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.

lent: what we need is here

And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

– from “The Wild Geese” by Wendell Berry

Deep breath. Eyes closed. Flying leap.

Each new Lent feels like this. Jumping into the unknown. Flinging ourselves into the arms of the divine. Wondering where on earth we will end up.

We know it ends at the cross and the empty tomb. But the deeper journey into these 40 days? It can wind into unexpected places. Darkest corners and lightest hopes.

If we take the journey, we will be led. This is always Lent’s promise.

What we need is here.

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Ash Wednesday starts out this season of surprises.

Churches are packed even though there’s no obligation. Long lines wind down the aisles. Strangers smudge dirt on each other’s foreheads. We tell small children they are mortal dust.

Each year I write about Ash Wednesday. A mother’s prayer to mark the day. A reflection on motherhood and mortality. Thoughts on tragedies global and local that cross Lent’s path.

It is a mysterious and moving day of the year for me. Maybe you feel it, too. The shifting ground beneath our feet. The uncertainty that shudders when we let go of comfort and clinging old ways. I resist change; I need it more than ever.

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Last night at dinner we talked with our kids about subjects rarely broached at supper with young ones. Prayer and penance and poverty. Why we make sacrifices. Why God asks us to share with those in need.

I looked around the table and realized that these are my companions on Lent’s journey: a kindergartener, a preschooler, and a bouncing baby. My life is not a monastery. This is exactly where I’m meant to be.

Right here in our daily chaos, this is my prayer this year: to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear.

What we need is here.

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As I make my plans for Lent, I’m reminded of my own advice to lower expectations, make small time for short prayer, get creative in easy ways. 

One of my favorite Lenten posts is running this week at Call Her Happy – How to Live Lent as A Busy Mom. I’m grateful that Jenna gave me the chance to remember this season is lived within the contours of our own lives.

I try to let go of the expectation that I can pray like a monk in an abbey with all the time, space, and place set neatly before him. That’s not my life. Nor is it my call.

Instead, I can pray like a busy mother. 

I can take two minutes to greet the day with a whispered word of thanks. I can share a short morning prayer with my kids when they wake up. I can bless our food at meals and remember those who will go without today. I can pray with my kids on the drive to school and in the quiet of their rooms before bed. I can slow down in the day’s whirlwind to give thanks for the gifts in my life.

I don’t have an hour to meditate, but I have hours with many small moments I can fill with a word of blessing, praise, or petition. In this season of my life, that is what I have to give.

And I think God, who cares for us all like a loving parent, understands and blesses that truth.

(Click over to Call Her Happy to read more…)

Lent will give us what we need, if we let it. This is the holy, humbling truth.

Deep breath. Head bowed. Ashes traced. Prayers whispered.

What we need is here. 

what to do for Lent?

Dear friends:

Tomorrow the director of the Collegeville Institute Seminars and I are putting the final touches on a book on discipleship. (I can’t wait to tell you more very soon!)

The day after tomorrow, I’m packing up our family of five for a much-needed vacation. Needless to say, life is buzzing round these parts.

So since Lent is less than 2 weeks away, I thought I’d share a few quick ideas for ways you can celebrate the season. (Yes, you could also call this post “Shameless Plugs: The Pre-Lent Edition.” Apologies.)

For your church or small group:

If you’re new to Mothering Spirit, you might not know that I’ve written two programs for small groups in parishes and congregations to gather for conversations around questions of calling.

Called to Life is a general introduction to God’s call in our lives, and Called to Work explores how our professional work can be a calling. Both programs run for 6 weeks (making them the perfect length for Lent). Best of all, participant and facilitator materials are all available for FREE from our website at the Collegeville Institute Seminars.

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If you’re already in a small faith-sharing group, here’s a perfect way for your group to celebrate Lent together. Otherwise, pass the materials on to your parish staff and get a group organized. (To learn more, check out the Top 10 Reasons to Use Called to Life or Called to Work this Lent.)

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For yourself:

Have I mentioned how much I love being part of the new Blessed Is She project? We’re a group of bloggers who write daily devotionals for Catholic women. You can sign up to get the day’s readings and a short reflection every morning in your inbox. And since our Advent journal was a huge hit, we’ve created beautiful offerings for Lent as well.

