A Mother’s Rule of Life

I’ve asked it before: How do you decide what of all possible things to go deep in, when, as a stay-at-home mother, you’re a jack of all trades?

It would help to have a job description. As it is, I almost always have the nagging conviction I should be doing something other than whatever I’m doing at that moment. Last winter I read the Rule of St. Benedict and this winter I fell in love with the cloistered world of In this House of Brede — its quiet peace, and sense of purpose, and hard work, and order.

This reading primed me, I think, for A Mother’s Rule of Lifewhich is a pretty divisive book in my tiny microcosm of Catholic married mothers who are home full-time. Some friends worry it’s a temptation to rigidity; the one who lent it to me found it tolerably helpful in prioritizing; an Insta friend adored it. In it, Holly Pierlot promises to walk you through developing your own Rule, if you happen to find yourself a Catholic married mother at home rather than a nun in a convent.

Pierlot defines a Rule as “a reflection of the aims and mission of vocation,” and much of the book led me to fruitful consideration, as I followed her advice and took notes. Eventually I decided this: Our aim, as a family, as a household, is to progress in kindness and holiness through love of God, love of each other, and love of learning. From there, you take the tasks you believe are most essential to your vocation, prioritize them, and slot them into a schedule. If you were a Brede nun, it would involve singing the liturgy, working at your talent (translation or writing or gardening), common labor, prayer. For me, in this stage, it involves less liturgical singing and more laundry.

If my aim is to progress in kindness and holiness, I need to not over schedule, but I do need to keep things clean enough that I don’t flip out on my sweet family. I need to practice discipline so I’m not always fighting fires, but build in time for the seeming non-essentials of learning and reading. I need to take breaks from the fun (the latter) and the challenging (the former) to play with my children, to do nothing much with my husband. If I can just remember that, I feel like the rest will fairly fall into place.

The book has obvious weaknesses. I think it’s ordered badly, so that the rationale for a Rule comes at the very end, instead of as an argument before launching in to the nitty gritty of scheduling errands and drawing up monthly rotations. The writing style also isn’t my cup of tea, but Pierlot does have a knack for crystalizing a lot of the ideas that have been kicking around in my head while bringing in pretty compelling authorities. She also seems to assume the existence of bigger kids to share the load, which is hard when I only have littles, but it does remind me to be on the lookout for places Pip can help — putting away silverware, running the vacuum extension hose thing, which he adores.

I was surprised, reading, to discover just how much of a schedule we’ve already drafted toward, my routine-loving children and me. And writing that schedule down started to show me some gaps where maybe, after all, I could choose to be still, could choose to give to prayer, could choose to use for writing or frivolous reading or napping without guilt. It’s also, unexpectedly, giving me permission to let done be done, helping silence the guilty conviction that there’s always something I should be cleaning, or something noble I should commit to, because there I have, in writing, what my priorities are, and what qualifies as “done.”

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Let’s Talk Lent

I’ve been enjoying talking to people and reading about how they’re choosing to approach Lent this year, so I offer this post as a matter of interest, and not a humblebrag. What are you doing? How are you approaching it? How is this year different from past years?

This is what I’m thinking for this year, which departs significantly from my hazy but noble goal last Lent of no yelling:

A study: Blessed Is She’s Put On LoveReading and discussing with friends one evening a week.

A prayer practice: Kneeling for prayer at bedtime. I usually lie on my side reading my St. Benedict’s Prayer Book very last thing, falling asleep as I go. I can do better, and give God more than just the very dregs of alertness.

A discipline: I’m going to try veiling at Mass. I am…not excited. But I have friends who I love and admire who do it, and I’ve been receiving on the tongue since Scout was born, and if we’re going to buy into all this Eucharist stuff, we might as well err on the side of caution, treating it just as reverently as possible. Like Flannery O said, “If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it.”

I’ve also set myself the tentative deadline of Ash Wednesday to finish reading A Mother’s Rule of Life and start trying to implement some of its suggestions. So, yay. I guess it’s kind of a lot, but at least there’s still chocolate.

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Epiphany

This year I found myself in an overstuffed car on Epiphany, brimful with Christmas gifts and children and a dog and spilled Apple Jacks. I had worn second-day tights to the early Mass in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, that morning, and we’d stepped delicately over ice to load up into the car, and finally, after three weeks of travel, we were on our way home.

I’m not sure I ever noticed Epiphany before I became a mother, but when he was a baby, Pippin’s godmother thrifted him a copy of The Third Giftwhich at first mostly caught his attention because the protagonist looked to him like Aunt Beca. (At the time she was sporting a pretty great pixie.)

