My Father’s House: On the Sacredness of Our Places and Spaces

We pulled up to my childhood home in the middle of the night, the Wisconsin green shrouded in darkness.   I immediately sensed all the summers of my childhood in the dim stillness as the screen door squeaked shut behind us.  Whispering, I led five of my desert-dwelling children upstairs to the bedrooms, each step groaning with a familiar creak in the century-old bungalow.

As we settled in that first night of our week-long visit, I lay awake for awhile, feeling the roots growing back beneath my feet.  My past has a place, I thought, my mind winding like vines through the memories each room held. 

 I remembered my beloved Grandpa putting up drywall so that I could have a small room of my own.  I thought about all the nights I’d spent reading in that room, the talks with my sisters, the laughter, and the fervent, sometimes tear-splattered prayers I’d offered in that very place.  

It is a sacred space – this room, this house, I realized, in the sense that wherever God has worked, has done something marvelous, has mingled with us in our daily lives, eternity puts its stamp on that place.  

It is always a wonder that a God unlimited by time and space binds Himself to it in each moment and corner where we encounter Him.  And it is a fact that He creates places for us.  Since Eden, He carves out spaces and hovers over our chaos to help us make rooms and homes, chapels and churches that speak to us of something holy here, and point to something holy beyond.

Isn’t this the reason for pilgrimages and crusades –  to entwine ourselves in the holy history of a place, to pay our respects to grace in the gardens it grew, to reclaim with fierce loyalty the holy lands and buildings for the Church which sprung from the blood of the martyrs in its soil?  Something hardwired in us tells us, these places are consecrated to resurrect our hope.  And we feel somehow, entering a Basilica, chapel, catacomb, or cell – even after crossing strange seas and deserts – that we have in a mysterious way come home. 

It was the middle of our visit, and we had just come back from our own little pilgrimage to a breathtaking Carmelite shrine, a local treasure, another place God has sealed with Himself.  My mother came downstairs, carrying boxes of my old things, things she had lovingly curated for me for years. 

 I peered into one of the yellowed boxes of photos, awards, art projects and school papers.  A twenty-five year old college blue book sat on the very top, my exam answers to a class on Early Christian Life and Thought.  Something urged me, open it.  And there, on the first page, I read my own answer to the first question:

“Among the promises Christ left to the early community was: ‘In my Father’s house there are many rooms…I am going somewhere to prepare a place for you, so that where I am, you too may be’  (Jn 14:2-3).   This is the foundation of all hope, the hope of Heaven and the gift of eternal life.”

I am going somewhere to prepare a place for you.

It hit me in a fresh way suddenly that while these places we love, these bricks and boards, will not last forever, like sacraments they point to an eternal reality.  Our earthly shrines and homes are types and shadows of something even more real – a heavenly place created for us, just for us – prepared with care, love, intention.  An eternal temple, a holy land, a homeland. 

For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.  (Hebrews 13:14)

 Our hearts long for home because we were created for one. 

 We were made for a place.  In this life, it is one which reflects us, but even more, reflects God, and reminds us of what – and who – we love.  One where we cooperate with the Spirit to create a kind of beauty and order.  One where we can exhale and find little sabbaths amid the chaos of the world.  An anticipation of a place reserved for an eternal Sabbath.  

Our homes, however small or simple, are types of heaven, of Our Father’s house.  Instinctively we want them to be warm and welcoming.  I think of all the times I’ve gone to the store for milk or batteries and found myself lingering over area rugs and throw pillows.  There’s a reason I long for loveliness, even though some days it feels like I am losing a battle against clutter and crumbs.  I was made from the beginning to dwell in a place of beauty, forever.  We all were.

And is it not a miracle that we have a God who pitches his own tent in our wilderness?  Who, unwilling to leave us alone until that time when He will come again to take us to Himself, comes now to remain in the Tabernacle (literally, “dwelling place”)?   He takes up residence in every Church and what’s more, in every soul.  He makes in us His own kind of heaven?  He desires to be with us, to the point of dwelling within us.  It’s astonishing, really.  