I made the (happy) mistake of opening my big mouth in our group’s virtual discussion of what to offer for Lent, commenting that many of us Catholics want to do All The Things for Lent, and then wind up feeling like we’ve failed when we can’t keep up with all our disciplines. What if instead we listened to the wisdom of Mary and Martha’s story and tried to do Only One Thing for Lent – sit at the feet of Christ and listen to God’s Word?

And thus was born:

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I was honored to help write the journal’s reflections, and I can’t wait to use it for my own journey through Lent, too. Order yours today at Blessed Is She!

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the forgotten days of holy week

Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday. How easily we pass over them, eyes set eagerly on Easter Sunday. Or anticipating Thursday’s opening of the Triduum.

Our first half of Holy Week probably looks a lot like yours. Work. School. Kids. Meetings. Chores. Bills. The lackluster pregame show before the big kickoff. The forgettable prelude before the fanfare. The ordinary before the extraordinary. 

But the church’s calendar claims these three are holy, too.

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The earliest days of the holiest week are in-between: not quite Lent, not quite Easter. It is a time of anticipating what is right around the corner, practically within reach. We are almost there.

The Main Event looms large on the horizon. All signs point toward its arrival, but the journey here has been so long – can it really be coming?

Ahead of us lies both pain and joy, suffering and peace. How can we possibly prepare for all that? How can we hold all this tension at once?

These are the last days. They matter.

Soon we will remember how everything changes.

. . .

The end of the third trimester is a strange part of pregnancy. The eagerness of almost, the frustration of not-yet.

Like Holy Week’s emotional extremes, this time swings wildly: something to celebrate, something to endure, something to savor, something to push through. Both quiet and flurry, both calm and storm. Each day adding to our anticipation.

My mental countdown clicks steadily. Five more midwife appointments. Five more prenatal yoga classes. Five more weeks to finish all those pressing work projects.

Each Saturday the nesting instinct kicks in with greater intensity. Scribbled To Do Before Baby! list in hand, I clean out closets and drawers, watch the boys build the crib with their father, wash baby blankets and fold diapers in neat stacks.

Ready and waiting.

Every friend and stranger I meet asks how much longer I have left. Around us bubble joy and anticipation. A growing readiness to be done. An impatience to discover what (and who!) comes next.

I wonder. Have I done enough? Yes. And no. Like Lent, this journey of expectation is always bigger than me, beyond my personal penances, my tries and fails, my awareness of my own limits. I am carried by forces greater than my own.

And a calendar that presses ever onward, oblivious to the emotions with which I fill the hours.

. . .

I wonder how to honor this time rather than race too fast towards the end goal. How to see the holiness of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in turn.

I love Thursday, I lean into Friday, I learn from Saturday, I leap into Sunday. But right now are the days before. The days that ask me to pause.

These neglected early days of Holy Week are a different kind of preparation from the Lent that preceded. More immediate. Here and not-here. Upon us, yet still beyond our grasp. The mystery of the middle time, when we think we know what awaits us (all the Easters have we been through before), when we remember that we can always be surprised (each year bringing its own gifts).

Do I remember to reverence these almost-days, these overlooked ordinaries?

The Celts spoke of thin places, spaces and moments when heaven and earth seem to touch, only the slightest trace separating their realities. Perhaps Holy Week is a small hole through which we peer into the deepest mysteries of the life of God. We could never understand all that it contains. But each year we might nudge a little closer, if we try, to imagine what its truth might mean for our lives.

I watch and wait in this almost-time. It could be long weeks till everything changes; it could be mere days. But God is here, too.

And it is not only Easter morning which makes it so. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. All the ordinary days matter, too.

on real-izing

When I was playing around with titles for my book, I made a Wordle of the entire manuscript to see what words I used most often. I hoped inspiration might leap out at me from the word cloud. And here’s what I saw:

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The nouns leapt out at me first – God in the center (whew! at least I got that one right), work, love, time, church, mother, baby.

But I have a hunch that if I made a Wordle for this blog, it would be the verbs that would catch me: wonder, remember, imagine, realize.

Particularly that last one. Realize. I find that verb slipping into my posts more than any other. Sometimes I stop for a synonym. Sometimes I let it slide. Lately I’ve been embracing the abundance of realization.

