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.
His careful movements caught my attention out of the corner of my eye, as I emailed and meal-planned and sorted the mail and remembered wet laundry in the washer and half-checked the clock to see when we needed to leave.
Slowly he lifted the oversized magnifying glass to his eyes, peering down at the book on the table in front of him. Gently he brought the glass down towards the page. Then raised it back up again. Turned slightly from where he stood. Saw a pencil next to the book. Peered down again. Brought the lens up towards his face. Then lowered it to watch the perspective change.
For fifteen minutes he did this. Silently. Carefully. Moving gradually from table to chair to couch, inspecting anything and everything that might be of interest. The texture of fabric. The color of pictures. The edges of corners.
At first I noticed. But then I stopped to see.
Our spitfire boy – the stubborn strong-will, the coil of energy, the tough temper, the second child slapped with labels simply because he was not the unfettered first forging the way.
Here he was the quiet observer. The gentle soul. The patient scientist.
He was mesmerized. He was watching.
. . .
Evangelists extol what it means to be a witness – the bold brashness of shouting truth. Such a shining, staunch ideal: to dig in your heels and declare loudly this is what I stand for!
Witness means standing on soap boxes, slapping stickers across car bumpers, screaming from op-ed columns, spamming up online comment boxes. Witness is unwavering, unrelenting, unapologetic defense of the one-and-only way.
Can’t you see?
But I wonder what happened to the eye in witness.
The careful, quiet watching it takes to notice truth. The gentle passing of the moment in front of us. The small opening of invitation in which to imagine.
. . .
Slowly I snapped the laptop shut, set down the grocery list, pushed aside the pile of mail. I leaned my elbows on the counter (I noticed it felt cool and hard and glinted in flecks through the morning light) and I looked at him. The same way he watched the world through that huge orange magnifying glass. Intentionally. Openly. Wonder-fully.
Of course the mother-guilt snuck in for a second, as it always creeps. How often do I miss these moments? When am I too wrapped up in my own whirl to see this beauty in front of me? Did I even notice when he got this big?
But I stopped myself. I let myself sink into the moment and the breath we both held as he observed.
The whole house seemed to fall silent – the tick of the clock and the rumble of the furnace and the hum of the fridge and the buzz of the phone and the click of the dog’s nails on the floor – and everything, it seemed, was watching him with me.
It was the holiest moment of prayer I have felt in ages.
. . .
What do you see when you see?
Our professor used to intone these words from the front of the classroom, over and over again, imploring us behind eyes that had seen decades of change in the church we all loved, urging us to become keener seers of the world around us.
What do you see when you see?
. . .
I see him now.
I see him reading quietly to himself, flipping pages, staring intently at illustrations that intrigue him.
I see him swirling water in the jar for watercolors, dabbing his paintbrush in careful patterns.
I see him pushing trucks, watching the wheels spin, bending his head so far down to see them turn that he nearly rests his forehead on the floor.
I see him holding the cup under the stream from the faucet, fluttering his tiny fingers in the rush of cool, pouring and filling and pouring again.
He is a witness.
I am, too.
He bounced with excitement as he asked me if he could go write our nametags. I had my hands full with his already-cranky brother, wondering why on earth I bothered bringing them to church alone, without any help. So of course, I said, of course.
And he took off running.
Only after I’d wrangled the crankster and settled us down with a stack of books did I realize how long he was taking. Ten minutes passed, one lector up, another lector down, and still we sat waiting. Finally he tore back across the gathering space with three nametags clutched in his marker-smeared hands.
This is for you, he slapped one on his brother’s back. And this is for me, he spread another across his own chest.
And Mama, this is yours.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Priceless. His first public rendering of my name, and it proclaimed “WAWA” for all to see. I peeled back the sticker and placed it proudly on my shirt.
“Thank you,” I told him. “I love it.” He beamed.
Little did I know the preschool penmanship would prove prophetic.
The boys’ (ok, truth be told, one boy’s) behavior went from bad to worse as the hour went on. Kicking, screaming, throwing and tantruming. None of my tried-and-true tricks made one whit of difference. By the time we got to the “Our Father,” I slouched in the pew, maturely refusing to hold anyone’s hands including my children’s, instead mentally planning our escape. I dragged them up to communion and then dragged them right out the door into the parking lot, hot tears stinging my eyes as I hissed to myself that I was Never Ever Ever coming to church with them solo again.