My father’s house has many rooms.

Our daughter asked for one thing for her eighth-grade graduation this Spring.  “Fix up my room,” she pleaded, pouring over paint samples and Pottery Barn catalogues.  We agreed that the small space she shares with her sister could use a face-lift.  And so while we were gone visiting the places and people of my childhood, her father, in his great love for her, stayed behind, busy with brushes and rollers and cans of carefully chosen color.  

He prepared a place for her.

A week later, he welcomed us home and led her to the door to her bedroom, where she saw what he’d done for her.  Her face said it all: it was perfect, and it was hers.   

It was a glimmer of an eternal homecoming and a home which will never pass away.   

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For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  (2 Cor 5:1)

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Living the Hidden Years

Liturgically, we’re taking a brief breath in ordinary time.  We’ve lived the long wait of Advent, and Christmas has been celebrated and it’s trappings stored away – nativity sets snuggled in attic alcoves and ornaments stacked in garage bins.

I’m still polishing off the last of the holiday treats, and brushing off the chocolate crumbs from my  fresh planner, I realized recently – with surprise – that Lent is just a few short weeks away.

How quickly the seasons spin by!  How we seem to jump from celebrating the birth of Christ to preparing for His Passion.

But reflect on the fact that thirty years of Jesus’ life that were lived quietly in-between, the time before his public ministry, the years wrapped in mystery – years of quiet work, much prayer, humility, poverty, and obedience.

The hidden years.

The one small but eternally significant glimpse we have into these years is the finding of the child Jesus in the Temple.  After their distress at losing their son on the way back to Nazareth, Joseph and Mary find him in the temple, amazing the teachers. Astonished herself, Mary wonders how this could have happened – and young Jesus reminds her of business he must be “about.”  Still, he returns home with them, slips back into obscurity and obedience, and lives the life of a simple carpenter.  I think of him, coming home for dinner, covered in sawdust and wood shavings, washing his hands, praying over the food, telling his mother about his day.

How incredible that the Son of God, born to reveal the love of the God the Father, lived most of his life in the secret, sacred everyday.  But yet how like God, to be found in the little things.

Even though these years are shrouded in silence, for many of us mothers, we do understand the hidden years because we live them.  Motherhood years – mostly, these are our hidden years, too.

Years we are hidden in the cry room.  Years we are lost in the cereal aisle.  Years bent over kitchen sinks, bathroom floors, laundry baskets, and untied shoes.  Years of nights broken up into bits of sleep.  Years looking for lost socks, hair bows, and lego guys.  Years smeared in peanut butter and fingerprints.  Years that will go unnoticed by many but which are growing secret miracles nonetheless.

We can rejoice because this small but sacred time, tucked away in our homes, was lived before us.  It was lived by three far holier than we can hope to be, and by living it, Jesus gave new meaning to the more mundane parts of life.  Jesus lived family life in order to redeem it.

That means, that our providing, parenting, and housekeeping has been sanctified by the Holy Family.  That it has been giving a depth and meaning it could never had had before because He became one with us in it.

Christ came to reveal the Father to us and to reconcile all things to Him.  All things.  Even the smallest human acts, the ones performed in the wombs of our homes, where life begins to bloom and twist itself out the soil of our selfishness.  Where we encounter a God who surprises us in a thousand tiny ways, manifest to our eyes only: the deep fulfillment found in a child’s sleepy caress, the astonishing freedom found in surrendering to dishes and dust bunnies, the joy of seeing a sunset through eyes so fresh they find delight in everything.

And here is something really incredible.  Not only is the Christian life redeemed in all its moments by a God who entered them to make them holy – it is also meant to mysteriously extend Christ’s own life, throughout time, in our own.

We extend the mystery of the hidden years in our own homes. 

