Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Pondering All These Things

“So [the shepherds] hurried off and found Mary and Joseph and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”1

“When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.’ ‘Why were you searching for me?’ he asked. ‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he was saying to them. Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart.”2

In the Christmas story, we find that Mary pondered all the happenings during Christ’s birth and stored them in her heart. Many years later, once again, we find her pondering during Jesus’ pre-teen years. It seems there are no two better times to reflect on life than at the birth of and at the beginning of those hormonal pre-teen years of your child’s life! Yet at both these times, more than others it seems, chaos is ever-present. So why ponder?

Dictionary.com defines ponder as, “to consider something deeply and thoroughly; meditate or to weigh carefully in the mind; consider thoughtfully.”

While pondering can conjure up images of quiet stillness or contemplative space, it is more of a recognizing those “Aha! moments” in the ordinariness of life. To recognize these moments takes a certain amount of focus and attending to. This attention can come naturally at times and also become a discipline to practice.

We will be more disposed toward moments of extraordinary awe if we have been attending all along to wonder and awe in the ordinary. ~Herbert Anderson

“Attending all along.” Here, I think, is an active way of being that supports all the practices of faith and that is integral to good parenting. Yet so often we parents neglect this. On our way to pray, on our way to church, on our way to all the other places where we think God abides, we pass by the ordinary awe much too quickly. But greater openness and attentiveness, often sparked by caring for children, can come through the practice I call “pondering.”

Small children in particular are no strangers to awe, of course, but kids of all ages invite us into this experience. Attending all along to children means we adults are also permitted to see the truly awesome – not only to wonder at them, as fond parents readily do, but also to see and share their own wonder at the world. Children both catch our attention and reorient it. Being present to all the ways in which they are growing – to their focus and pursuits, their curiosity and capacities – also leads us to deeper faith. If attended to, if noticed, if pondered, the routine of caring for kids in ordinary time offers us ample opportunity for wonder, for entering as adults more deeply and alertly into the presence of God.

Of course, pondering doesn’t fit well within chaotic busy schedules, and sometimes we are forced to prioritize and scale down so that the holy has a chance to be. But even working within the chaos, we will miss so much if we are not aware of the moments worthy of treasuring in our hearts. Mary was a mother, and we know that role all too well. “…pondering ultimately involves accepting limits and realities that go beyond our understanding. Pondering includes attention, appreciation, and amazement to be sure; it embraces potential anguish too, an aspect of parenting hidden in Mary’s pondering to which we turn in the last chapter. For now, it is enough to recognize human limits in the care for others and the reality of failure and loss. Through her pondering, Mary becomes one of the first theologians of the Christian tradition, turning over and over in her mind just who this child is and what God has to do with it. She does so in the very midst of her mothering – not when she moves away from it all.”

The author ends with a story about a friend who is a pastor and a father bemoaning the fact that family devotions are not a tradition or habit in his family. He goes on to describe his daily life: “I come home midafternoon to be around when our two kids come home from school. My wife works until later in the day. We barely squeeze in dinner between her return, my evening meetings, and our kids’ activities.” Our conversation got cut off abruptly when one of his children ran up to pull him in another direction. Here’s what I wish I could have said. Although family prayer has its important place (I am not dismissing concern about its decline), prayer and scripture reading do not alone determine faith. Faith is not one more thing to check off the list. Family prayer; check. Bedtime prayer; check. Ritual for dead hamster; check. It is not something set aside outside regular time. It is what we do in time and space, with our bodies and through our movements. The practices of this man’s family – playing with the children after school, interacting around dinner, greeting and parting, attending and pondering – these practices are formative of faith. They train our eyes to see God amid change and time.

Family life is better than most any other thing going on in the universe. ~ Judith Viorst


1. Luke 2:16-19
2. Luke 2:48-51

*All font in green is taken from Chapter 3 of In the Midst of Chaos by Bonnie Miller-McLemore.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sanctifying the Ordinary

In the last century, the Second Vatican Council affirmed household and general labor as a way to serve God.*

Think about that. Sanctifying the ordinary is a profound practice yet does not seem to hold up to the “holiness” of other practices such as Bible Study, taking part in communion or attending a church service. Yet the ordinary is the majority of our lives. To be unaware of the holiness of the mundane can only impede our spirituality. If God was only in the extraordinary moments of life, we would be a far more desperate and spiritually hungry people. And maybe that’s why some of us are famished – we fail to see God in the everyday tasks of our life.

The ordinary…is often the most significant for faith. Most of the time we miss it. It takes discipline to notice the distinctiveness of the ordinary. Moreover, to notice the theological nature of the ordinary, to connect the ordinary to the conviction of religious tradition, is even harder. It requires a particular kind of theological vision and valuing of the ordinary.

A monastic view of spirituality leads us to think that the disciplines practiced by priests, nuns and monks are the “higher order” of worship. Who can argue that self-denial, acts of service to others, renouncing worldly values, etc. are not the idealistic or even "correct" way of practicing our spirituality? To look at Jesus’ life is to see some of the hallmarks of monasticism. “If regarded from the right angle, a parent’s daily life has an oddly haunting resemblance. Unbidden and unexpected, opportunity arises for a similar kind of disciplined religiosity: ‘A full night’s sleep, time to oneself, the freedom to come and go as one pleases – all this must be given up…Huge chunks of life are laid down at the behest of infants. And then, later, parents must let go.’ Here, in a nutshell, is the life span and extremes of child rearing: loving, losing, and letting go.” The author states, “To see this daily regimen of care, restraint, self-extension, and craziness as part of a larger practice of faith, a means of learning patience, charity, endurance in fidelity, receptivity to the other, long suffering, and humility, sanctioned the work that filled my life and placed it in a new light."

