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Long Days of Small Things
Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline
By Catherine McNiel
Tyndale House PublishersCopyright © 2017 Catherine McNiel
All rights reserved.
Finding the Householders' Path
I weave my way through the crowded sanctuary, crying baby in the sling. I'm earnestly trying to get out of the church service and into the "cry" room before the fussing becomes screaming. His little eyes are closed, but his crumpled face is beet red. With cheeks rubbing frantically against my chest, he's winding up for a major demonstration. I walk faster.
When you have small children, going anywhere can seem like more trouble than it's worth. Church is no exception: a lot of hassle in order to perform the same childcare tasks in a less conducive environment. We are visitors at this church today. I long to be present, focused, and engaged. Instead, this outing becomes one more opportunity to be banished from adult teaching and corporate worship.
Finding the right room, I pause and read the sign on the door: Breastfeeding Mothers Only. My heart sinks. Not only am I to be relegated to a closet with a demanding baby, but my sex and lactation determine that I am the only one in the family who can be. No chance of Daddy or Grandma taking a shift later, I guess. I put a resentful hand on the knob and push the door open.
My senses and emotions flood before my mind has a chance to take it in. The setting offers itself immediately as sanctuary. The room is dimly lit, perfect for soothing a child — or a mama's soul. The furniture is nice, comfortable. All my needs are anticipated: nursing pillows and tissue, a water pitcher and glasses. A silver tray is laid out for Communion, awaiting my participation. Next to it is a plaque that reads, "Mother, what you have given in love has become part of me. I thank God always for you."
Immediately tears are rolling down my face. I hadn't known that I felt invisible until I felt seen. I hadn't realized how thankless the ceaseless sacrifices of motherhood felt until someone gently pointed me to their honor and value.
I've always been a bookworm, and quite of few of my childhood BFFs were fictional. Frodo and Sam. Arthur and Merlin. My imagination was ignited as I lived through their adventures, but when I tried to picture myself in their stories, I just couldn't. The hero and his buddies were usually male; the womenfolk stayed back at camp during the real adventure. In all likelihood these women were having their own meaningful experiences, but those stories didn't make the book. It dawned on me that in my favorite epics, had I been there, I wouldn't be there. Without knowing it, I had imbibed a love of courage and inspiration — and a suspicion that there are beautiful places and quests to which women are not invited.
My life outside the pages, however, has seen no end of adventures. Topping the list is this miracle I've been caught up in for the past ten years: creating, birthing, and nurturing three brand-new souls. My children.
But as almost any mom can tell you, it's easy to get lost along the way. We're often playing the role of those who stayed behind to tend the fire, those whose stories fade into history untold and unsung. Again and again we stumble upon the message that the demands of motherhood will keep us from the most thrilling excursions.
Spiritual journeys, for instance. Investing time and energy into seeking God and his presence throughout the day. Loving and serving others in his name. Fellowshipping joyfully in community.
This is one adventure that does not drop easily from my hands. It haunts me like a song I can't place, like a delicious scent wafting on the winds of memory. It is the ambition I cannot quite let die.
Do you feel this too? Do you ache to connect with God, to love and serve others well? Does your soul long to be filled — and yet finds itself drying up in the busy stretches of every long day? When motherhood leaves us parched, where are we to find the time and energy for such a quest?
True and lasting spiritual growth comes from practicing spiritual disciplines over time, as Christian teaching and generations of seekers can attest. Our goal isn't to earn God's love or catch his attention, but to exercise and build our spiritual muscles. By investing our time and energy in pursuing God, our hearts and minds are changed; we begin to find him, to make a place for him in our spirits, our thoughts, and our identity.
Richard Foster's important book Celebration of Discipline outlines twelve practices that form the backbone of such a life: meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. Before becoming a mother, I eagerly embraced as many of these as my responsibilities allowed.
Now, my responsibilities rarely allow me to take a shower, much less sharpen spiritual practices. Silence and solitude? Never, ever, day or night. Prayer? Harder than you'd think after years of sleep deprivation. Fasting? Not while pregnant or breastfeeding. Service? Well, my kids definitely left their mark that time we "helped" at community painting day. Worship? There were years I didn't attend a worship service without a toddler bouncing on my back.
As mothers, our accumulated experience speaks a compelling case: Pursuing a deep spiritual life is simply not possible in this season, at least not in the ways we were taught. It seems the spiritual quest is one place where mothers, at least, cannot go.
That, or I'm really botching it.
