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.

Ordinary lights

During a recent volunteer stint at the local drop-in center for people who are homeless, I overheard a conversation between two of the guests. A man gestured toward me and said, “Don’t talk like that here, especially with her around — she’s a nun.” I don’t know what they were talking about or what words they were using, but I noticed the woman he was talking to squirm in disbelief and embarrassment.

She turned to check me out, to see if he was telling the truth. I introduced myself and explained that yes, I am a sister, but that they shouldn’t worry or try to be any different around me. I asked her to be herself and said I would be myself too. I said that I am an ordinary person who just lives a different type of lifestyle. After commenting on my simple outfit of leggings and a sundress, she relaxed and said…

[[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

 

4 photos from Assisi

I have been back from Assisi for a few weeks now, after spending over two weeks on pilgrimage there. The effects of the experience are still sinking in. Slowly, I am coming to know what the after-effects of my Assisi experience actually are.

It has occurred to me, though, that certain images and experiences linger more loudly, causing my Assisi memories to stay very alive, even though my life here has built layers on top in my mind.

It’s very difficult to really articulate what I experienced, so bear with me. I hope that the photography I’ve chosen helps.

1.) The art within the Basilicas

Photography inside the Basilicas of Assisi is not allowed, so I can’t share actual images with you. I’ll just say that seeing the originals of art that I have studied and prayed with since my entrance into FSPA was truly awesome. It was a thrill for me to pray with the actual San Damiano crossthe larger-than-life and vibrant frescoes by Giotto in St Francis’ Basilica, and the beautiful, simple Porziuncola where Francis lived with many of the early brothers. Somehow, the art in each of these sacred spaces caused me to encounter Christ in a way unlike I have before. I felt connected to Francis and Clare, to centuries of pilgrims, to the shared tradition of prayer.

This image of Francis is on the outside wall, above the door into the lower basilica of St. Francis.

"The Francis who greets" photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
The Francis who greets by Julia Walsh, FSPA

2.) The valley below Assisi

Apparently, during the time of Francis and Clare the Spoleto Valley was a marshy land where few people would venture. It contained leper colonies where members of Francis and Clare’s communities would serve. One hot and sunny afternoon, I tried to walk across the valley from the place where Francis lived with the early brothers (the Porziuncola) to where Clare lived with early poor ladies (the Chapel of San Damiano). Even though I got overheated and never made it to San Damiano that day, I was in awe about how the land felt somewhat familiar. Perhaps my Iowan roots help me to feel comfortable in any agricultural setting. Or, perhaps praying with the stories of Francis and Clare during the past few years allowed me to feel at home.

I took this picture when I was walking through the valley.

"Assisi and the field" Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Assisi and the field by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

3.) The dancing colors across the sky

Nearly every day I was able to take in the magnificent sunrise and sunsets over Assisi. The scenes were like bookends of the blessed days. In between the sun coming up and going down I would encounter the way that this small town of peace offered hospitality to people of all types; to all sorts of colorful characters from all over the world. Some of us were tuned into the Spirit and sacredness. Others were joyful about what was quaint and calm. No matter where we are all of us, whether we believe it or not, are God’s children sharing space under the beautiful sky.

This is from the sunset the first night I was in Assisi.

"the wonder of color" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
The wonder of color by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

 4.) The joy of being Franciscan

I mentioned it earlier, but I am happy to say it again. In the land of St. Francis, I felt very joyful and like my truest self. I would randomly sing hymns and find myself muttering prayers, more than normal. I am so thankful that God has blessed me with this vocation and made me part of this wonderful Franciscan family. Now that I am home again with many more sisters from my community, I understand why so many eyes sparkle with deep gratitude when the talk shifts to our Franciscan roots. I suspect that my eyes do that too. I hope we help others know God’s goodness through our joy.

In this picture, one of my pilgrimage companions lifts up his arms in Assisi.

"joy in the journey" photo by julia Walsh, FSPA
Joy in the journey by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

Thanks be to God for the way that this pilgrimage continues to enrich my life! Pace è Bene!

Still, I am moving

During prayer this morning, I tried to count up all the major changes that have happened or are happening in my life lately. I totally lost count.

The school year ended just four days ago. My youngest sister got married about a week and a half ago. Now, I am in the middle of packing for seven weeks out-of-town, for graduate studies and then an exciting pilgrimage. When I come back to town in early August, I’ll be moving. With the same sisters, down the street, and into another community property, but still–I’m moving.

Transition can be a testy, disorienting time for me. Sometimes my prayer gets tainted by talking to God about the tasks on my ever-evolving to-do list.

When I realize how my busyness is impacting my relationship with God, a strange shame can start to color my thoughts. I find myself thinking hard questions: Am I being too self-centered? Have I made my blessings into burdens? How is God calling me to Love right now? Why do I keep messing up? 