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The plot is merely a footnote or preamble to Epiphany: the life of a boy who apprentices his father in the collection of myrrh, and how some of that myrrh is sold to strangers from far away. It’s simple and lovely, and brought to life Epiphany for me in a new way, especially Bagram Ibatoulline’s concluding illustration: a little cave-like barn, on the horizon, the glow of the city; and in the barn, clustered haphazardly, mysteriously, those central figures we’ve seen all Advent, all of it looking like chance.

The story of the three kings has a sort of quiet fairytale beauty after the high drama and tinsel of Christmas, doesn’t it? That frisson of fear with big, bad King Herod looming. The mysterious star, the moonlight. Strangers on a strange landscape. An improbable meeting. Everything pointing to a future no one yet understands.

And maybe it was thinking about the little myrrh-gatherer that made the thought occur to me, but what became of those gifts? If Jesus is truly the child of the poor, a soon-to-be refugee, are the gifts hocked on the run to Egypt? Or do they later fund his ministry? Are they given to adorn the Temple? Or do they endure in secret long past Jesus’s death, tucked away in a basket, pored over by she who pondered these things in her heart?

In this little episode, we get all the otherworldliness and everydayness that is Christ among us. And we get Epiphany on the tail of our own gift avalanche, with its enduring tokens of far away people who love us, crammed inelegantly into our humble, aging car, pointing to the magic and beauty that lingers in the chaotic Christmas aftermath.

The Secret to Well-Behaved Kids at Mass

It’s touching. You just hold onto your kids. You hold him in your arms. You settle him in your lap.  You snuggle them close. You whisper what’s going on at the altar. You nibble the baby’s ear and tousle the toddler’s hair. You lift the kid high, her feet resting on the pew, to see the altar boys process, to see the Consecration.

You don’t need special, silent, Catholic toys. You don’t need mess-proof snacks. You just need to be ready for a full upper body workout. (Remember, people throughout history have endured much worse for the privilege of the Eucharist.)

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You also don’t need matching outfits, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

There’s no way around the work and there’s no way around the distraction. You won’t hear a whole homily while your kids are little, or a full reading, although you can read them in advance of Mass, in the sleepy early morning while you nurse the baby.

You’ll evaluate your kid’s behavior by his age and his character. Is she misbehaving or just exuberant in her shouted ALLELULIA, two beats late? Maybe your kid will be wiggler or noisier than your friend’s kid the same age. That’s ok. God knows the kind of kid he gave you. (Also, remember the time-honored Catholic tradition of the doughnut bribe.)

Church nurseries and children’s church and crying rooms make sense for Protestant worship, which is primarily intellectual and demands concentration. But Catholic mass is all about incarnation, about bodily worship: bodies kneeling and genuflecting, eating and drinking, eyes on the real body of our God who was once a squirmy little boy at his mama’s breast. So the imperfect, earthy worship that is the only kind possible in the presence of children fits here, as incongruous as it may seem in the hush of solemn liturgy.

How do you manage more than two kids, when the adult-arms-to-wriggling-kid ratio exceeds 1:1? That, you’ll have to tell me.

Nailed it, St. Thomas-by-the-Sea

The Patchwork Liturgist

In my adult life, I’ve passed through six translations of the liturgy: the old American Roman Catholic, England’s Roman Catholic liturgy, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the Church of Uganda’s simplified English liturgy, the formal Anglican liturgy favored by our church in Massachusetts (the 1928 BCP, maybe?) and the new Roman Catholic — not to mention all the masses I’ve participated in, however feebly, in French and Italian, Latin and Lhukonzo.

The result being, I stumble over the Nicene Creed, struggle with the clunky response, “And with your spirit.” I feel like an outsider, clutching my laminated card of responses, sneaking furtive glances to remind myself if it’s “For our good and the good of all the church,” or if that’s some other fragment I am remembering. It’s hard to enter in to worship and lose myself when I’m forever bumbling.

But what’s that idea from literary theory? Defamiliarization? The idea that there is value in language getting shaken up, in looking at the same thing in a new light. I get that from all the credal and geographic peregrinations of my twenties.

The legacy of these church shakeups is all the little bits and pieces that have struck me anew because in some sense they were new, to me at least. I’ve got the Song of Simeon memorized from the long soft twilights of my two newlywed summers doing Evensong each Thursday with Anglican friends in Tallahassee. I know the Agnes Dei in Latin from the beautiful immigrant-built church I attended in college, because, though a cradle Catholic who met my husband in high school Latin class, I’d never worshiped in Latin till I moved to Macon.