But when I pulled the nametag off my shirt as I put the car in gear to drive away, I caught myself for a moment. Instead of crumpling it up and tossing it aside as I’d already done with the morning, I slowly stuck the sticker onto the cup holder of the car’s console. I had no idea why I did it. It started back up at me with stark Crayola boldness. WAWA. Or was it MAMA? It appeared the choice was mine to interpret.
So it was a rotten Sunday, smack dab in the middle of three long weeks of solo parenting. But the one good thing that bad day brought me was the realization that I had a choice in how I lived out the rest of my month. I could waa-waa my way through my double-duty, second-shift, all-mom-all-the-time parenting. Or I could mama the way I wanted to. The way my kids wanted me to.
The choice was mine.
Part of me wanted to snark the rest of the days away in a sea of complaining and chocolate and Chardonnay. (I really do love snark.) But part of me knew that just like an optical illusion, I had the ability to shift my perspective depending on what I tried to see.
So I kept that nametag stuck on the console all week, as we cruised around to playgrounds and playdates, to the grocery store and the gas station, through stormy summer downpours and perfect June sunshine.
And all week, whenever I felt tempted to waaaaaaa my way through a long day with little ones, I remembered that I had a boy’s best attempts at capital letters to live up to. So I mama-ed up and try to make it happen. Tried to make the best of what I’d been given.
Which, I remembered, was a whole lot.
. . .
The more trips I take around the sun, the more I become convinced that the spiritual life is mostly about two things: paying attention and shifting perspective.
It’s about seeing the abundance of grace in small moments.
It’s about reframing my vision to remember God.
Whenever I do these two things – see differently and re-member myself back to the God who loves – it’s no exaggeration to say everything changes. Or at least all the important things change. These two practices remind me of how to be in right relationship with all that is around me: my God, my self, the people who challenge me, the tasks ahead of me.
Every day I am faced with opportunities to do one or the other. To take notice of the deeper truth before me, or to barrel ahead ignoring what really matters. To change my patterns of thinking, or to stick with narrowed tunnel vision.
This is not to say the choice is always clear or that I always make the right one. But the times I do, I am surprised to rediscover how way opens before me.
It is a way of opened eyes and humbled heart. It is a way of willingness to see the invitation to love.
It is the way to live up to that which I have been called.
He’s 10,000 miles away tonight. When I finally get him on the phone, I’m a blubbering mess. After a week apart and two more to go, I didn’t yet want to wave the white flag of defeat, but it was such a tough day – too little sleep, too many messes, two little boys with cranky tempers and only one of me, all day long.
Eloquence fails when nerves run this raw: I suck at flying solo.
But the truth was, we’d had so many good days this week: such delight at summer adventuring with my boys, discovering new parks and playgrounds, meeting up with lots of friends to fill our time as a trio. Which is why the spiral downward – from a difficult morning to a disastrous afternoon to a don’t-ever-need-to-revisit-this evening – sank even deeper after enjoying such heights.
C’est la vie, of course, these rolling ups and downs, how life with littles whiplashes from one extreme to the next in a matter of minutes. I shouldn’t have been surprised.
And yet what did surprise me was how quickly his voice calmed my anxiety. How the sound of his sympathy made my whole body relax.
In two minutes he’d talked me off the ledge and back onto the solid ground where a bad day does not make a bad mother. In another two minutes he had me laughing so hard I almost dropped the phone and we started swapping stupid stories about our days, as if he were driving home from work and not working four oceans away.
A sub-par Father’s Day? Probably in most people’s estimations. We never managed to get him a gift or a card or even post a proud photo on Facebook to boast that he (along with everyone else’s dad, according to my scrolling feed) is The Best Ever.
But the simple truth is that the man lives the calling. He is father to my boys beyond my younger days’ wildest hopes of what a partner could be. Whenever I see the way other people notice it, too, that’s when I sit back and soak up the sheer grace of what choosing to love him has brought to my life and to the lives of our children.
