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Late November, Friday before Advent
I zip my fleece and turn back from the doorway of our barely-lived-in bottom-floor apartment, my bag already slipping off my shoulder.
"And don't let him run down the sidewalk. Cars just come out of garages. They don't even look ..."
"I know, babe. I know." Chris is holding our eighteen-month-old son, August. He grins. I've already given my husband a ten-minute speech on our kid's needs and the dangers of diaper rash. Now I'm just being ridiculous.
"Okay." I look in Chris's eyes and breathe deep.
"We're good, honey."
"Yep. Okay. Yes." I kiss August on the lips, still baby-soft despite their slow conversion into boyhood. I kiss my husband and turn around as fast as possible so I don't change my mind. I walk down the granite stairs outside our building and yell, "Love you guys!" just in case they didn't hear me say it the eight times before.
Our street slants straight up one of the steepest blocks in the city to Coit Tower, with steps instead of sidewalk and huddles of tourists freezing in their shorts and T-shirts and complaining ("Who knew San Francisco would be cold?") as they pass our window with chins raised toward the climb. Two months ago, we moved across the country to this foreign city, this new life of sidewalks and bright green parks full of neighbors: one hundred elderly folks from Chinatown moving through Tai Chi in their jeans at 7 a.m., the hippie homeless dude with his bag of celery and carrots, and earnest thirty-year-olds with coffee cups and purebred dogs.
This life, my life, is one I never imagined for myself. This bright-eyed Texas-bred Baptist had finally found a home in the hard-edged sophistication of the East Coast only to be jetted away to a new land teeming with consigned clothing and required composting and women in scarves. I might as well have moved to Europe.
I walk the three blocks to where our car is parked on the street—every parking spot a miracle—and throw my bag into the passenger seat. I'm quiet in the car for a moment. How long has it been since I've driven alone? Months?
Before I quit my career in youth ministry and followed my husband's job and our fearful wish for adventure out west, my car was always full: car seat, sippy cups, Cheerios. Also, sixteen-year-old girls and backpacks and Taylor Swift on the radio. My car was full; my life was full.
I drive alone seven hours south through land I hardly believe I live in. Not through West Texas, not through the Northeast where I'd spent the previous eight years of my life, but through the California middle on a path to the Benedictines, toward a secret hope of illumination this first weekend of Advent.
Saint Benedict, who established his monastic way of life fifteen hundred years ago, and the Catholic monks who follow his rule, have been speaking to me in piles of books on my night-stand for months. I come to them in search of something I don't know how to a name. I want an antidote for my prayerlessness. I long to experience God again.
The prophet Jeremiah said, "Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths." I am an unknown speck on a highway through gold mountains, at the crossroads between my twenties and thirties, between the life I imagined for myself and the life I am actually living, between our three-bedroom house outside Philadelphia and our small apartment in San Francisco, between the palpable sacredness of ministry life and the ambiguity of stay-at-home motherhood. I am living in middle ground, between the faith of my childhood—the Spirit who snagged the front of my overalls by God-hook and towed me to the altar for salvation—and the doubt of my mind, which though it has repeatedly seen the miraculous in the lives of the young people I ministered to, still struggles to believe the Spirit world is living and breathing, much less that I am breathing in it.
I drive through these hills so coated in gold and unaltered by trees that they must have been crafted by Spirit hands, glued down, glittered. The sun sets, and I drive into its shade, pushing my sunglasses to the top of my head.
I am a sometimes-believer, in love with Jesus. I am a mystic who can't grip tight enough to the mystical. I long for order but can hardly make a list. I need something ancient, not ruled by the culture that rules me, to tell me what to do when my boy is throwing a tantrum on the plane—thirty minutes of uncontrolled screaming, leaving bite marks on my neck to remember it by. I need to know how to love God when all I have to offer is my daily chaos. Mostly, I long to know a quietness in my soul, true contentment, despite my spiritual unimpressiveness. I need to believe that my simple life really is a gift and really can be holy.
* * *
We all make vows, I think as I walk from my room at Saint Gregory's Abbey toward the chapel where the black-clad monk is ringing the bell for worship. It's cold in the desert. I pull my coat tighter, fold my arms around my body.
I stand by myself in the back and listen to the monks chanting their way through tonight's selection of Psalms. In the front of the chapel, one monk holds the melody on a harp.
I glance around the pews at the other guests. There's an older couple from Pasadena. He's a retired religion professor from a nearby university and she's a feisty, compassionate type. She already forgot about the silence at dinner then winked at me when she realized she was the only person making noise. There are others, almost all fifty and over, maybe eight of us total, all here for similar reasons: time for prayer, a practice of silence, a chance to learn from people who have made a profession of contemplation.