Doorways and Forgotten Paths
I'm ready to leave the shop, but one thing stands in my way — the door. Not exactly a formidable barrier, but the odds are against me. My preschooler is running in circles, while my toddler pulls at my left hand. My right hand grips this terribly unwieldy baby carrier. Inside the carrier is, of course, my infant daughter. She is hungry and tired and howling. My purse is falling off one shoulder, my diaper bag off the other. Children are asking about snacks and water fountains, and I'm wondering, How are we all going to get through that door?
No one jumps to hold it open for me, though more than enough people are watching to ensure my embarrassment when I attempt to hold it for myself. Myself, that is, and my entourage: these three precious ones who know life only through my own life, who see me as the primary source of all things. Somehow, with bags crashing down against my forearms, I bang open the door with my hip, weave the toddler under one arm, and lift the baby carrier over the preschooler's head. Somehow, we all stumble through before it closes on any small fingers or toes.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I have done it. I have walked through a door.
Later that day I read an article about a Christian teacher I deeply admire. The writer described this hero-of-the-faith as so spiritually enlightened, he radiated peace just by walking through the door.
This stops me in my tracks. It testifies mightily against me, against the fruit of my life in this season. I'm not quite the picture of enlightenment. If radiating peace (with or without a door) is the measure of spiritual success, I'm certain I'll never arrive.
* * *
A few months before my door-opening heroics, I stole away into adult world for a weekend to attend a Christian conference. In the hot, crowded room, the speaker drove his point home with passion: If we have a genuine commitment to knowing God, we must spend at least an hour each day in silence and solitude.
There I was, ground to a halt once again. About to birth my third child in five years (the soon-to-be daughter in the infant carrier), I hadn't slept through the night or gone to the bathroom by myself anytime in recent memory. My physical body housed a tiny tenant; I was literally inseparable from this beloved person I nurtured. This simple suggestion of solitude — one I would have recommended myself in a different season — stole my breath away.
I didn't hear anything else at the conference, because these words reverberated through my ears and soul for weeks, drowning out everything else. The list of spiritual disciplines no longer feasible to me as a mother grows longer with each new child. And, of course, any thought of silence and solitude is a happy dream mostly forgotten.
No one tries to exclude mothers from the "spiritual life," but it happens regardless. I hear laments rising up in the hearts of mothers, mourning the losses that this season of nurturing unexpectedly brings: the impossibility of pursuing something soul-creative, something life-giving. There's no time, space, energy, or money. We'll have to wait until the children are older. Right now I just cant.
And yet. Underneath my unwashed hair and sleepy eyes, the truth is undeniable: These days have been made out of miracles. Uniquely and utterly female miracles. Pregnancy, labor, delivery, newborn days, and nurturing growing children have taken me to places where only women and mothers can go. These fundamental experiences are inescapably feminine, not experienced by all women but by only women. If our daily experiences are so entirely singular, why shouldn't our spiritual disciplines be uniquely suited to us as well?
So now, almost a decade into the most grueling journey of selfless giving and sacrifice I can imagine, my spirit is fighting back. There must be another path.
Children are consuming. They leave us with nothing left to give ourselves or anyone else. But this is the perfect training ground for our spirits, the very setting many disciplines are designed to produce. Our demanding, beloved children are what we create — they are our spiritual path. What if we looked through new eyes and discovered that into our very life stages our Creator has placed impressions of himself, reflections of his strength and beauty, a spiritual path laid out just for us?
* * *
People who walk serenely through doorways are rarely surrounded by children. In fact, those who achieve acclaim for their great accomplishments of faith rarely spend their days birthing, nursing, and raising families.
Jesus loved children, spent time with them, and instructed his followers to be like them. But he wasn't raising them. Moses, the apostle Paul, C. S. Lewis, Mother Teresa, Saint Francis, Martin Luther, Thomas Merton — none of these people spent their days raising children.
And yet, what else is so enlightening, so character-sharpening, so weakness-illuminating, and so virtue-defining as the nonstop practice of self-sacrifice and surrender that defines motherhood? If a deep, rich spiritual life requires personal time and space, most people throughout history — hard workers living in crowded homes, striving to care for their families and just barely getting by — are simply out of luck.
Immersed now in these long days of small things, I understand why so few women traveled with Sam and Frodo, Arthur and Merlin: They were very, very busy. For most of human history, women began bearing children as young teenagers, then went on to be pregnant or nursing for the bulk of their lives. Imagine the wisdom, the understanding, and the spiritual depth that was fashioned in the souls of these women as they emptied themselves day in and day out, body and soul, often giving up their lives in the making and birthing of babies. These women were constantly in the grips of life and death, searching and expanding the depths of human love and spirit, chasing toddlers, trying to gather enough food to sustain a family, feeling babies kick their bladders and ribs, mourning loss after incomparable loss, nurturing life after precious life.
