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.

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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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

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.

Morning Prayer Matters: Easy Ways to Start Your Day

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

morning prayer

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

A prayer from childhood:

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

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

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

A prayer for school:

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

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

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

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

A prayer for joy:

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

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

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

A prayer for light:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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