fifteen minutes

If I have any time at all–to do reading and writing related to my academic work, that is–it seems to come in increments of 5 to 15 minutes. Usually it takes that long to decide which of the various projects I have going commands my attention just then. A couple of days ago, I spent a while thinking about despair (in the abstract, not while suffering from it, thankfully) after reading a comment by Evagrius on Psalm 41[42]: 6 and looking at Psalm 37, for example, but had to leave it in order to attend to some indispensable daily task or other.

Yesterday, my youngest child decided she needed a nap, and took herself off to bed. I thought she was playing awfully quietly… My older son was outside, happily tossing a football around. I thought I had about fifteen minutes to do a little work, maybe post about some of the things I have been working on lately. So I poked my head out to check on my son before I settled down to the computer for a bit.

“Will you come out and throw the football with me?” he called up. Since his dad is British, and not a fan of American football (and since I grew up with a dad who taught me to throw one), I am the designated player when it comes to that oddly-shaped brown ball. The friend my son usually plays with that afternoon was ill, and I knew he was disappointed. So, “yes,” I said, “all right, but just for a little bit.” Twenty minutes later, we were still playing.

Whatever it was that I thought I needed to do those “fifteen” minutes–I never got round to deciding finally what I’d do–will happen eventually. But what I did do accomplished something more, I think, than any bit of work I might have chosen. And it will stay with me. At least until my arm isn’t sore any more.

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fallow year

Tonight I had most of an evening off from the ordinary duties of mothering. But it wasn’t an evening out with friends or even a quiet night at home. I am grateful to our friend Ian Markham, Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary, for an opportunity to talk about my intellectual project. 

For a while there, I’d nearly forgotten I had one. Homeschooling our 11-year-old and running the others back and forth to school keeps me pretty well occupied. But tonight, as I had some space to reflect on what I am doing, I gave this year a new name: a fallow year.  Without teaching and administrative duties, or any work-related obligations, I’ve committed to a year of rest–of a sort. The “land” on which my research and writing usually take place is not being cultivated, not really. This academic year I’ve given myself to another sort of work, work I find much more difficult: the work of being a patient and kind mother to my children.

It’s difficult, and yet necessary. Because I hadn’t spent much time lately talking to grown-ups, I was more jittery than usual in anticipation of the event. As I paced around, I realized that I had my priorities all wrong. Being the person “up front” makes me vulnerable to the temptation to be the expert, to try to be the cleverest person in the room. I’m pretty sure that I am never the cleverest person in any room I enter (really: my kids are cleverer than I am; I’ve just got more experience of the world), hence I feel nervous at the thought of people listening to me and asking questions.

In the quiet (for which I thank Lewis: the children were driving him mad this evening) I realized (again) that I was mistaken. The object of the game, for me, is not to be the cleverest one. That’s not a game I am ever going to win, nor is it a game worth playing. I’m a theologian and a mother. Both of those occupations require patience and kindness, humility and generosity. Jesus didn’t say, “Blessed are the clever, for they shall win all the arguments,” but “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

The clever do win arguments, it’s true. And I lose them, often. But I would much, much rather inherit the earth.

pain in childbearing, part 2

That little verse from Genesis 3 sticks with me. I reflected some in my previous post about the pain of losing children, and of heartbreak in raising them. This week, we had some time with a psychologist who repeated (not in so many words) one of the key lessons I am learning in this great adventure of parenting: it’s not intuitive.

Bearing children may be a perfectly natural event. But raising them is an art. Doing what comes naturally, unless we are near-perfect in our virtue, isn’t usually a good idea when responding to the various provocations of our beloved (and utterly infuriating) offspring. Most parents come to realize this, so I am not saying anything new there. And I am not qualified to give child-raising advice. All I can say for certain is that losing your temper is always going to end badly, but keeping it perfectly is impossible, at least in my experience.

