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

Here Is The Prayer

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I stir in the dark before dawn. Black trees outlined through our windows slowly sharpen into focus as the sky lightens into blue behind them. I slip between sleep and waking, but reluctantly leave the dreams behind for good. I think of turning towards the prayer book on the nightstand and resting my eyes on a morning psalm.

Then the baby starts to rouse.

Gentle at first, waking as I am, but soon more insistent, his coos rising to cries on the monitor. I slide out from under the warm comforter and pad down the hall to scoop him up, snuggling his fleece covered limbs into the curl of my chest. All I can see in the dim nursery light is his smile.

I forget about the morning litany waiting back on my nightstand. Here is the prayer.

. . .

We laugh in low voices as he get dressed for work. The big kids are still sleeping, and as I splash my face with warm water, I contemplate the sweet prospect of a quiet kitchen and a hot cup of tea. Maybe I could pull out my journal and write for a bit before they wake. I slip on thick wool socks for the cold winter floors downstairs and turn the knob on our bedroom door.

Then I find a small boy waiting right outside, gazing up at me with wide eyes.

I sink to my knees and without a word he folds himself into my lap, clutching his beloved stuffed animal to his chest. We snuggle in the silence for a few minutes, and then he whispers, “Mama, sing ‘Morning Has Broken.’”

I forget about the journal downstairs. Here is the prayer.

. . .

The morning tumbles headlong into a cacophony of kid sounds: laughter and whining and cries and squeals. So many questions and complaints and requests to help, to watch, to get, to come here please.

My head is spinning by noon, and I’m dreaming of naptime quiet and a chance to center my thoughts. I serve their lunch plates piled high with favorite food, and as I sink into my own chair, I’m tempted to tune out while they eat.

Then I see their small faces in front of me, watching me expectantly.

I take a deep breath and smile back. I lean my elbows onto the table and ask them each what they want to do after nap. Soon we’re sharing silly rhymes and they’re teasing each other with nicknames. We share cookies after plates are cleaned, and I give silent thanks for the gift of lively kids at my table.

I forget about the centering meditation. Here is the prayer.

. . .

Bathtime always finds my energy at its lowest. Bedtime is teasing, just around the corner, but there are faces to wash and teeth to brush and nails to clip and pajamas to tug on tiny feet.

I pray for patience as I wrangle the wriggling, giggling boys into the bath. I can almost taste the freedom that comes with closing the last bedroom door. I imagine curling up on the couch with the warm dog burrowed at my feet and a good book to lift my thoughts.

Then they start to splash each other with shouts and smiles.

I can’t help but laugh at their simple delights. The water splatters the walls and soaks my jeans, but their mischievous grins make it all worth it. I remember that this was what we wanted all along – a house brimming with life and laughter.

I forget about the devotional downstairs. Here is the prayer.

. . .

Maybe the secret to prayer with small children is not memorizing the Our Father or teaching them grace before meals or pulling them to church on Sunday.

Maybe prayer is about abiding. About presence. About seeing God in small moments.

The promise we make to our children echoes Jesus’ words of love: And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.

Maybe the prayer we teach them – the practice of God’s presence that we hope will sustain their lives – can be exactly this, too.

Prayer as beholding. Prayer as presence. Prayer as promise.

. . .

After books and lullabies and God-bless-everyone, I linger a few last minutes in the rocking chair with the baby who woke up just as the older two were winding down. His tiny head tucks under my chin as we rock gently, and I savor the sweetness of a baby in my arms. In the dim glow of the nightlight, his pudgy fingers float up to trace my hair. He turns to me with dark eyes smiling.

Finally I glimpse the whole truth, the God-soaked-ness of each moment with them today.

Finally I am here. God is here, too. Here is the prayer.

A version of this reflection originally appeared at Practicing Families

what the presentation means for parents

We have to let go.

We knew that, right? People told us from the beginning. The years fly by so fast and before you know it, they’ll be grown and enjoy this time before it’s gone.

