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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turning a corner

Tomorrow I’m giving my first presentation on my book, Everyday Sacrament.

We’ll be talking about spirituality of parenting and simple practices to connect with God in the chaos of life with children. The sacrament of parenting.

This morning I’m brimming with energy: a little nervous and a lot excited. Tomorrow will be a whole new way of sharing my book with the world, all these hopes and ideas and dreams I’ve pondered in the late-night hours while nursing babies and washing dishes and folding laundry.

Pouring time and energy into writing about everyday parenting as a spiritual practice is a solitary way to spend one’s days.

Lots of stolen moments holed up in my office. Lots of late nights curled around a cup of tea. Lots of wondering – amidst the wildness of chasing three little boys – how God speaks to us in ordinary moments.

It’s not the slickest subject for a blog, not the sexiest subject for a book. But this work resonates so deeply with who I am and what I believe that I know it is a worthy way to spend my time. I know it is a calling.

So I’m eager to make this move now, to shift for a season from writing to speaking. Hoping to invite more people into conversations about the deeper meaning of our vocation as parents.

I’m ready to turn this corner.

. . .

I was so relieved to turn the calendar page to January this year.

2015 feels like fresh air. Deep cleansing breaths. Every slow and simple metaphor that reminds me to pause and take stock of where we have been and where we are going.

The end of 2014 was frantic and frenzied. No child care, lots of work, husband abroad, everyone sick, holiday rush. We lived at an unsustainable pace, and our minds and bodies paid the price. We limped into New Year’s knowing that we needed January 1st.

Maybe more than ever.

Ever since we hung fresh calendars on the kitchen wall, I have felt the turning. We rounded a welcome corner, and we are all better for a new start. The kids are calmer after the holiday sugar-fest has ceased and the presents are put away. The house is settling into sparser, simpler space as we take down decorations.

And I’m relearning the power of inversion. Starting with the important, not the urgent. Catching myself before I slip into old, agitated ways. Watching with wonder as life falls into place more peacefully than when I wrestle with anxious desire to control.

I’m turning habits inside out. Putting people ahead of tasks. Trusting that God will provide the time and space for good to happen.

And it feels so right. Like the awakening inhale of cold morning air that clears the head and opens the eyes.

. . .

We all need to turn corners.

This is why resolutions resonate with us, year after year, isn’t it? Our shared dream of carving out more space to become the person we hope to become.

Sabbath offers us a weekly turning, too. A reminder that we are made for rest, not rush. A call back to God’s ways, not our ways.

I hope you are finding spaciousness in your new year. I hope you are settling into January’s clear horizons with hope.

I hope you are turning corners, too.

The new year always brings us what we want
Simply by bringing us along – to see
A calendar with every day uncrossed,
A field of snow without a single footprint.

- from “New Year’s” by Dana Goia 

P.S. I’ve also freshened up the blog’s look for the new year! For all you lovely email subscribers, I hope you’ll click over and tell me what you think…And if you haven’t yet subscribed to Mothering Spirit, sign up to receive new posts right in your inbox!

the hard and the holy

Three times I have held this moment.

A baby in my arms, round-cheeked and solemn-eyed, stretching out his chubby hand towards an ice-cold window, swirls of first snow gusting just beyond the glass.

Three times I have watched.

Pudgy fingers smudging up against the pane, leaving a breath of fogged fingerprints behind. Brow furrowing, steady eyes silently wondering what is this? Cold and hard are not the usual domain of babies, the newest ones whose softest skin we wrap in fleece blankets and cuddle with feathery kisses.

Three times I have felt this sacred hush.

What it means to introduce a child to the world outside, a world which can be hard and cold and harsh and cruel. A fleeting foretaste while still safe in mother’s arms of what it will mean for them to brave the beyond.

Three times I have welcomed this same invitation.

To remember that what is hard can also be holy.

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The book is here. The hard part should be over. The dreaming and the writing and the editing and the re-editing and the waiting are behind me. This new baby is in my hands, and it is rushing headlong into the world, too. Now all should be calm; all should be bright.

Except this is never the way it works, is it? In writing, in parenting, in life.

Right when I thought I had hit that sweet spot – of work and family and home all humming along so much better than I dared dream when I pictured life with three kids – right then was the instant something started to unravel.

The child care set-up that was steady and smooth? Now yanked out from under us. We’re scrambling to re-calibrate, and everything is up in the whirling air.

How to juggle all these callings. How to handle all the good work we’ve been given to do. How to be the partners and the parents we’ve promised to be.

All will be well, Julian of Norwich reminds me, in that nagging, knowing truth of the long view. And I believe this. But in the short term? All ain’t great.

