Have a look at a piece I wrote for Pray.com.au on the Nativity. It got me reflecting on what it felt like to be a new mother. Did Mary feel this way too?
Have a look at a piece I wrote for Pray.com.au on the Nativity. It got me reflecting on what it felt like to be a new mother. Did Mary feel this way too?
I have been dying to tell you this for so long. But you’re not the absolute last to know – I haven’t told Facebook yet…
A couple of months ago, I went to visit my obstetrician. I like my obstetrician: he’s a reassuring man with a deep voice who exudes calm, warmth and good humour. He’s been helping me give birth for almost ten years now. OK, so maybe I did the lion’s share of the work when it came to labour, but he has definitely been a good person to have in my corner. In my mind, he’s the best baby doctor in Melbourne. But I wouldn’t tell him that.
Anyway, I was visiting my obstetrician a couple of months ago and – well – it wasn’t a social visit (excited squeal). I was eagerly anticipating Baby Number Five and very keen to hear that everything was in good order. Mr Knightley was at work, but he wanted to hear the heartbeat too, so I planned to give him a call so he could listen in when the time came.
After the intial boring stuff (checking blood pressure, reading over blood tests, getting weighed on the rude scales that tell me to ‘GET OFF’ before they calculate my weight), it was time for Doc to play with his ultrasound machine. This is the best bit. Doc squirts my belly with cold goo and examines the screen as he presses the wand thingy onto my bump.
And then he stops.
And he takes the wand thing off.
“What?” I say.
Doc just looks at me and tries to frown. But his eyes are twinkling.
“What?!” I demand.
Doc shakes his head solemnly. His mouth is twitching. I wonder idly what would happen if I throttle him with the curly cable from his ultrasound machine.
“WHAT. IS. IT?” I enunciate in sheer desperation.
Doc draws a deep breath. Then he somehow manages to find three words to say.
“There are two.”
It proves impossible to continue the ultrasound for the next few minutes as I can’t stop giggling manaically. My belly is wobbling all over the place and it makes the pictures all blurry. Then I call Mr Knightley.
“Are you ready to hear the heartbeat, George?” (That’s Mr Knightley’s first name. It’s only mentioned once in the whole of Emma, but it’s there if you know where to look. And did you know that Mr Darcy’s first name is ‘Fitzwilliam’? No wonder he’s so uptight! But I digress…)
“Yes.” says Mr Knightley
“Erm…which one would you like to hear first?” And then I burst into a fresh peal of giggles which makes everything impossible again. Mr Knightley is laughing too, although I think I also hear him groan “we’re going to need a new car!”. Doc waits patiently for me to calm down again.
And then I manage to lie still and the three of us listen to two perfect heartbeats. As I lay there, watching two small babies kick their tiny legs and wave at me, I reflect on God’s sense of humour, his abundant generosity and his rather unnerving faith in me.
This is unpredictable, insane, terrifying, a major challenge – and yet somehow it makes perfect sense. I can’t explain it. I have no control at all over this situation, but that’s OK, because I feel in my heart that God does. And relying on God is something I need to get better at.
Now, does anyone know the patron saint for procuring good-quality, second hand, 8-seat people movers?
This is not a God post. I wish it were. I haven’t written a God post for ages. I long to write something witty and heartfelt and spiritual and profound. But you just won’t find that here. I’m sorry.
I look back at the God posts I used to write, Soul Diet and Mary, Help of Kitchens and Clomp, Clomp, Clomp. What gives? I used to be so spiritual, so tuned in to my faith. And Mrs Monk. Did you ever read Mrs Monk? I was so holy when I wrote that. I wanted to “transform my home from domestic to monastic in eight easy steps”. I totally wrote that.
I guess I’m just not like that at the moment. I think that’s why I haven’t written a God post in such a long time. I don’t feel like I have anything to offer.
