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

the gift of ordinary time

I have a sneaking suspicion this is what matters most.

Not the anticipation of Advent, the celebration of Christmas, the long journey of Lent, or the exuberance of Easter.

But the everyday of Ordinary Time.

Lately our kids have been grumbling about the Christmas decorations being packed away. The house looks so plain, I hate it.

And they’re right. There is something melancholy about tucking away the trappings of such a happy season.

At first glance we see only absence. The gaping space where the tree stood. The empty mantel where the creche was displayed. The bare door frame where grinning faces of friends and family beamed down at us from Christmas cards.

But there is welcome relief in slipping back into the ordinary, too.

Rediscovering the beauty of what was already around us, hidden behind the holiday lights and ornaments. The walls and windows of our own world. The places and peace that we had already worked to cultivate.

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I have noticed over the past few years a stirring within myself. Pulling away from the excitement of The Big Events and drawing towards the quiet everyday.

Part of this awakening came with motherhood, which taught that I am an introvert. A solitude-seeking soul who craves calm. Someone who needs to cultivate space for silence, even in the midst of this good work of raising a busy family.

But part of this shift came from stepping back from the whirl of our culture, its constant reaching for The Next Big Thing, its frantic need to fill the stores with the next holiday’s decorations the second that the latest over-hyped celebration ends.

I’m tired of being bombarded with Valentine’s pinks and reds as soon as New Year’s hats are whisked off the shelves.

I want to savor the spaces in between.

So at home, I’m growing grateful for bare windowsills and sparse shelves. For the glow from a single lit candle. For the quiet dark of winter nights.

And at church, I am remembering how much I love Ordinary Time, too.

I am whispering thanks for the wisdom of a tradition that knows our human need for time and space in-between.

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Jesus did most of his living and working in ordinary time. Thirty years before his ministry became public. We don’t know the ordinary stories from those decades, but they must have been filled with the regular routines that fill our own lives: work, family, learning, growth, rest, repeat.

All of Jesus’s ordinary time added up, slowly over seasons and years, to make him who he was. A son, a friend, a neighbor, a prophet, a healer, a teacher, a leader.

I wonder who we are each becoming in our ordinary time, too. As we wash the dishes, dry the laundry, do our work, love our families. How are we shaped by the routines and regular living of each day?

They are something to celebrate, these unassuming weeks of Ordinary Time. They shape us, slowly over seasons and years, into the people that God dreams we will become.

I suspect this ordinary time matters most. Do you?

. . .

A normal day! Holding it in my hands this one last time,
I have come to see it as more than an ordinary rock. It is a gem, a jewel.
In time of war, in peril of death, people have dug their hands and faces into the earth and remembered this. In time of sickness and pain, people have buried their faces in pillows and wept for this. In times of loneliness and separation, people have stretched themselves taut and waited for this. In time of hunger, homelessness, and want, people have raised bony hands to the skies and stayed alive for this. . .

Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are.
Let me learn from you, love you, savor you, bless you, before you depart.
Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow.
Let me hold you while I may, for it will not always be so.
One day I shall dig my nails into the earth, or bury my face in the pillow,
or stretch myself taut, or raise my hands to the sky,
and want more than all the world your return.
And then I will know what now I am guessing:
that you are, indeed, a common rock and not a jewel,
but that a common rock made of the very mass substance of the earth
in all its strength and plenty puts a gem to shame.

– Mary Jean Irion, from the essay “Let Me Hold You While I May”
in the book “Yes, World: A Mosaic of Meditation” (1970)

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start seeing sacraments: eucharist

Every week until my book comes out, I’ll share images around each of the 7 Catholic sacraments.
Follow me on Instagram at @thismessygrace or tag your photos with #everydaysacrament.
Let’s start seeing sacraments together…

sacraments. . .

Eucharist. Source and summit. Body and blood. Christ at the center.

I see it everywhere, this blessed-and-brokenness of the Christian faith. It’s in our daily rhythms of eating and sharing at table. It’s in our everyday actions of taking and breaking. It’s in our ordinary offerings of sacrificing in love for each other.

It’s in this bread my husband bakes for our family every week, too.

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Every time I nurse the baby, I think of what it means to give of your self.

