“NO! I HATE this part of the bread! I won’t eat it!”
My daughter had just realized that her peanut butter and honey toast was made with an “all-crust” heel piece. To a five-year-old who has never known true crisis, this realization is nothing short of devastating—on par with candy-less valentines and cake batter-scented (but NOT flavored) ChapStick.
I took a deep breath and steeled myself for the parenting struggle that, moments ago, I had decided was indeed worth my time and energy.
As soon as I’d opened our bread bag and discovered only end pieces, I’d known that making toast with it might awaken the melodramatic beast dwelling within my kindergartener. All parents are familiar with the rapid cost-benefit analysis of “choosing our battles” in daily life. The fact that there were four, as opposed to two, end pieces in this bread bag indicated that I had forfeited this particular battle with our last loaf of bread.
But this time I felt prepared to hold my ground: my daughter would eat this food or no food.
Having just read a parenting article about instilling empathy and pro-social behavior in children, I decided to make an effort to turn this little clash of wills into “a teachable moment” (mom-talk for trying to channel one’s maternal frustration into wisdom rather than a large glass of wine).
As my daughter geared up for another outraged protest, I looked her in the eye and said, “Honey, I love you so much. And one of the ways I try to show you I love you is by making your favorite snacks for you, like peanut butter and honey toast. How do you think it makes me feel when you start crying and yelling just because it isn’t exactly what you want?”
She furrowed her brow and pouted, mumbling something unintelligible. Then she got up and walked away from the table.
I sighed, disappointed.
“You can walk away, but you need to know that I’m not going to make you anything else until you’ve eaten what’s on your plate.”
She grabbed something from her art corner and disappeared behind the couch.
“Did you hear me? I said I’m not making you anything else until you’ve eaten your peanut butter and honey toast.”
“Hold ON,” she said impatiently. I rolled my eyes at her (because apparently, trying to create a teachable moment had maxed out my maturity quotient for the day).
And then she brought me the “art” she had abandoned the table to create: an addition to the paper plate valentine she’d made in church earlier in the week. Around the edge, she had penciled in the words I love you because you feed me.
And, for the millionth time since becoming a mom, I realized how much I have to learn from my daughter.
How often do I spurn the blessings God has set in front of me, simply because they look a little crustier than I was expecting? How often do I pick apart that which nourishes me, only to find myself feeling empty? How often do I take for granted (or refuse to take at all) the bread of life that God pours out for me?
Perhaps, most convicting: How often do I recognize the error of my ways and humble myself, turning to God with such a simple yet profound prayer?
Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington, area. Her articles for Messy Jesus Business tend to focus on the intersection of faith and parenting. Ironically, the daughter mentioned in this article is not her picky eater.
Leading up to the Women’s March on Washington last week, I noticed a lot of #WhyIMarch and also #WhyImNotMarching social media posts. Because the spirit, style and mission of the event—seemingly driven by language of “reproductive rights” (a new expression I’ve not yet come to terms with)—didn’t resonate with me, I found my own feelings and conclusions undecided.
What attracted me was the immediate, massive response of women (and men) coming together to respond in an assertive but nonviolent way with their bodies (not just Tweeting and tagging). The ambiguity of the platform appealed to me too but also gave me pause for possible interpretation as inclusivity: many people feel wronged for different reasons and it’s necessary to create a space where all can come together and voice their concern; not in a series of separate events but in unity.
It’s not uncommon for the term unity to be mistaken as synonymous with sameness. In fact, unity requires diversity: many different people, beliefs and ideas coming together to form “a complex whole.” Unity is not clean and neat, it’s messy and complicated. (Something we readers of Messy Jesus Business should appreciate!) What finally tipped the scales for me was the presence of my family members, with varying political and religious views, joining their voices across the country. In the spirit of sisterhood and unity, I asked some of them to share their reflections of the march.
Grace, who lives in Ohio and shared her home with a family of four (while in between jobs, after the birth of her second child), knows well what it means to practice hospitality:
I entered the Women’s March in D.C. as a skeptical outsider, wanting to observe and understand even though I felt like I didn’t quite belong. I wanted to stand up for dignity: for the right to dignity for women, Muslims, immigrants—all those who have been demeaned and treated as “less than” in the rhetoric of our new president. As a Christian I take to heart the command given in Leviticus to welcome and love the stranger (Leviticus 19:33-34).