“ We must continue to accomplish in ourselves the stages of Jesus’ life and his mysteries and often to beg him to perfect and realize them in us and in his whole Church…For it is the plan of the Son of God to make us and the whole Church partake in his mysteries and to extend them to and continue them in us and in his whole Church.  This is his plan for fulfilling his mysteries in us.”  – St. John Eudes, quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 521.

So when we slip into that desolate time, the time of self-doubt, the lying one on our left shoulder may tell us that that it’s all meaningless, that our gifts are wasted, our individuality lost, our dreams left behind.  The reality is that we are never more ourselves when we are living fully and making present again the life that was so holy it had to be a hidden, veiled sort of pre-heaven.

Because so often, the most precious things are the hidden ones.

Fruit that Endures

The slick website invited me to take a productivity assessment.  This should be interesting, I thought, scanning the piles of papers, laundry and dishes stacked around me.  Let’s see how productive I am.

Ten minutes later, I had my answer.  Turns out I’m “not quite a crisis.”  I laughed ruefully.  Yep, that sounded about right.

Seems like I’m flying by the seat of my pants most days.  I check items off my lists, but not as often as I add others – that is, the ones I can remember.  I actually write on those lists to “keep up” – a reminder to keep moving so that I keep my head above water.   Longer-term goals?  Ha.  I find myself marveling at ads offering to help me design a successful platform, automate my professional growth, build a portfolio, quadruple my retirement plan, and get 1000 email subscribers in the next 30 days.

Just getting the craft closet cleaned out would be a major win.  It’s been on the to-do list for, oh, about three years.

So, yea, not too productive.  Also, not a crisis.  So there’s that.

There’s a good reason for my lack of “productivity,”  I thought as I scooped cups from the counter and fished for a forgotten sock under the couch.  I stood up and glanced at my little tribe playing the backyard.  Actually, six good reasons.

But that’s ok.  Because God has another gauge for us.  It’s a bit messier, maybe, and harder to measure, but for all that, it’s definitely much more lasting.  God doesn’t desire our productivity.  He wants us to be, calls us to be – fruitful.

“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.”  – John 15:16

Fruit bearing is not glamorous. It’s long and tedious, involves a lot of tilling, planting, watering, watching, hoping, defending and a whole lot of waiting.  A lot of the work, much of the important work, is done under the ground, in silent hidden places we cannot see.  Most of the time, it doesn’t look – or feel – productive.   We toil in the Lord’s vineyard, bringing his love, his life, his wisdom, his Word, pouring it out onto soil sometimes thirsty and receptive, sometimes rocky and ungrateful.  And many seasons it feels that the ground swallows up our efforts and we are left spent and empty.

But we not only work in the vineyard.  We are vines, too.  And we are grafted onto a True Vine which pulses with eternity and with the sap of the Holy Spirit.  We draw strength by clinging to Jesus in prayer and sacrament and remaining rooted in His Church.  All of our fruit owes its life to this life-giving Vine.  For, it’s true, “the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” (Jn 15:4)  In him, we cannot help but bear fruit.  The dry seasons are there – maybe as part of our necessary pruning – for while the fruitless branches are cut away completely, even the fruitful ones must be trimmed back in order to keep them producing that perfect fruit of the heavenly variety.  (Jn 15:2)

In fact, our most painful times will be, in the end, our most fruitful.  When we are pressed under the weight of suffering and remain united to Him, the oil and the wine flow freely.  That is when the fruit gives itself over to be consumed in Love.

Still sometimes, we’d like to conquer the world for Christ.  Sometimes maybe we’d just like to have clean counters.  But then we remember that the season is ripe for planting, so we get on our knees to bandage a toe or tie a shoe or scrub a floor or beg for strength, and we carry on with the little small sacrifices that work together to swell those seeds into living, growing, fruit-bearing plants of their own.