Because this whole blog might be about precisely that.

. . .

Two things I try to do in this space: see truth and tell truth.

First, I try to notice. Good writing comes from open eyes and ears, heart and mind. I try to see the world around me through the lens that asks what is beautiful here? What is hard? Where is God? Being a mom affords plenty of interaction with all three questions.

So part of how I try to realize here is by witnessing and wondering about the everyday epiphanies. The moments that flash brightly with some slant I never saw before. The clearer view that lifts the veil from sluggish or selfish slouching through my day-to-day and invites me to hold my breath. The fresh light that glimmers on some flash of the holy I never expected to find.

To realize is to become fully aware. To understand more clearly. To learn. All of that is wrapped up in why I write, and – I hope – why you might read.

Second, I aim for honesty. For me, the emphasis in writing falls on the first syllable: real-ize. To speak my small truth, what I know of this one wild and precious life. And not to sugar-coat or to sour-puss, but to strike an honest balance between the hard and the beautiful.

Like every writer, I struggle with tone – is this piece too depressing? is this perspective too idealistic? Sometimes I second-guess whether I should tell the stories of the harder times and the darker days. But I always come back round to the idea of God being the Truth and God being the Word. The truer we try to make our words, the more they might reveal of where God can be found. I see this in so much of what I read, and I dare to hope I might try to find it in what I write.

To real-ize is to live fully within the life I am given. To not be afraid of the pain or ashamed of the joy.

. . .

This week I’ve been meditating on “realize” as I dove into Power of Moms’ latest book, Motherhood Realized: An Inspiring Anthology for the Hardest Job You’ll Ever Love.

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In the essay I’m honored to have included in their collection, I wrote about picking green beans from our garden as a practice of gratitude. The piece winds around from our time of infertility to the fullness of life with two little boys underfoot. And when I think of the sharp contrast between aching for motherhood and “realizing” it, I see the fulfillment of a dream, the granting of a hope, the answer to a prayer that someday this calling would be part of my journey.

But in truth my experience of becoming a parent feels like less of an achievement and more of an invitation – to revere the gift, to release the expectations, to respect the enormity of the challenge, to remember the cost of the sacrifice. Realization is wrapped up more in awe and gratitude than easy embrace.

So I see the need to keep gathering those ordinary insights and everyday epiphanies along the way, the hard-fought ones and the grace-filled ones. I love that this book does exactly that: draws together the voices of many women who have truths to tell and stories to share about how motherhood has shaped them, even as its joys and sorrows brought them to their knees.

That is the role I hope realization continues to play in my life – to keep me open to wonder and humbled by how I am changed when I open myself up to love.

And if you’re curious as I am about how others make sense of the deepest truths in their experience, I hope you’ll check out Motherhood Realized. This piece by Katrina Kenison (whose writing I have long loved) sums up so much of what makes this book a beautiful collection:

“Heading Home with Your Newborn” might ease a new mom through the drama of giving birth and surviving the first few sleepless nights. But Motherhood Realized is a book that will live on bedside tables for years to come — well-thumbed, underlined, bookmarked, shared. Here are the personal stories of mothers just like you and me, not experts who have everything figured out or agendas to promote, but ordinary women who have seized time from their daily lives to report from the trenches of firsthand experience and who have summoned the courage to write from their hearts – the ups, the downs, the hard lessons learned, the small moments savored, the tears shed, the priorities reordered, the humble revelations celebrated, the inevitable challenges confronted.

. . .

This week I also have a new post at Catholic Mom about my latest Lenten realization. That all those 40 bags for 40 days I’ve been faithfully collecting for Goodwill? They might be more about me and mine than God or good spiritual practice. Gulp.

I looked again at the bags I’d gathered. Every last one contained the extras, the excess, the unused and the unwanted. It certainly wasn’t the best I had to offer someone in need. All those prettier clothes were still hanging in closets. All those nicer plates and pans were still stacked in kitchen cabinets. All those well-made toys were still saved for my kids to enjoy.

Was my 40-day challenge really about giving to the least among us? Or about saving the best for me?