Yet because I believe dignity of life extends to the unborn, the newly formed life, I kept questioning if there was a place for someone like me—pro-women, pro-equal rights, pro-intelligent sexual education, pro-supportive and affordable health care for women and pro-life—in this march. I had a desire to stand in solidarity with my fellow women and men in a historic moment but based on the official platform of the march I felt in many ways my presence wasn’t wanted.
As I struggled I came to recognize that to remove oneself from a discussion because you disagree is to render your voice obsolete. What part can we play in inspiring change and perpetuating truth when we refuse to begin the conversation? Conversing is not to speak at someone; to spew statistics, Scripture, opinion, or fact and then write them off when they disagree. A conversation involves listening, giving and receiving. So I sought to observe and understand the varied reasons so many people felt they could stay silent no longer and among these many voices I heard and saw things that made my heart say, “Yes, I see you, I know how you are feeling. I feel the same way.”
Ann Marie is a mother of three and long-time advocate for human rights who attended the march in Los Angeles wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt:
BLACK LIVES MATTER means our neighbors live lives in which they are told they matter less than us, and we need to do something about it. At the very least we must recognize it’s true, it’s happening and it’s their experience instead of foolishly insisting “but we ALL MATTER.” Yes, WE ALL MATTER. That’s the point. We need to change society—that they matter the same as us— till it rings true.
I took my two daughters, five and nine years old, to the march in L.A. because while we each have a voice now, we may not always. I may not fear for my immediate way of life or that of my blond-haired, blue-eyed children. We are safe and comfortable in so many ways. We haven’t been attacked because of our religion, our skin color, our parents’ country of origin. We may not have been threatened by Trump and his campaign promises, but our neighbors and fellow Americans have. So we went to speak out and lend our voices to theirs.
Allison traveled to D.C. along with her husband (my brother), both compelled by dismay that a man with such obvious disdain for women, Muslims, people of color and the environment is the new president:
It felt like a momentous day just from the bodies present, the singing, the buzz of electricity. And amidst all this excitement, one thing stood out to me the most.
We had been standing in the crowd for a couple of hours when a cry started. “Karen! Karen!” My husband and I joked “You’re in a crowd of 500,000 people and you’re trying to find Karen? Good luck.” Then we heard Karen’s son had been separated from her. A little boy lost his mom. We joined in the “Karen” shouts until she was found. Then we saw a group of women encircling a young boy, spreading the sea of people with their bodies, shouting “We’ve got a lost kid!” The women marched him backwards until he was reunited with his mom.
I keep thinking about the way those women protected Karen’s son, a child none of them knew. The way ripples of “Karen!” flooded the human logjam. The way everyone worked together to solve a problem. The way I’d been skeptical and my quick change of heart when I realized a child was in need. The way we all thought of our own children getting lost and needing help. That moment was a microcosm of the world in which we march. If we all shout “Karen!” loud and long enough, Karen or peace or human rights or equality can be found. We have the power to move ourselves with the best interest of our children in mind through the masses; to push ourselves to the front, and to let our leaders know that we will not let even one of us be lost, trampled, forgotten. We walk together. I have your back.
As for me, I carried a sign my husband Ted and I had quickly assembled the morning of the march. Trying to decide upon words we could confidently stand behind and uphold, we settled on those of the prophet, Micah: “Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly.” I’ve carried these words—as a challenge and a guide—for most of my life. They indicate the spirit with which my husband and I resist the rhetoric and actions of Trump, who embodies the exact antithesis of justice, mercy and humility.
The march was one opportunity to join our voices against what was only rhetoric and obscure proposals but which, over the course of last week, became executive orders and inhumane threats. I raise my voice again—sturdy on the foundation of the millions around the world with whom I stood in solidarity last Saturday (and all the more so, those who have been dedicating their lives to truth and compassion long before) to speak a resounding NO:
NO to banning people from this country because of their religion or nationality!
NO to dishonoring treaties and desecrating sacred lands!
NO to militarizing police and marginalizing people of color!
NO to torture!
And with Hebrew Scripture and teachings of Jesus prodding me forward, I dare to proclaim a determined, hopeful YES:
YES to welcoming foreigners and sharing with those in need!
YES to reverence and care for marvelous Earth and the creatures inhabiting her!
YES to defying oppressive powers and violence!
YES to recognizing that real security comes through accepting our individual vulnerability, embracing collective connectedness and choosing to care for one another!
