Penny Carothers is a mom and the Social Justice Editor at the Burnside Writers Collective. You can find her on Twitter, her blog, or more often, on the floor playing with legos. You may also remember her as Penny from Blue Like Jazz, except she’s even more awesome in person.
I guess I’m not postmodern enough to have read the Desert Mothers, but once upon a time I was into the mystics. Years ago, when reading about Juliann of Norwich, I had an intense desire to, like her, have a room built around me – which I could never leave – so I could devote myself to the meditative life. (Ha! Excuse me while I laugh myself silly.) That life – and sometimes it seems my whole goll-darn spiritual life – is ancient history. ‘Cuz I have kids now.
I’ve got two, which means I can’t spend days in a cave or hours on my knees. Something about the mental and physical exhaustion of child-rearing makes even the leanest spiritual practice a near impossibility. The proffered solutions are laughable, even ridiculous. Get up earlier to read the Bible. Seriously? Is that a joke? Find space in the small moments of each day? I might feel guilty about it sometimes, but I’d rather wrangle some control over my house and my self lest I turn into the baby food-wearing, greasy-haired, haggard mommy I am but a few small steps ahead of becoming.
I often think there must be something wrong with me, because drinking coffee and brushing my teeth usually takes precedent over reading the Bible. I berate myself, saying that if I really cared about my spiritual life I would make the necessary sacrifices. I had almost convinced myself of this when a friend suggested Bonnie Miller-McLemore’s book, In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as Spiritual Practice. Miller-McLemore* rejects the notion you must say goodbye to a vibrant spiritual life when you become a parent. She challenges us to get rid of the belief that the sacred is found only in certain rituals, practices, and places, noting that Protestants have forgotten about the sanctification of the ordinary.
In perhaps my favorite paragraph in the book, Miller-McLemore quotes medievalist scholar Elizabeth Dreyer. Parenting, Dreyer says, “is the ‘ascetic opportunity’ par excellence….A full night’s sleep, time to oneself, the freedom to come and go as one pleases – all this must be given up.” The sacrifice of parenting is a no-brainer, but I have to admit: it leaves me feeling a little defeated. This whiney, poopy, chaotic quotidian life is the field in which our spirituality grows and matures? There’s not some glorious mountaintop waiting for me?
I’ve always elevated the lives of others above my own spiritual aspirations (especially people like Thomas Merton and Juliann of Norwich, and really, anybody who seems to have a rule of life that brings the spiritual into the everyday). This mistaken belief parallels my long-held view that spirituality has to look a certain way to be legit. Being the good girl that I am, I want to do it right: have daily quiet time, read the Bible every day, and (at least try to) pray without ceasing.
But Miller-McLemore has got me thinking: what if there really is a different way? What if God intended the hug of a child to mirror the numinous moment others achieve through meditation? What if attending to the needs and the play of children – really attending, not reading the news on my phone or folding laundry while I listen with half an ear – was a window into the spiritual? What if all I really needed to do was simply be present? After all, God calls himself a lover and a parent, and perhaps there is something to learn in embracing my life rather than trying to escape it so I can have real communion with God.
It’s still a little shocking, but perhaps the most spiritual thing I can do may be to embrace my life as a mother. Not a spiritual, metaphorical mother, but a snot-wiping, baby-chasing, diaper bag-toting mother. Because sometimes it’s not the bible stories or the lectio divina, but the Help! and thank you that a relationship is built on.
*I know she’s a feminist and all, but that combination of names really is a mouthful.