the holy sacrifice of the mess

In French, the word for the Catholic Mass is “la messe.”

First as a student and then as a resident of France, this translation always struck me as slightly irreverent. I understood its Latin roots (Ite, missa est – “Go forth, the Mass is ended” – gives the same root of the word for both French and English). But every time my roommates asked if I was going to “la messe,” the word always landed awkwardly on my Anglo ears.

Because Mass was anything but messy! Quiet and calm, peaceful and prayerful: these were the mot juste to describe Sunday mornings.

Way back then – in cool stone churches full of holy hush, pews lined with the reverent faithful, prayers intoned with perfect pitch, solemn and sacred – the whole point of Mass was that it was a foretaste of heaven.

And I soaked up its beauty like the bright-eyed girl that I was.

Now? Mass is a mess. With two squirming kids in the pew and a bored baby in our arms, we are living a different definition of that French faux-translation. Stuff gets dropped, spilled, scattered, and torn. Tears are shed, fits are thrown, whispers turn to shouts and (worse) screams.

But lately, as my husband and I try to stay faithful to the parental duty of herding cats in the pew while we half-hear the homily, I find myself seeing this holy sacrifice reflected in a whole new light.

Because our life at home is a mess, too.

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No sooner is Mount Laundry conquered than the baby soaks the sheets. No sooner is the kitchen floor mopped than muddy sneakers smudge trails from the back door. No sooner are the bathrooms scrubbed spotless than they are invaded by an eager tooth-brusher, a reluctant hand-washer, or – worst of all worst – a sick child who almost made it to the toilet.

We adults try to keep up, but kids rule the roost when it comes to livable levels of clean.

Translation? La messe.

Living in the mess can be a sacrifice. I idolize living without clutter, but I am called to live within chaos right now. Because the contours of my life these days circle around three small children and all the work that comes with loving, teaching, feeding, cleaning, and caring for them. This is the sacrifice I’m called to – to let go of my need for control and to let growing children live in all their wonderful mess around me.

It will not always be this way. Some day I will clean the house, and it will stay sparkling for a week. Some day I will have a single laundry day rather than an hour each evening spent washing, drying, and folding whatever three small bodies have produced. Some day, I hope, I will be delighted to discover how my grandchildren turn the house upside down with their visits, too.

But today? We are living in the holy sacrifice of the mess. 

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Sometimes I catch glimmers of what an un-messy life once was or what it might be again. The shiny kitchen counter after I wipe it clean at the end of the night. The quiet moment of prayer in a suddenly empty house after everyone rushes outside to play.

But such moments are rare. More often I am right in the messy middle. And I have to remind myself – a hundred times today, a thousand times tomorrow – that God is here, too. I wrote these words to myself in Everyday Sacrament, and perhaps I wrote them for you, too, that “if I’m honest, the God-in-chaos is the God I meet more often.”

So can I let my expectations slide in the church pew along with me? To embrace the holy sacrifice of the mess there, too?

I’m trying. I catch the eyes of tired parents around us, and I know they are, too. We smile ruefully at each other while we wrangle a runner heading up for the altar or a toddler toppling over the back of the pew. We know this is hard and holy work, living the sacrifice here and the sacrifice at home.

And we’re trying to trust – perhaps as all of us do who try to follow in faith – that the outward chaos of our lives does not define our inner center. Because a life full of love and service and sacrifice does not have to look beautiful to be good.

So into the mess we go, where life is still holy. Are you there, too?

Ite, missa est.

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what we hold tight & what we let go

I finally tossed the stack of papers into the recycling bin, the post-op instructions we brought home after surgery. That laundry list of every possible complication and horrific side effect, the worries you watch for like a hawk when you first come home from the hospital, clutching the doctor’s instructions as if they were a lifesaver.

I felt a little sheepish when I realized the papers had been sitting on the bathroom counter for so long, spying at me each time I helped a child brush his teeth or wash his hands. Why did I think I needed to keep them around for weeks, even after surgery went fine and healing went as hoped and that healthy boy now runs around laughing and shrieking, never skipping a beat?

But this is what you do when you’re struggling to keep your head above water.

You hold on.

 . . .

After each birth it took me weeks to throw away the official discharge papers from the hospital. What if something awful happened to me or the baby? What if we didn’t know what to do?

When nursing got hard after each newborn, I desperately clung to the lactation consultant’s suggestion sheet until it fell apart in my hands. What if what she said held the answer? What if I could just find the secret trick to make everything magically ok?

When we came home from well-check visits during each baby’s first year, I dutifully kept every list of developmental milestones, as if I could simply check off what I wanted like a shopping list. What if they didn’t grow on track? What if I didn’t catch the warning signs in time? What if I failed the ones entrusted to me?