Amy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, two audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.
About a week before I professed my final vows, in the summer of 2015, I had a crisis of faith.
During a private retreat in a quiet cabin, I was tucked into a recliner, blankets snuggled around me. I stared out a wide window toward a vast lake — not a lake I know well; I have no sense of its depth, shape or shores. I could only see part of the stirring waters. It was miles across to the other side.
Staring into the expansive mystery and intensely aware of my human limitations, I felt my spirit stir with anxiety and tension. How could I possibly submit myself to a life centered on God if I am not completely sure what God is? How can I say “yes, forever” if the future feels frightening?
With such questions multiplying inside of me, I prayed, pondered and agonized. After a while, the Spirit reminded me of a book by Congregation of St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson called Quest for the Living God. Informed by the writings of Karl Rahner, Johnson dedicated an entire chapter to God as Holy Mystery in the book.
I found a copy and read the chapter about Holy Mystery. I prayed and was honest with God about my questions and my struggles. Gradually, I felt reassured and inspired to…
“Your loving doesn’t know its majesty, until it knows its helplessness.” – Rumi
“Pretty bad day here – I think if parenting was something one was allowed to quit I would have by now …”
This was the content of an e-mail I tapped out on the phone to my husband while he was at work and I was home with our two kiddos, age one and three, approximately. Trust me, if you’re mind is jumping to judgment at the wimpyness of my parenthood or the flakiness of my fidelity to family; I jumped there first and with a larger arsenal of accusations against my ineptitude and impatience. But regardless of how much I thought I should be more patient and gentle and joyful in motherhood, what I felt was, to put it mildly, overwhelmed. I was overwhelmed in an implosion is imminent way that the ubiquitously used “overwhelmed” just doesn’t adequately convey.
“Remember that scene from Jesus Christ Superstar, with the lepers?” I ask my husband who has called, concerned, after reading my e-mail. He does not remember. Do you? Despite its campiness, and the Christ figure’s wild falsetto, I was so moved and marked by this scene when I first saw the 1973 film version of this rock opera years ago. Jesus is walking into the desert, singing to himself of his mission and journey, seeking a quiet space to reflect and pray. As he walks he is confronted by “lepers”, covered in dark rags, first one, then two, a handful, then hordes, singing out their needs to him, urgently, repeatedly. At first Jesus reaches out to each one, compassion and determination evident on his face. By the end of the scene though, his expression has shifted to one of desperation, even terror as he cries out, “there’s too little of me!” The scene ends with his image all but swallowed up by the beggars as he screams, “leave me alone!”
That is the scene that came to mind as I thought about how parenting felt to me this past week. As I recounted it to my husband, of course digging up theYouTube clip to share, I recalled to myself why I had found this scene so striking in the first place and carried it with me all these years. The fullness of Jesus’ humanity, the rawness of emotion, of vulnerability, the capacity for fear and despair in the midst of determination and faithfulness had never been so evident to me as it was in this midrashic moment. It was an ‘Oh my God” moment, not in a slanderous slang way but in a Thomas touching wounded hands and feet, “My Lord and my God” way. The idea of God coming to earth as a man capable of fear and exhaustion can come as a bit of a letdown for those of us who might sometimes hope for a superhero savior who will scoop us up from the messiness of life on earth and spirit us away to a pristine heavenly home. But imagine the radical, outrageous love that compels the God of All Things, Being Itself, Creator of the Universe not to scoop us out of the mess but to join us creatures, and humans in particular, in it for the sake of restoring relationship.
The same night as the e-mail, after the kids were in bed (hopefully for at least an hour or two before tumbling into ours), I was immersed in the warmth and rhythm of washing dishes, enjoying my empathic bond with an image of Jesus from the 70s and contemplating Incarnation. I was also listening to a rebroadcast of an interview with Fr. James Martin on Krista Tippet’s OnBeing. It was a seasonally appropriate rebroadcasting and they began to talk about Christmas, commercialism and the often overlooked scandal of the true nativity story.
“It’s a terrifying story in terms of what they had to undergo” Fr. Martin was saying, “It is a shocking story. It’s not just a baby. It is God being born in human form. And it’s just as shocking as the resurrection. And I think we’ve tamed it… We can just kind of look on it, and say, “Well, that’s cute.” But if you say to people, “Do you believe that that is God incarnate in that stable? What does that mean for you, that God comes to us as the most helpless being that you could imagine, sort of crying and wetting his pants and needing to be nursed? What does that say to us about who God is for us, and how God is for us, and how much God loved us to do that?”