IMG_1129Every time my husband harvested bowl upon bowl of vegetables from his garden, I thought about what it means to feed others.

imageEvery time we sit down at table to share another family meal, I think about what it means to gather together and give thanks.

imageEvery time we shared our harvest with friends and family, I thought about what it means to be the hands and heart of Christ for each other.

IMG_1376Every time I watch people receive communion at church, I think about what it means to open up our lives to let love in.

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Eucharist can be hard. We break ourselves open to love. Eucharist can be easy. We reach out our hands to be nourished.

But at home? Eucharist is every day. Feeding our family and loving in the body and sacrificing for each other and thanking God who holds it all together.

For these thy gifts, which we are (always) about to receive.

Where do you see Eucharist in your life? What does this sacrament 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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where is home?

I am holding half an acre
Torn from a map of Michigan
And folded in this scrap of paper
Is the land I grew in.

– Half An Acre” by Hem – 

Right now I am home.

Sitting in the house that we own. Where we are raising our children. Where mail arrives daily bearing my name. Where we welcome family and entertain friends. Where I pull weeds and paint walls. Where my car pulls into the driveway and my shoes slip off in the doorway.

And I am writing about going home. Which is not here.

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The gate agent accepts my folded slip of paper and scans it with a beep.

“Heading home?” she asks, smiling down at the baby in my arms and the two boys running ahead down the jetway. I look at her and wonder how to answer.

What makes a home? The people in it? The relationships they share?

The permanency of an address? The bigger sense of time and place wrapped around four walls and a roof?

Home is here and home is there.

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Right now I am home.

Where the school bus picked me up every morning by the tall elm tree out front. Where we dragged sleds through the backyard to the sledding hill. Where I curled up on the sunlit carpet to pour through books. Where we sang grace for dinner. Where my brother died and every childhood dream I had was born.

Where I am writing about going home. Which is not here.

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For the longest time I had my parents’ number listed as home in my cell phone.

The first number I’d memorized, the digits dialed by grade school friends and high school boyfriends, the number I called from college and abroad, the 10-digit combo where I always knew I would find a voice happy to hear mine, even if just a familiar answering machine.

After I was married, I punched in our newlywed number as Our House. Another house was still Home. Whenever I noticed and thought of changing the obvious, I changed my mind. Did I fear I would lose home forever if I claimed another?

One afternoon I made the switch. Idling in some parking lot, killing time, playing on my phone. That oldest familiar number became Mom and Dad. Ours became Home.

After all, if I wanted to list every place that felt like mine, the list would be blessedly long: Michigan houses and Indiana dorm rooms and French apartment buildings and Minnesota backyards.

I began to see how home was a more expansive concept – more accepting and embracing and growing and shifting.

Maybe this was the moment I understood home theologically. Maybe, as with Sabbath, we are made for home.

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“Is this home?”

Thomas’ dark brown eyes blink up at me through the dusky light settling in the bedroom, the last slants of summer sunset stretching through the shutters.

“This is Gramma and Papa’s home,” I tell him. “It used to be my home, too. This is where I was little.”

“I’m little,” he declares firmly, soft jaw jutting out his resolve. “So this is my home, too.”

“But our home is in Minnesota,” I remind him. “We go home on the plane tomorrow.”

“No,” he insists with a shake of his head. “We stay home here. And then we go home, too.”

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Somewhere I read that every great story is about leaving home or trying to come home. Scripture is full of this. Eden exiles and Exodus wanderings and exhortations to shake the dust from your sandals if the place does not welcome your message.

We are always coming and going. Departures and arrivals. Trying to find where we belong.

There is something ultimate in this longing, I know. Our hearts are restless till they rest in thee. But maybe what Augustine missed was that it’s not only our hearts that are restless. It’s our legs and our feet and our ears and our arms. Our whole self.

Toes that tire of work-day heels and ache to slide into slippers at the end of the night. Ears that once buzzed with children’s babble and now hope to hear grandkids’ feet clamoring up the front steps. Arms that wrap round the beloved waist and itch to slip into bed together again.

Longing for home is a whole body restlessness. Yearning to settle in where we are known and loved.

What Christ meant when he dreamed up rooms in my father’s house and what Eliot knew when he wrote to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

What we all know in our bones. From home and to home.