Secretly I convinced myself as a new mom that the secret to surviving – healing, adjusting, learning how to live anew after each transition – lay hidden within some expert’s black and white words on the page.

But it didn’t. The secret lay within my growing ability to trust.

And to learn what to let go.

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I remember the day I gave away my stack of parenting manuals, the ones I poured through as a first-time parent. Sleep, feeding, development, illness, milestones – I read every chapter religiously. Those books became Bible to me in the wee dark hours with a screaming newborn or a sleepless baby or a feverish toddler.

But then one day, when baby #2 was nearing two, I realized I never read them anymore.

Sure, I sought Dr. Google’s advice on the regular like any modern parent. And I had long ago memorized our pediatrician’s phone number. But I had started to trust my intuition more, too.

And I learned the hard way, as every parent learns, that children never match the ideal descriptions in any book. We are all more mysterious and unpredictable (see also: human!) than any expert could predict with perfect precision.

This, I am discovering, is a huge relief.

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Guideposts are helpful along the way. We would be lost and frantic without them when we start down an unfamiliar path.

But then we have to set down the map, leave behind the guidebook, get our own bearings, and make our way into the wilder and wondrous world of getting to know reality as it looks us in the face.

Which, for parenting, means learning to read and respond to another human being’s needs, wants, fears, faults, temperament and challenges. Another human being who is as messy and stubborn and delightful and frustrating as we are, too.

Today the only books and guides I keep on the subject of parenting (see the photo above) are wise ones that offer more questions than answers. These are the companions I want on this journey.

Because what I am learning now is this. At each stage of life, a key question will arise: what do I hold tight and what do I let go? 

The measure of my peace will depend on my answer.

Right now I know there are plenty of things I cling to that I should let go. (A few small examples: my need to exert control over young children’s temper tantrums, my delirious desire to sleep 8 straight hours, my frustration with a home that will never stay clean for more than 4.5 minutes.)

I want answers to these questions, solutions for these puzzles, experts for my uncertainty. I am still holding tight to what would serve me better to let go.

In time I will grow some more and let these slip through an open hand.

I hope.

 . . .

There are deeper lessons here. About what faith means. What trust invites. What we let ourselves learn as we grow in courage to leave the experts behind.

This is another kind of knowing, a way in the darkness, a calling within the stillness of soul where God dwells.

Because nestled deep in the heart center, when all is stripped away and we are left alone with our God, there is nothing to let go but fear. Nothing to cling to but love.

And love, it appears, has been the answer all along.

joy, meet relief

Can you hear it in their voices?

Once you cut through the baffled wonder and divide the nagging disbelief and set aside the stuttering astonishment, there it is: relief.

He is risen. He is risen? He is risen! It’s not a matter of simple punctuation. There are a thousand reactions to surprising news, and the Gospels cover nearly every one. Mary thinks she’s talking to the gardener. John and Peter race each other to the tomb. Thomas can’t believe his eyes.

But by the end of each of their stories, there is always a category shift.

The turn to joy.

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Happiness is often distinguished from joy. One is fleeting; the other is lasting. One is surface; the other is depth.

But here’s a difference I hadn’t noticed until this Easter.

Until I nursed the baby in the wee grey hours of Sunday morning, the baby who had slept all night, finally, blessedly, miraculously slept all night after months of terrible waking. Until my only thought as my whole self relaxed to let him feed was relief.

And then I remembered how joy can come from relief. 

It is not exactly happiness, because we are so worn out that we cannot smile easy. And we are changed by what we have been through, wrung from worry and exhausted from fear. But we still feel this deeper exhale, this turning back toward trust, this unspoken knowledge that we will carry with us a wider, wiser, richer understanding because of the dark slog we have trudged through.

A loved one waits for test results. All signs point to the worst. Then the doctor calls to say, “All clear.” We sit stunned. We exchange glances, barely believing. Then we start to let down toward joy.

The joy that knows this could have ended a thousand different ways, all of them terribly. Yet it didn’t.

The joy that embraces not only a good ending, but a new beginning.

. . .

Each time I birthed my babies, I felt this joy-from-relief, overwhelmed in those spinning moments after delivery, surging with intensity that words fail to capture, a swirl of pain and exhilaration, delight and delirium, disbelief and astonishment. And always joy.

Knowing this moment could have ended a thousand different ways, so many of them badly. Knowing the stories of strangers and friends for whom death met birth in heart-breaking ways.

But then realizing with my own heart, seeing with my own eyes, whispering to my stunned self, that it wasn’t. That we were here and safe and okay.

Deep joy pulsed in each of those delivery rooms, bustling with nurses I barely saw and bright lights that paled around me while I watched a brand-new face blink open to a new world.

I wonder if Easter morning was like this, too.

