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.

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.

until it stays open

God breaks the heart again and again until it stays open.
(Hazrat Inayat Khan)

You have two choices when you feel it happening.

You can let your heart stretch to the point of ripping open to the beauty and agony of living in this mortal world.

Or you can pull the protective shield back over the vulnerable center.

You can break or you can burrow. I have done both.

Only one gives life.

. . .

This morning I will drive to the hospital early, before the roads crowd with commuters, before pale sun softens dark sky into grey. I will carry my son into the surgery center. I will let strangers wheel my baby away and put him under. I will watch the clock and chew my nails and pretend to read while the surgeon operates on him.

A quick and simple procedure, the nurses promise. He will be fine, logic and lots of wiser people assure me.

But what if? I still wonder.

Always this is the winding worry that wraps around my thoughts. We each know the exception, the unexpected, the fluke, the tragedy. We press the threat away, shove the rare possibility to the farthest corner of our mind.

That cannot happen to us. It will not happen to us.

But still my heart beats and fears to break.

. . .

I think back on The Big Times I had my heart broken. My brother’s death. That awful break-up. Infertility and miscarriage. Friendships forever changed.

I dealt with them well and I dealt with them terribly. We are all works in process.

But whenever I let the heartache change me, when I let my bruised soul stay stretched out so much longer than I thought possible, when I made the grueling choice again and again to let this loss soften my sharp edges into empathy – that was when I discovered God.

As if I were tripping over an obvious root on the path – oh! there you were all along! – and remembering that this was exactly how growth happens: you love, you lose, you live on changed.

Does God break our hearts on purpose? Make us suffer to learn a lesson? Theologically I bristle at these thoughts. This is not the nature of love.

But I do know that something strange and surprising happens when I sit with loss. When I refuse to push away pain. I find God in the midst of it. 

I learn how God’s heart breaks over and over again with ours. I begin to understand again how the mystery of dying and rising is the shape of loving wisdom.

Even when I want to protect myself from pain, small scared creature that I am.

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Today I will open my heart up again in a tiny way to the terror of loss.

Today I will choose to lift up in prayer those who lie alone in hospital beds with no one to worry over them.

Today I will try to remember parents who are losing their hearts and minds right now as their beloved child suffers in their arms.

Today I will make myself sit with the uncomfortable truth that all my children will know pain, loss, suffering and heartache deeper than I dare to imagine for them. None of us are spared this truth.

But today I choose to wedge this heart open with love, too.

I choose to see my oldest son’s sparkling blue eyes and wonder at the gift of his life in mine.

I choose to let him go again into the wide world that can hurt but also heal him.

I choose to give him time, presence, comfort, attention – all the simplest things that children crave – by giving up all of my own.

Letting go and letting our children change us. These are two of the hardest and holiest practices of parenting. It is an unrelenting school of humility, this daily learning to love the creatures we help to create.

But how good it is, too, when our hearts widen beyond what we thought possible. When we see what starts to happen when we stay open.

. . .

He will do just fine with this, his doctor assured me earlier this week.

He’ll do better with it than you will, she added, looking at me over her glasses with a doctor’s wisdom and a mother’s empathy.

She is right, of course. I believe this in my bones.

But if I let my worrying heart break open and stay open – here and now, again and later, a thousand more times through their childhoods and beyond – then maybe I can do better, too.

Maybe I can pull from broken fear and leap into wider love.

i sing it for you

I roared at them tonight.

And when I say roared, I mean bellowed from the very core of my being – the tired, angry, frustrated, exasperated, unheard and unnoticed depths of my body and soul, from which I was completely and utterly and maddeningly sick of having asked, cajoled, coaxed, pleaded, begged, demanded, and commanded them to listen to me tonight. To obey me.

And when they did not, I roared.

I had already taken away dessert when fit upon fit was flung over dinner. I had banished bath once they started fighting with each other and throwing trucks over the banister. I had threatened even to storm out of the bedroom without a single book read, a single song sung, a single prayer whispered.

None of it mattered. None of it made one whit of difference.

So standing there simmering, alone and exhausted at the end of a lonely and exhausting week, I roared at them. I don’t even know what I roared, something stupid about how I was going to yell even louder than they had EVER HEARD ME YELL IN THEIR LIVES if they didn’t just LAY DOWN AND GO TO SLEEP RIGHT NOW DEAR GOD HELP ME I AM LOSING MY MIND.

And as all terrible tyrants eventually learn, tirades tear down even the stubbornest among us.

I stood there in the dim dark (lit only by nightlight, oh it was pathetic) and listened to my angry racing heart throb in my ears and caught the solemn wide-eyed stares of a hundred stuffed animals watching me with pity.

Then one small boy started to whimper into his pillow.

The other reached out to me with thin striped pajama arms, desperate for a hug.

I caved. Of course I caved, a thousand times I caved, oh Christ of my heart, my stupid, stubborn, selfish heart, I caved.

I crawled into bed with one and kissed the warm fuzz of his forehead and whispered for forgiveness and promised to do better tomorrow. I sang him a soft penance of a lullaby. One extra verse, just to be certain.