It’s not like there’s something very wrong. I’m not having a crisis of faith (I’m really not that interesting a person). God and I are still on good terms. I’ve just lost the sort of rich, fragrant faith that permeates everything I do and everyone I meet. Instead, I have something a bit stale and cold. Kind of like the toast you put on for breakfast, but then forget about until the end of the day when you happen to look at the toaster again.
It wasn’t some big, dramatic change either. Bit by bit, I’ve somehow lost all of my prayer habits. I used to be in this lovely mum’s prayer group that met every week, but that stopped running. I used to meditate as I hung out the washing, but when rainy weather came, I had to resort to clothes horses and dryers (and wearing dirty clothes) and sort of fell out of practice. I used to get up early each morning and read the bible and pray, but – and this one’s really embarrassing – when the house next door was demolished, a mouse moved in downstairs (lured in, no doubt, by the smell of abandoned toast). I was so terrified of spending alone-time with this small, nocturnal beastie that I stopped getting up before dark and gave up on my morning prayer ritual. For the record, the mouse’s sojourn was very short-lived, but the damage had been done. This is why I always maintain that mice and rats are the DEVIL’S CREATURES. Ugh!
I can sort of see why the Church insists on Sunday Mass attendance, much as it makes her sound like a bossy parent. It’s like an anchor when all else falls away. If it wasn’t expected of me, if the deal was “Come along whenever you feel like it” or “whenever you feel up to it ” or “whenever you feel holy enough“, then that would be the end of it, I would keep sliding away until I had nothing.
So what’s the solution? How do I find butter for my cold-dry-toast faith?
Well, I guess part of it is in what I’ve just done. I had to overcome my pride to write this awkwardly-worded post. I say I talk about ‘God in the Mess’, but I would rather avoid the mess. I would prefer to have it all together all of the time. To be such an awesome Christian that I don’t even need God at all. The rest, I suppose has something to do with little things. In building back gently what has been so gradually eroded.
There might even be a God post in that.
So if you don’t already think I’m nuts for homeschooling my daughter this year, you might when I tell you why.
You see, I was resisting the idea a lot. It was a stupid, harebrained scheme. Who homeschools? How would I even begin to explain this to people? How was I going to cope with it all? Would the school be upset with me? But God kept poking me.
What is a God poke? Well, it’s not like I hear the voice of God and he tells me to do things in a deep, rich baritone, or there’s this big thunderbolt and I fall off the horse I’m riding and the statue of Mary gets all weepy and the fish poke their heads out of the water to listen to me preach and it starts raining flowers. It’s kind of like this persistent gut feeling every time I pray. And good people seem to turn up in my path with the right advice at the right time. I know that I can tell God to back off with these crazy suggestions and he would. But I don’t want to tell him to back off, not right away. I’m curious and a little excited. I know that in the past when I’ve gone along with God in his ridiculous suggestions, it’s turned out to be the best thing I could have done.
This all might sound mental, but it’s not really. It’s not like some compulsion – like I have to do something right now or something bad will happen. And it’s not like I feel compelled by creepy voices in my head. Nothing bad will happen if I don’t listen to God and his quiet suggestions (except I might miss out on an adventure exactly suited to my personality and stage of life. I might miss an opportunity to grow and reach my true potential). And I don’t feel compelled (or hear voices, for that matter) – like I said before, I feel really conflicted. I keep telling God his ideas are mental and he keeps bugging me. I need to really trust God, there’s always that leap of faith required, I guess.
I should probably point out here that I don’t think I’m some child of destiny, that God has a plan for me and me alone. Everyone gets poked by God at some time or another. Some of us ignore it, some of us don’t call it ‘God’, but ‘intuition’ or ‘conscience’ or some other name that best fits our chosen religion.