Running from an empty tomb, scrambling to tell someone else, racing to see a body gone, feeling that heart-racing thump of no, no way, really, yes is this real, can this be? Desperate dreams and wildest prayers and all of them answered – he is not here! he is alive? – but not in ways any of them could have imagined in a million years.

His friends knew the joy that comes from relief. From knowing it could have, should have, would have been so different. Yet here they are. Life is categorically changed, and they are reeling from deepest joy.

Two thousand years later and we are still puzzling to parse out the meaning of that day. I still don’t understand this – the turning inside out of everything that makes sense, the upheaval of existence itself, the strange promise that a shadow of the same waits for each of us.

I do not understand it but I believe it in my bones and every time I feel my body release into the joy that flows from relief, I wonder if maybe we all know what it means to witness resurrection.

To sink into a possibility that you never dared to let yourself imagine, and to discover that it was exactly what you hoped all along.

baby’s first holy week

Sweet boy, here we are. In the holiest of weeks.

It all started on Palm Sunday. You solemnly gumming the long green palm in your father’s hands. Your brothers waving their palms wildly around the air (bonus points for whacking a sibling in the eye). Me watching all of you, half wondering why we bother to bring you to church, half realizing that the wonder of Holy Week is to see it through a child’s eyes.

We will take you three boys to church three times this week: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday. I will prepare for each outing as I prepare for nearly everything as a mom of littles: with low expectations and plenty of snacks. As always, Holy Week will be nothing like what I envision and exactly what I need.

But here is a small secret I will share with you and only you. (Because you are new and mute and thus good at keeping secrets.)

You already know what this week is about. 

. . .

On Holy Thursday we wash feet. You know about this, too.

You know the warm water into which you stretch your wriggling limbs, your eyes darting to bathtub tiles as if you remember this sensation from long-ago, the wet dark warmth of womb. You are slippery in my arms holding you fast over the awkward tub ledge, laughing as your feet dance through clouds of bubbles.

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This holy week, we will slip off shoes and tug off socks and pour warm water over each other’s feet. There is so much of God in this simple truth of washing. How we serve one another in the most basic and bodily ways. How we help to transform dirty into clean. How we bend low to hold what is holy.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

. . .

On Holy Thursday we break bread. You know about this, too.

You know how to lunge for a crust of whatever we’re eating, chasing crumbs around your highchair tray with pudgy fingers. You join us at table now and open your mouth wide for a share of our food. And when you corner a big-enough piece and carefully connect hand to mouth with concentration, satisfaction stretches across your plumpest cheeks.

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This holy week, we will cup our hands to receive the One who came to be bread. There is so much of God in this simple truth of feeding. How we feed the least among us first. How we break ourselves open to become love for each other. How nourished we can be by the smallest taste of the divine.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

 . . .

On Good Friday we kiss what we love. You know about this, too. You are besieged by brotherly affection: kisses smacked on the top of your soft head, arms wrapped fierce around your tender neck, small hands tugging your toes. You erupt in grins when I cuddle your chin and you nuzzle your nose into my shoulder when I kiss you goodnight.

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This holy week, we will wait in line to bend down and venerate a stark wooden cross. There is so much of God in this simple truth of loving. How we lift up what the world overlooks. How we let what is soft meet what is hard. How we give daily thanks for life, even its sacrifices.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

. . .

On Holy Saturday we wait. You know about this, too.

You are already resigned to the fate of third children, waiting while someone else’s need is greater or screams are louder. Your wide eyes soak up your surroundings while you wait your turn for attention, quietly filing away whatever you glean from the chaos around you.

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There is so much of God in this simple truth of waiting. How we must keep faith through long stretches for a dream to grow. How hope can be the heaviest weight to bear. How love wins despite evidence to the contrary.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

. . .

On Holy Saturday we tell stories. You know this, too. You grab clunky board books at naptime as I whisper well-worn words in your ear. You bat the pages back and forth, and a knowing smile curls across your cheeks as we rock to the rhythm of rhymes I memorized ages ago.

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There is so much of God in this simple truth of telling stories. How stories make us who we are. How the divine mystery speaks through holy word. How sharing long-ago tales makes them real again before our eyes.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

. . .

On Easter Sunday we sing and we feast. You know about this, too.

You clap your hands for lullabies and Old McDonald, each new verse like an Alleluia of joy. You gulp down sweet peaches and smooth pears, devour messy scrambled eggs and slimy avocado chunks. You delight in music and meals, whatever sweetness is offered to fill you up.

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There is so much of God in this simple truth of singing and feasting. How celebration sets all five senses on fire with joy. How we are an Easter people, hard stones of our hearts rolled away to find an empty tomb echoing promise. How we cannot keep from singing.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

. . .

This is a hard and holy week. This is a hard and holy life.

What a gift to share it again, anew, with you.

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.