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But I am holding half an acre
Torn from a map of Michigan
I am carrying this scrap of paper
That can crack the darkest sky wide open
Every burden taken from me
Every night my heart unfolding
My home

my mom, my mother-in-law, and…st. benedict?

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This door marker greeted me on retreat last weekend. A small but important sign that I was in a place of hospitality, a hallmark of the Benedictines and their spirituality.

Welcome.

I thought about hospitality often while I was on retreat. When I saw the generous plates of snacks set out at every break. When one of the sisters helped me navigate their breviary books for evening prayer. When I noticed the basket of toiletries at the bathroom sink with a note to help yourself if you’d forgotten anything at home.

Small gestures that convey a deeper embrace of the stranger as guest.

. . .

In his Rule for monastic orders, Saint Benedict writes that all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ. I remember seeing these words engraved in stone near the Abbey Church at Saint John’s when I first started graduate studies at the School of Theology.

During the next three years of studying and then five years of working within a Benedictine community, I’ve learned plenty about hospitality from the brothers and sisters within the monasteries.

But whenever I think of how to welcome guests as Christ, I still think first of two mothers I’ve been blessed to know.

My mom. She turns down the sheets and blankets at night, inviting her guests to slip into bed. She arranges bouquets in bedrooms and tiny bud vases in bathrooms. She chooses favorite books and stuffed animals to line each grandchild’s bed. She sets Martha-Stewart-worthy centerpieces on the kitchen table and pulls out homemade soup and sandwich fixings to greet late-night travelers who drag in from the airport.

And if you arrive so late that you’re sure no one could possibly be waiting up for you (she still is), she’ll leave a candle glowing in the dark kitchen, just enough light to let you see the “WELCOME!!!” sign scrawled and circled on the refrigerator white board, exclamation points barely enough to contain her joy.

My mother-in-law. She fills the table with family, friends, neighbors and strangers. She invites anyone who doesn’t have a place to go for a holiday – seminary students from Nigeria, new neighbors from Egypt, families from Colombia, shirt-tail relatives from Canada – to join any gathering she’s throwing. She rearranges the dining room to make one long table so that everyone has a place. She makes sure every elderly relative goes home with a heaping Chinet plate of leftovers to reheat the next day.

Every time I’ve brought a friend home who’s received their welcome, I hear my own thoughts echoed in their comments as we pull out of the driveway – Your mom is honestly the nicest, most thoughtful person I’ve ever met. Does your mother-in-law seriously make a spread like that for every Sunday supper?

Clearly they each have the gift.

. . .

Sometimes I feel intimidated by their hospitality. Both these women have the charism for welcome: a gift given for the good of the community. If I don’t share the same instinct, should I just give up? My welcome of guests tends more towards worry – is our home too messy? is the guest room a disaster? will they be bored by our current life with littles that sets our family’s days?

But then I remind myself that both these women are expert homemakers. The honor of their life’s work has been deeply tied to the warm center of the home they created as a place of welcome, not just for their families but for any who cross their doorstep. Whether their hospitality first came by instinct or desire, they’ve honed the habits that became a practice that formed a way of life.

I imagine it’s the same for any Benedictine.

So perhaps here’s hope for me yet, and hopefully many more years in which to grow in learning what it means to embody a gracious reception of those who show up at my door. Christ in the face of friend or stranger.

Knowing each of these women well, I’m sure they’d scoff at any compliment of themselves as Christ-welcomers. But I suspect the secret they’ve learned is something like this: when you welcome a guest as Christ, you become like Christ yourself. Generous, compassionate, and loving.

The wider your welcome, the wider your heart.

. . .

Today is a Benedictine feast, the anniversary of Benedict’s death in 543. They’ll celebrate in true welcoming fashion at Saint John’s and Saint Benedict’s.

If it weren’t for the fact that I’ll be posting this today and my mom will surely blush when she reads it, I’d doubt that she or my husband’s mom would ever know this is a day that celebrates their life’s work as well.

But isn’t that the gift of those who open wide their door for guest or stranger? Teaching the rest of us how humility goes hand-in-hand with hospitality.

My kids have already picked up on this ancient Benedictine truth. They’re constantly asking when they get to visit their grandparents next. Because even if they can’t yet name it, they know how it feels to be welcomed as Christ.

Like your arrival is the long-awaited gift that everyone’s been looking for.