the holy beautiful of right now

The sink is piled with crusty bowls from breakfast and crumbed plates from dinner. Four loads of laundry sit in the silent dark of our upstairs bedroom, waiting to be folded. Piles of Legos cover the coffee table. Two decks of cards are scattered across the living room floor. Half-broken crayons line the kitchen baseboard. Three pairs of boots are flung by the back door in a snowy heap.

And somehow it is beautiful.

I do not see it always. I do not see it often. But there is wild breathing beauty all around me. I cannot escape it in any cluttered corner. I fell in love with a boy in college; we got married on a bright blue day in July; now three more people exist in the world because of us. This strange stunning truth brings me to my knees.

Children plaster our walls with art, hide surprises in our shoes, throw their dirty socks over the balcony even though we’ve told them a thousand times not to. They tumble out of their chairs at dinner because they laugh so hard, and they run around screaming with glee whenever we chase them before bath-time. They tackle each other with hugs and loud-whisper naughty words in each other’s ears, and when all three stop to grin at each other, I feel like my humble heart could actually explode out of my chest.

Right now might be the most beautiful time in my life. And if I don’t notice now, I won’t remember later.

Sometimes I think all my problems are blessings. Too much good work, too many people to love and care for, too much living packed in too few hours. One day there will be quiet and peace and calm control once again, but there will never be the messy, joyful, puzzling delight that is right now.

There is holy beauty in this: a heart and mind filled to overflowing.

So I try to let myself stop. To see, smell, touch, feel, breathe it. All I can do – maybe all that any of us can do – is witness. Notice and delight in whatever goodness, whatever God-ness is thick around us, even in the midst of the heartbreak that is living in this mortal world.

I know tonight my children will wake me from sweet sleep and tomorrow they will drive me batty with whining and every day this week I will likely lose my temper. But I will never once take this grace-filled life for granted.

It is the humblest, holiest gift I have been given.

. . .

“Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God manifests Himself everywhere, in everything — in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that He is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without Him. You cannot be without God. It’s impossible. It’s simply impossible. The only thing is that we don’t see it. What is it that makes the world opaque? It is care.”

- Thomas Merton

when you’ve done everything the wrong way

I sat there squirming in my seat, fingers cramping from writing too fast, frantically trying to scribble down everything she said.

Publicity must done be in advance of publication; six months minimum if you want anyone to notice; early early early is all that matters

A solitary Saturday, a workshop with writers, a warm cup of tea in one hand and a copy of a book I’d written in the other. I thought it had the makings of a perfect morning.

Instead my head spun as the expert kept advising about agents and interviews and networking and advance reviews. While the only coherent phrase I could conjure was that stupid cliché: drinking from a fire hose. Gulp.

When the workshop slammed up against the clock and skidded to a halt, I skittered out of the classroom before anyone else had even snapped shut their sleek laptops. I called my husband from the snowy parking lot, stamping my boots free of slush, trying to laugh it off: I guess I should have been here a year ago. Oh well.

But as I drove home, coaxing my scattered thoughts back into settled silence, all I could think was that it felt so familiar. That frantic sense of feeling so lost, so stretched, so overwhelmed, so far behind the game that had only just begun.

It felt like when I first became a mom.  

. . .

Maybe you are blessed with uber-confident friends, but pretty much every parent I know is convinced they’re screwing up somehow.

I used to think it was unavoidable in these blurry early years, when everything is brand-new and we’re all amateurs and our training is on the job.

So many small stumbles. The night I lost my temper at a sleepless baby only to learn he was cutting shining pearls of new teeth. Or the week I was convinced the toddler was misbehaving and it turned out he had a double ear infection. The days I hollered at one child and the culprit turned out to be the other one.

Mini mistakes in the long run. But in those sinking moments, it still felt like I’d failed the ones who had been entrusted to me. Like I’d done exactly the opposite of what they needed.