And then our little ones smile in their carseat, or fold their sticky hands in prayer, and we see the blossoms burst open into the sun. Not productive by the world’s standards, but souls alive in Christ will remain long after platforms crumble, careers fade, and retirement plans are spent.  Fruit that abides.  And by this, Jesus says, “my Father is glorified.” (Jn 15:8)

So we rise, take up our spades and break ground again, to-do lists trailing behind.

“The fruit that endures is therefore all that we have sown in human souls: love, knowledge, a gesture capable of touching hearts, words that open the soul to joy in the Lord.”  – Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

Martha’s Many Things

I am a Mary at heart, a Martha by trade.

Today’s feast of St. Martha has me thinking of both of them and the tug within each of us:  the longing for intimacy with God and the pressing needs of life.  I don’t need to repeat the story of the two sisters.  It can even be cliché sometimes.  But I can’t help but think that Martha was more than just a stereotype of busyness and worldly preoccupation. She was a good woman who deeply loved the Lord, too, and desired to serve Him. To serve Him the way He deserved.

Surely, if God was coming to dine at our home, we wouldn’t serve leftovers.  We’d throw the dishes in the dishwasher, the socks in the hamper, and the crumbs in the wastebasket.  We’d light a scented candle.  We’d hang fresh hand towels.  We’d turn the sofa cushions to the clean side – ok, the cleaner side.  We’d whip up some chips and dip.  Who can really blame Martha?

But what does Martha ask?  “Lord,” she says, “do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?”  Do you not care?

Jesus is so gentle in his rebuke to her complaint against the sister sitting at His feet: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things…” He acknowledged. He knew.  He saw.  He sympathized. He cared. Not just about her to-do list but about the storms inside her spirit.  I can imagine the tenderness with which He called her name – twice.  And I think it must have not only humbled her, but stilled her, too.  I don’t know that she dropped her dish towel and joined Mary on the floor at that moment.  I suspect she turned slowly back into the kitchen, pondering his tender reminder.  And somewhere, sometime, she too came to listen.

Maybe that night, after the work was done, she sat with Him in the garden, weary and humbled and ready.  Maybe she said softly, “Teach me now, Lord.  Teach me how to choose the good portion when there is so much to do.  Teach me to order my life so that I may serve You well but listen to You first.  Help me.”

We don’t know what passed between them, but we can guess.  We can guess because it is what He says to all of us, when we pause long enough to ask.  We can guess because it is what He has taught us over many years of practicing and and learning to pray.  We wonder if He didn’t teach her that when she prayed, she must first bring all those “many things” to Him, and then He must have shown her how to pray always.  To linger with Him in her heart, no matter what her hands were doing.  To bring His words into her home and His love into her hospitality.  To put the One Thing in it’s proper, primary place – which is sometimes right in the middle of the many.

But then He would leave them and these two sisters would have much to ponder, and soon, so very much to suffer.  The next time we see them, their beloved brother Lazarus has died.  They had sent word and waited in anguish for Jesus, who incredibly does not come.    Finally, when it seems to be too late,  Martha hears that Jesus is near.

Martha is never one to sit around.

She leaves her home and goes out to Him, filled with grief but even more with faith – and she tells Jesus, I imagine through tears, that He could have saved her brother, that He can still save him, that she believes in the resurrection, that He is the Resurrection, that He is the Son of God. She clings to and proclaims steadfastly everything she knows about Him, everything she heard.

Because Martha had listened, too.  And she had believed.  And what she does not ask this time is “Do you not care?”  She has learned the answer.

And then, of course, she quietly gathers her sister so the miracle can commence.

What good new this is for us who are busy with many, many things.  She is a Saint for those of us who must listen from the doorway, sometimes – or the sink, or the washing machine, or the playground or the pediatrician’s office or the pick-up line.  She is a woman who learned to drop her demands and embrace her vocation.

She is a woman who lived action, learned contemplation, loved Jesus.

Marthas of the world, take heart.  You bring Christ into the messy crevices of the everyday.  You image a God who ‘sets a table before’ us, and you do it because you love Him so very, very much.

St. Martha, pray for us.

