In God’s Image: Finding Jesus in the Mundane Mess of Motherhood

“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.

Nee-Walker Child #2 on the prowl
Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker

“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 the YouTube 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.

Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker
Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker

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.

Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker
Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker

“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.

Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker
Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

 

Nee-Walker FamilyAmy 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.

Big picture love

Union with God: we pray for it, long for it, work for it. But, are we prepared for what it can do to us? How much could we be transformed if, for example, we start to see the world as God sees it? And, what does love got to do with it?

Last night I renewed my temporary vows for two more years; I am now starting my fifth year of vowed life with the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, and it’s truly awesome. I marvel at all the abundant blessings that embrace me and the numerous ways that I am enriched by life in a community of phenomenal women. God is so good and I am blessed!

One of the amazing ways that life in community (and in many ways, life in general) enhances me is the gift of love that is given: I am constantly held by Love’s power. Through love I feel accepted and appreciated (celebrated, even) and it’s energizing. Plus, the love I experience is overwhelming because it is so big, huge, deep and wide.

And, I shall confess, it also feels a bit unfair to experience so much love. I am thankful but I do also squirm in the awkwardness and get a tad uncomfortable. Somehow it’s uncomfortable when I realize that it’s deserved–that I am indeed love-worthy. (In fact, we all are!)

Being loved–understanding how loved I am–feels unfair because I know many, many people do not understand they are loved by God or feel loved by others. I don’t like it when someone is wealthy in a goodness that others lack, and need. Some of the youth I have worked with especially do not understand that they are beautiful, loved, precious and valuable children of God. This breaks my heart. Also, many of the people I know who live in tough poverty have to struggle with homelessness or insecurity simply because they are not blessed with a huge circle of supportive, loving relationships like I am. This is not their fault, it’s their situation.

In another element of society, I have encountered ministers–yes, ministers–who do not feel worthy to be loved by God or used as an instrument of God. It’s different than an appropriate humility or minority (so well described here by my Franciscan missionary friend). Why do we see love right in front of us and then not accept it? I wonder if it’s worse than having low self-esteem or being insecure.

As humans we fall into traps of categorical and hierarchical thinking way too quickly.

When we’re really free–when we’re really united with God–then we get to step back and see things like God does. We gain a big picture, a full-range view of what’s really up. Then we realize that God doesn’t ever think anyone or anything is ever better than another. Love is not unfair, love is always wide, deep, detailed, and full of freedom.

I wonder if it looks something like this:

"Dubuque from above" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Dubuque from above” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

The other day I enjoyed a beautiful plane ride over Wisconsin. From above, I could see the hot humidity hanging over the land, even though I knew those on Earth couldn’t see what was causing them to feel as they did.

There’s a bit of a paradox in what goes through my mind when I’m in airplanes. Looking down, I wonder if I’m seeing the world as God sees it. But, then I believe wholeheartedly that God is not just above us, looking down, watching over us. Nope, God is totally, intimately with us, even in the littlest, tiniest things. I remember having a totally profound dream about ten years ago in which I discovered the nativity scene on the tip of a tiny thread. I think God is also like that.

Love is like that too. After all, God is Love.

So, right, love is fair, good, awesome, wide, deep, big, detailed–it encompasses all things. Just like it says in St. Paul’s old love letter:

It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinth 13:7)

This is the sort of thing we must remember and recommit to when we’re frustrated or discouraged, when Gospel living feels too messy for our liking. Love bears even the ugly, the injustices, the violence, the sin. We get to lean into God’s love, we can trust God even when the suffering is too intense for us to have hope in redemption. I believe all this but can admit it’s easier said than done.

One of my favorite names and images of God is of God as The Great Artist–the one who is still creating, making the masterpiece of the universe. Only God can really know how or why the mysterious colors of suffering are needed or fit into the big picture.  (Fr. Barron explains this quite well in Episode 3 of the Catholicism series.)

So all in all, God’s love is both big picture stuff and tiny thread stuff. I get to experience it in my vowed communal life and I hope you’re experiencing it too. We are loved and God is love; this is very good! Together, let’s savor it and dwell in it and share it–and then together, we shall be more transformed by it too. Amen!

messy wonder

piles to file

thicker than the bed

of rest

the to-do list,

too long

can’t know

what to bless

desk deep

big mess

anxiety eats

at the sleep

dreams, concerns

for Christ’s kingdom

make one weep

distracted from NOW:

so stop, breathe, be

praise God

run wild

into wonder

and ride renewal

to joy.