It’s far from the end of the world, but it’s the complicating of our small world as it spins today. Stress sneaks back in; what’s nicely knit unravels; we run on fumes and we run down. I know we will be fine; we’ve been here before and we’ve come through. But still.

This is still hard.

And this is still holy.

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The lesson each baby teaches me, dimpled knuckles banging at snow-streaked window, is that life is always juxtaposed in tensions: soft meets hard, warm meets cold, safe meets scary.

These edges press up against each other all the time, but we lull ourselves into thinking we are confidently on the safe side of calm and control. Instead there is hard, and God is here, too.

So there is holy.

I cannot – will not – say that all that is difficult is divine. There is evil, injustice, abuse, and deceit that cannot be baptized by any best perspective.

But among the few stones of hard truth I have collected about God in the few decades I have been seeking, I know this: God is present.

When it seems it cannot be so, when we ourselves cannot see it, when the whole maddening crowd screams otherwise. God is present.

So whenever there is that too-familiar twisting crunch – of time, of nerves, of expectation, of budget, of hope, of health, of heart – I try to breathe some peace into the space between. To remember how the hard and the holy meet.

To turn over and over in my mind this silent memory of first snow: of each quiet, curious baby perched in my arms, peering out into a world of white, a stark new landscape that covers in strange drifts what was once known.

To see what their fresh eyes see, to feel what their smooth fingers feel, and to trust what their calm wonder trusts. That they are still held.

That we are, too.

how my kids became my spiritual directors

For those of you who are new here, you might not know that I have a book coming out this fall (eek!!).

Everyday Sacrament: The Messy Grace of Parenting (Liturgical Press) is the story of how I came to see ordinary life at home with kids as a way to live out the sacraments we celebrate at church. It’s also a story of infertility and miscarriage and all sorts of stumbles on the path to parenthood.

But mostly it’s the story of how my children have taught me about God in unexpected ways.

Last week I was chatting with a friend about how my letter to couples struggling with infertility went viral and how I struggled to write in the aftermath. After all, our infertility story ended with kids, and that’s what this blog has become: a place to explore parenting as a spiritual practice.

But I kept thinking of all these readers who had written me their own heart-breaking stories of infertility. What words could I share about my life today, crazy in the chaos of children, that would speak to them?

I came away from that conversation with a single clear thought: keep writing what you know is true.

And what I know is true is this: the three small boys who are blessedly napping upstairs while I write – they have become three guides on my spiritual journey.

They are challenging and comforting and constantly coaxing me to ask why.

They make me ask uncomfortable questions about my life and my beliefs.

They give me pause to step back and wonder where God is calling me.

They remind me to slow down and lead me to prayer.

I think of all the wise soul friends who have helped me along the way, and I have to add these three names to my list: Samuel, Thomas, Joseph.

They are the best untrained spiritual directors around.

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As part of the practical theology project I’ve been working on for 5 years, we’ve created a video series called Lives Explored in which everyday Christians share stories about their sense of calling – to professional work, to relationships, to people and places.

In part of his story, Ken says this:

I am really a firm believer that God will help you with your life if you are open to it. You have to really be open, you have to listen, you have to look, and you have to expect it to come from the strangest places.
Any person you meet, there is something you can learn from them. 

I love how this wise woodworker sums up so succinctly what centuries of saints have studied: the mystery of the presence of the omnipresent God. The truth that even toddlers and kindergarteners and babies can teach adults about the divine.

With Ken’s words echoing in my head, I’ll be sharing – this week & next – three things that each of my kids has taught me about God.

If you’re inspired to sit down & reflect on what the people closest to you have taught you about God, please share your thoughts in the comments. Or add a link to your own blog post below and I’ll post a round-up at the end of next week.

What have you learned about how God loves, forgives, calls, and heals –

from your spouse, children, parents, or friends? 

a summer of paradox

My mother sang while hanging clothes
The notes weren’t perfect, heaven knows
Yeah, but heaven opened anyway
This I knew was true

Carrie Newcomer, “Leaves Don’t Drop (They Just Let Go)

It was a year ago that I spent hours listening to her music in the kitchen. Swirling my hands through streams of soapy water as I washed bowl after bowl, pot after pot.

Putting up the summer harvest was part of my healing after losing the baby. Doing something concrete for my family. Saving something good from the soured summer. Looking ahead to a time when it all might not hurt so much.

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I blanched brimming bowls of beans. I cut corn from piles of cobs. I stirred so many pots of soup and sauce, all of it spooned into bags and stacked into the basement freezer. With love, I suppose, but also longing. For what was and what wasn’t and how I had no control over any of it.

So for weeks I listened to Carrie’s albums on repeat: gentle, soothing, pulling me away from myself. There was so much light and darkness in her songs that they made me weep, let me break open to all that needed to rush flooding out.