But as years passed, I started listening to all those older and wiser and calmer parents, the ones I hope I might become someday. Turns out they feel they’ve done plenty wrong, too. Too little or too late, too much or too long. What can you do but forgive yourself?

Rare is the sweet spot sensation, the celebratory whoop of having nailed it. More familiar is the fumbling, the floundering, the fudging of our own uncertainty under a thin but hopeful veneer. We’re trying. Tomorrow we’re going to try again. Most of the time, that’s enough.

Good things happen – to us, to our kids – either because of what we’ve done or in spite of it. Ditto for the bad things.

So this book stuff? It’s the same deal. Did I follow all the experts’ advice, did I do all the shoulds and musts and needs and have-tos, did I have any clue what I was doing when I first set out?

No. And that will be fine. It will be enough.

. . .

“You only know what you know,” the teacher tried to reassure me when I finally braved to raise my hand and ask what if it’s too late? “If the book came out in November, you can still do something. Probably.” What to do but shrug and smile?

I’ve heard the same consolation before. Don’t beat yourself up for what you didn’t know in the past. For what you didn’t do. For choices you made not knowing any better.

Even when it feels like we’ve done everything the wrong way, that moment of realization can still be a gift: the clarity that we’re actually doing something right. Because we’re still going. We’re still doing, guessing, hoping, moving forward, waking up again tomorrow and starting again.

The way winds long – whether it’s parenting or faith or simply trying to live as human in the world. And we’re still on it. We’re still going. We’re still doing plenty right.

. . .

The baby woke at 4 am. I stumbled into slippers and padded down the hall to his room. When I opened his door, he quieted at the sound of my voice. I scooped him up from his crib and felt my way to the rocker. I nursed him as I dozed, then he stirred and I roused to change his diaper. Moves I’ve done thousands of times before.

Only once I’d settled him back to sleep and I turned back to the door to feel for the knob – only then did I realize I’d done everything in the dark.

It’s been that way for two babies now, this knowing how to night-parent by instinct. Moving through the darkness, not even a nightlight to guide my steps, yet doing exactly what I need to do: nurse, change, soothe, love.

If I’d told myself when I was a brand-new mom that I wouldn’t need bedroom lights blazing to figure out how to latch the baby on correctly or how to change a diaper without making a mess, I would have laughed out loud. Impossible.

Now I’m learning to find my way in the dark. No expert taught me that. But it feels just right.

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lent: what we need is here

And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

– from “The Wild Geese” by Wendell Berry

Deep breath. Eyes closed. Flying leap.

Each new Lent feels like this. Jumping into the unknown. Flinging ourselves into the arms of the divine. Wondering where on earth we will end up.

We know it ends at the cross and the empty tomb. But the deeper journey into these 40 days? It can wind into unexpected places. Darkest corners and lightest hopes.

If we take the journey, we will be led. This is always Lent’s promise.

What we need is here.

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Ash Wednesday starts out this season of surprises.

Churches are packed even though there’s no obligation. Long lines wind down the aisles. Strangers smudge dirt on each other’s foreheads. We tell small children they are mortal dust.

Each year I write about Ash Wednesday. A mother’s prayer to mark the day. A reflection on motherhood and mortality. Thoughts on tragedies global and local that cross Lent’s path.

It is a mysterious and moving day of the year for me. Maybe you feel it, too. The shifting ground beneath our feet. The uncertainty that shudders when we let go of comfort and clinging old ways. I resist change; I need it more than ever.

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Last night at dinner we talked with our kids about subjects rarely broached at supper with young ones. Prayer and penance and poverty. Why we make sacrifices. Why God asks us to share with those in need.

I looked around the table and realized that these are my companions on Lent’s journey: a kindergartener, a preschooler, and a bouncing baby. My life is not a monastery. This is exactly where I’m meant to be.

Right here in our daily chaos, this is my prayer this year: to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear.

What we need is here.

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As I make my plans for Lent, I’m reminded of my own advice to lower expectations, make small time for short prayer, get creative in easy ways. 