 

 

 

 

 

He Speaks into Our Silence

I ran into a friend recently, another mom with lots of littles, at an indoor trampoline park.  It was a sizzling summer day in Phoenix and we’d both reluctantly shelled out too much money for a few hours of much-needed activity for the kids.

The place was loud.  As in, I need an Advil loud.  We were delighted to connect and catch up, but we had to raise our voices into a near shout to hear each other over the thumping music.

My friend shared that last year had been her first with all of the children in school.  Not quite there yet myself, I asked her wonderingly, “What did you do with yourself?”  She lit up.  “I’ve been volunteering at a house of hospitality for the homeless,” she shared, telling me about all the different services they provided: showers, meals, laundry.

Then she paused.  “And,” she added, “I’ve been silent.”

A quiet, still house, sans noise of any kind, to be savored – that had been her sanity.

I exhaled.  Only a mother surrounded by noise could appreciate fully that gift.

I told her that I understood, a little.  Our long daily commute to school, while a burden in many ways, still afforded me a luxury I’d never had before: a solid half-hour of silence while my youngest napped in the backseat of the van.  Sometimes I prayed the rosary, sometimes I listened to a podcast, but mostly, I chose silence.

Then, just a few days ago, I confided to two friends that I longed to make a silent retreat.  They looked at each other, eyes wide.  They didn’t think they could do it – three days without talking?  Impossible.

But me?  I crave it.  I crave silence not just for silence’s sake.  I desperately desire to crawl inside the silence between me and God and wait to hear Him.   Because true Christian silence is a welcoming space, an adoring pause in our endless interior monologues, carved out in order to receive the One who created us in silence and calls us back into stillness to meet Him there.

The desire to see God is what urges us to love solitude and silence.  For silence is where God dwells.  He drapes himself in silence.    – Robert Cardinal Sarah

The silence of prayer is a surrendering of our own words and the noise surrounding us so that something far fuller can rush in – so that we can be “filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19).  So that the creative, powerful and eternally self-donating Word, the one Word that matters, the eloquent Word that contains perfectly within it all our poor scattered syllables of truth, can be spoken.  And in speaking, transform us within that silence to be a little bit more like Him.  In speaking, reduce our interior and exterior storms to obedient breezes.

Then, awed and hushed, we answer.  And engage in that sacred dialogue: prayer.  The rising of our response, Spirit-filled and soaked with humility and love.

While God will  – and does – meet us anywhere, He doesn’t like to shout.  He prefers whispers to earthquakes, shattering winds, roaring fires (1 Kings 19:11-13).  (And I’m pretty sure, obnoxious music at trampoline parks.)  So when we wonder where He is, we may have to creatively seek out a little stillness; sneak away from the endless stream of sounds our world pours into us, even sometimes the beautiful babble of our babies. (I love an adoration chapel for a holy silence filled with God. )

Then, slowly, silence can become a habit of the heart.  Mysteriously, the more I seek it out, the more I take with me.  An interior stillness, a listening spirit everywhere in my kingdom of chaos.   And the discordant everyday noise is sweetened and moderated by the adoration within.

“Humanity advances toward love through adoration, ” says Cardinal Sarah in The Power of Silence.  “Sacred silence, laden with the adored presence, opens the way to mystical silence, full of loving intimacy.”

My friend from the trampoline park reminds me of Our Blessed Mother in many ways: in her devoted motherhood and her attentive service to the poor, certainly, but also in her embrace of silence. Mary, who in the Gospels is a woman of few words but much marveling, pondering, quiet and receptive love.  “Her prayer, ” says Cardinal Sarah, “was a perpetual silence in God.”

It’s more than I can manage, Mary’s perpetual silence.  But I am quite sure I can find a few moments of quiet somewhere…

Where are my car keys??

