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 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

start seeing sacraments: marriage & holy orders

Every week I’ll share a few favorite images around one of the seven Catholic sacraments, to celebrate my new book: Everyday Sacrament: The Messy Grace of Parenting.
Follow me on Instagram at @thismessygrace or tag your photos with #everydaysacrament.
Let’s start seeing sacraments together…

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Marriage + holy orders.

Aren’t they an odd couple? After all, in the Catholic tradition of the celibate priesthood, you can’t usually have both sacraments in your life (unless you’re a married deacon). Old-school illustrations of sacraments in Catholic catechisms separated these two as opposites: you either chose holy matrimony or religious life. One or the other.

But after this experiment of seeing everyday sacraments, I see these two more similarly.

Both are responses to God’s particular call in our lives. Both are commitments of love that we profess with public vows. Both are opportunities to share our gifts with the world.

So whenever I try to capture glimpses of these sacraments in images, I see them as invitations.

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To remember the vows I have made and to affirm the vows that others have taken.

To imagine where my children will be called and to support those who have already answered their calls.

To see our shared work as holy, whether we are spouses sharing the responsibilities of home or church leaders supporting the vocations of the community.

. . .

I see sacraments of marriage and holy orders in everyday reminders.

Some glimpses of these sacraments are moments to remember. We’re trying to do good work in our callings, tending to the people and the places around us.

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Some are openings to imagine. What will these children of ours become and how can we walk with them?

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And some are just fresh breaths of joy. Running headlong into this world of possibility.

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What a gift it is to be called to share our lives in loving service to others, whatever the path God beckons us to follow.

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Where have you glimpsed reminders of marriage and holy orders? What do these sacraments mean to you?

start seeing sacraments – now on instagram!

Catholics believe there are seven sacraments. These are the capital-S sacraments: baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, reconciliation, anointing of the sick, marriage, and holy orders.

But there are plenty of small-s sacraments shot through our everyday, too. Moments of grace where we encounter God. And the stuff of daily life – water and oil, bread and wine, forgiveness and healing, relationships and work – glistens with the fingerprints of the divine.

This is what my book is all about. Grace in the mess. Extraordinary in the ordinary. God in the Everyday Sacrament.

Since my siblings convinced me to try Instagram this summer, I have been captivated by finding small, sacred moments to capture. I love that this outlet of social media, more than any other I’ve tried, seems to be about sharing glimpses of joy and beauty.

And if you’ve been following me (@thismessygrace) and you’ve wondered why on earth I keep hash-tagging photos with #baptism, #marriage, #reconciliation or #anointing?

It’s because this Instagram lens on my ordinary world provides a perfect way to start seeing sacraments.

Where do you see sacraments in your everyday? A quick kiss from your spouse before work. A cold drink of water on a warm day. A to-do list packed with good work for those you love. A cupboard full of food.

Sacraments are all around us, if we have eyes to see.

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(Yeah, I went there. You can only stare at so many bumper stickers about motorcycles without getting inspired.)

If we start to limit where we see God, our vision of the whole world narrows. But if we open our eyes wider, then we might marvel at what we find.

Baptism at bath time. Eucharist round the dinner table. Reconciliation after sibling squabbles.

What we celebrate in church is reflected at home. What we live at home is honored in church. And God is present, everywhere and always.

Thanks to this beautiful post at A Deeper Story (from a fellow lover of Saint John’s Abbey and the Collegeville Institute) I recently rediscovered this line of truth from Marilynne Robinson:

“Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration.
You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.
Only, who could have the courage to see it?”

Let’s have the courage to see it. Let’s start seeing sacraments together.

Follow me on Instagram at @thismessygrace or tag your photos with #everydaysacrament.

UPDATE! Here’s the complete series on seeing sacraments:

. . .

 

Every week until my book is published, I’ll share a few favorite Instagram images here around one sacrament. Starting today with baptism, of course. Where our Christian story begins:

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3 things Joseph taught me about God

Our sweetest, smallest, newest. (Dare I say gentlest, too?) A mere four months this side of birth, and already it seems his quiet wisdom has been with us always. 

This Joseph gift, this “rainbow baby” promise after loss – he is pure light. Already teaching me all sorts of truths I thought I knew.

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1) Joseph taught me that God is Hope.

By his very existence, this child astounds. Only six weeks after we lost our baby last summer, we found out he was on his way. Did we dare to dream he could be, so soon? And yet he was.

The hope of new life that he brought by his first spark – it did not deny the pain of what preceded, or dismiss the death of another, but it was still profoundly healing.

As he grew and pushed softly against the limits of my skin, he pushed my faith into new places, too. Places that had to stretch to make space for what it meant to lose a baby and gain a baby, all in a short span of time. Layering upon learning how life and death are always twinned.

People use the phrase “rainbow baby” to signal a child conceived after miscarriage or stillbirth. Now I see the shimmer in that truth, the bright sign that stretches over the months of hoping, drawing out of darkness into light.

Joseph will always be for me this resurrection sign of God-as-Hope, of joy flooding our lives.

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2) Joseph taught me that God is Mercy.

As I fling this sentence into the interwebs, I rest fully aware that it may all change in an instant. But this baby? He is the precious easy kind of child a parent secretly wishes for.