The counter-intuitiveness of parenting, though, has theological significance, I believe. Because having children is something good. It’s God’s plan. “Be fruitful and multiply,” God tells Adam and Eve. God repeats the instruction when Noah and his kin disembark from the ark. The propagation of the species matters to God. And the psalmist remarks that children are a blessing from God.

But it certainly doesn’t always feel like that. Of course there is joy as well, and the work of parenting is meaningful perhaps above all other work. Human beings are precious, and powerful creatures, capable of great things–some very good, and some very bad. Some days the responsibility seems overwhelming. And doing it properly just doesn’t come naturally. So it’s painful. It’s part of the discipline that yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11), or so I hope.

For the grace to get through it day by day, Deo gratias.

the unfairness of it all

Anyone who has children has heard “it’s not fair” countless times. I remember reading in one of those “how-to” parenting books that the sense of injustice develops early. I didn’t realize quite how long it lasts. Actually, I think it never really goes away. We just stop saying it out loud. Somewhere along the way, the message “stop whining” got through, and we fell silent. As for me, I internalized the response I always got when I complained about the unfairness of it all: “life’s not fair.”

Indeed not.

But what I have come to realize, perhaps quite late in the game (maybe everyone else already knows this…) is that it’s never exactly fair. I just don’t recognize the unfairness of it all quite so clearly when I am the beneficiary of the failure of perfect justice in the world. Life is not fair. It’s not fair that my daughter should have Down Syndrome. It’s not fair (on a far smaller scale) that my son should be color-blind. Things are just not fair. It is also, however, not fair that I should be born into privilege and others not. It’s not fair that my children have more than they need, while others lack the basic necessities of life. It’s not fair that my family and I are safe, and families in places near and far are in peril. On balance, the general unfairness of it all tends to be in my favor rather than not.

I want to impress upon my children this sense of unfairness, to help them to see the bigger picture. My mother meant well, I think. (Maybe she just wanted me to shut up, but I’ll go with the more charitable interpretation.) But her words only led me to believe that life was always going to be a struggle against the general unfairness of it all, on a very personal level. She never connected my sense of injustice in my own small world with the injustice I saw in the big, wide world. I remember distinctly having a conversation with her when I was maybe 7 or 8, about hunger in Africa. I wanted to send food. She said that it would never get to the people who needed it. I wanted to send money. She said the same thing would happen. I was at a loss. She said, “You know what you can do? You want to be a doctor when you grow up. You can go and help then.”

That response left me incredibly frustrated. I wanted to do something. The sense of injustice natural to children from an early age can certainly open onto bigger horizons. “Life’s not fair” is absolutely true. It’s also incredibly demoralizing. I’ve said it in exasperation to my son, and now think maybe I shouldn’t have. Because unfairness is not how it should be, nor how it has to be. Unfairness persists because we let it. Because I let it. “Life’s not fair” might well be a seed from which bitterness will grow, and insecurity, and greed, and a desire to protect what we have from the Great Unfairness that threatens us. It turns what can be a powerful force for good into an excuse for self-protection.

“It’s not fair,” you say? No, it’s not. What can we do to make it so? Let’s start now.

the interruptions

It would be wrong to think that the interruptions have no bearing on what happens between them. The interruptions make the ‘between’ fruitful. I have, of course, heard the saying about the person trying to work and constantly being interrupted, only to find that the work was the interruptions. And that’s wise, as far as it goes. But somebody had to have a moment, between those interruptions, to think that, and to write it down.

That’s the purpose of my “between”: to stop long enough to think, and to write things down. I know without a doubt that the possibility of spiritual growth for me lies not in the quiet but in persevering despite the noise, confusion and vexations of daily life with children. Being with my children in all the occupations of our life together forces me to go slowly, to place someone else’s experience at the center of my attention. This does not come naturally to me. Not remotely.

So of course sometimes the vexations have the upper hand, and I am what CS Lewis (we’re listening to The Silver Chair now) might call “out of temper.” Fortunately there are small mercies–the children’s simple love, when it comes to the surface, a moment of quiet, a day or two on retreat (oh, heaven!), or an email from a friend (reminding me of God’s constant presence). And in conversation and in stillness, there’s time for a tiny bit of reflection. That’s what happens between the interruptions.

