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. 

Here Is The Prayer

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

Then the baby starts to rouse.

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

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

. . .

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

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

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

A version of this reflection originally appeared at Practicing Families

what the presentation means for parents

We have to let go.

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

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

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

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

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So we practice letting go a thousand times.

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

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

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

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

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

They were never ours alone.

. . .

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

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

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

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

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

We can only practice letting go in small ways.

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

. . .

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

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

like a mother and child

I was 12 years old and away at summer camp for the first time. She was the counselor assigned to my cabin. I remember her long dirty blond hair, wavy and wild. Her weathered hiking boots and the lilac shirt she tied around her waist each morning.

Her birch-bark name tag read Marion, but we all chose French pseudonyms for our two-week cultural immersions. So I never knew her real name.

She was blessedly kind, with that standard-issue camp-counselor caring heart. She let me sniffle into her shoulder one lonely night when I was feeling homesick. She probably did the same for every girl in our bunk, though we were all too cool to admit it in daylight.

She didn’t care when we giggled our way through quiet time. She ignored our whispering in English when we were supposed to be practicing French. She laughed when we gossiped about the boys in the bunk next door.

And every night she sang to us.

Like a ship on the harbor
Like a mother and child
Like a light in the darkness
I’ll hold you awhile

Who know where she got the song. Whether her mother cooed into her own ears as a baby, or a beloved grandmother hummed while they rocked together. Who knows why she chose to sing us a child’s song, when every other counselor crooned camp ballads or classic oldies or old folk tunes to wind down their charges for the night.

But she sang us a lullaby. And even though we were awkward and eager girls on the cusp of adolescence, we let her.

We’ll rock on the water
I’ll cradle you deep
And hold you while angels
Sing you to sleep

Last night I crooned these words into Joseph’s ears as he screamed and fussed. By the fifth time through, just when I thought my head would explode if I didn’t get back to sleep soon, he was silently sucking his fingers and staring up at me with those unblinking round owl eyes.

The song had worked its magic again. It always does.

the mystery of mothering unfolding

Is it odd that one of my favorite lullabies comes from not from a beloved relative, but from an almost-stranger I once knew for two weeks? I have sang this song to every child I baby sat. Every niece and nephew I rocked. Every newborn of my own.

And each time I hum its melody, I reach back to this young woman, singing softly to a cabin of girls tucked into the settling summer woods, distant loons calling to each other on the dark lake beneath our windows.

I don’t know what happened to Marion. I wrote to her eagerly the rest of that summer and into the fall. She sent me one letter from college, short but kind, postmarked from Madison. I came back to camp for three more summers. She never returned.

She probably never knew that the song she sang each night at lights-out would imprint itself on the mind of a young teenager and carry into her own motherhood. But she taught me something about being a parent. Even when I was miles away from my own family, even when I was only twelve years old.

She taught me that tenderness is an offering, an openness, a gentle hospitality to whomever needs our love. She gave this gift that sweltering summer to twelve girls tucked into creaky wooden bunk beds.

Maybe one day, a child will remember I shared this song with them. Maybe it will be one of my sons. Maybe it will be a niece or nephew or neighborhood kid I babysat growing up. Maybe they will sing it to a child of their own. Lullabies are sung to be shared, after all.

My hope is that they (and I) will remember how sharing these small holy moments – when day meets night, when waking meets sleeping, when cry meets comfort – can shape us over time into gentler people. People who make space for what is tender and vulnerable and in need of love.

Like a mother and child.

. . .

I discovered that this lullaby was written by Cris Williamson in 1977. I’d love to know if any of you ever heard of it before today?

Here are a few more musings on lullabies: finding a song for each child and singing to babies as a spiritual practice.

there will be so many years

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

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

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

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

I tell her I believe her.

. . .

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

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

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

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

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There will be so many years.

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

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

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

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

There will be so many years.

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

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

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

And all I have to do?

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

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

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

. . .

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

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

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

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

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

There will be so many years.

and mary kept all these things

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Originally ran last year at FaithND on today’s Feast of the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God:

The shepherds went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph,
and the infant lying in the manger.
When they saw this,
they made known the message
that had been told them about this child.
All who heard it were amazed
by what had been told them by the shepherds.
And Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart.
Then the shepherds returned,
glorifying and praising God
for all they had heard and seen,
just as it had been told to them.
When eight days were completed for his circumcision,
he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel
before he was conceived in the womb.

(Luke 2:16-21)

She must have heard so many cruel words, slurs muttered under breath as she passed, pregnant before marriage. Maybe she was strong enough to let the lies roll off her back. Or maybe each insult wounded deeper than the last, her cheeks burning from shame and a mystery she could not explain.

But here, finally, were words of wonder and hope—from the mouths of people just like her. Here were shepherds who stopped their daily work to bring her stories of angels singing glory. Here were strangers who asked to see her baby and marveled at what his birth might mean.

Of course she treasured their words, turning them over and over in her heart, wondering what they might mean. While she learned to care for her child, as squalling and sleepless and hungry as any newborn, she gathered strength from their promise.

The world kept buzzing with the busyness of life with a new baby—the long nights and the blurry days and the naming and the rituals and the settling in as a new family once all the visitors finally went home. But contemplative as she was, she kept wondering.

What did their words mean? Who was this child? How would her life unfold?

Perhaps this prayer practice was what sustained her as a mother: to treasure and to ponder. To remember, as parents try to do amidst the endless work of raising children, why she started on this path in the first place: to serve the God she loved, to give of herself that life might be born and be forever changed.

And as she pondered, she became transformed by the gift she held: a treasure of words that would glimmer hope for centuries, an angel’s song that echoed long after the shepherds left.

What words do we treasure? What gifts do we ponder? What practice will sustain us as a new year dawns?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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