Victory! There are posts on my own blog between this and the most recent Mighty Is Her Call post! Here’s the link if you’re interested:
So I’m a little behind in my reading, but this week I finally got to the February 8 issue of Commonweal. There is an illuminating article in there by Jonathan Malesic which contrasts the American work ethic with the dignity of the human person, and specifically, the way work is treated in Benedictine Monasteries. (You can read it here.)
The article is beautiful and challenging. Malesic seriously calls into question whether it is possible to respect the health and dignity of a person in our achievement-driven society. “No reputation for customer satisfaction is worth as much as the person who fills orders and endures complaints. Your pride in a job well done, or your anxiety, or your ego: none of those is worth as much as your dignity as a person.”
I think Malesic has hit on an important topic, but his musings led me in another direction.
There has been a convergence (the first word that came to mind was conflagration, and I think it is also appropriate) of ideas in my life lately, centered on what John Paul II called the “feminine genius.” It’s not that I’m seeking this out, exactly. I’ve been bombarded from podcasts sent by Well-Read Mom and friends, Caryll Houselander’s Reed of God, and a Day of Reflection at our parish, all circling this same topic.
Full disclosure: I haven’t done the background reading on this yet (the recommended reading usually includes Mulieris Dignitatem and JP II’s Letter to Women, among others). So my understanding of the term is basically this: women have unique gifts to share with the world, specifically gifts which make it a kinder, gentler place. Women, in general, are gifted at truly seeing the other and caring for him or her, wherever the person may be in life.
This is a drasticly short summary, but I think it will do to explain the jump I made when I read Malesic’s piece on work and the Benedictines.
The monks Malesic visited in the New Mexico desert fight the desire to make work the center of their lives by means of prayer and their rule of life.
I’d like to argue that we mothers have a similar tool built into our vocation to help us fight this tendency to overwork.
Rumba? Alexa? Wal-mart curbside pickup?
Nope. Our kids.
Now you’re probably thinking, “Actually, my kids create nine-tenths of the work I do…so how exactly are they helping me to keep work from taking over my life?”
Think of a nursing baby. He’ll spend some time laying on the floor, playing happily with his toes (hopefully!), during which time his mother frantically folds laundry, washes dishes, sweeps the floor…you get the idea. But when that baby gets hungry, what happens? The work stops. Mom sits down, puts her feet up, and nourishes a little life. If there isn’t a cell phone or TV on, maybe she even nourishes her own spiritual life for a few minutes with some reading or just soaking in the silence.
True, this assumes there aren’t also a two-year-old and four-year-old pulling on her arm the whole time asking for snacks. Or chasing each other around the house waving sticks. (Why are the sticks in the house!?) It’s almost never as easy at I make it sound, I know.
However, what if we took all these interruptions in this light? Not “drat, now I’ll never get the bathtub scrubbed,” but, “Ah, yes! Little child of God, how can I love and serve you right now?” Houselander would take it a step further, and say, “Yes, Jesus! How can I serve YOU in this little person?”
Of course cleaning the bathtub is also serving…but that’s an essay for another day.
The monks Malesic visited have scheduled hours for work, and whether they finish the project or not, when the bell rings for prayer, they stop and go pray. It takes practice, but they learn to accept that they must let their work go until the next work period. As Malesic puts it, “They get over work so they can get on with something much more important to them.” That “something”? Prayer, and their relationship with God.
I don’t know any mother who can keep a monastery schedule day in and day out. Still, we have the opportunity to put work in its place. Is a clean floor good? Yes. Is it more important than reading to my children? Probably not. Is it more important than praying with my children? No.
The Benedictines’ vocation is to pray. That comes first, and everything else is secondary. A mother’s vocation is to care for her children. That comes first, even if it means we have to drop other work (or play) to do it. (Which I write as I tell my kids to leave me alone so I can finish writing this…yikes.)
It is in the discipline of walking away from our work, our productivity, our sense that we are accomplishing something earthly, to spend ourselves in caring for another human being, that we put work in its place. Work is good. Human beings need work, and we are called to join God in the work of bringing order to creation. Yet we are also called to “get over” our work when our children need our help or attention.
Yes, it takes effort – mental, physical, and spiritual – to care for these little people. It is work. But it is work that, if we keep our hearts open, turns us towards God in a way that scrubbing and dusting and grocery shopping might not. Dropping our menial labor to look into the face of a child is stopping to contemplate the divine, if only we can look with God’s eyes instead of our own.
(On a side note – this topic requires a part II, with some of the caveats which threatened to make this post a short book, and which I’ll get to soon. I hope. It’s dangerous to make such promises in my state of life!)
Just a tidbit from Luke Timothy Johnson’s recent piece in Commonweal entitled “How a Monk Learns Mercy: Thomas Merton and the Rule of St. Benedict.”