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today, Little Boy, I Choose You

Life is so very busy right now, dizzying in its demands.  The days rush by, a whirlwind of laundry, housework, paperwork, appointments, driving, cooking, cleaning, studying, working, parenting, praying.  Each day orchestrating this family of eight is its own little storm.  Each day I tackle its demands and each night I tumble into bed after kissing  a certain small, tousled head.

I find myself lately gazing at him sleeping, amazed at how long he is, stretched out on the bed.  It used to seem that the days flew by.  Now it seems that it is the years that rush past in a blur.

I have no baby anymore.

For more than fifteen years, I always had a baby.  But this little guy, as much as he loves snuggles and kisses, sternly reminds me that he is positively, definitely “not a baby.”  And he is right.

I thought life at this point would be different.  I thought I would have more time “once the kids were older.”  But no.  I have never been so busy.  What happened to browsing through cookbooks, reading novels, playdates, story times, trips to the zoo, afternoons at the park, walks with the stroller, naps?  Yes, especially naps.  What happened to naps?

Instead, so often, he tags along as I do life.  He doesn’t know any different, and he makes the best of it, taking along his toys and chattering away happily in the backseat.  When we are home, he doesn’t ask me to play with him anymore.  Maybe because he’s older.  But maybe because he knows the answer.  “Just a minute!”  he hears so often.  “I just have to ___ first.”

Well, today, little boy, I choose you.

Today the dishes will stay in the sink, the crumbs on the floor, the laundry in the hamper.  Today the emails will go unread and the bills will stay in the pile.  Today we will eat leftovers.

240px-Reflection_in_a_soap_bubble_editToday the sunshine calls us outside and into that swing you love.  This time, I will tickle your toes as you fly past me.  Today we will blow bubbles and chase them, giggling as they pop into a tiny spray.  Today I will sit on the floor and race cars and do puzzles.  Today I will read you stories without glancing at the clock.  Today I will sit and listen to you, looking in your eyes, without checking my phone.  Today I will enjoy your chatter.   I will watch the sunshine play in your wispy hair and I will breathe in deeply the smell of little boy.

Tomorrow, my love again will take on its other shape – the love that is shown by its provision for you and for our family.  I will love you by bending over the laundry basket of your small clothes.  I will love you by cleaning your bathtub, cooking your dinner, sorting your toys, driving your beloved brothers and sisters to school and practice.  I will love you by working to help provide a little bit for all those extra expenses that seem to crop up daily.

But I promise you this: all of our tomorrows will have a little bit more of today.  Every tomorrow will have a little more play, a little more joy, a little time for you.

Because last time I had one child at home everyday, he was my only one.  And the days stretched long before me.

But I know now what comes next.

I know how soon you will be grabbing the keys and heading off to work, or to college.  I know how it will take my breath away with its suddenness.  I know that eighteen years is like a flash.  And I want to be present – fully present – for all of it.

Because long before I chose you, God chose me.

God chose me to be your Mommy.

I worry sometimes that I don’t have time or enough of me to give, but I should know better. The Giver of all Good Gifts gave me you, and He gave me all I have to give you. He will multiply my time and my little loaves and few fish.  Time with you will bless all my other efforts with fruitfulness.  Until I have baskets left over.

And now, little monkey, let’s go.  The air smells like orange blossoms and the breeze has blown from heaven to call us outside.  Race you to the swing.Child_swinging

 

 

 

To Pro-Life Warriors Everywhere: Thank You

Yesterday was International Women’s Day.  Feminists encouraged women to make a statement by making it “A Day Without A Woman” and to not “engage in paid and unpaid work” among other things.  I guess that means leaving employers in the lurch and kids and home uncared for?  No thanks.

And quite frankly, I’m tired of protests.  It’s nauseating.

I was proud though, of the March for Life this year, and the stark contrast it was to the lewd displays of the Women’s March.  So I wanted to share my thoughts about it,  published in the National Catholic Register last month.  I have a suspicion, friends, you will each find yourself somewhere inside:

http://www.ncregister.com/blog/clairedwyer/to-pro-life-warriors-everywhere-thank-you