He sleeps, he eats, he smiles, he grows. Rare are the crying jags, abundant are the gummy grins. He has slid into our lives with such simple grace that I find it hard to believe there was a time when he was not.

The transition to three has proved so much easier than we expected, even in a summer with too much unexpected challenge around us. Joseph has been the calm center of the storm, quiet and steady and growing on his own.

I joke and call him “the gentle giant” because he is our biggest baby, bursting out of tiny clothes and filling our arms with unexpected weight. But perhaps we needed this bigger presence of peace in our lives right now.

Perhaps God’s Mercy gifted this sweet soul for such a time as this.

His big brothers smother him with love each new morning. They never tire of squealing at his very presence, covering him with kisses. It still astounds me – their pure delight, their unconditional joy. When Thomas was new? Sam had no time for the intruder. But both boys love their baby in the truest sense of the word.

I see now what lavish Mercy looks like, how God loves. And it is so Good.

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3) Joseph taught me that God is Dreamer.

By his name, this child echoes truth to me.

We chose Joseph for all those dreamers in Scripture – the one whose visions shaped his destiny and the one whose angel voices softened his heart. Both these men had to trust their God and their own inner compass to lead. Even when called into the mess of uncertainty around them, they fixed their gaze on God and headed straight in.

And both of them changed the story of their families and their people for generations to come, by trusting in strange dreams.

Joseph reminds me that God is a Dreamer, too. Dreaming of justice and mercy and peace. Dreaming of healing and reconciliation. Dreaming of a love that will reshape the very fabric of our lives if we dare to let it in.

I look into his gentle, dreaming eyes and I hear whispers to keep dreaming, too. To remember how new life springs in strange ways from death. To be unafraid of what others think as I head straight into the messes where I am called. To imagine what might come if I dare to follow wildest dreams.

To trust my life to the One who created and claimed it for goodness.

. . .

What have you learned about God from those closest to you – 

your spouse, children, parents, siblings, or friends?

a different assumption for today

August 15th is the Feast of the Assumption. The Catholic Church teaches that at the end of Mary’s life, she was assumed into heaven, body and soul.

You might assume, if you knew I was an Associate Missionary of the Assumption, that I had something to say about today’s feast.

But here’s the truth about how I started my AMA year in France.

I came to Compiegne, jet-lagged and jumpy to start this post-graduate service stint, with just a wee bit of cradle Catholic baggage stuffed inside my giant backpack.

Fresh from college graduation, ink barely dry on the diploma, I felt shaky-sure about faith but full of questions about church. What was the role of women? What was Catholicism’s hang-up with sexuality? Where was my place in the whirling middle of it all?

When I showed up in the pebbled courtyard of 3 Square Eglise Saint-Germain, I wasn’t even sure what I was seeking. Clarity? Conviction? Christ-in-others? Maybe all of the above.

But what I found the moment that big front door swung open was one single certain truth: these Sisters of the Assumption knew how to welcome. They were all wide smiles and warm embraces and let-us-take-your-bags and can-we-make-you-a-cup-of-tea and we-are-so-delighted-you-are-here!

Until that moment I had known few French people and even fewer religious sisters. But suddenly these five women buzzing around me in long burgundy skirts and pale violet veils were bursting apart all of my stereotypes.

They were loving and laughter and compassion and generosity. They were a Mary-and-Elizabeth welcome every time I stepped over their old stone doorstep, before Mass or after work or any time they invited us volunteers over for dinner, which was so often I still hear Sr. Anne’s wise words echo every time I set an extra plate at my table for an unexpected guest: if there’s food enough for five, there’s food enough for six. And if there’s food enough for six, there’s food enough for seven. You see?

Every year I think of the sisters on this feast day. The women I knew who gave their lives to the Assumption. They taught me a different way of being in relationship with others: the women praying and working beside them in their community, the children running around the pews in the parish, the adults with disabilities whom they served in L’Arche homes. They taught me how truth and love are embodied – in laughter, in dancing, in dessert, in daily prayer.

And they helped me change my mind about Assumption. They helped me come to see that embodied love is what today is about.

I think back to a time when I tripped on Marian feasts like today, when I stumbled on my own assumptions of what dogma and doctrine meant. Then a year spent in community with women whose love for Christ and the church hummed in their every breath, who gave the length of their years and the strength of their bodies in quiet service to all who needed welcome – that year changed everything.

Did I know then that the sisters’ faces – wizened and youthful and pale and dark – might be the closest I could glimpse to Mary’s own? Over time my assumptions shifted, slowly like the soft rub on stone over a well-worn step. I weigh what I believe now – about women and sexuality and Christ and the church – with what I thought I understood then. And I realize that I see a feast like today in different light: shades of mystery and possibility.

And above all love and relationship, which is the essence of who God is and what we are called to be.

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Assumptions. Do we grip tight to them? Or are we willing to let ourselves be lifted above them?

Beyond the way we think things should be, beyond what we think bodies are capable of, beyond what our beliefs think possible?

What do we assume today? About the world, relationships, religion, church, God, each other? How might God’s embrace of us – our whole lives, body and soul – begin to soften our hard edges?

Today’s feast is about welcoming the unexpected and celebrating the goodness of love, in flesh and faith. What Mary did all her life.

May it be for us today as well.