The chants aren't hard to join. Generally, the monks sing the words to the Psalms with only the use of three or four notes. The sound is soothing to my overworked ears. Three notes are just enough, I think to myself.
What does it mean to be so moved by the contemplative life that person chooses this gathering and chanting and worshiping as his or her work ? I find a seat in the last row of pews and let the music soak into me. Really, this is all I need: just this harp and these balding, mustached monks singing Jesus Jesus Jesus.
We all make vows. They made theirs to the monastic life: The order of eating and working and praying together. The common liturgy of Psalms on their lips and constant repetition. The hard work of living in community with people you didn't choose.
My brother painted the vows my husband and I made on two sheets of plywood that lean against the wall in our kitchen. "I will seek to encourage you with love and service and prayer all the days of my life," I spoke aloud in a meadow at the base of a mountain, flowers in my hair.
We make vows at the beginnings of things. We make vows we intend to keep, and then we spend our days in life's middle, clenching them tight. How could we know what our vows mean until we've dug our fingernails deep into them all those years later? How can we notice the hard beauty of such words, the thick holiness of hope, until we experience what living a vow actually requires? Vows always demand an entire life. Even when they're broken.
I wanted a baby, but I didn't make vows to my son until, six weeks into my pregnancy, I entered into the unknowable illness that only the cell growth, hormone spike, and body shock of early pregnancy can provide. I retched and wept, lying on the couch some mornings until eleven, finally walking out the door to the office or the high school swim meet and vomiting on their respective parking lots. Everything in my body felt broken except for the warm spot below my belly where those dividing cells were shaping a human.
After weeks of feeling sorry for myself, it occurred to me that this was my motherhood boot camp, three months designed to snap me out of self-focused existence and into the reality of mama life. Each moment I bowed my head to the toilet, I was offering myself to this child. I was making my vow. Bearing and birthing a child is a much messier kind of vow-making than the sort I made in my white strapless wedding gown, but I made them both with the same solemnity, the same gentle naiveté.
Glory to the Father, the monks sing. I tap my head, the self-conscious touch of a Protestant testing out the waters of physical worship. And to the son, my hand drops down to my chest, that hallowed spot between my breasts—a secret valley where my baby rested his hand all those nights I gave him my milk at 3 a.m. And to the Holy Spirit, I touch the inner curve of my shoulder and carry it across to the other side. The covering of the cross feels holy here in this old stone candlelit room. The men in robes lead us out with their heads bowed, and we enter the Great Silence, twelve hours. We exit the chapel into the cold night and walk through tight black air toward our rooms.CHAPTER 2
Late November, Saturday before Advent
We spend the next morning and afternoon meeting in four different sessions with four different monks. Each shares thoughts on the season of Advent. This afternoon, we spend an hour with a young, handsome monk named Brother Michael. He says Advent is a season for vision, for seeing God at work around us. Prayer, he says, is how we encounter God. Prayer is how we see. He sends us out of the meeting room to spend twenty minutes alone practicing an Examination of Conscience.
I step outside into the cool California desert and walk toward the wooden chapel. The door is unlocked and the room is empty; wide windows high behind me pour in the golden shine of the coming afternoon sunset. I find a seat in one of the far back pews, every movement of my body echoing off the stone walls. I unfold my sheet of paper, the notes Brother Michael gave us to walk us through this prayer.
The Examination of Conscience, sometimes called the Prayer of Examen, is an ancient prayer practice penned by Saint Ignatius. It's a directed prayer aimed at allowing one's awareness to hover over the memories of the past day, a way to see how God has been at work, even when we didn't notice. This is a new way of praying for me, one that is less about the words I come up with and more about holy looking, the process of recognizing where God has been making himself known and where I missed God because I wasn't paying attention.
I look around. The harp is still where it sat earlier this afternoon during Sext, the midday prayer service at the monastery. The chapel is shaped like a cross: we regular folks sit in the bottom half, and the monks along the horizontal line. The harp is in the corner there, where the room breaks left, all those strings pulled taut between us as if to link the ordinary and the holy to one another. On the wall, above the place where the harp sits, is a candle, still lit. It is always lit, day and night. An eternal candle, replaced, I assume, secretly. Relit when no one is looking. Always burning itself through and always coming back.
Ignatius instructs us to look through the past day and simply notice: What was good? Where was God in the smallest moments? I kneel and lean my head forward, pressing my forehead into pew wood. I rewind my day, last night, yesterday, the night before. I think about Friday morning, when August woke too early, still on Central Time from our Thanksgiving trip to Texas. I went to him in his crib at 5 a.m. and lifted him out as he clutched his blanket and leaned back to find my eyes in the darkness.