And every season brings a change
A tree is what a seed contains
To die and live is life’s refrain

This past week I found myself pulling out the same albums again. Popping the Sesame Street Classics! out of the stereo and setting the soft, sweet music to spin. Her voice filled the kitchen again, and suddenly I was right back to a summer ago.

Only now I was thinking of the baby we lost and the baby we gained. Of the summer that was and the fall that will be. Of all the impossible opposites clinging together around me. 

God speaks in rhyme and paradox
This I know is true

It was a summer of new life and new loss. Our family welcomed a baby and lost an uncle. A quick arrival and a too-quick departure. Their names twin together, Joseph and Jim. One waking to his first summer and one who had his last.

It was a summer of healing and hurting. A birth that was nearly perfect and an emergency surgery that was anything but. A natural process that healed with no complications and a painful procedure that left permanent scars. Three intense hours that brought new life into the world and three dramatic hours that may have saved my own life.

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It was a summer of no work and lots of work. Maternity leave and full-time mothering. Leaving one kind of labor and taking up another. The freedom of pausing some responsibilities and the weight of taking on even more.

It was a summer of chaos and calmness. The busy buzz of two big boys and the quiet moments with the tiniest. How much louder the house vibrates when all three are yelling at the same time and how much sweeter the house settles when all three are sleeping soundly upstairs.

And then at the end of this summer of paradox, more people started reading this blog than ever have before. Thousands more. And shouldn’t I be delighting in this? Isn’t this exactly what a writer wants?

Yet, ironically, the reason my words struck such a clear chord is because so many people are hurting and isolated. I can’t bring myself to rejoice in that.

I can only hope that what I write might help us try to open our eyes wider and see each other, together. In the messy midst of all our paradoxes.

Leaves don’t drop, they just let go
And make a space for a seed to grow

I had that post on infertility and invisibility sitting in my drafts for a long time. I only pulled it out to finish after my heart broke again at the news of a loving couple – you know the kind, the ones who want kids so badly it hurts, the ones who should have a babbling brood jumping all over them like wriggling puppies – whose last round of infertility treatment failed.

I was saddened and frustrated and angry when I heard their news, wanting to shake that furious fist at the universe and demand why.

Instead I sat down one early morning in the dark and finished writing the world this letter.

And for the past week I’ve been sitting back, somewhat stunned, watching so many people read it, watching these crazy numbers climb, watching everything spin out of my small control after how many years of thinking this blogging business depended on me. It doesn’t. It depends on you.

So when I look back on all I will carry with me from this summer, I see how I am leaving with a widened heart and a longer list of prayers to pray. In a season of pain and paradox, these are unequivocally good things.

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A summer ago I was mourning a miscarriage, and now I have a bouncing baby boy on my lap. I can’t help but find God in paradoxes thick around me. That Joseph would not be here if that baby had lived.

Now knowing him in all his perfect particularity, I cannot imagine a world without him. Which does not reconcile any death, but does make more space for mystery in the shades of grey that smudge together to make this life.

A portrait of paradox.

. . .

In a fitting end to my maternity leave, my thoughtful co-workers put together this post on our Collegeville Institute blog about my summer series on spiritual practices with newborns. I’m touched by their words and hope you will enjoy it, too!

these are the waning days

Dear God, I cannot love thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon.

- from the prayer journal of Flannery O’Connor

Right now the days are waning.

There is a thickness in the morning air, the cling of August humidity, beaded in droplets on the windows. The reluctant slide of late summer into early fall, the slow turn of seasons. The steady tick of each almost-school day on the calendar, edges furled by an almost-kindergartner equal parts itching to start and dragging his feet to stay in summer’s ease.

Each day we lose a little light. Browned grass crunches beneath our bare feet, and the tips of leaves start to curl under, steeling themselves against fall’s first chill.

These days are waning.

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Thomas’ third birthday is tomorrow. When we carried staggering armfuls of moving boxes into this house, he was a barely crawling baby. Now when he chases his brother around the kitchen, he’s prone to smack his forehead against the same counter-top that caught Sam’s height when we were first adjusting to our new space.

Another pile of 2T clothes are stuffed back into plastic bins, awaiting a third toddler-to-come. And the pale yellow room that was Thomas’ nursery has been vacated for another, the baby who starts to stir in his crib when we creep into our bedroom at night. Soon Joseph’s wide, unblinking blue eyes will gaze round at strange new surroundings that will one day become as familiar as the back of his own hand. The cycle starts again.

We are always changing. Life with growing children – carne che crese, my Italian father-in-law reminds me – simply sets this truth in high relief.