“What did he just say?” I thought. I had to rewind and listen again. I consider myself someone quite familiar with the nativity story, even the complexity and danger and dirtiness of it. There was nothing especially new about how Fr. Martin had described it, except that one word; “nursed.” One of the most beleaguering things for me has been that my daughter, who will be one on Christmas Eve, still nurses, on average, every two hours through the night. Calling it nursing, I feel, is another word that lacking. My daughter tugs mercilessly at my breast. I could never have imagined the elasticity of human skin before mothering this child. Her version of nursing is not a snuggling, nuzzling seeking of nourishment and bonding but a primal, mammalian, devouring of prey.
“And yet,” I am shaking my head in wonder at the thought, “Jesus nursed.” Jesus cried out in the night with pangs of hunger, of fear perhaps, of a simple desire for warm, familiar flesh. How did Mary feel? Was she exhausted and exasperated? Did she simply move on auto-pilot through the familiar motions? Did she have ever-present the prophecy of an impending sword to her heart and treasure every moment in which she had the privilege to cradle her child, to meet his needs and sooth his troubles? Here I had been imagining the overwrought Jesus, beat down by the demands of others and suddenly I am confronted by Jesus the infant whose whole being is a bundle of demands. It occurs to me that Jesus, in his earthly lifetime, lived both sides of the coin of giving and receiving. This is something we all share with him and each other.
The next day, despite the gift of perceiving Christ’s presence both in my weariness and in my children’s insatiableness, I continue to struggle. My tone of voice slips too often from calm to stern to angry. I say more “no’s” than necessary. I am not the person or parent I want to be. Still, at the end of the day, my son unwittingly reveals to me yet another way in which Christ is manifest in his small, precocious, presence. Washing the dishes again, this time while the kids are awake, playing with their dad, I am interrupted by my son popping in the kitchen, “Come dance with me,” he says. “I can’t, my sweet boy.” A few minutes later, he’s back, “Come play with me, Mama.” A third time, “Come, read with me.” Despite my eruptions, despite my busyness and rejections, he keeps returning to me, desiring to be with me, delighting in my presence. In his beckoning, I hear a phrase, so similar, from Jesus, “Come, follow me.” However helpless you may feel, however you have failed, come, let us walk together.
Amy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, two audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.
People often express their condolences when the subject comes up but—the truth is—it’s really not a big deal. I grew up with asthma, so I was never intimidated by the diagnosis. Thankfully, my daughter’s asthma is well-controlled with daily medication and has (thus far) never caused her any serious issues. Though it does flare up when she falls ill or exercises more than normal, her asthma most typically manifests in a distinctive chronic cough from October through April.
Predictably, the coughing has recently started up again. It makes us very unpopular in public spaces.
At our local science museum last week, I couldn’t help but notice other parents discreetly redirecting their children away from my daughter who, although she’s pretty good about coughing into her elbow, inevitably makes quite a scene when she’s hit with a prolonged spell.
I don’t blame other parents for giving us a wide berth. Nobody wants their kids to get sick and, unless you know (as we do) that her cough is distinctly asthmatic, you’d think she had a cold and was putting everybody at risk of exposure. And so I find myself subtly justifying our presence. If I happen to catch a mother’s skeptical eye after yet another coughing fit, I give her an apologetic smile and say, “Sorry, she has asthma.”
Almost without exception, her expression transforms from one of irritation into one of sympathy and regret.
Watching this instantaneous transformation occur before my eyes over and over again makes me wonder: how many times have I presumed that I am witnessing a human failing (one to which I can feel superior) when, in fact, I’m only seeing the symptom of an underlying illness or injury (one which would immediately compel me to compassion)?
I suspect the answer is almost every time.
One of my favorite quotes, attributed to Ian Maclaren, is, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” The older I get, the more I realize how true this is. In every stage of life I meet people who are embroiled in terrible battles—battles which transform my bitter judgment into deep sympathy in a heartbeat:
Why is that boy acting so rude on the playground? Because he’s on the autism spectrum and doesn’t recognize social cues.
Why is that new mother giving her baby formula, when we all know “breast is best”? Because she has postpartum depression and breastfeeding makes it worse.