One of my favorite Lenten posts is running this week at Call Her Happy – How to Live Lent as A Busy Mom. I’m grateful that Jenna gave me the chance to remember this season is lived within the contours of our own lives.

I try to let go of the expectation that I can pray like a monk in an abbey with all the time, space, and place set neatly before him. That’s not my life. Nor is it my call.

Instead, I can pray like a busy mother. 

I can take two minutes to greet the day with a whispered word of thanks. I can share a short morning prayer with my kids when they wake up. I can bless our food at meals and remember those who will go without today. I can pray with my kids on the drive to school and in the quiet of their rooms before bed. I can slow down in the day’s whirlwind to give thanks for the gifts in my life.

I don’t have an hour to meditate, but I have hours with many small moments I can fill with a word of blessing, praise, or petition. In this season of my life, that is what I have to give.

And I think God, who cares for us all like a loving parent, understands and blesses that truth.

(Click over to Call Her Happy to read more…)

Lent will give us what we need, if we let it. This is the holy, humbling truth.

Deep breath. Head bowed. Ashes traced. Prayers whispered.

What we need is here. 

Morning Prayer Matters: Easy Ways to Start Your Day

This week our family is vacationing in the same (sunny!) spot where I first heard the local priest preach about greeting each new day with the first words of Genesis: Let there be light. So today I’m re-running this post that originally appeared at Catholic Mom. Enjoy!

morning prayer

Here are 4 simple ways to start the day with God:

A prayer from childhood:

Growing up a mile from our small-town Catholic school, we always had just enough time on the drive each morning for my mom to make us pray (ok, sometimes to a chorus of groans) her classic, quick morning prayer. Maybe your mom did, too.

Good morning, dear Jesus, this day is for you.
And I ask you to bless all I think, say, and do.

Sometimes the oldies-but-goodies are the best when it comes to faithful prayer routines. Many bleary-eyed mornings I still wake up with these words on my mind.

A prayer for school:

Now that my family has started our own prayer practices, we still make time for prayer each morning on the drive to school. Our kids love being named and blessed in turn, and I love the reminder that the Holy Spirit will be with each of us today – children and parents – to watch over us and guide us.

Dear God: May wisdom, peace, and courage be with [name].
And may the Holy Spirit within [him/her],
guide [his/her] words, thoughts, and actions today.

Years ago I asked for “school ride” prayers on the Faith & Family Live website, and another mom shared these words. I copied the prayer on the back of the parent handbook for my son’s first school. My husband scribbled it onto a sticky note for his car so he could learn it, too. Ever since that day, it’s become an anchor of our family’s morning routine.

Whenever I hear its familiar rhythms from the back seat, I love remembering the stranger who first shared her simple morning prayer. Her own practices have shaped our own, reminding me how the Body of Christ is connected in mysterious and life-giving ways.

A prayer for joy:

Recently my boss and I were talking about habits of prayer, and she shared with me that every morning when she wakes up, she prays the words of Psalm 118:

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

I love the idea of these words of joy being the first thoughts of the morning, so I’m starting to remember them when I first wake up, too. Trying to bear witness to the power of God’s Word to shape our own.

A prayer for light:

Years ago I heard an amazing homily on the earliest words of the Book of Genesis. The priest asked us to invoke God’s first words in all of Scripture – let there be light – as our own prayer for each new morning.

So now I try to remember this petition as I start every day:

Let there be light. Let us be light for others today.

As a child I was fascinated by the story of creation. I loved its retelling at Easter Vigil, sitting in the dark pew with my tiny candle. Over and over on the drive to school, I made my dad tell me the story of God creating the world.

Praying these first words from Genesis when I start my day reminds me of the goodness of creation, even when life is dark around me. And it reminds me of the first burst of Light and Love that gave life to all of us.

What is your morning prayer routine – with others or by yourself?
Who taught you how to start your day with God?

what to do for Lent?