“The most destructive forms of speech in community, Benedict understood, are those that involve judgments against the other. Benedict calls this form of speech ‘murmuring,’ included [sic] all forms of griping, gossiping, and nagging. He forbids it absolutely. When I was a monk, I thought that the rule of silence was mainly in service of contemplation. Now, after many years of suffering poisoned discourse in the halls of academe, I have come to understand that silence was mainly about charity. As we learn every day in our new world of constant chatter, savage judgment, and long-distance shaming via (anti)social media, when speech is totally without restraint, mercilessness is an almost inevitable consequence.”
There are a number of other useful insights in the article, but whether it is at work, church, or in the home, I can relate to Johnson’s experience here. So much of the talk is negative, tearing down either the hearers or others who aren’t in the room. It makes me think, maybe my house needs more silence…
On the other hand, how do you convince kids to fold their laundry without nagging? I am open to suggestions.
And then, how do you convince them not to nag and judge each other? Besides by example, which, clearly, I’m not good enough at to count on.
Still, this passage in particular was a reminder for me to be careful with my speech. Especially around my kids, who are forming their own patterns on mine. Yikes.
Johnson closes with this thought, summing up the rest of the article. It sounds like marching orders to me:
“But if Christians are to cogently and consistently represent the face of mercy – which is the face of Christ – in this valley of tears, then in some fashion, I think, they must find ways to gather together for prayer, to sing the psalms and canticles, to practice silence in the name of charity, to readily confess their faults to each other, and to receive strangers as Christ.”
A year ago – or maybe closer to two – I was at a friend’s house. She had a little hand-written note on her refrigerator, on red construction paper, which said,
“Lay hold of goodness, rather than justice. -St. Isaac the Syrian”
I commented that maybe I needed one of those for my fridge. We could use that sentiment in my house. So, being the woman she is, my friend moved the magnet and handed the note to me to take home. It was on our fridge until we moved; it seems to have disappeared in that (ongoing) process. But the impact hasn’t left us.
The girls were preparing for a All Saints’ Day party. (How cool are our friends? One hosted a party for 40+ children and their moms, and the kids prepared saint themed games, and everyone dressed up as saints and told the group about the saint they were dressed as.)
Anyway, Isaac needed a saint to impersonate. Of course, Issac the Syrian (aka Isaac of Nineveh) was his choice because, well, his name was also Isaac. And I knew the quote from the fridge…so we looked up the rest of the quote so Isaac would have something to say about Isaac the Syrian at the party.
Phew. This is going somewhere, I promise. Here is some more of the quote, from OrthodoxWiki:
“Be persecuted, rather than be a persecutor. Be crucified, rather than be a crucifier. Be treated unjustly, rather than treat anyone unjustly. Be oppressed, rather than zealous. Lay hold of goodness, rather than justice.”
Ouch. Of course, I had to share that one with Craig when he got home from work. And he looked up the rest of the homily, and took to it like a Cajun to gumbo, and has been working out its implications in our daily lives ever since.
And I even found myself using it a day or two ago. (It only took a year – or maybe two – for the idea to be imbeded in my brain enough that I thought to use it!)
It was a little like this:
“Daughter A, can you please wipe the table?” (Of course I was at least this polite.)
“No, it’s not my turn, and Daughter B skipped wiping it after breakfast, so she should do it.”
“Well, Daughter B is already laying down for quiet time, so could you please do it this time, just to help me out?” (I was carrying a tired baby, who also desired nap time, and trying to do something else…who knows what…but it wasn’t very compatible with wiping tables.)
“No! She should do it.”
[Lightbulb appears over my head] “Daughter, remember how we have been talking about laying hold of goodness, instead of justice? It would be just for me to drag your sister out of bed and make her wipe the table, but here is a chance for you to lay hold of goodness by doing it even though it’s not your job.”
The table had to wait quite a while before it was finally wiped.
I suppose we can’t all live up to the standards of the desert fathers all the time.
Despite such minor setbacks, I’m not giving up on this one. I would guess that roughly three-quarters of the fights in our house have to do with someone thinking a situation isn’t just – who gets the last cookie, who has to do the extra chore, etc. And this includes myself, with thoughts like, “I cooked, and did the dishes, can’t someone else at least take out the trash?”
Which would probably be just – but my whining about it doesn’t help any of us grow in holiness.
So I’m not prepared to take on all the dirty work, just to be good. I don’t dare to hope that my kids will decide to follow my example and suddenly want to fold all the laundry and clean the chicken coop. But I can start thinking a little differently about these situations, and start trying a little harder to do what’s good, rather than what is simply just. I can try to point my kids in this direction, too. Maybe if we can ask ourselves “what would be good for me to do” instead of “what would be just to me” we would make some progress.
After all, it’s God’s goodness, God’s merciful justice, that I’m counting on for forgiveness for all those times I’ve fallen short of goodness, or even simple justice.
The Lanyard – by Billy Collins
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly-
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-clothes on my forehead,
and then led me out into the air light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift – not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-toned lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.”