I can hear as I write this what my atheist friends would say to all this. What about all those awful people who commit atrocities and say they were doing God’s will? Surely it’s dangerous to blindly follow an idea like this? It’s true. Not all ‘gut feelings’ come from God. I don’t like to give him too much attention, but there is an evil mischief-maker out there who likes to trip us up. That’s why it’s important that we don’t follow our concept of God’s will blindly. Here’s a helpful test set out in the beautiful form of an ordered list:
Of course, I always try to make God fit into a box, but God does not conform to ordered lists, and the best way to discern his will in a tricky situation is to pray, pray, pray. Read the scripture and pray, Sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament and pray. Peg out the washing and pray. Pray formally, with the rosary or a novena. Pray informally, in silence or amidst the noise and mess. Ask others to pray for you. Ask Mary to pray for you (she said yes to God’s harebrained scheme too, remember?). Just pray. Pray lots.
Then maybe it might be time to poke back.
So I’ve been thinking.
I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people lately about food. It seems everyone is on a special diet to help them feel better. So we go gluten free, low FODMAP, cut out milk, limit caffeine, cut out processed food, go organic free range, eat brown-not-white, and avoid flavour enhancer 621 (it makes me hyper).
I suppose it’s all about looking at what we put into our bodies and how it affects our wellbeing. As far as conversations go, it can be a deathly boring subject, but it got me thinking – what kind of diet is my soul on? What do I watch and read and do that is healthy for my soul? What do I watch and read and do that is toxic?
I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m a Catholic. One of the – I don’t know – “membership requirements”? – that we have is that we go to Mass once a week on a Sunday unless we’re really sick or something. Please wait a minute whilst I shudder inwardly at the abysmal grammatical mess I just created. I don’t even know where to begin fixing that sentence. Please forgive me.
Maybe a new paragraph will help. A lot of people I know take issue with this obligation and think my church is a cranky parent who likes to make rules and boss people around, as if the church itself is somehow separate from the people that form it. These people say things like “it doesn’t really matter if you go to church or not, so long as you are a good person” (because it’s one or the other – take your pick) and “you don’t have to go every week – it’s too hard. Just go when you can – God will understand” (because parties, sport and wandering around Bunnings should always take priority over your spiritual health).
The thing is, Sunday Mass is supposed to be the minimum I do to look after myself and my community spiritually, and if I commit to it regularly, it becomes a part of who I am. It makes me think of something my friend did the other week.
I had some friends over at my house to watch the Grand Final / gossip and eat food whilst the Grand Final was playing. My friend, whom I will call Lydia, turned up with bags and bags of fruit (and a cask of delicious vodka cranberry, which counts as a fruit), which she then proceeded to transform into healthy fruit platters. As we munched strawberry and pineapple and felt very virtuous (and drank vodka cranberry and felt rather tipsy), we praised Lydia and her healthy generosity. It was at this point that Lydia made a sheepish confession: she had eaten KFC for lunch and the fruit was part of a rueful attempt to get back on track.
I feed my soul a lot of junk food. Every day I feel like I battle an onslaught of Buy-Now-Pay-Later, Post-Baby-Bikini-Body, Give-Your-Little-Precious-a-Head-Start-in-Advanced-Calculus, Kim Kardashian, First-World-Problem-Facebook-Rant, What-Does-Your-Loo-Say-About-You, Miley Cyrus, She-Bought-a-Jeep, Seven-Signs-of-Ageing, What’s-Hot-and-What’s-Not, Who-Wore-it-Best, Adultery-Dot-Com.
One hour a week feeding my soul fruit in the form of Sunday Mass doesn’t seem like a big ask. I need to be challenged on the way I treat those around me. I need to be reminded that what I buy really isn’t that important, it’s who I am that counts. I need to love the Lord my God with all my heart and all my soul and all my strength and love my neighbour as I love myself and all that. And it’s the minimum, it really is. And sometimes I only do the minimum. Far too often I turn up at Mass only to realise that the last time I spent in prayer was a week ago in Mass, whilst holding a wriggling baby and saying “Shush”. I need more wholefoods in my spiritual diet. And I need to cut down on the junk.