Why does that young woman get drunk and sleep with jerks every weekend? Because she was sexually abused and has no model for healthy intimacy.
Why is that guy addicted to heroin? Because he’s gay and terrified of coming out.
Why did that mom bring her sick child to the Pacific Science Center today? Because her daughter’s cough is due to a chronic, not contagious, sickness.
We are all of us sick: at the very least, in the way that humanity is sick with original sin but also—and usually far worse—in ways that are personal, foundational … and frequently invisible. Our souls may be sin-sick (as the old hymn goes), but they are also abuse-sick, grief-sick, trauma-sick, and illness-sick.
The same wounds and diseases that cry out for compassion lie hidden beneath the very symptoms which make compassion so easy to withhold. And yet Scripture, particularly the New Testament, makes it pretty clear that compassion is non-negotiable if we are to consider ourselves true Christians.
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:12-14)
I pray for the grace to see beyond the coughing spells I encounter, and to be moved to compassion for those dreadful, hidden illnesses about which I know nothing.
Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s whose contributions to Messy Jesus Business usually focus on the intersection of faith and parenting. She writes from the Seattle, Washington area, where she lives with her husband and two daughters (only one of whom has asthma).
I recently observed an online discussion in which a full-time church minister who had just become a new mother was lamenting the fact that she was not allowed to bring her new baby with her to the office. She felt she had valid reasoning to do so and made a good case for her ability to juggle work responsibilities and care for her child at the same time. However, she was ultimately denied; told by both the pastor and the office staff that such a request was unprofessional.
There is a growing movement in the Church, especially in the world of ecclesial lay ministry, to become more professional. This has come to mean an impulse to not only become more credentialed, certified and educated, but also to acquire the trappings of professionalism—to dress a certain way, keep certain hours, have shiny equipment and ban kids and pets from our offices.
And it leads me to ask the question: is this really what we want the Church to be? More professional? The current professional climate of the white-collar world is all-too-often filled with stories of sad, inverted priorities and temptations to be greedy, overly ambitious and self-serving. Many places of employment now ask people to work endless hours with no pause or rest, and it’s pushing us beyond our limits. Our obsession with achievement and accomplishment is creating a whole culture of people who feel resentful of their families or who consider abortion a thinkable option in effect to finish a thesis or get a promotion. Our desire to achieve and be professional is literally killing us. The Church’s job is not to emulate these practices, but to build a better world instead.
I have been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of that better world. In my previous job I worked at a nonprofit that delivered environmental education to inner city kids. The work culture there was tremendously unprofessional—staff members frequently came in shorts and t-shirts, brought their kids or their pets in with them, and kept odd hours. But it was by far the healthiest work environment I have ever experienced. It was a culture in which people were encouraged to find multi-faceted identities; in which it was recognized that good work requires good rest; in which the reality that we all had families and friends in addition to jobs was celebrated. In turn, these values created an environment of high achievement. Our executive director made it clear she didn’t expect us to be professional in the standard sense, but she did expect us to be excellent. There were no excuses for doing a bad job: you were expected to come in and work well and work hard. And you did work hard because you felt like you were a member of a team instead of just a serf.
Though I have moved jobs since then, I’m lucky still. I currently work as a youth minister. My office is next door to my wife’s, who is the church’s religious education coordinator. We frequently bring our young daughter in with us and everyone benefits from it. My family gets to spend time together. The church gets co-workers who collaborate really well, working hard because we are grateful to this place that nurtures us. We save money on childcare and therefore accept lower salaries. The office gets an adorable cheerleader on tough days. But, perhaps most telling, is the health of the parish. It’s no coincidence that the numbers in our family and young child programs have risen sharply in the last 18 months. So many potential new parishioners or those fallen away come to me and ask “Is the Church really welcoming to young children and new families? Or will we be viewed as an inconvenience?” And I get to look at them and honestly say “I bring my daughter with me all the time. We love it here. This is her second home.”
I know everyone’s situation is different. And the lived reality of it is far messier than this short description might make it appear. But I do sincerely believe we are all happier and healthier because we are focused on the concrete needs of the people we are ministering to and ministering with, which has led us to largely ignore the abstract bar of professionalism.