We were in Houston this weekend for the memorial honoring Craig’s Uncle Wade (which was lovely), and lo and behold, there was a Syro-Malabar rite Catholic Church about three miles from our hotel. We had visited the Hindu temple and gone out for Indian food the day before, so we decided to make it a trifecta: the First Official Baker Family Cultural Awareness Weekend…or something like that.
Background: the Syro-Malabar church traces its founding to the missions of St. Thomas the Apostle. The story is that St. Thomas evangelized India, and that these communities have been Christian as long as anyone, anywhere. Their church has a complicated history, but now is in full communion with Rome.
So we were prepared for a different sort of liturgy during the Mass (which they call a Qurbana, from the Aramaic word for sacrifice), and for being the only white people in the room, and for heavy accents that made understanding the homily difficult (Clare was convinced the priest was speaking another language until we told her afterward that no, it was just rapid, heavily accented English.) We were prepared (and excited) to see the gloriously beautiful saris. We were not disappointed in any of these things.
We were surprised to find ourselves in the midst of a youth Mass.
Surprised, but not disappointed.
I admit Craig and I exchanged glances when the liturgy began with “Bless the Lord Oh My Soul” – Matt Redman’s 10,000 Reasons. And from where we were sitting, near the back on the left side, it looked like the whole building was filled almost exclusively with teenagers. What on earth had we gotten ourselves into?
This is what we eventually figured out: there is a 9AM Mass, which is in Malayalam and (most of) the adults attend. (Malayalam is the vernacular – the Mass was said in Syriac until the 1960s when it was translated. The English translation we experienced is from the 1990s, and was made for the diaspora church which less often spoke Malayalam in daily life.) This service ends around 10:30, and at 10:45 another Mass begins for the young people. When we arrived at 10:30, there were no parking spaces available. At 10:40, when we made it inside, there were hardly any seats left. All but the last few rows were filled with children and teenagers, seated by age, and essentially without adult chaperones.
Before the Mass (or possibly after, it wasn’t clear to me), was the Catechism class, which all these hundreds of children attended. Our parish in Baton Rouge was at least the size of this one, and Lucy’s CCD classes averaged 15 students. (Many others went to Catholic schools and got their religion classes there, but still.) What was abundantly clear was that this community is focused on a goal: to pass on the faith to the next generation.
It’s not a perfect community, I’m sure. Craig tried to ask the teenagers seated in front of us how to follow the service in the missal, and they said they didn’t know how either. (Thankfully the young woman next to him took pity on us and helped us out!) There were some of the same slouchy postures and wandering stares that I see often enough in “white church.” And the priest did stop at the end of Mass to warn the First Communion class that if they didn’t think the Mass was important enough for them to be still and attentive during it, then maybe they should wait until they felt the proper reverence before approaching the sacrament. He suggested he would be happy to give them their First Communion whenever they were ready, but that they would be better off to wait until that time.
As he pointed out, yes, Jesus is your friend, but He is also God. And He ought to be treated with the respect due to God. Which the liturgy itself, I have to say, makes abundantly clear. Over and over the congregation is encouraged to “Listen attentively,” and there is an emphasis on the greatness, power, and mercy of God which shines through simple, straightforward language.
So there is all of that. But what it really brought home to me was, as I said, the focus this community puts on its youth. There have their traditions, ancient and beautiful traditions, but they are not so strict about them that they can’t accommodate the tastes of the youth and make them feel welcome. The youth Mass is celebrated in English. (Which is why we were at it instead of at the earlier one!) They organize a massive CCD effort. And, even though a good part of the Mass is chanted, the incense is there, the priest faces East with the people…the readers were youth. The ushers were youth. The praise and worship band was made entirely of youth. Here was a place that both encouraged the parish’s young people to participate, and held their participation to a high standard.
The combination of old and new, Indian and American, was totally unexpected for us, which just goes to show how narrow our experience and imagination are. On the other hand, it was a blessing that we (and our kids) were able to participate in the music confidently, even without hymnals or song sheets.
The whole experience reminded us how wide and welcoming the Church can be, if we let go of our preconceptions and personal preferences long enough to let her.
Lucy was going through an old notebook this afternoon, and found a club she and Clare made up for themselves a couple of years ago: the VSDG group.
Which stands for the Vegetarian Spy Detective Girl Scout Group. (They left out the “S” for some reason.)
This is one in a litany of clubs they’ve made up over the years, of course. This one lasted roughly two days.
Clare gave up being a vegetarian when we had hot dogs for dinner. Goodbye VSDG.
The next iteration of the Baker Girls Club is in discussion as we speak. We’ll see if they can outdo their past efforts.
We had a good day yesterday – the rain finished early, and we had a beautiful baptism at St. Charles Borromeo in Grand Coteau. (Worth the trip if you’ve never seen it – the inside is painted and so beautiful.) Below are our family and Jacob’s godparents’ family.
Officiated by Fr. R.B. Williams, O.P., our favorite Dominican. (Sorry, Fr. Thomas!)
All followed by a party at our house – truly so much to celebrate! We counted 31 kids and three priests…didn’t count the adults. And, thank God, no rain! It was a good day. Jacob agreed.