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But to wane is to leave behind. Thomas’ years of at-home all-day are drawing to their end. One more week and his size-7 velcro shoes will slip off at the preschool doorstep. He might cry a little, and I know I will, and in that way is it any different from the day I birthed him into being? I will always be surprised by my twinned joy and sorrow at the long string of goodbyes that my children’s childhoods ask me to practice en route to adulthood.

These days are waning.

. . .

My maternity leave is waning, too.

These three long months in which I learned to love a new soul, with all the bodily love that babies bring. In which I was wrapped into the enfolding embrace (sometimes smother) of life at home with littles, full-time.

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It has been sweet and hard and almost everything I hoped it would be. I looked around – even in the chaos and the crazy and the children climbing on couches despite twelve stern warnings of doom and impending emergency room visits if they did not stop – and I saw that it was good.

Which makes me reluctant to close this chapter and start a new one, even eager as I am for all that lies ahead, too. This is the promise of the moon. Even as things wane, there is the promise of waxing days to come. Light increasing, brightness building day by day.

This summer has taught me that we are always changing. I need the constant change of children and the unchangingness of God – and Sunday Mass and ancient ritual and dependable moon – to help me see this truth pressing up against my face each day.

It is the quiet, steady presence of the divine Light that peers into the darkness of our nights with a small sliver of silver hope. Even when the moon seems gone, we know it is never gone.

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Tonight the moon is a pale sliver. Like the tiny curve of a baby fingernail, snipped quick before he can scratch his smooth face when startled from deepest sleep. It casts a thin shadow of its glowing fullness, once luminous and round, an expectant silhouette.

Tonight I am watching my children slumber. Two twin bed frames stretching out in the grainy darkness of a newly shared room. Embroidered “Samuel” and “Thomas” pillowcases draped at the foot of each bed, staking their claim like homesteaders’ flags. School will separate these playmates in two short weeks. Their worlds will widen, then settle back in together each afternoon. They are on the cusp of change, as always.

Tonight I am glancing at a faded summer to-do list. Penned with vigor when the baby was still bouncing within. House projects, writing projects, endless organizational aspirations. Most of them undone. Which is good and fine. Which is peace.

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Tonight I am wondering what I leave behind in this summer and what I take with me.

On the phone with a friend this afternoon, I heard myself saying words I haven’t spoken in so long. Words like spaciousness and silence and stillness and so much less stressed. And I know this is not simply because professional work has been on pause (because if you know me, you know I always stretch to fill all the hours and moments anyway).

But because I feel like I am finally learning how to live my life.

Isn’t that a strange thing to say, 33 years into such an endeavor? But baby number three is teaching me something deep and unexpected. How to let go of all false sense of control and fall into the goodness already around me.

Even with the hard edges that this summer brought – and there were some awful, dark times – I feel such a sense of joy wrapped around me. Gratitude so thick I can weave my fingers through it.

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This is what is waxing in my life. What will keep rising and glowing and rounding into fullness even after we leave these long August nights behind.

The embrace of who and what I am called to be.

How it will cycle through seasons and changes, but promise to remain.

How it was Here all along.

a round-up of labor day thoughts

How will you celebrate your work today?

Here are a few ways to honor the labor you do, whether out in the world or behind closed doors:

Look at laundry in new light to see how every day is a labor day.

Remember the ordinary, extraordinary labor that brought each of us into this world.

Consider how God works, too: bakingsweeping, washinggathering, or hosting.

Take a page from my pastor on making room for kids in the midst of our work:

It’s adorable, of course, to watch a tall man in flowing robes lean over to talk to a tiny toddler. But sometimes I wonder if we let these interactions change us, if we who are parents let ourselves learn from our pastor.

I admit that I don’t always make such gracious space in my work for my children.

They pull over chairs to the counter in the middle of my dinner prep, and I sigh because little hands will now make a mess in the flour and steal veggies off the cutting board.

They show up at my elbow while I’m writing and ask to sit on my lap, and I grumble because I’m in the middle of finishing an important project with a pressing deadline.

They appear in the middle of folding laundry or sweeping floors or washing dishes, and I mistake the real work for the chore at my hands, not the moment unfolding in front of my eyes…

Read the rest at CatholicMom.com

Check out our suggestions of hymns and blessings for Labor Day from the Collegeville Institute Seminars.

And these awesome Labor Day prayers written by my friend Genevieve at the USCCB.

Finally, treat yourself to this beautiful song by Carrie Newcomer on the holiness of everyday work. I’ve loved her music for a long time, but the beauty of her voice and words have become healing for me this past month:

Holy is the dish and drain

The soap and sink, and the cup and plate

And the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile

Shower heads and good dry towels

And frying eggs sound like psalms

With bits of salt measured in my palm

It’s all a part of a sacrament

As holy as a day is spent