The practice of parenting then becomes a practice in spirituality. While we give everything we have and who we are to these children of ours, they in turn help to shape us. Parenting is formative for both sides.
Marriage and children are every bit as much a “school for character” or training ground for virtue as the monastery.

Parenting is about more than raising children in faith. It has the potential to foster religious transformation in the one who attempts such care. Engaging in the practice of parenting gives rise to new knowledge and a new way of being, not in sacred time and space but in the very concrete minutiae of life in all its messiness.

Is tending to your family a religious practice for you? We all practice our faith in various manners and traditions. Let us become more aware of our "faith acts" in our daily life and therefore become more aware of God and His presence.

When...our natural reason...takes a look at married life, she turns up her nose and says, 'Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores, and on top of that care for my wife, provide for her, labor at my trade, take care of this and take care of that, do this and do that, endure this and endure that, and whatever else of bitterness and drudgery married life involves? What, should I make such a prisoner of myself [one hears echoes here of the Greek view of the body as a prison of the rational mind and soul]?

What then does Christian faith say to this? It opens its eyes, looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties in the Spirit, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as with the costliest gold and jewels...I confess to thee that I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother....O how gladly will I do so, though the duties should be even more insignificant and despised. Neither frost nor heat, neither drudgery or labor, will distress or dissuade me, for I am certain that it is thus pleasing in [God's] sight.

~Martin Luther


*All text in green is quoted from the second chapter of In the Midst of Chaos by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Everyday Spiritual Practices

We give birth and raise the young. We seek God. Why has loyalty to the former, such a potentially rich source of spiritual inspiration, seemed to impede, derail and compete with the latter? How might we sustain and adjudicate both these fundamental human needs?1

History seems to have taught us that a monastic way of spirituality (involving quiet reflection, solitude and retreat) is the ideal way of spirituality. Many early church theologians taught that marriage and “family life is inferior to the celibate life of religious heroes and saints.”1 Do we still not think of our spiritual life (or lack of one) with guilt and regret when we can’t or don’t manage to put aside time to pray, read the Bible and get away from our busy daily lives to retreat into “the private inner room of the soul”2 to seek out God?

“Christian perception of faith as something that happens outside ordinary time and within formal religious institutions, or within the private confines of one’s individual soul, still pervades Western society…
…twentieth-century theologians continue to look past the sheer messiness of daily family life. Similarly, disregard for the material basis of life continues to frustrate contemporary believers’ efforts to embrace their faith daily. Bias against “outward” forms of spirituality, as enacted by the body in the midst of family and community, marginalizes many Christians. Limiting spirituality to the “inner” life and restricting theology to the life of the mind ends up excluding a huge portion of life from both faith and theology.”1

How many suggestions have been offered (and sold) to us in order for our spiritual life to flourish despite our daily schedules of living? How many books, magazines, articles, blog postings, preachers, etc. out there are offering more and different ways, tips and tricks if you will, for us (as mothers especially) to set aside time to spend with God, to get away from the kids and husband to be with God, to step outside of ourselves and into the recesses of our hearts and minds to hear from God. I certainly don’t want to discredit the value and importance of these ideas of trying to relate to God, but is there not a way of relating to Him in the midst of all our busyness too? In the midst of playing with our children? Feeding and nurturing them? Even disciplining them? Can God only be met in the inner sanctum of our souls or is He all around us every day in the small and big moments of daily living? Can these moments be seen and experienced as communion with God?

Various disciplines from theologians have been recommended to us down through the ages in order to experience a closeness with God. “As helpful as all these aids to prayer are, however, they still require an interior focus of mind, will and heart that one can rarely find in family life. They call for a kind of stepping outside of one’s routine, or for bringing something that is outside one’s routine – God, spirituality, tranquility – into it. One participates in these disciplines “despite” or “regardless” of the chaos. They still assume one meets God in a quiet inner space.” Bonnie Miller-McLemore, the author, continues, “What I am trying to describe, instead, is a wisdom that somehow emerges in the chaos itself, stops us dead in our tracks, and heightens our awareness. I am talking about a way of life that embraces the whole of family living in all its beauty and misery rather than about individual acts of devotion, as important as they are to sustaining the whole. In other words, I am not trying to recommend a better way to pray. I am suggesting that faith takes shape in the concrete activities of day-to-day.”

Even Thomas Merton, well-known twentieth-century Catholic monk and mystic, argues, “Certain active types are not disposed to contemplation and never come to it except with great difficulty.”1 The author writes “about practicing the presence of God not through a prayer discipline that sustains a peaceful inner life but rather through practices that invoke, evoke and form faith in our outward lives. We already participate in such practices in the varied contexts where children and adults live together: playing, working, eating, talking, learning, fighting, making up, arriving, departing, and otherwise making a home.” She lists eight “practices” in becoming more aware of God’s presence. They are:

  • Sanctifying the Ordinary,
  • Pondering,
  • Taking Children Seriously,
  • Giving to Others and Oneself,
  • Doing Justice,
  • Playing,
  • Reading and
  • Blessing and Letting Go.

In the weeks ahead, we’ll find out more about these individual practices - how they may already exist in our everyday lives and how we can better commune with God through them.


1. All quotes, unless otherwise specified, have been taken from the first chapter of In the Midst of Chaos.

2. Quoted by Thomas Keating, a Catholic monk

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