Read the rest at Catholic Mom…

I’m grateful for this uncomfortable realization, even if it doesn’t have a clean and tidy resolution. Good thing there’s still plenty of Lent left to ponder.

. . .

Sometimes realization is about remembering what you had known but forgotten. Sometimes it’s about discovering something entirely new and unexpected. I believe much of the spiritual journey is spent wandering back and forth between these two – the deepest truths we know and the mysterious realities we never suspected.

Maybe these two aspects of realize – the real and the realization – are the best of what blogging can bring. When someone shares from the particularities of their experiences to invite others to consider their own lives in a new light.

What do you think? Why do you blog, if you blog? Why do you read, if you read?

morbid? motherhood & mortality

“Mommy, I don’t want to die.”

His big blue eyes stare up at me, full of – what? Worry? Seriousness? Wonder?

We’ve been revisiting this conversation for months, variations on a theme: Mommy, I don’t want to go to be with God. Mommy, I want to live to be 100. Mommy, I don’t want you to die.

He hasn’t yet brushed with death, not in the aching loss of one he loves. But he’s a curious child, and his love of numbers and wonder about God swirl together to stir up questions of how old God is and how old people can be.

All of which added up in his head to a budding realization of finitude in the face of the infinite.

What do I say? Blunder through the typical lines about how I hope he’ll have a long life, and then when his life is done, he’ll get to go be with God in a new way, and God loves him even more than any person ever could, so wouldn’t that be amazing?

Except, of course, it’s all strange and skeptical enough to make wise adults anxious.

So why would any precocious preschooler accept it at face value either?

. . .

Every year on my birthday, I find myself genuinely astonished to still be here.

I only realized in the past few years that most people don’t share this stark sense of mortality, not at the tender age of thirty-something anyway. And while I wouldn’t say that I wake each morning eager to stare my own death in the face, whenever I think about the length of my life I only see so far ahead of me.

So each March I honestly marvel at how I’ve been blessed to have these many years to my name.

You can analyze it easily as any armchair therapist. My older brother died of cancer when I was 10, so I grew up living with death and loss and grief in a way that many children do not. All of that made me who I am, shaped my faith and my worldview in unmistakable ways, here endeth the college admissions essay.

But now as a mother to young ones waking up to the strange and sad ways the world works, I wonder what I should pass on to them from my own sense of mortality and what I might need to set aside.

Keeping death daily before our eyes is St. Benedict’s healthy advice to his brothers, but how helpful is this for preschoolers?

Mystery is good. Morbidity is not.

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So we talk about not being afraid of death, because it is part of life. We talk about the love that is waiting for us in whatever comes next, because it is full of God who is love.

We talk about how some people might live to be almost 100 like Great-Grandpa, and how some people might only live to be 21 like Uncle Jay. We talk about how we can’t know everything that God knows or make everything happen in the way we would like. But we can trust that God will take care of us.

Is that enough? For now, perhaps. If my wee ones continue to be blessed with a childhood free from trauma or loss, unlike so many children in the world.

But if they are not – if death or sickness or suffering enter into this home as an unwelcome guest, the darkest thoughts that only the thin, lonely hours before dawn tempt me to imagine – will any of that make sense? Or sustain them?

Motherhood is supposed to be about life: its nurturing and nourishing. But is there a place for death in this daily work and love, too?

. . .

Lent is a grateful time to practice all this death-talk, all this suffering-preparation, of course.

In small ways we choose to die to our own whims and wants, setting our sights on the deeper growth that comes from drawing further from our fears and nearer to God.

As with our own short lives, we know that death lies at the end of this liturgical journey, too. There it is on the calendar, Good Friday in all its starkness: church stripped bare, silence echoing in an empty tabernacle.

But beyond this loss lies a truth equally baffling to comprehend: an Easter reversal of everything we thought we knew, a game-changer of existential expectation, a flip-side resurrection of death itself.

Every day we are walking towards Friday’s death-as-we-fear-it. But we also edge towards Sunday’s life-as-we-dare-to-dream-it.

And children are a part of this journey, too.

This is my favorite part of Ash Wednesday. That for once we don’t banish babies to the nursery or preschoolers to the Sunday School classroom. We all walk up together, regardless of age or status, and someone smears dark grey ash on every forehead and tells us that from dust we have come and to dust we will return.