So what does this mean? Here are some things I need to work on:
I had a plan for that last point this morning. I set the alarm for six o’clock and snuck downstairs for some quiet prayer time and maybe a sneaky bit of blog time as well before the rest of the family got up. I started digging around in search of the nifty devotional I’d recently purchased when I heard the distinct clomp-clomp-clomp of a small person making his way down the stairs. There stood Harry, tousle-haired and bleary-eyed, wearing only his night-nappy (he’d thrown a tantrum the night before and refused all pyjamas that didn’t have Batman on them. His Batman pyjamas were in the washing machine.).
“I want a cuddle, Mum.”
I tried to patiently explain to Harry that it was “still night time” and that he could “go back to bed had have a bit more sleep”. Harry shook his head.
“I just want a cuddle, Mum.” and settled himself on the couch. I sighed and continued my search for the devotional. Harry giggled, “I’m right here, Mummy!”. He thought I was looking for him.
And so I made my prayer whilst holding my three-year-old third child, feeling his small heart beat in his narrow chest and smelling his golden hair. I gave thanks for him and his healthy, sturdy little body. In a few short years, he won’t want to be held like this. Last night I was short-tempered with him. He kept climbing on me in a bid to win my attention. I’d had enough of being a Mummy for the day and I just wanted five minutes with NOBODY TOUCHING ME. So I prayed that God’s grace might enter my life, that His light might shine through all the cracks of my shortcomings and imperfections. Most of all I prayed that I might remember to pray when I needed to most. It was beautiful and profound, it really was.
Then Harry dirtied his nappy and woke his baby sister and poured cornflakes all over the floor.
But I picked up the broom with a serene smile (after changing two nappies and fixing two breakfasts). I felt peaceful and recharged.
It’s amazing what a healthy diet can do for you.
I would really love to get to the stage where I sail into church on a Sunday morning with four children all clean and combed and beautifully turned out in their Sunday bests. All with shoes on and with a good amount of cash for everyone to put on the plate. I will get there one day, but in the meantime, the best I can claim is that we turn up and that most of the time they behave themselves. On this particular occasion, the best I can claim is that we turned up.
While we were in the process of turning up, as we were driving to the church, it dawned on me that the school term had started and I had not checked the roster for Children’s Liturgy (I help out once a term). I pulled out my phone and jabbed away at my email until I found what I was looking for. Here’s what I figured out:
Thankfully, the gospel was one I had presented before and could talk on without too much trouble. I dashed inside, grabbed the book, threw the cloth and candle on the little table, forgot the matches, and told Father I was there, thirty seconds before he processed into the church.
I managed to muddle through the Children’s Liturgy program without imparting too much heresy, I hope. We had a good discussion where I told them all about shepherds in the time of Jesus and they told me all about lizards, chocolate, Roary the Racing Car and why Thomas is the best of all the engines. After this, the children brought the gifts up beautifully in the Offertory Procession, even if half of them bowed backwards and sideways and one of them fell over, before dispersing back to their families at top speed.
Now that the panic was over, it was gradually dawning on me that:
I considered giving my thumb a swift lick and using it to mop up the offending stain, but then I remembered that the Sign of Peace was fast approaching and I decided that the people around me might prefer to behold a dirty-faced little boy than to be forced to shake a hand covered in a mix of spittle and salty yeast extract. Besides, I had bigger problems just now.
Annie must have disapproved of the new translation of the Eucharistic Prayer, because she started voicing her protest at the top of her lungs. I tried all my usual tricks, waved little toys from my handbag at her, but they only made her angrier. Then Father said “let us offer one another the sign of peace”. Annie abruptly stopped shrieking and solemnly offered her small hand to the people standing behind us.