Dear friends:

Tomorrow the director of the Collegeville Institute Seminars and I are putting the final touches on a book on discipleship. (I can’t wait to tell you more very soon!)

The day after tomorrow, I’m packing up our family of five for a much-needed vacation. Needless to say, life is buzzing round these parts.

So since Lent is less than 2 weeks away, I thought I’d share a few quick ideas for ways you can celebrate the season. (Yes, you could also call this post “Shameless Plugs: The Pre-Lent Edition.” Apologies.)

For your church or small group:

If you’re new to Mothering Spirit, you might not know that I’ve written two programs for small groups in parishes and congregations to gather for conversations around questions of calling.

Called to Life is a general introduction to God’s call in our lives, and Called to Work explores how our professional work can be a calling. Both programs run for 6 weeks (making them the perfect length for Lent). Best of all, participant and facilitator materials are all available for FREE from our website at the Collegeville Institute Seminars.

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If you’re already in a small faith-sharing group, here’s a perfect way for your group to celebrate Lent together. Otherwise, pass the materials on to your parish staff and get a group organized. (To learn more, check out the Top 10 Reasons to Use Called to Life or Called to Work this Lent.)

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For yourself:

Have I mentioned how much I love being part of the new Blessed Is She project? We’re a group of bloggers who write daily devotionals for Catholic women. You can sign up to get the day’s readings and a short reflection every morning in your inbox. And since our Advent journal was a huge hit, we’ve created beautiful offerings for Lent as well.

I made the (happy) mistake of opening my big mouth in our group’s virtual discussion of what to offer for Lent, commenting that many of us Catholics want to do All The Things for Lent, and then wind up feeling like we’ve failed when we can’t keep up with all our disciplines. What if instead we listened to the wisdom of Mary and Martha’s story and tried to do Only One Thing for Lent – sit at the feet of Christ and listen to God’s Word?

And thus was born:

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I was honored to help write the journal’s reflections, and I can’t wait to use it for my own journey through Lent, too. Order yours today at Blessed Is She!

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like a mother and child

I was 12 years old and away at summer camp for the first time. She was the counselor assigned to my cabin. I remember her long dirty blond hair, wavy and wild. Her weathered hiking boots and the lilac shirt she tied around her waist each morning.

Her birch-bark name tag read Marion, but we all chose French pseudonyms for our two-week cultural immersions. So I never knew her real name.

She was blessedly kind, with that standard-issue camp-counselor caring heart. She let me sniffle into her shoulder one lonely night when I was feeling homesick. She probably did the same for every girl in our bunk, though we were all too cool to admit it in daylight.

She didn’t care when we giggled our way through quiet time. She ignored our whispering in English when we were supposed to be practicing French. She laughed when we gossiped about the boys in the bunk next door.

And every night she sang to us.

Like a ship on the harbor
Like a mother and child
Like a light in the darkness
I’ll hold you awhile

Who know where she got the song. Whether her mother cooed into her own ears as a baby, or a beloved grandmother hummed while they rocked together. Who knows why she chose to sing us a child’s song, when every other counselor crooned camp ballads or classic oldies or old folk tunes to wind down their charges for the night.

But she sang us a lullaby. And even though we were awkward and eager girls on the cusp of adolescence, we let her.

We’ll rock on the water
I’ll cradle you deep
And hold you while angels
Sing you to sleep

Last night I crooned these words into Joseph’s ears as he screamed and fussed. By the fifth time through, just when I thought my head would explode if I didn’t get back to sleep soon, he was silently sucking his fingers and staring up at me with those unblinking round owl eyes.

The song had worked its magic again. It always does.

the mystery of mothering unfolding

Is it odd that one of my favorite lullabies comes from not from a beloved relative, but from an almost-stranger I once knew for two weeks? I have sang this song to every child I baby sat. Every niece and nephew I rocked. Every newborn of my own.