Then I turned and tip-toed into bed with the other, wrapped my arms around his scrawny neck and pressed my lips to his tiny ear. I told him I loved him for always, even when I was mad I loved him always, even when I was tired and frustrated I loved him always. Did he know that? Yes, he loud-whispered back, yes he knew that.

Then I asked him what I could sing, what sweet song he could hear that could possibly right a night of wrongs, what ancient hymn I could borrow that would help heal the broken words between us.

Lullaby, he replied. I want Lullaby.

So I sang. Lullaby, and good night.

The final verse ended, trailing off with guardian angel promises into the settling dark around us, I turned to kiss his forehead one last time to go.

But as I bent towards his small round face, moonlit from between the curtains, he stopped me.

Mama, do you know what’s funny? Whenever I hear you sing that song to the baby when you’re putting him down for nap? I think you’re singing it to me, too!

Hot tears pricked the corners of my eyes; I caught my breath and held it fast. How can they be real, these children of mine, maddening and mystifying all at once? How can he understand exactly this, without understanding what it means at all?

Oh sweet one, I finally told him, once I let that last held breath slip heavy into the silent space between us. I am singing it for you, too. 

I am always singing it for you. For all of you.

He smiled softly. This I saw clearly, even in the grainy dark of their room.

From the other bed I heard one more rustle of sheets and the flip-flop-turn of a not-yet-asleep brother: Mama, I think that, too. I think you are singing that song to me, too.

We are all echoes of each other, of someone else’s love.

If there is any song I hope to sing, with this small beating gift of a life I still wake each new morning astonished to find offered to me once again, it is exactly this:

I sing it for them. They sing it for me. I sing it for you.

the trash tells the story

A month ago I ran into a friend as we were both rushing into church from the whipping winter wind. She held the door for me, and I sprinted inside, breathing steam. As we shivered in the entryway, trying to warm up, she said, “Oh! I meant to tell you – I read your book. I liked it!”

“And wow, it was really personal.”

I stumbled through an awkward thank you and mumbled some self-deprecating snark about hope my kids won’t sue me for those stories. But as we kept talking and wound our way down the hallway, my stomach slunk a little lower.

Because I’ve heard comments like hers before, and I know what they mean.

You’re telling stories I’m not used to hearing.

You’re writing words I’m not used to reading.

. . .

There are plenty of topics I’ve written about – in my book or on this blog or elsewhere – that could make people blush. Sex, pregnancy, miscarriage, infertility, depression, death, and grieving.

(To say nothing of everyday stories of lost tempers, harsh words, parenting fails.)

All of this is part of “parenting as spiritual practice,” in the way I understand parenting, faith, and spirituality. Writing, too. Truth-telling is hard and holy work. Honesty is rough, but essential. Because beauty only blooms when barriers come down and we see each other, face to face.

Sometimes I envy novelists. Fiction is the highest form of writing’s art, in my opinion: not only to tell a story well, but to create characters and craft a whole world. But that’s not the kind of writing I’m called to do. It’s not the story I want to tell.

I’m steeped in narrative theology. When I started reading about it in graduate school, it felt so obvious. Wasn’t it precisely in our lives and our experiences that we came to know God? This is the way I have always understood faith. So I loved finding a body of theology to back up my hunch – that we can find our way to the universal through the personal. That we can find our way to the divine through the human.

And yet.

I’m still wary of sharing too much. My beloved ones become characters in a book when I write about them. I worry about this.

I try to stick to my own story, but lives inevitably intersect – family, friends, strangers. I have to proceed with prayer and care in the ways that I tell a tale authentically, so that I don’t cause pain or betray trust or cross a line.

All in the name of telling a good and true and – yes – personal story.

. . .

My first essay was recently published at Mamalode. It tells a story of the most mundane subject: the trash.

We’ve all got trash, heaps of it. The clinking spill of wine bottles in the recycling bin after a party. The cardboard box bonanza following Christmas cleanup. The Kleenex mountains during cold season, the gift wrap crumbles during birthday week, the pious piles of de-hoarding inspired by spring cleaning.

We empty baskets and drag bins out to the curb once a week. But when do we stop to see what story the trash tells about our lives?

When I finally dragged the whole mess out to the garbage can, sweltering in the August sun, I cried as I dumped its contents into the gaping mouth of the dark brown bin. That was the story of our baby. Gone.

While cramping with cruel empty labor on the cold bathroom floor, I had yanked the wastebasket over toward me so I could throw up. In my panicked haste, I had chipped the smooth curve of its bottom rim on our bathroom tile. Every morning since that day, I have stared at the wastebasket’s chipped edge.

A jagged reminder of the baby that died.

Click to read the rest at Mamalode.com

The only way I know how to write is to tell my own story.

It will be personal. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea. But it might be yours. And you, the ones who read, you are the reason I keep going.

You are the reason I sit down here and try to tell some small truth about what I’m learning on this long walk – of parenting, of faith, of the spiritual life.

You are the reason I’m not afraid to get personal.

Because if something I tell in a story might touch your own life, might help you feel less alone, might let light in through the cracks, then we will change each other for the better. We will help each other become more human.

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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