Every tiny curl of a newborn, every wide-eyed toddler, every curious kindergartner – their mortality stares us smack in the face, too. Tiny crosses of truth on softest skin.

Maybe this is part of Lent’s gift. Reminding us that these beautiful beginnings of youth are part of our shared journey toward death.

Be not afraid.

. . .

I started this post several weeks ago and haven’t known how to finish it.

Because there isn’t an easy ending, of course. There are no pat answers when it comes to talking about death. So many of the rote responses and tired clichés we use to wrestle our arms around such a vast and thorny subject are just that – rote and tired.

Theologically unsound, pastorally maddening.

As in so many dark corners of this strange land called motherhood, I find myself flinging wide my arms and releasing my fears, partly in hope, partly in despair.

I do not have the answers, and the questions will only become more complicated.

All I am learning to do is letting my babies go, day by day, into the arms of God who is love.

how to live lent as a pregnant mother

Lenten Approach #1 (aka The First-Time Mother):

Step 1: Read everything you can to prepare. Stock up on all the experts’ manuals. Consult all the conflicting schools of thought. Aim to stack at least five sizable books on your nightstand.

Step 2: Consult everyone you know for their advice. When in doubt, turn to the Internet. Start a Pinterest board for inspiration. Post Facebook statuses asking for suggestions. Email every trusted friend to find out what worked for them.

Step 3: Chart daily progress. Check off each to-do. Secretly compare your progress with others. Start to feel guilty. Worry that you’re doing this all wrong. Entertain temptations of giving up.

Lenten Approach #2 (aka The Second-Time-Around Mother):

Step 1: Check the calendar to confirm that weeks are indeed flying by. Resolve to do something to prepare.

Step 2: Dig out something that worked last time. Try to remember what you liked about it. Decide to use it again anyway.

Step 3: Marvel at how the same book/technique/discipline/philosophy that worked before now produces an entirely different result. Start to let go.

Lenten Approach #3 (aka The Too-Tired-Third-Time Mother):

Step 1: Find yourself shocked to be on the threshold and utterly unprepared.

Step 2: Sigh. Shrug. Sit back.

Step 3: Jump once again into the unknown. Trust that things will work out. Rejoice when they do. Forgive yourself when they don’t. Embrace the unexpected.

. . .

Throughout my life I’ve had all three of these Lents (regardless of gestational status). Maybe you have, too.

The Lents I swore I’d fast like a fanatic and pray like a pro and give like a saint. The Lents I scrambled to remember what worked so well in the past. The Lents when life was already complicated and I didn’t need to go searching for spiritual challenge.

Each one brings its own promises and pitfalls. Each one depends an awareness of the season’s gifts. Each one opens a door of invitation to draw closer to God.

What will this Lent be for you?

Six weeks start here. I still haven’t “decided what I’m doing,” as we say in our Catholic circles. What to fast from. What to pray for. What to give alms to.

Plenty of ideas swim round my mind; good intentions crowd my thoughts. But this year I’m feeling called towards the unknowing. It’s fine to have a Lent that clamors for no contest or competition.

Living as a pregnant mom brings plenty of opportunity for discipline and self-denial. Counting down the weeks till a new baby joins our family makes preparation a daily practice. And looking ahead to a time of great change means that I’m already turning inward to ask God where I will be led.

Lent feels like it’s been here for a while. The question is how I go deeper.

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By the time Easter Sunday arrives, I’ll be 4 short weeks from my due date.

I could choose to go Route #1: read a bunch of books to remember what birth and babies are like; email every friend I know with 3+ kids to ask how they do it; make a detailed to-do list of everything we have to finish before baby arrives.

Or I could choose to go Route #2: mentally nag myself to start getting ready; paw through boxes of baby books and gear to figure out what we did before; ignore my midwives’ advice that this time around will likely be completely different from the last.

Or I could choose to go Route #3. Remember that labor – and Lent – come whether we are ready or not. Remember that the more I wrestle, the harder both will be. Remember that the joy and peace and beauty that are God can never be contained by my own control.

How to live Lent as a pregnant mother? Probably the same way we’re all called to live it.

According to the ashes in our life this year. Towards our hope of what an empty tomb might mean.