The Church should strive for excellence in its ministry. We should deliver the highest level of quality in everything we do. We are servants, and our parishioners deserve the best we can give. But the best, from the perspective of the Gospel, does not mean the most professional. It does not mean the flashiest or the cleanest or the nicest. It certainly does not mean the most regularly scheduled. The best ministry means unburdening the oppressed and advocating for a saner way of life. In this day and age, that might mean going to the office with a baby on your hip. It certainly means throwing off the ungodly burden of false respectability and seeking lighter yokes instead.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, his adorable daughter and his very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.
Recently—and a bit ironically, considering my vocation—my life has offered me an opportunity to learn all sorts of lessons about prayer and parenting.
When I was in temporary vows a few years ago I agonized about my vocation a lot. I agonized about why it was that I was called to be a Sister, especially since marriage and motherhood were also so incredibly attractive to me. I was tormented by my conflicting and equally good desires. I doubted my abilities and even the discernment that led me to religious life and kept me sticking around. “Why?!” was my perpetual question that spiraled around in my prayers and cycled on repeat through every conversation with my spiritual director.
Then, one day, while on retreat and feeling elated in the silence and solitude I was soaking up the answer dawned upon me: I am a Franciscan sister because solitude and silence help me thrive.
It was easy to picture myself as a mother and a wife. My love would be intense and I would be enthusiastic about serving and creating a strong, happy and healthy family. I knew that I’d sacrifice my needs for the sake of others and I wouldn’t be able to enjoy true solitude and prayer—to unite with God in silence. I suspected that my relationship with God would be basically put on hold for 20 years and I couldn’t bear the thought; couldn’t imagine myself as calm and grounded without a strong prayer life. Rather, all I could envision was a frantic, stressed and overwhelmed version of myself–not exactly a peaceful woman who was joyfully living the Gospel.
For the past month I have been very fortunate to stay at my younger sister’s farm in southwest Iowa–and in a sense, test out my intuition about what life would have been like as a mother. My sister is a businesswoman, a farmer, a wife, and a parent; my precious niece is three months old and my adorable nephew is three and half. During these weeks my intuition has been affirmed: yes, indeed, my prayer life is different with kids around.
But, it turns out that I am not exactly frantic, stressed nor ungrounded after all.
It’s taken me a while to understand how this happened. I’ve realized that assisting with childcare hasn’t actually decreased my prayer life, but rather prayer has taken on a whole new form and shape. In this setting prayer happens between diaper changes and bouncing the baby while my sister squeezes in a meeting or a nap. Morning and evening psalms are prayed in a bouncy, choppy manner while a curious preschooler creates an imaginary play world around me.
Mostly, though, God’s presence is known through the ordinary sacredness of viewing the world through the lens of childhood—as a beginner person and a person in need. My niece stares out the the window at the green life moving in the breeze and her expression of pure wonder and awe remind me not to take God’s creation for granted. My nephew cries out “I want someone to play with me!” and interrupts my tasks with a reminder that attending to a vulnerable child is one of the best ways to unite with God’s love and listen to God’s voice.
For certain, I have learned that the prayer of parents and childcare workers is the prayer of action. It is on-the-go, and in-between. For some families prayer may be structured and formal, but for most it’s likely the holy raptness of ordinary chaos. It is listening and responding to a child’s cries, questions, or made-up story. It is asking the child to lead the meal time prayer. It is responding to the question of “How did God make the cabbage purple?” with “It is a beautiful mystery! Isn’t God amazing?!” It is, as Messy Jesus Business Rabble Rousers Nicole and Steven have each written about, integrating Truth and wonder into the messy, loving relationships and constant service of family life. It is psalms enacted and adoration of God everywhere, just like the sort of stuff that Sister Sarah will speak about in a webinar later this week.
Although my experience this past month has been a blessing and a teacher, I still feel affirmed in my vocation as a Franciscan Sister. As my time here comes to a close, I look forward to returning to my more familiar form of religious life, to sharing daily life with my FSPA sisters and a bit more structured prayer. There, I’ll pray united with parents everywhere who commune with God in the art of childcare every chaotic, beautiful day.
I had a Jesus moment while putting my daughters to bed the other night. My 3 year old was sick: fever, cough, runny nose, etc., and it was clear that she was going to need some special attention in order to fall asleep. Instead of going through our typical evening proceedings, I gave her a teaspoon of honey and tried to rock her to sleep. But as I did so, my younger daughter became increasingly distressed: she wanted her normal bedtime routine.