"Hi," he said.
"Hi, baby. It's still night-night. It's still time for sleep," I whispered, pressing his head to my shoulder. I carried him from his room to mine.
He was ready to play but also hovering in that small window of sleepiness. I knew the only way to help him back to sleep was to bring him into our warm covers, to put my face in his hair, to smell him and woo him into sleep with snuggles.
I pause in that memory and look up at the crucifix dangling above the table, where the bread and the wine are carried forward and set before the hungry souls.
"Thank you," I whisper, my eyes open, my knees pressed hard into the kneeling bench behind the pew. "Thank you for how his hair smelled like baby shampoo and for how he slept in my arms. Thank you. I know he won't want to sleep next to me forever."
I think about sharing a bed with my husband on one side, his arm over my waist, and my child curled against my body. I think about the sweet, rumbled noises they make. I think about how much of my life is happening squished between those two.
The instructions Brother Michael gave us describe these moments of grace, as gifts from God, opportunities to become "more fully alive to God." As I kneel alone in the dark chapel, I can't even work my mind through a whole day of searching for God's presence. I'm stuck at this one. This moment in the early morning with a curled-up toddler in his footie jammies and a long, lean man asleep on my other side.
I say it aloud: "You are growing me more fully alive." I pause and glance down at the yellow light puddling onto the floor beside me. "You are growing me more fully alive when I hold my child."
I sense a soft gathering of warmth between my lungs, a seed of grace thumbed into my soul's soil: I don't yet understand, but I will. I will understand that I've been encountering God despite myself, despite my failure at prayer, because of the good gifts. I haven't quite seen it yet, this grace. I haven't noticed. But I will.
* * *
The eight of us come back together and sit in a circle with Brother Michael. He wants us to share what we discovered during our personal moments of prayer. A woman tells us about the grief she's experienced this past year, the loved ones she has lost. She talks about how she's coming back to faith even though she's been away for a long time. Then the professor of religion speaks. His words are intellectual. I track with him but tune out after a while.
It's silent for several seconds before I speak up. I say, "I'm here because I'm asking God to show me how to pray again." Heads nod. This crowd of Protestants and Catholics and in-between seekers is an interesting mix. Everyone is listening.
"My son is eighteen-months-old," I say. "And I feel like the past year and a half I've been a spiritual failure. I haven't gotten up early enough in the morning to pray. I've been obsessed with thoughts of my son instead of thoughts of God. I've started down a path that feels a little hopeless, like I can't figure out how to be a person of prayer and a mother at the same time."
They're all looking at me. All these strangers, age fifty and over, along with the twenty-something monk. They're all nodding their heads as if I'm making perfect sense. Although, of course, I'm not. How can I even begin to explain what lies beneath my prayerlessness? I was in ministry. Encountering God, teaching young people to encounter God, was my job. I've read the books. I know the verses. But despite my knowledge of prayer, despite my previous encounters with Jesus, I feel broken. Prayer feels broken.
I tell them about my time kneeling in the chapel. I say how I was stuck thinking of that moment in the dark early Friday morning. I say how I'm wondering if God may be at work in me in those moments of simple mothering even when I'm not aware of his presence.
"What if ..." I say, then pause, looking around the room and locking eyes with Dina, the woman who talked and winked during dinner last night. I remember she's a mother. She might get what I'm trying to say. Dina nods her head, as if to draw out my words.
"What if those two people in my bed, those two gifts in my life, are not the people who keep me from prayer? What if they're the actual prayers I'm praying?"
I cry when I say this. I always have a hard time processing things out loud. My tears are inevitably connected to my voice, even among these strangers from Pasadena.
Brother Michael is thrilled by my thought. He immediately chimes in, "Yes! Yes, Micha!" Then he compares me to the Virgin Mother. Shocked at his own insight, his voice rises as he realizes, "Christ was her prayer!"
It's a lovely thought, that God's grace might extend even into my own prayerlessness, that God might take my meager offering of child-rearing and turn it into prayer, despite my lack of spiritual discipline. I want to believe him. I want to compare myself with Mary, Christ's mother. But instead I nod my head and smile while Brother Michael talks. And I try not to giggle. I chastise myself for my own cynicism. If only he knew how unholy mothering feels.
As a Baptist girl who grew up valuing Scripture above all else, I poured my natural love for words and story into the Bible at a young age. I spent my teenage years reading and rereading every biblical narrative in which a woman played a central role. I have pondered Mary's words and longed to understand her soul. And I have loved her.
Excerpted from Found by Micha Boyett. Copyright © 2014 Micha Boyett. Excerpted by permission of WORTHY PUBLISHING.
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