Their years revolved around surrender, sacrifice, service, and perseverance. They acted out the signature works of God in their bodies: creation, new life, and redemption. Though the spiritual adventures of these mothers — close to the campfire and far from the fires of Mordor — did not make the pages of epic tales, their seasons and practices tell a deeply spiritual story.
But each day has enough trouble of its own, doesn't it? When we're in the thick of things, it's hard to see the bigger picture.
Some religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, have a name for people in this predicament: householders. Recognizing that folks can't just up and leave their spouses or children, these religions give householders a different set of expectations. Rather than becoming meditating monks, studying under gurus and wandering alone through the forest, householders are asked, for now, simply to be faithful in responsibility.
Though we mamas may appear half crazed, sleep-deprived, harried, and unkempt, our souls are being taught and sharpened and purified. I'm sure of it. We're not able to sit and ponder this, or even be aware of it most of the time. But soul refining is the work of struggle, sacrifice, discomfort, and perseverance. My three whirling dervishes take me to the end of myself on a daily basis, and I'm certain my soul will emerge stronger for it.
Maybe Mommy Boot Camp cultivates a soul even better than spending these years in constant meditation.
* * *
The morning I ran out of the church sanctuary with a loud, hungry infant, my heart sank when I read the words Breastfeeding Mothers Only. My experiences and disappointments taught me that the services required by motherhood meant my spirit must go without. Instead, that day I opened the door to something far different from anything I had ever heard preached or described before, something available only to mothers. Not a "make do" or "Plan B" sort of path, but something unique and honored, inherently spiritual and inherently "mother." Far from being relegated to a closet, I nursed and rocked my baby in tranquility. Far from being singled out for a lesser experience because I am a breastfeeding mother, I lingered in the refuge created just for me.
Friend, whatever form motherhood takes for you — conception or adoption; stay-at-home, work-from-home, or work-outside-the-home; going it alone or surrounded by support — yours is a journey of deep spiritual value. The spiritual life is not only for those with the freedom to sit quietly and meditate, but also for those of us who are called away to continue giving deeply of ourselves.
REDEMPTION IN PRACTICE
Even at our most overwhelmed and exhausted, we breathe. Every few seconds we receive the air of life into our bodies ... and release. For a moment we rest, suspended and surrendered, in the space between. And then we repeat — again, and again, and again. This cycle is never broken, awake or asleep, stressed or at peace, happy or sad, for as long as we live.
This is the starting point, the place in which we begin to see our daily cycles and tasks as spiritual disciplines. By taking a moment to listen to the sound of our own breath, we quiet ourselves. Try this: Breathe in slowly and deeply — then hold for a second. Breathe out slowly and completely — then observe that moment between breaths. In the space of a few minutes try to think only of inhaling, exhaling, and rest. As your mind begins to wander, gently return it to your breathing.
It is one thing to do this while sitting quietly alone and another while you're chasing kids down the grocery-store aisle. Our goal is not to be mindful of every breath, but of some breath. Try at first to notice your breathing once during the day, and over time it will develop into a habit. Post notes in your house, car, or phone, reminding yourself to just breathe. Inhale deeply and realize you are breathing in God's unfailing love. Exhale and release into his unceasing presence.
Suddenly, breathing — your easiest daily accomplishment — is an act of worship, meditation, and prayer.
Be aware. As often as you remember, consciously notice the rise and fall of your breathing.
Be intentional. Once you are aware, intentionally inhale deeply, hold for a moment, and exhale completely. Take a moment to experience the pause between breaths.
Worship through breathing. As you breathe deeply, consider with gratitude the life God's Spirit has placed in your body, his presence in this very moment, and the peace his love provides. Choose a one-word prayer to whisper to him in your heart as you exhale.
The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life.
Moms walk everywhere: up the stairs to get a diaper, down the stairs to do the laundry, into the other room to pick up the crying baby, through the department-store aisles, to the park so the kids can play. Without adding anything to our daily list, the walking we do can become a spiritual practice.
As you walk, try to notice the feel of the ground as your feet touch the floor. Hard wood, cool tile, soft carpet, dew-drenched grass. Whether you're walking barefoot or clad in boots, notice the way your feet meet the ground and push off again.
This awareness literally grounds us to our present place and moment — I am here, and I am here now. This same here and now is where God meets us, and this grounding allows us to stay present in his peace. As we focus on feeling the floor beneath our feet, each footstep can become a prayer.
Excerpted from Long Days of Small Things by Catherine McNiel. Copyright © 2017 Catherine McNiel. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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