church, faith, frustration, Lent, Mass, parenting

My inner Mary is dehydrated.

Holy Water Font, St. John’s Abbey (photo by Nancy M. Raabe)

My parish used to take the water out of the holy water font during Lent.

Although they stopped doing that a number of years ago, I still remember the feeling of oddly-dry fingers on the way in to Mass that accompanied the stripped-down altar and the absent Alleluia.

I came to the Catholic Church incrementally, but part of what drew me in was the quiet, prayerful holiness of the Mass and the diversity of prayer practice in the tradition. My introverted soul craves quiet contemplation, longs to rest in silence and drink it all in. I remember the days when I used to arrive early to Mass just to kneel and soak it up, letting my soul stretch and reach upward as everyone was arriving. I felt I connected with God at every turn then, and when I left Mass each week, I carried the fiercely burning light of Christ at the very center of my being, so hot that I could physically feel it behind my breastbone.

In the Gospel story of Mary and Martha, I was Mary all the way…sitting at Jesus’ feet and hanging on his every word. 

Fast forward to now, and I feel like it’s all passing me by. I’m exhausted. I’m surrounded by clamor and chaos, and it’s my job to restore order. I’m in full-Martha survival mode.

Smiling on Mother’s Day…after Mass, of course.

Getting us all to church each week feels like an epic challenge, managed only by my most careful planning and hard work. I try to streamline Sunday morning as much as possible, but by breakfast, we’re often running late. We are never early (partly because we run late almost everywhere these days, and partly because getting to church early just means our little people have to stay put in the pews longer), but I wish we were on time more often.

When we arrive, we park and unload everyone, lugging them into church from the parking garage with the huge diaper bag stocked with distractions and extra clothes and diapers, praying that we will make it through the Mass without at least one child needing to be removed for tears or tantrums. We spend our time not sitting in quiet prayer, but bouncing, walking, whispering, shushing, swaying, pointing at words in books, turning pages, rescuing runaway crayons, preventing people from rolling on the floor, and trying not to be distracting. There are weeks when we spend the entire Mass out in the foyer with toddlers who are driven to walk, to climb, to talk about everything they see. 

I know that’s how God created them. That’s how they experience the world – it’s what they do at this stage in their lives. They are too young to understand about sitting for that long, and we are outnumbered. We bring things to distract them, but the laws of toddler physics are inevitable: eventually, a toddler-not-in-motion will become a toddler-in-motion…and woe to the mother who tries to impede that toddler.

If we are in the foyer, I always sneak back into the church for Eucharist carrying whichever Sister is least likely to make a scene. The priest often makes comments in his lengthy post-Mass announcements about how people should stay through the final hymn, but we usually sneak out again.

When I was Mary, I always stayed through the final hymn. (Honestly, I even judged other people for leaving before the final words had been sung.)
Now Martha is in charge, and she knows that sometimes, we need to cut our losses and get out of there as quickly as possible.

By the time we reverse our arrival process, stuffing the coat-clad, frustrated children back into the car before grabbing lunch quickly in our attempt to make it home before nap time (so we can collapse when the children are sleeping), I’m often in tears, sweaty with exertion. I’m exhausted from the struggle of managing it all. Sometimes my arms are actually shaking from the physical effort of keeping it all together. Most weeks, I only know what the readings are if I managed to read them ahead of time (as the chances of my absorbing much of what is said are low).

Parenting on Sundays sometimes feels like as much work as all the other days added together.

My friends who are not churchgoers wonder why we do this every week. If it’s so hard, why are we putting ourselves through it? Surely God would understand if we came back in a couple of years when everyone was better able to handle it?

God would understand, yes. But it’s not God I’m worried about.

It’s me.

I’ve written before about how I think it benefits our little ones to be in church with us, but when it comes down to it, I’m the one who really needs to be there. I need to dip my fingers in the font. (There’s plenty of water there now; it’s my soul that is parched.) I need to sing, even if I don’t remember all the words and can’t manage holding a hymnal (or am caught in the foyer without one). I need to lock eyes with the child that is challenging me most and say, “Peace be with you.” I need to encounter Christ. And in that one small moment after receiving Eucharist, I need to take a deep breath, look into the face of Jesus on the cross and say, “Yes.” Or maybe, “Lord, have mercy.” Or maybe nothing at all.

I need to be Mary again, just for a second.

Even if I’m struggling the entire time, in that one moment, there is strength to sustain me. I can do this for the rest of this day, for another day, for another week. I am not alone in my work of mothering these children. My work is God’s work. My children are God’s children. God loves them infinitely more than I do, and God loves them through me and in spite of me…and as long as I remember that, I cannot fail them entirely.

I’m so grateful for the gifts of their lives. I tuck them in every single night with a blessing and the words, “I’m so thankful to be your mama.” I’m working hard, and I’m learning to manage, and I’m a Martha-among-Marthas most days: capable, organized, and on top of my game.

But today, the Mary in my soul would really, really like to just rest quietly at Jesus’ feet and drink her fill.

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Advent, faith, feasts and seasons

What if it’s too dark to see God?

