I wish I could take you back with me to freshman year of college. Trinity is so beautiful in the fall. So collegiate. Maples catch fire around the neighborhood and across campus, carpeting the ground with leaves that seem to glow like embers. Like all freshmen, we walked in groups, talking too loud, trying to feel at home in our new space. I was nervous and homesick and also a little giddy with the freedom of being 1000 miles from home. I relished my newfound freedom to structure my days how I wanted but I missed family dinners and the bickering and banter and fighting over whose turn it was to load the dishwasher.
It wasn’t long before I found my own life rhythms, channeling my homesickness into new disciplines: regular meals and coffee breaks with friends and professors, dedicated time for personal reading and writing, [mostly] regular bedtimes, morning runs crunching through leaves around campus. Courses on monasticism piqued my interest in contemplative practices. I helped develop a short lived but (personally) formative intentional community on campus where my commitments to these new rhythms were tested by the equally important commitment to my new dorm-mates. Daily readings, chapel, postured prayer, yoga, and other individual and communal spiritual practices gave shape to my faith experience. College was a life-giving season, earnest and sincere and good.
That season began almost 10 years ago. After college I found new, slightly less-robust but equally earnest rhythms with roommates amid the demands of work life, and then marriage offered both challenges and opportunities for learning about life together. Each season different but also it’s own kind of good. But now in this endless of blur of days called motherhood I am utterly at a loss for how to fold in these swirling questions about faith and life with the constant neediness of my children. I feel lost. My deconstruction phase started before they were born, around the time we lost their big sister. As I wrestled with the messier and more troubling parts of my faith, even the familiar comforts of those practices seemed suspect. Daily mothering has taken the fragments of what remained and worn them down to dust. There is no time or emotional space here for the deep reflecting or lamenting or wondering at the mysteries of faith. There is just an always-full sink of dishes and an always screaming child and another one who is biting or destroying or peeing on a library book. The mysteries are still swirling away, trying to take root and turn into good questions, but they are constantly sabotaged by small children who have no regard for the inner life of their bewildered mother.
The further I stumble along into adulthood (is there an age when you have to properly recognize yourself as an adult? does that happen in your 30s?) the more intensely aware and affected I am by the immense suffering in the world. I can’t seem to stop reading about it and I can’t figure out how to move forward in life with the images of bodies of mothers and their newborn babies uncovered in the aftermath of the latest round of attacks in Syria, or the footage from shaking cell phones showing more black men being shot dead in the street because their very existence in this world threatens the white construct of reality. I am drowning in the weight of it, sucked down into the depths by my own inaction. But what does a mediocre stay at home mom, one without a particular vocational avenue for justice work, one who struggles to meal plan or ever get the laundry folded and put away, one who zones out after 8pm with Netflix or more depressing news for company – what does she possibly have to offer the world?
So, when my spiritual-adviser-turned-professor suggested I take his class on spiritual formation, I jumped at the chance. Now that I’m a month in I am realizing how much I needed the push to examine the fundamentalism I was raised with and to figure out which spiritual practices I could reclaim as life-giving and responsive to my new (and somewhat fragile) faith. It still feels a bit foreign to pick up the same worn bible from my teenage years and thumb past verses and passages once used to justify scary and destructive theology. My glitter gel pen underlines are bold and everywhere- the notes of a passionate 16 year old who wore her certainty like a badge of honor. And so even though I think I’m finally done feeling angry and disillusioned with faith, even though I want to wonder again, I have struggled to find the beautiful and hopeful to lean into. Or so I thought.
My professor prefers to talk about spiritual disciplines as “Practices for Spiritual Attentiveness” (an effort to rid the shame so many of us feel when we think about our less than successful pursuits of intentional study or prayer or listening). Attentiveness is something we cultivate moment by moment, day by day. A way of patterning life so that we live into it more richly, more present to God and others. As he was listing characteristics of this practice last night I couldn’t help but see my little R&E staring back at me from the whiteboard:
Simply being present to each moment: Check.
Keenly noticing the natural world: Check.
Slowing down the pace of life to attend to these discoveries: Check.
Intensely focusing on particular concepts or events: Check.
Attention to the emotions of others: Check.
They wail, they giggle, they dawdle, they lavish love, and they weep over their transgressions. This work that they are doing is a vibrant life-liturgy. Wails of lament and proclamations of love and everything in between. As I figure out my own attentiveness, I think I probably need to start by taking a cue from theirs and celebrating what I do know and see and trust in this great trembling world. She might be coming apart at the seams but we are leaning in together, binding up the broken places. I am comforted to think that spiritual practice is the leaning in, not the calling out. Lamenting, wondering, laughing, wailing, hoping, pressing ever on until every drop of energy is spent and deep rest awaits. This is the liturgy of toddlers and I want it to be mine too.
(I feel so inspired I’m going to post a bible verse now and try not to feel too weird about it. I’m reading this passage and thinking of my kids being dragged into the middle of the room to show the adults what it means to have eyes to see the world as it will be. Pretty wild.)
Jesus called over a child, whom he stood in the middle of the room, and said, “I’m telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you’re not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in. Whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God’s kingdom. Matthew 18 2-4
[After class last night we walked out to this brilliant display. The crispness of fall has finally set in and the colors seemed all the more brilliant for it. It occurred to me that sunsets are a sort of planetary liturgy- they inspire and conspire to draw our awe together. In spite of everything else. Because of everything else. A balm for our souls.]