He’ll often quote me the line from Fr. Hesburgh that the best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother. And tonight in the smallest way, with a simple (ok, admittedly international, assuredly expensive) phone call, he did precisely that all over again.
Love spreads. His gives me more for them, for a better tomorrow.
If you’ve stuck around through the sap, you can treat yourself to theological musings on the subject: I’m blogging here in honor of the holiday – asking whether fatherhood is a relation, an obligation, or a vocation?
(Bet you can’t guess what I think.)
It’s all just practice.
None of this is performance, this work of parenting. Despite my dark moments of self-defeating thoughts to the contrary, no one is watching me with a clipboard, making sure I don’t screw up or that my kids turn out according to someone’s standard of perfect.
It’s all just practice.
And practice takes time. Years. Sweat. Tears. Those crucible moments when you’re so tired and frustrated you want to scream and give up.
But you don’t. You keep practicing. And things slowly change over time.
The instrument becomes easier to play – and becomes part of you.
The sport changes your body in powerful ways – and becomes part of you.
The play allows you to understand your own life as you act – and becomes part of you.
Every day I wake up and start practicing parenting again: caring and forgiving and teaching and serving. Over time it becomes part of me.
Practice changes us, if we stick with it.
This morning I’m guest posting over at Practicing Families. On practicing a life of faith with kids, and all the messiness and faltering and second-guessing it entails:
The old adage wags its finger at me that “practice makes perfect.” Just like the line from Matthew’s Gospel—“Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”—that makes me cringe at the ideals that fall far short of my life’s messy reality. But I know there’s deeper truth to the good of practice. It makes our muscles strong. It trains our thinking. It strengthens our resolve.
For this family, practice will always be imperfect. We will show up to church five minutes late. We will not always pay attention. We will sometimes skip out after communion when the kids are just too cranky. But next Sunday we will try all over again.
Click over to Practicing Families to read the rest…
The Christian life is about practice, not performance – and thank God for that, because we’d all come up short. But the practice that matters is receiving grace in ordinary moments and sharing love in return.
What are you practicing today? What part of parenting is finally starting to feel easier, and what part is more challenging than ever?
Today I’m delighted to welcome Ginny Kubitz Moyer to kick off this series with her new book Random MOMents of Grace. I love Ginny’s writing for the glimpses of God she notices in daily life. She is a perfect author to start us thinking about one important way we choose to spend our time as parents: paying attention.
Ginny’s book is all about paying attention to the grace-filled moments that spring up unexpectedly among parenting’s challenges. I love her elegant and wise writing, the everyday subjects she tackles in search of motherhood’s spiritual side, and her chapters that are short enough to read in one sitting when my kids are quiet for five whole minutes. Here are more words of wisdom from Ginny on how she spends her time:
1) What is one truth about time you have learned since becoming a parent?
They say that when you are the mother of small kids, the days crawl by, but the months pass like a shot. I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes it is so isolating to be at home all day with your kids, especially because there are periods of your life as a parent when it is simply too much of a production to get into the car and go anywhere. Those days can feel endless (except for naptime, of course, which moves at twice the speed of light.)
But now that my boys are six and four, I look at baby pictures of them, and I have to catch my breath because I realize how quickly the time has passed. We forget that when we see our kids every day. And the fact is that every phase of parenting has its challenges and its blessings. I’m not changing diapers anymore (thank you God!) but oh, I do miss that adorable baby-hair that Luke had, which stuck straight up as if he’d been playing with electricity.
So, as I write in the book, I’ve learned that I shouldn’t will the time to pass too quickly. When things are frustrating now, it helps to look at my kids and realize what I have now that I will miss in a year, or five, or ten. That’s a reminder to savor it.
2) What is one practice of using time well that you have developed as a mother-writer?
I love this quotation from the writer James Thurber: “I never quite know when I’m not writing. Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says, ‘Dammit, Thurber, stop writing.’ She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph.” I’m not quite that extreme, but I can relate.
Writers usually want large blocks of quiet time in which to sit down and write, and the reality is that when you’re a mom, you almost never have that. So a lot of what I do, writing-wise, involves letting things simmer in my mind or mentally trying out various adjectives or squirreling away bits of information to use later. This means I can write in the car on my commute to and from work, or while making dinner. If you think about writing as being more than just putting pen to paper or sitting in front of a laptop, you realize there is actually a lot of writing time during the day. Then the only challenge is to remember it all for later ….