Early evening these days is nearly totally dark at our kitchen table, even with two purple candles and a pink one lit in our Advent wreath. It seems darker than usual this year. The familiar fuzzy comfort of the season is absent…I feel fierce, raw, angry and afraid. I think of my sister, whose pale Alaskan sun sets early in the afternoon this time of year; after a weak attempt at climbing partway up the sky, it gives up and drops quickly back below the horizon again.

I think I know how that sun feels.

We have been working at Advent, at cultivating the calm contemplation that might be slightly out of reach for a family with children as young as ours. Every day, I’ve been listening to my playlist, reading books with my children, baking and crafting and knitting and praying to get ready. Every night, I’ve been faithfully lighting our candles. I’ve been doing a lot of explaining, helping my son to understand what Advent is all about, teaching him songs and prayers and recipes, watching him as he bites his lip in concentration during a reading, as he smiles and signs himself with a cross, as he bounces in his seat and sings, “Gaude!”.

Gaude. Rejoice. It’s what we’re supposed to be about, our task in even these darkest weeks of the year.

Since the shooting at Sandy Hook school last week, I’ve felt at a loss for words. Usually, I write about faith, about God, about how to be domestic church in an ecumenical family, about how to survive long days with little people when things feel tough. I post recipes for play dough and talk about what books we are reading. I share cooking projects and post pictures of kids painting and smiling. These are the things that make up my life. This is what I am doing, who I am being.

All of it seems so very small now.

Just over a week before Christmas, a gunman in a school in a state I’ve only driven through has thrown everything into a tailspin. Anxiety has been my constant companion, a sort of unnameable, unearned ache that makes me feel a little frantic. My lists are spiraling out of control. How many loads of laundry need to be done before we leave this weekend for family Christmas? Do we have enough toothpaste for the trip? Should I have bought more curling ribbon? Does any of this even matter?

If I’m honest, I confess that my busy-ness and listmaking are ways of dealing with the anxiety and sadness I feel…that occupying myself with batch after batch of cookies keeps me from thinking about the children who are gone, from wondering about the motives of the shooter, from scrolling through facebook to see my friends and their friends engaging in heated debate about gun control and mental health care. I’m too busy on purpose with all I have to do, even though none of it seems as important as it felt before.

I’ve been trying to write this post all week, too, without success. My best effort feels weak, like that Alaskan sun…a halfhearted attempt at helping, a band-aid offered to someone who has lost a limb. The scope of this tragedy, the enormous weight carried by the families who have lost a child, dwarfs my capacity to say anything helpful. My words are raindrops in a hurricane. There’s nothing I can say that hasn’t been said…and the storm of words is so deafening, there’s almost no point in speaking, anyway.

It’s still Advent, though. This helplessness, this sadness, this brokenness is exactly why I need to keep on keeping watch. I need to wait for God…maybe more this year than ever.

God always shows up. God is still God- unchanging, everlasting God…as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen. We confess it every week in worship- we proclaim God’s God-ness every time we say the creeds that define our faith. We cannot proclaim the limitlessness and omnipotence of God in one breath and then say that God has abandoned us in the next breath.

This tragedy did not happen because God is on some big power trip about how we don’t allow God in schools. God is God, and God is everywhere. We may invite God into this place or legislate God out of another place, but God does not need our permission to exist or to be present and is there whether we confess belief in God’s existence or not. God is at school and in jail and in Wal-mart and wherever else we can imagine and in all the places we can’t imagine. It is not up to us.

(How fortunate for us that this is not a decision we are responsible for making.)

God is always in the picture, whether or not we see God. God is there, and God is always for us. We don’t always feel it, but it’s still true.

What’s more, the God I know isn’t too busy judging our cultural shift away from organized religion to cry with us. The God I know isn’t standing over to the side somewhere with arms crossed, saying “I told you so.”

The God I know is standing right with us, right behind us, sharing our pain and our fear. The God I know has God-sized hands big enough to hold all the worry and suffering and torment and anguish. The God I know has arms long enough to wrap us up and hold us close…and that God wants so badly to be with us that God Incarnate came to earth to do just that. To be with us.

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).     

Matthew 1:23

If being with us is that important, maybe we ought to pay more attention to being with each other. If God was willing to come down to earth to keep our company, then keeping company with each other is no small thing. Standing in solidarity with the families in Connecticut, even from thousands of miles away, means something. It is a confession of hope. Maybe it is as dark as we have ever seen it right now, but we will keep watch with you until the light shows up.

So we wait. We watch. We hold our families close. The people around my table, the ones whose eyes are bright in the candlelight as we eat dinner together – they are what matters most right now. And my time with them is what I have. Maybe my territory is small stuff compared to the scope of the suffering out there. But to my children, the smallness in front of us is the universe. This is their world – it’s what’s before them, it’s what they know. And my job as their mother is to help make that world the kind of place that prepares them to go out into the darkness and be lights and shine in the way that only they can.

Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” And they will be. Tending little lights may feel small to me now. But only the presence of little lights- hundreds, thousands, millions of them – can push back the darkness.

It is surely dark right now. Darker than ever. Still, there’s a light. It’s growing. It’s in us, it’s in our children…and when we forget about our light or we’re too weak to shine, we can hold it out for each other. God’s still God. Jesus is still going to be born. We just have to keep watch, to sit together as we wait for the light to show up.

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.