We smiled and looked down at the baby in our arms. We knew they were right but we couldn’t imagine not holding this child.

We knew they would grow up one day, theoretically. They would push us away, they would slam the bedroom door, they would refuse to talk to us. They would probably tell us they hated us one day. (We knew because we did all those things to our parents, too.)

But we still couldn’t imagine what it would really feel like. To let them go.

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So we practice letting go a thousand times.

We let go of their chubby hand for a split second while they take their first toddling step towards the couch.

We slip away for a date night while grandma waves goodbye from the front door.

We walk back alone to the car when the teacher promises they will be fine.

Each time our instinct is to reach out and pull them back to us. Each time our heart and mind are divided between need and want, us and them, now and later. Each time there is no script for when or how. Only the bittersweet truth of time and growth.

And the nagging knowledge that they are not ours to keep forever.

They were never ours alone.

. . .

Today’s Feast of the Presentation is this same practice for the Holy Family.

Here are Mary and Joseph: brand-new, bewildered parents. Here are Anna and Simeon: expectant elders. Here is Jesus: newborn and newly named.

They are all letting go. Mary and Joseph hand over their child into the hands of strangers. These prophets hand over their expectations of what their savior would look like.

And God lets go, too. Lets the Son of Love be brought to the temple, hinting at the heartbreak that will happen one day when Jesus comes back to Jerusalem.

Simeon whispers this terrifying truth to Mary, tries to warn her that you yourself a sword will pierce. But his mother can’t grasp what this will mean for her child. For herself. None of us could.

We can only practice letting go in small ways.

We can only trust that we’ll be given strength for what’s to come. 

. . .

Last year on the Feast of Presentation, I wrote about letting go of another baby, sending my book off to be published and wondering where it would go. For those of you whose hands have now held it, I am humbled. Thank you for reading. 

And to the stranger who wrote these words, you took my breath away. You are the one I wrote it for. There is so much light trying to get in. What a gift when we help each other clear away the grime.

there will be so many years

There will be so many years, she tells me, of nights so quiet you don’t know what to do with yourself.

I’m perched on my knees, rolling my green yoga mat into a tight spiral, facing the brick wall of the studio so she can’t see my smile when she wishes the class “a peaceful evening.”

You can’t believe it now, I know, she laughs.

Mine are 23 and 25. And the house is quiet. So quiet. 

I tell her I believe her.

. . .

There will be so many years, she tells me, of whole days where you can do whatever you want.

I’m washing dishes in the sink, staring out the water-splattered kitchen window while she finishes her cup of coffee before the boys drag her into another board game because “Grandma, you promised!”

Can you imagine it now, she smiles. Whole days to do whatever you want?

I can’t imagine. I tell her I believe her.

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There will be so many years.

Of calm Sundays at church. Lazy Saturday mornings spent reading the whole newspaper. Spur-of-the-moment Friday nights when we decide to see that show or try that restaurant or watch that movie.

When we do nothing more to prepare but pull on coats and flick off lights as we leave. No planning, no pumping, no prepping the babysitter on everyone’s bedtime routine. We will forget all these details.

We will watch films first-run, take weekend getaways, catch art exhibitions before they close, go to that jazz club whenever the mood strikes us.

We will do laundry once a week instead of twice a day. We will grocery shop with one basket instead of two carts. We will listen to whatever we want in the car. Or we will simply drive and listen to nothing at all.

There will be so many years.

When little boy laughter does not bubble up from downstairs. When bright baby smiles do not greet us from the crib to wake the morning. When they don’t sing silly songs or dance in the kitchen or build basement rocket ships or cuddle onto the couch to read stacks of books.

For most of the years I will know my children, we will all be adults (God willing).

We will still laugh and joke and enjoy each other’s company. But we will also be serious. We will talk about politics and money. We will disagree. They will have their own addresses. We will make plans to meet for lunch. They will insist on picking up the check.