Now that handshake time was over and Annie had stopped crying, I set to work cleaning Harry’s face. Accordingly, the quiet solemnity of the Liturgy of the Eucharist was punctuated by a loud shout: “No! That’s MY VEGEMITE, Mummy!”
After Mass, Mr Knightley and I staggered with Annie into the gathering area for morning tea (the children had already raced there and were smearing biscuits across their faces). Here we faced a gauntlet of opinionated old men which our late priest called the Parish Antiques.
First up, one of the Bills, Who’s as Old as the Hills, hobbled over for a grumble about the noisy baby. As Bill is getting a little frail and senile, and is usually rather kindly, I let him have his rant in peace.
Next I stumbled into the path of Neville McKinnion, Who has Strong Opinions. “You’re very courageous to be coming to Mass with the children” he smiled condescendingly, then added, with the air of one dropping a gentle hint, “when our four were small, Mavis and I would come to Mass separately and only bring the older ones.” As Neville raised his eyebrows impressively, I bit back the urge to enquire how many of these grown up children still went to church, as I knew it was a sore point for him.
I returned my tea cup to Barry O’Shane, Who Likes to Complain. He was having a rant about how so few of the parish school families come to church on Sunday.
“They wouldn’t dare!” I snapped, and stalked out the door.
Except that that only happened in this blog post. In real life, I smiled weakly and saved my angry rant for my wearily sympathetic husband in the car on the way home. And in the two hours that followed.
I guess I’m not being entirely fair to my parish in this post. I could have mentioned that Patricia Baelyn, Who Looks Like Sarah Palin, took Annie for cuddles and politely contradicted Bill for the parts of his rant that were readily coherent. Or I could point out that most of the time people are warm and welcoming and that the Grumpy Old Men do have kind hearts and don’t shrink from hard work when it needs to be done.
All the same, we went to the neighbouring parish on the Sunday that followed. Sometimes it’s good to go to an anony-Mass…
Time for another God post. I went away on retreat last weekend and felt all peaceful and inspired. But, now, regular life is back again and I’ve just about forgotten it all and settled back into my usual habit of ignoring God until I need him for something important (like a car space at Chadstone). So I thought I’d better write this down quick before it all falls out of my head.
We were talking about one of St Paul’s letters (1 Corinthians 12: 12-31) in which he writes about the church being like a body with many parts. Everyone has a different role to play and all the roles are important, no matter how humble.
I think I’ve spoken before about how I tend to struggle sometimes with the many invisible and menial tasks involved in my vocation. Pegging out a load of washing does not really make me feel like I’m building the Kingdom of God. It’s not like I’m a missionary in a developing country building wells or giving soup to the homeless or tutoring refugee kids. But according to St Paul, my job is still important. I think, as part of the Body of Christ, we mothers are a bit like the feet. Not the most glamourous feature and often taken for granted, the feet just keep plodding on, supporting the rest of the body and helping it do what it does so well. I think I’d find it easier to be a nice, loud mouth – shouting about my accomplishments and eating up all the recognition. But God doesn’t call us to do what is easy, he calls us to do what we need to be whole. So I’m a foot. I could even take the metaphor further and suggest that it’s important to take care of our feet and have the occasional pedicure, because corns and ingrown toenails affect the whole body. It’s easy to mistake playing the part of a martyr (which helps nobody, even though it comes with a bonus sense of smug self-satisfaction) with true selflessness (which is not too proud to ask for help). I’m not so good at this – I need to give myself permission to put my feet up more (OK, I’ll stop with the overworked metaphors now, I promise!)
“At the very heart of the gospel is sacrifice, and there is perhaps no occupation in the world so intrinsically sacrificial as motherhood. Motherhood is a wonderful opportunity to live the gospel. Jim Elliot famously said, “He is no fool who gives up that which he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Motherhood provides you with an opportunity to lay down the things that you cannot keep on behalf of the people that you cannot lose. They are eternal souls, they are your children, they are your mission field.”