My husband and I have worked hard to establish a predictable sequence of events leading up to bedtime, and our girls appreciate the consistency. But, sometimes, circumstances demand that the routine be disrupted.
And that’s uncomfortable.
My younger daughter was upset because I had breached the established order of things. I had broken the rules. As she fussed and clung to me and tried to stop me from rocking her sister, I became irritated. Couldn’t she see that, right now, the needs of her sister trumped the “rules”? After untangling her from my leg for the umpteenth time, it struck me that this was probably exactly how Jesus felt when he was reproached by the Pharisees for healing people on the Sabbath. Jesus, in his wise compassion, knew that giving sight to the blind was far more important than following the rules. But, much like my daughter felt unmoored without her typical bedtime routine, Jesus’ disregard for the rules made the Pharisees feel insecure, and they reacted with scorn and judgment.
I am frequently a Pharisee.
But here’s an encouraging thought: although I was irritated by my younger daughter’s dogmatic approach to bedtime, I certainly didn’t love her any less because of it! I was, in fact, very sympathetic to her discomfort; I wished only for her to understand that, although I cherish them both equally, her sister’s need was greater in that moment.
As Catholics, we profess a Preferential Option for the Poor. This is a rich and provocative theological concept to which entire books are devoted, but it essentially boils down to this: God is most present to those who are most vulnerable and—as followers of Christ—we must similarly prioritize the poor. One of my spiritual directors described it this way:
Theologically, the notion of preference says more about the goodness of God than it does about the goodness of the poor. It does not mean the poor are necessarily more virtuous, more deserving, or more holy than those who are not poor… It means that God reaches out in love to those who have a greater need. —
When one of my daughters is sick, I reach out to her with a special kind of love, not because she is better than her sister, but simply because she needs me more. As a mother, it is easy—instinctual, even—to give preference to a sick child without wavering in love for her healthy sibling.
As a community member, churchgoer, and citizen, it’s a lot tougher.
We who believe in a Preferential Option for the Poor are called to stand in solidarity with and prioritize the most vulnerable. That may sound romantic, but this is messy, difficult, and sometimes exceedingly unpopular work. Still, we are called to do it with cheerful hearts.
Even as we break the rules in order to uplift the vulnerable, and even as we ourselves cling to the rules in order to maintain our own comfort, we must remember this: although he preferred the disciples, Jesus did not love the Pharisees any less.
I find that fact to be both distressing and reassuring. I am distressed because it means I must look with love upon those whose actions I deplore. I am reassured because it means that my own deplorable actions have not made me unlovable.
… And I know this to be true, because no matter how many times my daughter fusses or clings or tries to sabotage her sister’s special time, I could only ever see her as my beloved.
Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a mom, writer, and friend of Sister Julia’s. She finds that putting a theological spin on her daughters’ behavior helps maintain her sanity.
I hate it when my children are sick: when their normally endless energy is replaced by a whimpering lethargy. When their bleary eyes can muster no enthusiasm for treats or excursions. When I know they are suffering and there’s nothing I can do to make it better.
Except for snuggles. Oh, how I love to snuggle my daughters when they’re sick!
I love to snuggle them anytime, of course, but toddlers are squirmy and busy and generally disinclined to sit in one place for any amount of time. But when they’re sick they come willingly, imploringly for snuggles. They bury their faces in my shoulder and wrap their arms and legs around me, as if physical contact will somehow cool their feverish limbs. They doze and cuddle and listen to lullabies.
And my heart swells with love.
I hate it when they’re sick … But I cherish those sick snuggles more than they will ever know.
That thought gives me pause to consider my relationship with God. Like many people, I tend to seek God out far more fervently when I am in need of comfort than when everything is copacetic. The most difficult times in my life have corresponded, un-coincidentally, with the times in which I have felt closest to God.
I’ve always felt guilty about that.
Why am I able to find the time to sit in silence and listen for God’s word when my spirit is sick, but not when all is well? Shouldn’t I spend as much time thanking God in the land of milk and honey as I spend asking for deliverance from the desert?
Acutely aware of this spiritual weakness, my prayers during those troubled times often begin with an apology: “God, I know I’ve been neglecting you, and I’m sorry I don’t spend as much time with you as I should … But I really need you right now.”
I feel compelled to confess my devotional failures before I venture toward God in supplication–as though my prayers are less valid because they are made under duress …. or as though God will be less inclined to comfort me because I have not sufficiently nurtured our relationship.