The relentless chaos of life with children and the priceless moments of quiet between their demands for attention form two parts of a whole. I can’t say I always value the chaotic side–hence calling it “the interruptions.” But the fact of the matter is that the ‘between’ would have little meaning without the work of parenting, which requires a form of attention that usually precludes reflection. If I am not fully present with the children, they know it. Something as simple as brushing my 3-year-old’s teeth requires my full attention. (Nursing a baby, especially one’s third or fourth, might just be the exception: I planned two book-length projects while nursing my third child.)

When I stop to think, or to write, I find that the my faith is formed in that crucible, not in the quiet. The small and insignificant things, the merely annoying and not-at-all-grand forbearances are like sandpaper buffing my hope and love, painfully. Moments of solace and reflection are gentle like a polishing cloth, clearing a surface here and there, and allowing me to see the One whose shining face is always there, in my children and in me, who is the Love that holds us together in the interruptions and between them.

mothers in Rome?

At his General Audience this week, Pope Francis lauded mothers and the work of mothering–not that this is anything new or unusual. The Pope frequently recalls his own mother, refers to the Church as our Mother, and reminds us to call on Mary, our Mother.

But it has long bothered me that the praise of mothers and motherhood doesn’t carry with it an open ear to the wisdom that work often produces in those who have been trained by it. So it was nice to hear that worry reflected in Pope Francis’s words: “the mother is rarely listened to or helped in daily life, rarely considered central to society in her role.” Not only that, but “in Christian communities the mother is not always held in the right regard, she is barely heard.” And yet, in Pope Francis’s words, “human and spiritual formation” comes from mothers. Not, of course, that fathers and grandparents and others do not contribute, or that every mother does this unfailingly. (Heavens no!) Here Pope Francis echoes the Council’s teaching on the family. For example, Gaudium et Spes 52 describes the parents’ vital role in the spiritual formation of children, and Lumen Gentium 35 says explicitly that, in Christian households, “husbands and wives find their proper vocation in being witnesses of the faith and love of Christ to one another and to their children.”

Because I am a mother, I suppose, I take these themes in the Church’s teaching in LG, GS and elsewhere very much to heart. Although I do a lot of ‘other’ things–teaching and writing in various contexts–I find the growing edge of my spiritual life in the daily work of being a mother. Mostly it’s the building up of patience and humility that I need. The practice of love requires both, and doing the “petty and unsexy” things (to quote David Foster Wallace) for my children has been the way forward for me in the familial school for the Lord’s service. Certainly there are countless other ways to develop the necessary disposition for Christ-like love; this just happens to be mine.

And being a mother–especially a mother of a child with Down Syndrome–has shaped my theology and my whole way of thinking about the world. Pope Francis says, “mothers are the strongest antidote to the spread of self-centered individualism…mothers…’divide’ themselves, from the moment they bear a child.” I’m not sure I would have put it quite that way before, and I am a little embarrassed at the way Pope Francis praises mothers. I’m not all that good at it, not that self-sacrificing. Still, I know what he means here, and I have heard other mothers say similar things. I used to say, when my older children were still babies, that it was as though my center of gravity was somewhere outside myself. Now, my eldest is 13 and my youngest is 3, and I realize that I haven’t given up my body for a finite period of time. No, long after the carrying and bearing and nursing are done, my body still somehow belongs to them as well. I don’t understand this, and I don’t doubt that some mothers would disagree. (And I expect that fathers experience something similar and yet distinct, and that parents who adopt experience the process of dividing in a different way, but no less intensely.)