3) What new insight about faith did you gain from writing this book?
All writers are people of faith, I think, because it takes faith to face an empty page. You need to have faith that you will be able to put your feelings or your experiences into words that other people will enjoy. I think it also takes faith to slog on through the writer’s block, those times when you feel like everything you are writing is about as exciting as a tax return, and why would anyone ever want to read it?
It was so thrilling to get the contract for this book, but at the same time, it’s a different experience to write when there is a firm deadline. Luckily, I’d been writing the book in bits and pieces for about two years prior to finding a publisher, so nearly all of it was already done. But there was still some work to do on it, and I found myself going on faith that the ideas would come.
I distinctly remember starting one chapter and writing a ways into it and thinking, “Oof. This chapter is not going anywhere. I should just abandon ship right now.” And then, about a week later, I revisited it, and guess what? I found that it was better than I’d thought, and I had some ideas about where to take it. It’s now one of my very favorite chapters in the book. Sometimes, you just need a little distance … and faith.
4) What is your favorite way to spend time with your family?
Oh, so hard to choose! I love the quiet weekend mornings when we’re all just hanging out in our pj’s. I love going on trips where we are out of our normal element and we get to discover a new place or a new experience together. It is so fun to play soccer outside, all four of us, on the front lawn (I am the least athletic woman I’ve ever met, and now I’m playing soccer?!? Motherhood is so broadening.)
Thank you, Ginny! Please visit Random Acts of Momness for the rest of Ginny’s Blog Tour over the next two weeks. And be sure to check out Random MOMents of Grace from Loyola Press, who has generously offered FIVE copies of Ginny’s book to readers of Mothering Spirit! (Full disclosure: they gave me a copy, too – but I was waiting to buy one anyway, so their generosity in no way influenced my opinion.)
To enter the giveaway for your own copy, leave a comment below. And if you’re inspired, share one way you try to practice “paying attention” in your daily life!
For the mornings we wake up determined to make it a better day, and then we don’t -
For the times we promise to soak up the sweetness of these fleeting years, and then we wish them away -
For the days we want to fill with laughter and song, and then they’re darkened by bad moods and cross words -
For the meals we make with love and hope that they’ll be enjoyed, and then we grit our teeth as they’re gagged while chewed -
For the playdates we plan to share the long days with good friends, and then we’re annoyed that a sick child screws up our schedule -
For the glossy parenting magazines whose advice we dog-ear with good intention, and then we shove the stack in the recycling bin instead -
For the calm, cool, collected moms we envy when we wrangle our whiny bunch into the grocery cart, and then we glower over how we’re doing worse at this job than everyone else we know -
For the naptimes when we catch up on the world’s news and resolve again to treasure the rare gift of healthy, safe, sheltered children, and then we’re screaming at them by suppertime -
For the eyes that want to look with love and capture how quickly our kids will be grown and gone, and then they narrow with frustration at messes and mistakes and missing shoes -
For the hands that hope to hold and hug and help, and then they clench into angry balls that bang on the kitchen counter when no one listens to us -
For the boiling-over moments when we try to breathe and breathe and not lose it completely, and then we do -
For the nights we try to treasure bedtime instead of tick off the minutes till we’re done, and then we’re flooded with guilt when closing the bedroom door behind us feels like the best part of the day.
For remembering we’re humans raising humans,
for knowing if we teach our children nothing else, we’ll teach them how to bend down and open arms and say I’m sorry because we have to do it daily ourselves,
for the chance to keep screwing up because it means we keep going,
for forgiving ourselves,
and learning slowly how forgiveness takes the shape of a cross – pulled down in love, stretched out in embrace.
For trying again.
For today. For you.
. . .
Today was supposed to be the last in the series, my part to add to the wise women who shared their stories of how they nurture their mothering spirits, how they find peace in the midst of parenting.
But inspired by this dad’s truth spoken here, and a morning that called for this instead of that, I’m waiting till tomorrow to write about calm. Because today I needed to write about chaos.
Because I thought I might not be the only one who needs to hear it.