But if my experience as a mom is even remotely indicative of the love that God has for us as children, then this is not how God cares for the afflicted.
When my daughters approach me with runny noses and sore throats, seeking sympathy and comfort, I don’t ask them, “Where was this affection when I was taking you to the park or coloring with you?!” I simply gather them into my arms and treasure them.
I want only for them to snuggle in and abide in my love.
So the next time I find myself in need of spiritual comfort, I’ll try to remember that God cherishes any opportunity to lavish me with love. I’ll breathe in the divine essence that surrounds me, knowing that God, too, is breathing me in with an infinite tenderness – a tenderness of which I’ve only had a glimpse in this life, while snuggling my sick children.
Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s and mom to a three-year-old and one-year-old. She writes from the Seattle, Washington, area, where the flu season apparently started early this year.
It was one of those moments every parent dreads: my two-year-old had worked herself into an ugly public tantrum, and I had to abandon our planned activity in order to haul her thrashing body out to the car. Frustrated and embarrassed, I couldn’t help but think to myself: “Seriously, Jesus? The Kingdom of God belongs to such as these?”
Jesus, however, called the children to himself and said, “Let the children come to me and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” –Luke 18:16-17
Before I was a mom, I never really pondered the Bible passages in which Jesus encourages His disciples to become like little children. I assumed He was extolling children’s innocence and telling us to return to the purity of our youth.
But now I know better.
Little children are far from innocent. They are impatient, volatile, jealous, and unreasonable. They are, as it turns out, younger versions of the human species, and the human species has only ever produced one perfect human.
So why does Jesus hold these tiny tyrants in such high esteem?
As my daughter approaches her third birthday, I have a few thoughts on the matter (insert requisite disclaimer that I am not a biblical exegete… just a mom who has observed her kids for the past few years): Though they are not innocent, per se, young children are exceptionally transparent; their flaws and failings -be they fits of anger or refusal to share a toy- are out there for the world to see. Even their occasional attempts at deception are laughably obvious (ie: my daughter announcing from another room, “Mama, I didn’t make a mess!”). If they are angry with you, they do not subtly contrive to tear you down –they simply throw a fit.
When children misbehave, they do so with glorious flagrance.
And that, I think, is what Jesus was driving at: whatever children do, they do it wholeheartedly and unabashedly. So, in those wonderful moments in which our kids are not humiliating us, the face of God shines brilliantly through their wide-open eyes. A seemingly insignificant activity, like playing in the sprinklers on a summer day, is a downright awe-inspiring experience for my daughter. She does not guard herself or her emotions, but runs headlong into the adventures of each day.
It’s easy, then, for me to picture the little ones of Jesus’ time as they ran toward Him, laughing and jostling one another in their haste, completely oblivious to the impropriety of their gusto. In those days, children dwelled in the periphery of society, their immaturity excluding them from full membership in the community. Yet despite their lowly station, these children easily recognized and sought out the loving power of Jesus (as did so many of “the least of these”).
Nowadays, we afford children more respect than did the ancient Jews, but the fact remains that our kiddos are wholly dependent upon us to meet their needs. Amazingly, this relative powerlessness does not burden them with feelings of unworthiness or insecurity (as it likely would you or me), but instead frees them to experience life with a passion that knows neither limits nor shame. When my daughter belts out “Jesus Loves Me,” she doesn’t apologize for her untrained voice… And she doesn’t doubt for a second that the words she sings are true. So why do we?
We are all of us imperfect, but perfectly loved anyway.
I sometimes wonder how much deeper my relationship with Christ would be if I ran toward Him with as much unbridled eagerness as my daughter runs toward me: arms outstretched, grinning or sobbing, unself-conscious of anything other than our mutual love. How much more loudly would my life proclaim the love of God if I were unencumbered by an instinct for self-preservation? How much more devout a disciple would I be if I could not hide my own brokenness behind an exterior of apparent self-sufficiency?
In other words: how much worthier of the Kingdom of God would I be if, rather than pretending at nonchalance or stoking the fires of silent resentment, I followed my daughter’s example and just threw an undignified tantrum once in awhile?
Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia who lives near Seattle. She is the mother of an almost-three-year-old and a 1-year-old, and she considers herself lucky to have only had to abandon a public place due to a tantrum once (so far…).