And each time I hum its melody, I reach back to this young woman, singing softly to a cabin of girls tucked into the settling summer woods, distant loons calling to each other on the dark lake beneath our windows.

I don’t know what happened to Marion. I wrote to her eagerly the rest of that summer and into the fall. She sent me one letter from college, short but kind, postmarked from Madison. I came back to camp for three more summers. She never returned.

She probably never knew that the song she sang each night at lights-out would imprint itself on the mind of a young teenager and carry into her own motherhood. But she taught me something about being a parent. Even when I was miles away from my own family, even when I was only twelve years old.

She taught me that tenderness is an offering, an openness, a gentle hospitality to whomever needs our love. She gave this gift that sweltering summer to twelve girls tucked into creaky wooden bunk beds.

Maybe one day, a child will remember I shared this song with them. Maybe it will be one of my sons. Maybe it will be a niece or nephew or neighborhood kid I babysat growing up. Maybe they will sing it to a child of their own. Lullabies are sung to be shared, after all.

My hope is that they (and I) will remember how sharing these small holy moments – when day meets night, when waking meets sleeping, when cry meets comfort – can shape us over time into gentler people. People who make space for what is tender and vulnerable and in need of love.

Like a mother and child.

. . .

I discovered that this lullaby was written by Cris Williamson in 1977. I’d love to know if any of you ever heard of it before today?

Here are a few more musings on lullabies: finding a song for each child and singing to babies as a spiritual practice.

the day after the first christmas

Here she is, only a day into motherhood. Her hands trying to figure out how to feed her crying newborn, human as he is. Maybe she has help from midwives who took pity on a poor girl far from home, no kinswoman of her own to care for her. Or maybe she feels so alone that her heart aches for her mother or cousin, sisters or friends, anyone who could guide her learning to nurse this baby, bring soft clothes to diaper him, serve her warm food for strength, help tend her healing body.

Here he is, only a day into fatherhood. His head still reeling from the panicked fear of not finding her a place in time, his face flushed from the shame of not being able to provide. He never dreamed any of this: witnessing labor only women do, caring for a wife he had never touched, staring while strangers showed up to a filthy stable to say they saw some sign of hope. And having to hold her in that darkest hour, the moment when the world split open between life and death and everything hung in the barren breathless balance of will the baby cry?

Here they are, only a day from the strangest night. Angels and shepherds and songs and strangers – everything foreign and far from what their familiar lives had known as truth. Here they are, together and alone. Starting parenthood smack dab in the middle of salvation history.

. . .

They hang in my mind today. As I nurse the baby in new Christmas pajamas, vacuum shreds of gift wrap from the carpet, scrub chocolate smears from holiday platters, haul cardboard boxes to the cold garage.

I wonder what they might have felt, worried, dreamed, laughed, cried. That first morning after.

It is dangerous to imagine ourselves into their shoes and stories. I know this. We call it isogesis. A technical theological term for that thorny tendency to read into the text with our own biases, agendas, presuppositions.

Safer and wiser to exegete. To keep a safe distance from the sentiment of the story, to let the author and the audience and the ancient context tell their own intended tale.

But it can be just as dangerous not to imagine. If we don’t let them come to life – messy, muddling, realest reality of life – then these far-off figures stay story characters, pastel pictures in soft light on smooth pages of children’s books. One-dimensional. Archaic. Dusty history.

If we don’t let her sweat as a hard-working mother, then Mary is only pictured in pious pose, swooning over the sleeping Christ child. If we don’t let him wrestle with fatherhood on terms he never would have chosen, then Joseph remains only the silent stalwart standing behind her in stained glass scenes.

If we do not let their stories leap to life with the dreaming minds God gave us, then their lives cannot become real to our faith. They do not struggle, stumble, wonder, wait, learn, love, forget, forgive. They do not grow into the people God asked them to become.

Her fiat changed the world. His faith did the same. What might ours do?

Here we are, only a day into a new Christmastide. How will we let ourselves be changed?