This is not to say, of course, that mothers are somehow superior. (Good grief, no!) But I would argue (yes, argue, and I don’t do that unless I really think it’s necessary) that mothers have a particular contribution to make to the upbringing of the Church. It is no accident that we consider the Church our Mother, and that we look to the Mother of our Lord as example, guide and help. That this is all so, and that the Church has not found a place for the wisdom of the mothers within her is a little disturbing. Like the society that takes advantage of “the readiness of mothers to make sacrifices for their children,” the Church has praised mothers “from a symbolic point of view.” Maybe this persists because mothers don’t make sacrifices for their children in order to be praised or heard beyond the bounds of the family. It would be silly to expect that, and constantly disappointing. The children themselves don’t listen–unless mine are the exception!

Mothers do need the Church. Pope Francis is right about that. But does the Church not also need mothers? Does the Church have nothing to learn from the mothers who have kept the faith, and who have raised their children to do likewise? This to me is an amazing achievement. Moreover, it is one of the key things St Paul asks of bishops in Titus 1:6. Bishops (or “elders”–St Paul uses both terms in the passage) should be “blameless,” have been married only once, their children should be believers, and they should not be accused of debauchery or rebellious. Bishops nowadays usually don’t raise children in the typical manner. So the criterion isn’t employed.

But maybe St Paul was on to something here. Maybe there is something about raising children (and this for mothers and fathers alike) that shapes us, that makes us fit for leadership in the Church in a particular way. It would be wonderful to see the Church take advantage of that wisdom and experience in the way that St Paul recommended. Lay people have something to contribute to caring for the body of Christ. I don’t know much about the hierarchy, not really. But I do know it’s not impossible for laypeople to become cardinals. What better way to take seriously the wisdom of those who have served the Church by raising their own families than by recognizing them as equals in care-giving in the body of Christ?

Of course, maybe by then the mothers (and fathers) would rather settle down to a quiet life. I don’t know. I am not there yet. It’s just a thought.

a tattoo

Mine, to be precise:

3907_574197496527_1845720_nThere it is, freshly inked–that’s why there’s a halo of reddish skin around it!

I thought about it for a long time. I mean a really long time. When I was 16 or 17, I told my mother that I wanted to get a tattoo. I’m pretty sure she was against it. But she didn’t say so, not outright. Instead, she gave me a few things to think about before I actually got the tattoo. First, she said, remember it will always be there. You’ll change, you’ll change your mind, but the tattoo will still be there. And it’s more painful to have it removed than it is to get it in the first place. Second, she said, your body won’t look the same forever. Something that looks nice on 16-year-old skin might not look as good on 70-year-old skin. But the tattoo will still be there. Third, she said, tattoo ink breaks down over time. That’s why you see so many green tattoos. (Perhaps inks are better now; I think my mother was thinking about tattoos done in the 1960’s and 1970’s.)

So for the next couple of decades, I turned the idea over and over in my mind. Honestly. I never forgot that conversation with my mother. Now, I consider it a moment of parenting genius, not because that strategy would work for everyone–not at all. Rather, it was a moment of parenting genius because it took account (knowingly or intuitively) of the sort of kid I was, and the way I was likely to make decisions. It appealed to reason and vanity, which I had in rather unequal portions at 16. (You can guess which trait I had in greater abundance.) She never said “Don’t.” Other friends, over the years, said “Do!” or “Don’t!” but my mother never did. She was a little surprised, I suppose, when I finally got the tattoo, but by then I was well and truly grown-up.

By the time I found that thing that I considered permanent enough in my life to have it inscribed on my body, I was nearing 40. I had three children. And, luckily, I had a good friend with plenty of tattoos and friends in the business, who happened to be in need of more ink. So I researched and found the image. I worked out the Greek. On the eve of Mother’s Day, 2009, I went with a couple of friends to get my first tattoo (by which time I had had my 40th birthday). There it is: the crucifix, stylized. The Greek text is from 1 Corinthians 13: “The greatest of these is love.”

I don’t suppose it will be my last tattoo. I have other ideas. Chief among these is an addition to the tattoo I already have, one phrase, in English this time: “the image of the invisible God.” Maybe 2015 is the year for that.

I’ll keep you posted.