So perhaps, like Mother Teresa would say, instead of getting pre-occupied with the great things I am not doing, I should focus instead on doing small things with great love.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to peg out a load of whites for Jesus.
I was talking to Mum yesterday and she said that the figurine of baby Jesus from her nativity set was missing. Indeed, the young Messiah went AWOL directly after our last visit there when Christopher Robin had been playing with the figures. You can do without a shepherd, perhaps, but a nativity scene really doesn’t work without a baby Jesus. He really is one of the key players. Perhaps Christopher Robin might know where it had been deposited?
Accordingly, after Christopher Robin came in from playing in the backyard, Grandma asks “Christopher Robin, do you know where baby Jesus is?”
Christopher Robin says “yes” tremulously. Everyone catches their breath.
“Where’s Jesus, Christopher Robin?”
Christopher Robin pats his breast solemnly, “In my heart, Grandma”
Good to know his religious instruction is having an impact.
In case you were wondering, Grandma’s Baby Jesus is still at large.
I have a Mary in my kitchen.
Isn’t she lovely?
I didn’t mean to make my first “God in the Mess” post about Mary. I can’t imagine many of the people out there who read this are Catholic (well, Mum is) and I figure I’m pushing the boundaries enough, writing a ‘God’ post without coming out of the closet as a full-blown Catholic. But here we are. I have a Mary in my kitchen.
I know we’re talking about a piece of ceramic, here. I don’t get all superstitious about it and bring her cups of tea or rub her head for good luck or anything. But she’s there as a reminder.
Contrary to popular belief, we Catholics don’t worship Mary as a god. We just really, really admire her. She’s a good role model, I guess. I had some vague idea that when I was in the kitchen at five o’clock, about to whack some one or other of my offspring with a saucepan (possibly because they burnt the roast, destroyed the laundry or were considering vegetarianism), I would stop, look at Mary, take a deep breath and put the saucepan down.
I was so excited when I first bought my Kitchen Mary. It was exactly what I was looking for: simple yet special, traditional yet different. Even so, when I first got home, I didn’t rush to the kitchen straight away. Mary spent a lot of time in the plastic bag from the piety stall, wrapped in old parish bulletins. You see, I wanted to wait until the kitchen was sparkling clean before I put Mary in it. But setting to and cleaning the kitchen isn’t a straightforward task when you have little ones. There are nappies and spills and bandaids and bath time and the kitchen mess remains. Then it hit me (the profound thought, I mean, not the kitchen mess – though it WAS piled precariously high…): the thing I was doing with the Mary statue in my kitchen was exactly what I was doing with God in my life.
You see, I do want God in my life. I’m sold on that point. I’m a much better person, much more myself and I make much better decisions when I feel close to God. But I’ve been keeping God out, just the same. I guess, in the back of my mind I figured I’d become all spiritual when I “had it all together” or when I “had time to pray”. It was like it was on my to-do list right next to “clear out the linen cupboard” or “tidy the random drawer”: we both know these things are never going to happen.
But God doesn’t want the perfect versions of ourselves. God embraces our broken-ness and meets us in the mess. So, with this in mind, I put Mary in the kitchen, mess and all. The woman gave birth in a cattle shed, I’m sure she can cope. You might be asking “Why Mary? Why not a picture of God?”, well that brings me back to that thing I was saying about Mary being a role model. I need to let God meet me in the mess and Mary was really good at doing that. She changed baby Jesus’ nappies as a refugee in Egypt, and had to watch him die, naked and nailed to a tree, when he was an adult. These situations weren’t tidy. And she didn’t always have it all together (losing child in temple, anyone?) but she always let God in.
Plus, I don’t really like pictures of God. They make him look all strange and beard-y. Like Santa Claus on steroids.
So here’s my Kitchen-Mary in a candid shot (taken before I cleaned up the kitchen for the glamour shots above).
Our Lady of the Sausages, pray for us in our hour of need.