And maybe you can share it with another mom who needs it, too.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
We were supposed to spend the weekend at the cabin with the family: grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins – all of us under one roof, celebrating Christmas and New Year’s together into one giggly gathering of generations. We went to bed with the bags packed, the car filled, the fridge stocked with food to bring.
But our plans were interrupted when midnight brought a sudden awakening, the unmistakable bark of croup. He heaved with sobs and jagged wheezing whether we whisked him outside in the frigid night air or wrapped him up warm in the steamy bathroom fog. A frantic call to the doctor confirmed that we were staying put. No road trip, no cabin, no party.
Just the four of us at home to end the year.
So we sighed and pulled clothes back out of suitcases, stretched Saturday laziness into Sunday pajamas-till-noon, tried to cover up colds and coughs (now shared by both brothers) with snuggles, songs and stories. And somewhere along the way, between the heaps of laundry and the piles of presents strewn across the floor, I realized that maybe there was no more fitting end to the year than one last upended expectation.
Our weekend wasn’t perfect. There were tantrums and squabbles and interrupted sleep and heaps of housework – the usual ups and downs of life with littles. But there were also quiet moments full of God: doing nothing and resting after, slowing down and listening, living and forgiving each other. I watched us each relax into the rhythm of hours together in the heart of our home, a microcosm of our lives, everything I write about in this space condensed into the final hours of a full year.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. But it was. And the way our weekend ended was exactly the way the last 12 months rumbled along: unexpectedly, a little rocky, but full of grace.
This morning, the last of the long year, we feasted on a rich breakfast, eggnog French toast dripping with cinnamon and sugar, sweet and sticky on our fingers. The sick boy perched on his tiptoes in front of the stereo, spinning his favorite CDs while he wiped his runny nose on his sleeve. I was grateful he chose a quiet one for the morning, a favorite calming album, and I listened as the lilting voice sang:
Oh, you’re growing up so fast. Right before our eyes. You don’t have to figure everything out; you just take your time. You just take your time.
It’s my prayer for them, and God’s prayer for me, too, I think. To realize the growth, to take the long view, but also to stay grateful in the moment, to breathe in the present.
Ready for the least surprising summary of spiritual good intentions?
I was going to have an amazing Advent. It’s my favorite season of the church calendar, and I was going to live it. I had plans, I had prayers, I had promises. I would reflect deeply and write profusely and enter mindfully into the mystery of Christmas.
And then. (Always and-then.)
Life interrupted. Everyone got sick.
Work interrupted. I got busy.
Evil interrupted. Joy got sucked straight out of the season.
By the end of this weekend, when we were supposed to be lighting the pink candle and singing of joy, I felt drained and discouraged. Grumpy and Grinch-like, I stomped downstairs with a bucket and a rag to scrub the basement floor in preparation for our Christmas guests.
Kneeling down and washing dirty to clean felt like the only halfway holy thing I could do.
And as I scrubbed, I tried to pray. I tried to pray for peace. For patience. For forgiveness. I tried to pray for mindfulness. For generosity. For simplicity.
But every prayer felt impossible. I was too selfish or stubborn, or the world was too broken and evil. Nothing could budge, no matter how hard I scrubbed, how much soapy water I slopped on the dingy tile.
Until I realized: it’s supposed to feel impossible. Advent is nothing but.
Prepare for the inbreaking of the divine? Good luck with that one. Wrap your head around the mystery of incarnation and virgin birth and angelic messengers? Inconceivable. Wrestle your sinful soul into a place of readiness to meet your Creator? Laughable prospect.
Advent is supposed to feel impossible. It’s the humility of our humanness when brought to our knees before the gift of grace. It’s the overwhelming weight of our darkness when faced with the brilliance of true light. It’s the lifting up of lowly and the bending down of divine and the upending of all our expectations. It’s the constant, humming, throbbing beat of love’s heart pulsing out life into the cold universe.
All of which feels impossible. And when faced with impossibility, all I can do is lift up my arms to the God of Advent, a tired shrug as much as a prayerful plea, and say Come, please, come.
Come, Child of Peace. Come, Emmanuel. Come, God-With-Us.
Keep coming. We’ll keep trying.
Impossible as it all seems.