice:

Go outside on a clear night and look up at the stars. Remember how small your life is – your worries, your problems, and your fears – when seen against the vast universe above you. Give thanks to God who created the heavens and the earth.

Go inside and watch your baby sleep. Remember how big your life is – your joys, your loves, and your gifts – when compared to the tiny child before you. Give thanks to God who created this unique life and all its potential.

how to pray with baby: up all night

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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 longup all night, in fussy moments, and in peaceful moments. 

. . .

wakingWaking up at night

To pray:

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

To practice:

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.

. . .

Rocking

To pray:

… 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.

Psalm 131:2rocking

To practice:

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.

. . .

Swaddling

To pray:

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.

Luke 2:7

To practice:

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.

swaddling

. . .

Singing

To pray:

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: 16-17singing


To practice:

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!

how to pray with baby: all day long

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First: a confession. The series on spiritual practices with newborns? Turned out nothing the way I expected. What I thought would be a practical guide turned into my philosophical wanderings as I processed this summer. Great for me, maybe less for all you new parents who told me you were excited for the series. Thanks for reading along anyway!

Second: an inspiration. All those practices I wrote (and rambled) about? Still wonderful ways to pray when you have a new baby in your life. For those of you drowning in diapers and midnight feedings, I’ve compiled a list of short Scripture verses and quick prayer practices that you can do while caring for baby.

All day long. Up all night. For fussy moments. For peaceful moments. 

Starting today…

. . .

feeding

Feeding

To pray:

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 

And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Matthew 25:37-40

To practice:

The next time you’re tempted to check the clock when feeding the baby – how long has it been since he last took a bottle? how long have I been sitting here nursing her? ­– close your eyes instead and give thanks for all the good meals you have enjoyed in your life. Thanksgivings, Christmases, date nights, nights out with friends, family dinners at home.

Pray for someone with whom you shared a memorable meal. Pray for you and your child to nurture generous hearts to share with those who are hungry. Pray in gratitude to God who feeds you.

. . .

cleaningCleaning

To pray:

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.

John 13:12-15

To practice:

Each time you clean up after your child today – diaper change, bath-time, spit-up, wet crib sheets or worse! – offer up a petition for their future.

May they always know love. May they always be surrounded by people who care for them. May they always grow in the ways they care for others.

. . .

healingHealing

To pray:

Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved, for you are my praise.

Jeremiah 17:14

To practice:

When your baby gets hurt – from shots or diaper rashes or bug bites or scratches – remember that your role as a parent is not always to protect them from every harm, but to help them handle life’s bumps and heal from life’s wounds. Humbly ask God for the strength and wisdom to love like this.

Each time you try to soothe your screaming newborn, hold in mind one way that they may need to heal from hurts as they grow: rejections by cliques and crushes, disappointments in sports or extracurriculars, academic failures, high school heartbreaks, challenges in college, professional and personal setbacks.

Ask God to guide your child through the journeys of hurting and healing that lead into adulthood. Pray for resilience and forgiveness for both you and your baby.

. . .

Tune in next time: how to pray with baby – up all night!

 

spiritual practices with newborns: holding

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Be still and know that I am God.

Your hands have held things that terrified you. Your first set of car keys. A boy’s sweaty palm. The college admission letter. Cold cans of beer. A brand-new passport.

All gripped by fingers that trembled, knowing the weight of what might come next, the thrill as well as the terror.

God was there somewhere, in what you held.

Be still and know that I am.

Your hips have carried things that taught you. Armfuls of books down high school hallways, then grad school library stacks. Piles of file folders from one job, then another. A niece, then a nephew, then three more.

All slung on one hip, shifted to the side as you walked, aware that what you now held was changing the way you moved, subtly but for good.

God was there somewhere, in what you cradled.

Be still and know.

Your arms have embraced things that overwhelmed you. Sobbing friends after break-ups. Exhausted relatives after funerals. A brand-new family of in-laws. Your first child. Your second son.

All wrapped round with arms that wondered if they could stretch wider, if they were strong enough not to shake even as they tired.

God was there somewhere, in what you accepted.