And all I have to do?

Let these years be these years. Let those years be those years.

Refuse to escape the privilege of another present moment with them by reaching ahead for what is not yet. Or longing behind for what was.

All I have to do is be present. To the gift of right now.

. . .

There will be so many years, I will tell her, when you don’t get to carry a baby all day. Believe me, I don’t mind.

She will stand near my elbow, holding another blanket and burp cloth ready, trying not to hover but still hovering because that’s all you can do when your baby is still shockingly brand new.

Can you believe it now, I will ask her as I breathe in that fuzzy warmth again, that there will be days when you don’t hold anyone?

Her eyes will be glassy from one of those painful nights of naps. All she will see are the heaps of laundry shoved in corners before I came over, the mess of bottles waiting to be sanitized once I leave, the dishes in the sink she should have scrubbed, the hair she didn’t wash, the clothes she didn’t change.

She won’t be able to imagine. But she might try to believe.

There will be so many years.

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?

the blog book tour: day 6. molly makes do

Remember when I did that series on “start seeing sacraments,” trying to capture images of the seven Catholic sacraments in photographs?

Turns out I should have left it to Molly from Molly Makes Do.

Today’s stop on the Everyday Sacrament book tour is a gorgeous collection of quotes and images she compiled to show the ordinary holiness of her own life. And I’m so inspired by the glimpses of sacraments she gathered.

I first found Molly’s blog when I was writing an essay on the prepartum depression I had while pregnant with our second son. No one I knew personally had experienced this kind of depression during pregnancy, and I had felt desperately alone during those months of darkness.

When I discovered Molly’s words years later, I felt an immediate kinship to another mom who had written honestly about her own struggles with depression and pregnancy. Since then I have been awed and humbled by her reflections on miscarriage and wrestling with motherhood’s darker moments. All of which was wrapped up in my own writing in Everyday Sacrament, too. Making me all the more grateful to have Molly as part of the blog book tour.

Click over to Molly Makes Do to spend a few moments with her beautiful images, and be sure to check out her amazing ideas for Advent at home, too!

(And don’t forget to check back tomorrow for the last stop in the book tour – can’t wait!)

the blog book tour: day 5. sense of the faithful

As with most blogging connections, I can’t remember exactly when or how I first found Peg’s blog Sense of the Faithful. But I loved her perspective as a mother of young adults and a woman who wrestled openly and honestly with her questions of faith.

This year I had the chance to experience Peg’s retreat on birth as a spiritual practice (based on her wonderful book, Embodying the Sacred: A Spiritual Preparation for Birth). Her wisdom and guidance were such gifts as I prepared to welcome our sweet baby Joseph on his birth day.

Parenting little ones can be myopic. My vision often tunnels so narrowly to see only what looming concern fills my current days: a baby who won’t sleep, a toddler who’s potty training, a preschooler who’s tantruming through transitions.

So I try to make it a practice to pull myself out of my small world view to rest in the words of others who are not in the same stage or season of life as I am.

Peg’s reflections on watching her children set off for college and work in the world have touched me deeply over the years. She invites me to take the long view on my relationship with my own children. And her words always remind me of my own parents’ perspectives, too: what it might be like to watch my children come into the stage of having children of their own.

Peg has written a beautiful reflection on the sacrament of Eucharist and its echoes at her family’s dinner table. Her words fill my heart with the hopes I had for Everyday Sacrament - that it would inspire people to see glimpses of the sacraments in the holy ordinariness of their own lives.

Please visit Sense of the Faithful for today’s stop on the blog book tour and soak up Peg’s wise words on the seasons of our family tables.

(I promise, if you’re still in the stage of scrubbing yogurt off the kids’ plastic placemats every morning, you will thrill to the idea of shrinking the table back to “just the two of us” again some day…)

Tomorrow is stop #6 on the book tour – only two more days left! Thanks for following along.