The questions, doubts, shame, self-criticism, to-do lists quickly get tangled together in a big mess of awkward prayer.

Truly, God’s mercy and love is abundant. And, God wants me to remain open to love. I know this stuff, but I don’t always remember it. I am not always rooted in it.

God tends to figure out a way to get through my thick thoughts and calm me down with holy reminders. In fact, that just happened.

In my sorting, I came across a poem I wrote about a month ago, when the transition into Spring was vibrant around here. I forgot all about the poem but now it offers words that I want to dwell in and remember, as I keep moving.

"opening buds" by Julia Walsh FSPA
“opening buds” by Julia Walsh FSPA

 

“Spring Life”

The squirms of Spring speak of salvation.

Blooms that burst & bless & remind us of

Resurrection

Opening New

Life where we once saw death.

So to shall it be in me-

New openings

full of promise & color & creative

commotion –

all in Him-

indeed!

Made by many

I have exciting news! This week’s issue of America  magazine contains an essay written by me!

The essay is called “Changed, not ended: A view of religious life from a young sister” and it also includes a great illustration, which I love:

walsh_art-1000_0-jpg
Illustration by Dan Salamida. http://americamagazine.org/issue/changed-not-ended

 

Writing this essay and going through the process of getting it published has been an adventure many years in the making.

As one who had childhood dreams of becoming a writer — but had at one point given up on my dreams — I am totally thrilled. I am in awe. And, I am very, very thankful.

This accomplishment is not my own, it is not success because of my own doing.  Rather, this an achievement of an entire community.

In last week’s blog post I said I was going to share a bit about the adventures in writing I’ve had within the past year.

And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son,
full of grace and truth. – John 1:14

One of the major gifts of 2013 was the fruit that came from living a life in union with the Word of God. Specifically, I found that I still gain a lot of energy and joy as I try to be a writer. First of all, my sporadic habit of blogging on continues here at Messy Jesus Business.

In the past year, Invitations to write for other publications starting coming too, including one by the Franciscan Spirituality Center Blog for which I once wrote about “Christmas Every Day.” I was really excited to learn that I had earned a scholarship to a writers workshop that I was blessed to attend the last week of July and first few days of August.

Plus, my community invited me to try something really creative: be a Poetry Catcher at our assembly in June. I had the task of mirroring back my observations to the 300 or so sisters and affiliates there through poetry. At one point I was asked to write a poem WHILE I listened and then immediately perform the poem for the crowd. I was in awe right with everyone else by what came out of me.

That’s often how I feel about the creative work of writing: amazed by the gift God gives. The gifts related to the work of writing have been abundant this year. At the writers workshop I was incredibly enriched by new relationships and encouragement from other Christian artists, insights about how to grow as a poet and writer, and lessons on poetry and the creative life in general. In addition to the essay in America magazine this week, I also had a poem published in an online literary journal within the past month.

Like I said, my accomplishments and success are not my own. Certainly none of this exciting success would have come without the encouragement, help and support of great editors, my Franciscan sisters, and many other friends— all of who are deserving of a big shout-out and THANKS!

But, most importantly, I am very certain I would have never become a writer and a poet without my relationships with my Franciscan sisters.

Even though I dreamed of being a writer and a teacher when I was a child, I quickly gave up on my dream of becoming a writer because I did not have much confidence.  In school, I was pretty much an average student — especially in English class, where I came to realize I had a lower vocabulary than most and grammar rules confused me.  Although I had excellent English teachers, none of them ever gave me any extra encouragement so I gave up on my dream of being a writer before I even started college.

God is a God of surprises and abundant blessings. And, many of those blessings come through community.

Within a couple of years of entering my community, several of the sisters I was growing close to were getting to know that I enjoyed writing poetry and prose. So then, when an opportunity to write for a blog came my way, sisters encouraged me to take it.

Then, over 3 years ago a Sister encouraged me to start a whole other blog. I prayed a lot about it, and that’s how Messy Jesus Business was born.  This is a risk I would have never taken without the help and support of community.  Likewise, the blog wouldn’t continue to have a vibrant life without the readership and follower-ship from all of you. Thank you!!

Similarly, sisters encouraged me in my poetry too. I was stunned when I started to hear from some of them that I had talent. As invitations to share my poetry started coming from sisters, I grew more overwhelmed by the praise I would receive, especially when I felt so clueless about the craft.

Only within the past year have I gained an acceptance of the gift, due to the blessings coming from my community. Because of my sisters, I am willing to say I am a poet and a writer now. And, I feel like many of my other dreams related to writing are possible. Maybe I’ll actually get to write books one day!

I shed tears when I think of it: I am who I am today because of how I have been made by many.  My community has empowered me and enlivened me and helped me be a steward to the gifts God has given. I am officially a published writer now, by the blessing of my community.  God is so good, and I am thankful!