Be still.

armfulBut maybe nothing else you’ve held has mattered as much as what you hold now, all day and all night, upstairs and down, inside and out, while you soothe and sing and stave off sleep, while you make breakfast and eat lunch and cook dinner.

One small baby, who squeaks and squawks into your neck, who aches your shoulders and slows your steps to heart’s pace.

This is not to say that bearing children trumps all other experiences. Or that parenting’s importance makes other callings pale in comparison. Or that everything up to now has been mere practice. You know none of this is true.

But the weight of what you carry now is no longer your own life. It is possibility within your hands. It is a brand-new person unfolding. With all the beauty and terror and wonder that offers. You know this is true.

Be.

Everything is changing because of what you are learning to hold.

Watch the world shift as you pick him up. As you cradle him to your heart. As you hum in his small curl of an ear.

Watch your life stretch, then settle to embrace what you’ve been asked to hold.

Watch yourself becoming someone new because of what you carry.

Watch God find you there. Again and always.

Be still and know that I am God.
(Psalm 46:10)

spiritual practices with newborn: beholding

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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.

beholdThis 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.”
Revelation 21:5

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?

spiritual practices with newborns: feeding

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With a summer baby we slip into bed while the sun is setting behind the hill and we wake up when the sky is already bathed with light. And still we haven’t slept a solid stretch. Because all night he is nursing.

All day and all night and all the hours in what feels like the one long day since he was born.

Feeding the baby is a full-time job.

On the surface it seems a simple response to a simple need. You hear the hungry cry. You offer breast or bottle. But nursing newborns has never been easy as pie for me.

Sam had to get a hefty dose of antibiotics right after birth and wound up with a raging case of thrush that we passed back and forth for four months. (My whole body still shudders to think about it.)

Thomas started off with a terrible latch that led to all kinds of bleeding and crying (mine, not his).

And poor little Joseph came into the world tongue-tied. So we’re still waiting to round the corner to that magical moment where every feeding ceases to be Toe-Curling Pain and becomes Smooth Sailing, clear skies ahead.

But no matter what bumps we encounter along the road to keeping babies well-fed, it’s the all-consuming-ness that can feel most overwhelming. How often newborns need to eat. How long it takes to feed them. How their needs never follow a neat schedule.

It’s no exaggeration to say that baby’s hunger sets the pace for the rest of life spinning around it.

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When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’ (John 21: 15-17)

This is Jesus’s pastoral charge to Peter, of course – to lead and to serve. But it’s also a commission for each of us. Feed. Tend. Feed.

Sometimes we can generalize how we interpret Scripture’s commands – care for those who are hungry in the spiritual/emotional/symbolic sense. But sometimes we have to take the words at face value, too. Jesus is speaking about feeding after he cooked breakfast for his friends, after all.

Feed my lambs. The youngest. The neediest. The ones who cannot feed themselves.

To feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty are the first two Corporal Works of Mercy in the Catholic tradition. And we all know food and drink are the most basic of human needs. We cannot survive without them.

So feeding these smallest and weakest among us?

The teeth-gritting early weeks of learning to breastfeed? Or the tired task of warming up bottles for a screaming babe in the middle of the night? Searching for the right formula, cutting out dairy to fight fussiness, dealing with engorgement or mastitis or low milk supply?

These are spiritual practices, too.

Feeding the hungry. Caring for the least. Giving to those in need.

Scripture’s full of stories of God feeding us. Manna from heaven and bread from the table. John’s resurrection story of Jesus feeding his friends – with fish, then forgiveness – and asking them to do the same. It matters how we feed others.

And when we back up from the bleary-eyed bumble of feeding baby day and night, we can start to see that we are literally sustaining this little one’s life. That we are nourishing another human being while giving deepest comfort. That we are building up their bones with the knowledge that they are heard, loved, and cared for.

Even when baby starts to eat solids, and feeding begins to feel like just another cooking-and-cleaning chore, we can choose to remember that these acts mean more than three-square-meals-a-day. Because this is how we love in the body.

So maybe this is exactly the work we’re meant to be immersed in, day after day. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.

It’s all he asked of us. Do you love me?

spiritual practices with newborns: a new series

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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.

Update: here’s the complete list of posts on spiritual practices with newborns!

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