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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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.

we care about the crumbs

In our family’s parish, we eat bread. (This is not a theological discourse on the real presence; this is a simple recipe.)

Each Sunday, instead of the thin white wafers traditional to Catholic communion, our priest breaks brown bread. It is held high in his hands for all of us to see and heaped high on silver plates for all of us to eat. It wasn’t what I was used to as a cradle Catholic. But I have come to love everything about this practice.

I love that the simple bread is baked each week by members of our parish. It tastes like loving service.

I love how our priests have to take time to break the wide flat circles into hundred of tiny squares. It tastes like holy transformation. 

I love that the Eucharistic ministers need the help of altar servers to hold the plates while they offer the Body of Christ. It tastes like living community. 

Most of all, I love what real bread requires of those of us who eat it.

You have to hold it carefully in your hands so you don’t drop whatever small square you’ve given.

You have to chew it carefully and consider what it means to consume the Body of Christ.

And you have to care for the crumbs.

. . .

Since Catholics believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist (ok, there is theological discourse here after all), we pay particular reverence to the bread-turned-body and the wine-turned-blood.

Watch the next time you’re at a Mass, and you’ll see this. The patient wiping of plates after communion. The careful consuming of every last drop from the chalices. And the watchful care for every last crumb.

Cut back to adolescence. I’d see communion ministers scurry to snatch up a dropped host or rush to daub a spill from the cup, and I’d roll my eyes. Honestly, what’s the point. Is Jesus really in that little speck of a broken wafer? Do we really have to go through all these theatrics? Can’t God take care of himself?

Now flash-forward to present. I’m in a pew with three little children. Three messy, noisy, squirmy children. Three small people often scorned by society as a pesky inconvenience (e.g., a distraction from their parents’ professional pursuits) or reviled as an utter burden (e.g., a constraint of freedom, a drain of finances, a strain on resources).

They are crumbs in the world’s eyes.

And I love that I am part of a church that cares for these crumbs. A church where children are seen and blessed. A church where children are called by name. A church where all parts of the Body of Christ are welcomed, regardless of appearance or ability.

. . .

Every Sunday at Mass I watch the Eucharistic ministers. Whenever their plate is empty and the last person in line has been fed, they look down carefully. They look all around them. They stop and stoop to pick up any crumb they see.

We do not act like this anywhere else. We do not care for the crumbs.

The dirty homeless man with the cardboard sign, the pudgy teenager with Down syndrome, the elderly woman hunched over her walker, the immigrant family speaking a strange language, the drooling adult in the wheelchair – we would rather rush by them all, avert our eyes, busy ourselves with our phones or our conversation, hurry on to anything more important.

We miss the crumbs. And He is there. 

Christ had time for crumbs. Children, women, poor, sick, lepers, outcasts, prostitutes, tax collectors, foreigners, strangers, thieves, criminals. People who were pushed to society’s margins, dumped to the dirty streets, shoved to the dark and desperate corners.

He had all the time in the world for them.

I want to be a part of a church that echoes this truth each time we break bread. That we don’t just celebrate what is whole and beautiful.

We care about the crumbs, too.

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how to choose life today (wait, you already did)

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…I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life
Deuteronomy 30:19

You already did it today.

When you rolled over and kissed your husband good morning. Or when you threw on that old bathrobe and trooped down the hall to feed the baby. Or when you scrambled eggs for the kids before they caught the bus. Or when you bought your co-worker a coffee on the drive to work. Or when you held the door for the person behind you as you walked into class from the freezing cold.

You chose life.

It didn’t feel like it, did it? The small stuff never does. But right there in that tired moment, that ordinary instant, that moving-on-to-the-next-thing rush, you chose life. You chose Christ.

Every day the choice is set before us a thousand times. Life or death. Good or evil.

Not only in the dramatic decisions or the public protests or the election year ultimatums, but in the thousand tiny choices set before us to do good each day. To choose love. To serve others.

And it matters that you choose life…

Click to read the rest of today’s devotion at Blessed Is She.

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!

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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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