“It’s the Creed! It’s not SAT prep!” Stephen Colbert complained when the Church rolled out its new translation of the Mass, and while I hope time smoothes the awkward edges of our still-new English Roman Catholic liturgy, I still love falling into the rhythm of communal speech, of being pulled up short by my own stumbles, echoes that draw me back to holy places throughout my life.  A friend who has church-hopped nearly as extensively suggested that in our many mistakes, in lunging for the cheat sheet, maybe we make ourselves just a little more approachable to newcomers, and that’s valuable, too.

I’m not here to argue that they’re all equally right or even all equally beautiful. (The beautiful, cobwebby lyricism of the BCP will always win that for me.) But I feel deeply the romance of the universality that remains —behind impassioned scholarly debates between “born of” and “incarnate,” through the awkwardness of the word “consubstantial,” in the earnestness of imperfect words — in the beauty of the same supper celebrated by communities I’ve come to love the world over.

The Allure of the British Costume Drama

If you traffic much in Catholic blogs, you’ll have heard the strange place and people names that make up much of the TV consumed by this segment of the population: Granchester, Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife, Lark Rise to Candleford, Foyle’s War, and now Poldark.

J and I are guilty of indulging in the historical drama, too. It’s a tiny trend, but I think it makes sense. After all, most of these shows concern themselves with the question of how to live — what I should do versus what do I want. Lord Grantham wants to save the estate, not just for his own continued privilege but to provide for the household for whom he feels an inherited obligation. Ross Poldark makes a mistake, taking advantage of someone under his protection, and determines to make it right by providing for her. On the other hand, shows like Grey’s Anatomy are much more concerned with the deeply individualistic what do I want. (Or who do I want?) And that can be fun, soapy escapism. But for someone in the trenches of grown-up life, trying to figure out what one ought to do — especially in light of community and Church authority — is a much more central question.

In these dramas, the only Catholic character who comes to mind is the (dreamy!) Tom Branson, but for most of the characters, church is an intrinsic part of the rhythm of life, whatever their conflicted relationship with faith might be. This, too, is something with which we contemporary American Catholics can identify. Christopher Foyle quietly attends church between solving crimes; Reverend Sidney Chambers tries to reconcile his calling with the brokenness he sees in his town and which haunts his memories of the war. The young midwives who find themselves living at an inner-city Anglican convent see up close the lives of religious. Contemporary American primetime television has plenty of weddings, but the BBC historical drama also offers baptisms, funerals, even the occasional boring old Sunday worship.

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Your worship would never be boring, Rev. Chambers.

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A baptism brings all the Crawleys to the (Johnny Foreigner papist) church

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Compare this with the Braverman clan of Parenthood, whose religion is baseball (though there’s a refreshing foray into faith with Jabbar’s praying in Season 4), or Gilmore Girls, which remains resolutely ignorant of even such obvious differences as Catholic imagery and fundamentalist distaste for crucifixes. I adore those Gilmore girls, but are these ladies really comfortable in a church?

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WHAT ARE YOU DOING THERE, RON SWANSON?!

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I don’t need or even want all my characters to be devout, wooden caricatures of proper faith, but I like it when a show at least admits religion as a factor in the everyday lives of some of its characters. You’ll notice that some of the posts linked above have fights to pick with the historical dramas, and that’s how it should be in good television. After all, I’m not looking for didacticism in my TV, and I shy away from just about anything labeled “inspirational.” Instead, these shows are asking real questions and standing for something, and while it doesn’t always align with the Catholic worldview, at least they’re trying. Because TV can do better than “I believe in good…versus evil.

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Starting a petition for the inclusion of more nuns on television — who’s with me?

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a #BISsisterhood introduction

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I’m chiming in today with my own answers to the Blessed Is She introductions. I can’t wait to meet you all!

What is your favorite religious text or book?

Heaps! Game changers, at various points in my life: Mere Christianity in high school; Pascal’s Pensees and Lost in the Cosmos: A Last Self-Help Book in college, then Gilead post-grad and Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year as a new mother.

Which virtue do you find yourself working on the most throughout your day?

Fortitude! It’s a challenge pacing myself through a long day with the kiddos and having any time or energy left for my husband, or for making things. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed, and once I am, I get cranky, and yelly.

What keeps you Catholic?

The bigness of the Church. Even as a little girl, often bored in the liturgy, I was enchanted thinking that people all over the world were saying the same words at the same time, and that hundreds of years ago, people whose lives I could scarcely imagine were doing the same.

Do you have a motto / quote / saying you live by?

Right now: “You just have to be kind.” If I mutter it enough times during the day, surely it’ll sink in?