Angelus, Mary

The Angelus
The Annunciation by D. Werburg Welch

It all started because I wanted to feel more sane.

(The logistics of managing my family are not usually simple. Sometimes, I can feel my sleep-deprived brain straining as I face a situation where the best solution is for me to spontaneously grow two or three additional hands. I always figure it out, but I often have a moment where I think this might be the time that I absolutely can’t find a way to manage. Then the moment passes. I do manage, and I go on.)

Between 11:30 and 1:00 nearly every day, though, I wonder whether I will survive.

This time of day makes me think of running as fast as I can down a steep hill, leaping over obstacles and dodging low-hanging tree limbs while being chased by a pack of rabid wolves, knowing that behind them is a giant boulder, rolling, rolling, faster and faster, picking up speed as it descends. If I stop moving, I will be eaten alive and then crushed to death.

(Perhaps that is slightly dramatic, but you get the idea. I get a little bit tense at this time of the day.)

I lay as many things out as I can ahead of time to simplify the process. I reheat leftovers for lunch. I put Cheerios on high chair trays and place books and toys at the table. I try to eat before or after the children so that I can have both hands free to deal with whatever comes up.

Still…there are often two wailing babies both wanting to nurse and eat at once. I try to let one nurse while I feed the other from a bowl with a spoon. Sometimes, it works, but often the one in the high chair is upset. I can’t nurse them both at once because I need a hand free for the hungry preschooler, who wants to eat now. Or, maybe today he doesn’t want to eat at all, or wants juice instead of milk when juice isn’t an option, or has decided he now hates peanut butter, or wants to go outside instead of eating lunch, or changed his mind about having sauce on his spaghetti…

One can never quite tell what a preschooler might decide an hour before his nap. He’s tired. He’s hungry. He admits neither of these things. And he’s aware that I’m kind of maxed out with the two smaller people.

There are still breakfast dishes in the sink (or on the table!), and I’m putting lunch together for all of these beings, and all I want to do is make it to nap time so I can lie down.

There isn’t a thing I can do that will reliably calm everyone down at once.

It is a tough moment.

Sometimes, I realize I’m repeating a phrase over and over in my head in an attempt to cope. While out loud, I’m saying reassuringly to my children, “I’ll be right with you,” or “Hold on just a second, Mama’s coming,” my inner voice is saying over and over, “No one is dying. This is not that bad. Don’t panic, this isn’t an emergency, it just feels like one,” or, on the worst days, “I’m ok. I’m ok. I’m ok.”

Finding a rhythm has been a challenging part of becoming a stay-at-home parent. Some days seem to drag on endlessly. On those days, I find myself looking at the clock and counting down until afternoon nap time or until George will be home. This time surrounding lunch, though, has always been the hardest.

During the Easter Season this year, I started to chant the Regina Caeli every day at noon in Latin. It’s a traditional practice for Catholic Christians during the fifty days of Easter. (Depending on your background, one or more things about this might seem weird to you. Feel free to ask questions.)

I don’t know that much Latin. My husband is the Latin scholar (and was once offered a job in a small Georgia town as a high school Latin teacher). I was raised in a Southern Baptist church and came to the Catholic church as an adult, so I didn’t grow up with much Latin in church, and I studied French and Spanish when I had the chance to learn languages in school. Latin is foreign to me.

Despite its strangeness (or maybe because of it!), there is something so moving, so beautiful, so deeply spiritual about chanting Psalms and prayers in Latin. The words move through me from a deep, hidden place, transcending time and space. It is as if for a moment, my voice is joining innumerable voices past, present and future, weaving a tapestry of prayer that wraps around the universe.

Chanting the Regina Caeli, I felt my soul communing with the Divine. Even on the days when I didn’t stop moving while I chanted, my soul stood still. Each day, chimes would ring on my phone at noon, calling me to prayer. I spread peanut butter on bread and heated carrots in the microwave and felt my pulse slow and my breathing deepen as I sang. Observing my new daily practice, The Boy started chanting, too. Soon, we both knew the prayer by heart and would chant even in the car. We heard the bells, we started chanting. It was our rhythm.

All too soon, the fifty days of Easter ended. A longtime liturgical geek, I couldn’t possibly keep doing the Regina Caeli after the appropriate season and explained this to The Boy. He just looked at me and said, “well, what do we chant now?”

Enter The Angelus. I remember this painting from school, long before I had any idea that there was a prayer by the same name or that people actually prayed it.

The Angelus, by Jean-Francois Millet

I looked up the text for the Angelus and discovered I was in for a real challenge. I had no idea how cumbersome the Latin chant is compared to the Regina Caeli. It’s long. It’s unwieldy. It’s not repetitive, except for the Ave Maria part. There’s the crazy long tag at the end (after the “Oremus,” which made me smile and wonder what we’d been doing all along if not “oremus-ing”). It seemed completely impossible when I first saw it. I despaired that we would ever get the hang of it. And I missed the familiar Regina Caeli.

I didn’t know how to begin learning the Angelus, exactly, so I looked for a recording. After a bit of searching, I found a beautiful slide show with the text of the chant below the images. Chanting along, bit by bit, we started to learn just small phrases, a line or two at a time. We couldn’t keep up in the beginning. Mostly, we let the beauty of the chant and the images wash over us. Little by little, it started coming together.

I am so glad we stuck with it. It is truly a prayer now, a moment in the day when we pause, when I breathe more deeply and remember that there’s a bigger picture. This pause is often what restores the balance to the day. It takes all the tension out of the air and makes my heart beat more slowly. The children get calmer…the preschooler chants along. The atmosphere in our kitchen changes.

Why is this working for us? Part of it is the routine. Part of it is the heavenly music  (sung in the recording by the Daughters of Mary). Maybe part of it is just the difference in my breathing needed for singing the chant.

Part of it, though, is perspective. Every single day, I am stopping to recall a seminal event in the salvation story of humankind…God at work in the world, in people, in a woman, long before Jesus ever showed up. In the Christian story, what it meant for Mary to say “yes” to the Angel Gabriel was that everything was about to change…that God’s desire to build a relationship with humanity through Christ was being brought to fruition. It changed everything. It matters. And so, it restores something to the balance of my universe to remember every day at noon that Mary’s “yes” is what started the whole thing rolling along. Her “yes” meant that there could be a baby…and that meant there could be a Savior.

Meanwhile, when I’m finished praying, all I have to do is get three children fed and down for their nap.

Yes. I can do that.

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